Adult Eyes

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.” ― Virginia Woolf

Each year, I seem to learn of several new things to dislike about growing older and being An Adult (one of my co-workers, who is 62, likes to warn me about things that I have to “look forward to” in years to come). As a child, I never really imagined it would be this way. I imagined a kind of weightless freedom — the freedom to eat Lucky Charms cereal for breakfast every morning if I wanted! The freedom to stay up all night long reading if I wanted! The freedom to drive a car! To pick my own clothes! To make my own rules. Being An Adult was something as seemingly distant as the Moon. Imagining myself as an adult, I never fathomed that I would still actually be Myself — the same awkward, anxious, dorky person — just older. And, no matter how much my parents and grandparents may have tried to warn me, I never put much stock in the negatives that I now see: the bills, the responsibilities, the lack of naps, the wrinkles.

I don’t generally eat Lucky Charms for breakfast, although I certainly could, because somehow the adult version of the same old anxious, dorky me prefers to “eat healthy”. I don’t generally stay up all night reading because the adult version of me gets tired. The adult version of me doesn’t necessarily miss being a child, in the way that missing implies. I would not choose to go backward in time. In fact, the adult version of me appreciates every step and misstep that has led to me this very point in time. I wouldn’t change much. But there are things for which I have a greater appreciation, looking back now, and things for which I feel nostalgic. Things like seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

Our adult eyes will never see things the way that a child does. Our adult eyes are covered with layers and layers of filters, made up of all the years of context that we’ve added to our worlds. Our adult eyes can be cynical or frightened or judgmental in ways that a child’s eyes don’t yet know to be. Our adult eyes miss so much, for all that we think we’re seeing.

A few months ago, my husband and I took our niece to Hollywood to see the Broadway show The Lion King. We parked some distance from the theater, which meant we had to walk for many blocks on Hollywood Boulevard. There is a lot to see there and our niece’s head swiveled this way and that as she took it all in, wide-eyed. At one point, we passed by a young woman posing suggestively as a friend or colleague took photos of her. She was dressed in a long teal-colored gown that was designed in such a way as to reveal plenty of skin and silver stiletto heels that made her poses feats of agility. I saw her and then instantly turned to my niece to gauge her reaction, to see if she had noticed her too, smiling to myself. Of course she had noticed, as she noticed everything around us, and her reaction was obvious: she was thrilled. When she looked at this young woman, through her child eyes, she saw someone glamorous and beautiful! To her eyes, this woman was potentially “a princess”.

My adult eyes, connected to my adult brain, questioned whether this was an “appropriate” thing to expose my niece to — this garish, scantily-clad lady and her cohorts on Hollywood Boulevard. What would she think? How will this impact her sense of self, her sense of femininity and feminism and… I mean, should I say something about it? My mind whirled.

To my adult eyes and ears and brain, “princess” is a loaded word. Is it to you? From the moment my oldest niece was born, I’ve consciously avoided ever gifting the girls with a single pink, plastic, bejeweled, princess-ish item. I’ve read extensively on the effects of media on children and the dark side of Disney and the problems with our whole princess subculture in preschool. I have strong opinions about it all.

It’s possible that my adult brain may think too much.

Because while this is all quite valid and quite concerning in general, through the wide and highly contextualized adult lens, the fact is that many small moments can safely be taken entirely at face value, through child eyes. Through child eyes, the color of that gown was gorgeous in the sun. The silver shoes sparkled. The smile on that young woman’s face as she posed was lovely. And it didn’t need to mean anything more than that.

“Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.” ― Franz Kafka

If we really think back, transporting ourselves and our senses through time, we can catch glimpses of things that influenced our individual development of aesthetic. When I was small, it was the ’80’s and my mom was taking an aerobics class one or two nights a week. When she would go to her aerobics class, she would wear bright-colored tights and legwarmers. I loved those tights. She had one pair that was teal and they were thickly woven and shiny, with a satiny feel. I loved those tights. I loved the color and the texture. Not unlike the way that my niece appreciated the flash of that dress and those shoes on Hollywood Boulevard, my senses were awakened by that uniquely ’80’s aerobic outfit.

When I was seven or eight, I was given a book about birds. It was my favorite book for years and years, due to the illustrations of exotic birds and the fact that it introduced me to words I had never known existed, like Quetzal. In an art class that I was taking shortly after receiving the book, we had an assignment to make a mask. I decided to make a mask of a Quetzal. I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than that bird, rendered so strikingly in the book. I spent hours with paint and cardboard and glue and feathers, creating a Quetzal mask. I was so proud of that mask, and in love with the way I transformed my idea of it into reality. A few years later, my grandparents happened to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras and my grandma brought back for me a purple feathered Mardi Gras mask and dozens of beaded necklaces. The mask was gorgeous, the necklaces a sensory delight with their small, smooth beads that clinked and clacked together, and I spent many days disguised in them, feeling fabulous.

