“One day my older daughter, Mayo, then six, was sick with a sore throat. Our regular pediatrician was ill so Mayo suggested I call a schoolmate’s mother who was a doctor. In those days physicians made house calls, so Dr. Pikler came to our home to examine Mayo. When I opened my mouth to speak, Dr. Pikler waved her hand indicating for me to be silent. Then she asked my little girl when her throat started feeling sore and how she felt now. My child answered so intelligently, so politely that I was surprised. The doctor then asked Mayo if she wanted to “look in her (the doctor’s) throat,” and afterward she asked permission to look in Mayo’s throat. “Open your mouth wide,” she told my daughter, “and I won’t have to use the tongue depressor.” She then told Mayo to go to her room so she could talk alone with me.
The cooperation Dr. Pikler elicited was so striking that I decided to ask her to become our pediatrician. What struck a deeper chord was the realization that she related to children in a more honest, respectful manner than I’d ever seen. After meeting Dr. Pikler, I raised my third child, a son, from birth following her ideas.
This encounter was the beginning of a long, fruitful collaboration between Dr. Pikler and me.”
As Magda discovered though Dr. Pikler (who became her mentor), the secret to eliciting our children’s cooperation is to respectfully include them in the activity. Through the years that she studied and worked with Dr. Pikler, Magda observed that this “secret” applies to infants, newborns, and even preemies, because the tiniest infant is already an aware human being. She recognized that from birth children are ready to be invited to participate actively in life and in a person-to-person relationship with us. However, this cannot happen unless we first take the leap of believing in them and beginning a partnership of trust.
We nurture our bond of trust by communicating with our babies throughout every activity that directly affects them: each diaper change, feeding, and bath; down to the details, like, “I am going to pick you up now… are you ready?” We invite active participation by asking, “Can you please lift your bottom so that I can move this diaper under it?” And then waiting a few moments for a response. If our child doesn’t seem able yet, we might say, “Okay, I will gently lift you…” Children feel the respectful intention in our offer. We are opening the door.
Like all of us, our children are far less inclined to cooperate graciously when things are being done to them rather than in partnership with them. Invitations to participate actively in an experience to the extent of their abilities are profoundly empowering, particularly at this early time of life when a child’s power in the world is severely limited.
There is no time more crucial for gaining cooperation than when our children’s health depends on it, and it is in these situations that offering respect and autonomy can go a very long way. Here are four stories that illustrate the power of respect and inclusion:
An end to WrestleMania (Sheny’s story):
I wanted to share a success story… So my son had an ear infection which required some oral antibiotics. In the past, that would mean me tackling him and putting him in a headlock, which would leave him upset. Eventually he figured out how to spit the medicine out. After reading your book, I decided to try a little more respectful approach. I announced to him that it was time for medicine — would he prefer to take it now or later? He just said “No.” So I said, “Okay, we can wait 5 minutes, but we have to take it then.” 5 minutes later I still had to tackle him, but the next day I repeated, “You have to take your medicine. Would you like to take it now or later?” Again, he said, “No.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll just put it here and you can take it when you want.” To my surprise, he took the medicine on his own! Now if I ever need to give him anything like that I just ask him if he would like to do it himself, and he always does. Sometimes I have to wait a bit before asking again, but no more WrestleMania episodes. Thank you so much!
A sense of control helps save face (Bethany’s story):
I just found your FB page a few weeks ago, but I wanted to share a mini success. My son, who turned 3 today, has pink eye, so we have to give him an eye drop on each eye three times per day. He hates them, and our “brute force” method, which we have used for a previous round of pink eye, left us all traumatized. Tonight, I laid him down and told him I wouldn’t do the drops until he was ready. He could cover his eyes as long as he wanted, and when he was ready, he could count “1, 2, 3,” and then I would do one eye. He didn’t trust me at first, but after about a minute, he moved his hands and then started the count. After he survived the first eye with no crying, he had trust and confidence to do the second. Giving him some control changed everything. I have only read a few weeks’ worth of posts, but I can already see this changing some of our most challenging moments. Thank you!
Maybe NoseFrida doesn’t suck after all (Stephanie’s story):
So excited this morning! My 15 month old daughter and I have been struggling with 2 things: diaper changes, and the snot sucker (NoseFrida) that is required with this nasty cold she has. Both activities usually involve a lot of screaming, tears, and attempts to flee, leaving both of us very frustrated. Well, I’ve really been working on preparing her before one of these events need to occur and offering her choices: “Who should I use the nose sucker on first? Raccoon (her favorite stuffed animal) or you?” She always tosses her raccoon at me and watches closely as I use the NoseFrida on him. Then the most amazing thing happened… She stood still, let me use it on her and actually SMILED afterwards!!!! No fleeing or tears. This has happened twice this morning. I’m so relieved that we are both feeling more confident and secure with each other. Diaper changes are looking similar, and I am excited to tackle new challenges as they occur. THANK YOU!
Why didn’t you just say that the first time?!? (Tova’s story):
We had a success story tonight that I’d like to share: my son decided he didn’t want any medicine, and last night in desperation we tried to squirt it into his cheek. He spit it everywhere, and it was just horrible.
Today we talked about the medicine and how it makes us feel better, and we talked about how everyone takes medicine when they are sick. Amazingly, he willingly took it and smiled. It’s so easy when it’s late and you feel pressured to forget that those few moments it takes to be calm and discuss things with your child make such a huge difference.
Later, when I asked Tova if I could share her story, she replied: “Absolutely! It worked so well that he asked for medicine even after he got better!”
To learn more about this respectful approach, check out these resources:
Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber
The RIE Manual
Pikler Bulletin #14 by Dr. Emmi Pikler
My books: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (both available on Audio)