Buttercups, a member of the Ranunculus genus, grew wild near my house in the spring and summer when I was young. My friends and I would pick them, gently plucking their thin, green stems, and hold them under one another’s chins to see if the brilliant yellow would reflect against our skin, indicating, it was rumored, a love of butter. Decades later, I can imagine the feeling of the tiny, flexible stems between my fingers and the shine of the bright yellow blossoms in the sun. Despite the intense embodiment of yellowness, they always smelled green to me.

Stephanie Feeney and Eva Moravcik wrote an article entitled A Thing of Beauty: Aesthetic Development in Young Children that explores how children develop an appreciation for and understanding of beauty through nature, art, experiences, and what adults share with them.

“One of the first things teachers can do is to reflect on the role of beauty in their own lives, become aware of it, and share it with children. In their daily experiences with children they can respond to the aesthetic qualities of the world around them. While on a walk in the park or a trip to the tide pools they can help children to reflect on colors, patterns, and textures; focus on tiny flowers, or watch a spider spin a web. These experiences will help children learn to cherish the beauty around them […]”

They write share it with children, which I think is important to note. We’re not overtly teaching children what’s beautiful because their senses have already taught them and this will continue to develop. We trust them to form their own opinions and express their own aesthetic. We’re exposing children to the diverse possibilities of beauty, everywhere. So when my niece finds the flash of a revealing teal gown to be breathtakingly beautiful, I can celebrate that color and that shine along with her without judgment and without over-contextualized concern.

As a child, I knew a world full of simple beauty and wonder in the look, the feel, and the smell of the world around me — in books and birds and buttercups. Experiences like this can provide balance to that noxious plastic princess culture. Children can be trusted to recognize beauty, in its many and varied incarnations. With our adult eyes, we see not only what is but what has been and could be and each worst-case scenario, heavily laden with subtext. Child eyes see things more clearly, without necessarily assigning weight and meaning. It’s possible that my niece could appreciate that gown on Hollywood Boulevard without wearing it herself, without being that person in that pose. It’s possible that what she’s drawn to has very little to do with the full package that my adult eyes have consumed, but with a snapshot — maybe the color, maybe the confidence, maybe the smile, maybe something else entirely, quite beyond the scope now of my adult eyes.

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The Quick Fix

A few weeks ago, I was visiting a classroom of toddlers who ranged in age from nineteen or twenty months old to nearly three. When I walked through the door, the first thing I noticed was one child in distress, who appeared to have been crying for some time. She was pacing. I sat down nearby and began to observe what was happening through a wider lens. Most of the children in the room were engaged in various play activities — some in the play kitchen, some rolling cars and trucks across a carpeted area, and some reading books with a caregiver. The crying child was without an adult nearby, but was seeming to seek another caregiver who was engaged in changing a diaper. She was not entirely without support, however. Hovering nearby was another child, older than her by about six months. Every so often, the older child would put a hand on the crying child’s arm. The crying child shook it off, turning away, but the older child persisted, peering into the crying child’s face. As I watched, the older child tried again to touch the crying child and the crying child again shook her away. I decided to verbalize my observations.

“You saw how upset H was,” I said to the older child. “It looks like you wanted to help her, but I think she was letting you know she didn’t want to be touched right now.”

The crying child paused in her hectic movements and looked at me. I looked back and observed, “You’re really upset, H.” She moved closer to me.

“She’s crying,” the older child stated. “She’s sad.”

“Are you sad?” I asked H. She climbed into my lap. The older child again moved to lay her hand on H’s arm and H turned to her with a sharp, warning look on her face, again vocalizing her distress.

The caregiver who was changing a diaper called out to the older child, “L! Stop it! Keep your hands on you!” She then added, to me, “My friend L is having a hard time keeping her hands to herself.”

I blinked and looked at L as she blinked and looked at me. She wrung her hands silently.

I spoke quietly to L again, “I see that you were trying to help H. You saw that she was sad. Does it help you when someone strokes your arm when you feel sad?” I paused a moment, then stroked her arm gently. From the safety of my lap, H quietly watched, her crying calmed. L nodded and said, “H was crying.”

“She was crying,” I agreed. “Do you think you could ask H if you could help her?” Both children looked at me silently, seeming to contemplate the meaning. I expounded, “We can ask before we touch someone. Can I touch your arm, L?” L looked down at her arm, then held it out to me. I stroked it again and smiled. She smiled back.

The caregiver who had been engaged in a diaper change emerged from behind the changing counter. “L,” she said, “Walk away and find a job.”

L wandered to another part of the room by herself and stood watching some other children play. I sat with H in my lap and simply observed for a period of time. After a little while, H got up from my lap and went to join some other children playing with baby dolls, her upset now behind her. I saw L keeping an eye on her from a distance and I thought I saw something in her face, in the way she watched H, that indicated Future Caregiver.

I did not record this observation in an attempt to indict the caregiver who suggested L set aside her empathetic instincts. My observations were a snapshot, a snippet of the day this caregiver devotes to both L and H. My intention is simply to share an example of how we might interact slightly differently with young children. I believe this caregiver truthfully interpreted L’s hand on H as an issue that needed to be stopped, nipped in the bud, so to speak. The quick fix was to have L “walk away” from H and perhaps then (imagine I had not been there, as would normally be the case) help H to communicate or calm her upset.

I asked the caregiver about H’s upset. I wondered if it seemed to be related to L. It turned out that she had begun crying when her parent had left and had not been able to “calm down” since. I asked about L’s response to H’s distress. I learned that L had been hovering nearby, as I had observed, for some time and that H seemed more distressed each time L moved in close.

“It seems like L has a lot of empathy for H,” I said.

“She likes to be in the middle of things,” the caregiver expressed ruefully.


Caregivers (I include myself) come to their role with preconceptions and emotional baggage that they sometimes don’t recognize the weight of (it’s like those suitcases on wheels — you can just roll along all day without working too hard, but then a wheel begins to wobble and you realize it’s too much to carry). It can cloud their relationships with the children in their care.

I was reminded of a section from Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s book, regarding observation, featuring a quote from RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel.

“Observation is an art form. It’s not something that most people can do easily, but when they’re encouraged to do it, they learn to let go and enjoy it. Parents can begin to relax and see what their child is becoming instead of thinking they need to be the cause of, or catalyst for, their child’s development.”

Observation is one of the most crucial things for early care professionals to develop a knack for. Without it, they are forced to fall back on assumptions, misconceptions, and quick fixes. Observation of children, when undertaken with care, helps to remove the lens of bias and frees the adult to see who children are through what children do.

In the article Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education, George Forman and Ellen Hall write, “As we observe children, we need to consider their goals. What effects are they trying to create? We observe their actions and listen to their comments to determine the strategies they choose to attain those goals. The relation between the strategy and the goal will reveal a possible theory, a theory about how to make the desired effect occur. The theory, correct or incorrect in an objective sense, makes the child’s choice of strategy sensible. The theory comes from us. It is our speculation. It is our attempt to find an entry into the child’s world. All high-level conversations begin with someone speculating about the meaning of the other person’s words or actions.”

Let’s step back again and consider L’s “goals” as she hovered near H. Each time she reached out and touched H and H reacted negatively, L quickly removed her hand. She frequently attempted to study H’s face. She articulated her observation of H’s feelings by saying, “She’s sad.” I theorize this is not a child (L) who needs to be instructed to tamp down her instinct towards empathy, but a child who may need support in learning how to appropriately channel her empathy.

When we reach for the “quick fix” and have children “walk away”, we miss a true learning opportunity for everyone involved.

I want to say again that I’m not writing this down as an indictment of this caregiver. We’ve all used a quick fix before, in many different situations. For example, a few weeks ago I went through a period of intense insomnia. I was crawling through my work days on very few hours of sleep (increasing exponentially my compassion for sleep-deprived new parents!). In the mornings, my jumpstart was coffee. That’s a quick fix. It doesn’t address the underlying issue. It was the best I could do at the time. And if you think this example is something that impacted only myself, understand that I’m responsible for the care of many other human beings throughout the day and I ultimately need to be at my best or we all come out the worse for the wear. I imagine this was only the first of several quick fixes I fell back on during those days.

In one of my university classes, a professor spoke to my class at length regarding Goodness of Fit. Her voice rings on in my head, years later. I understand now, more than ever, why she lingered so on the topic. It’s so important. She emphasized that sometimes there is not that goodness of fit and it is the responsibility of the adult to recognize and adapt for the sake of the child.

Have you ever reflected on this as a caregiver? I think we all should.

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Pushing My Buttons

Please note: I was conflicted as to whether or not to post the following. I want to be clear that I do not represent RIE™ as an organization. I have nothing but admiration for their work and do not want to misrepresent their message or philosophy. Like so many, I have found RIE™ Principles enlightening and helpful in building authentic relationships with the children in my care. RIE™ influences my practices. What I write about here are my experiences, my understandings, and my interpretations. I enjoy sharing my experiences with others because I think everyone — parent, caregiver, and human being — can benefit from Magda Gerber’s teachings. I am sharing my personal passion, I am not an expert. To better understand RIE™, please visit their web site or attend a training! You will find more resources at the bottom of this post.

“Having respect for the world is when you allow people to be what they are.” – Magda Gerber

Two of the words that are commonly used to describe RIE-influenced interactions with children are calm and peaceful. It has been my experience that the perception of what these words mean in relation to everyday experiences and interactions with infants and young children can cause some people to feel alienated from the true heart of Magda Gerber‘s philosophy. These words, in fact, can cause some people to think that RIE™ is something that they can’t “do” because what it sounds like to them is that they would need to become an entirely different kind of person. (In fact, my experience has been that incorporating just a few pieces of Magda’s advice will make you feel like a slightly different kind of person! And you will want to know and do more.) They feel intimidated by the idea that they don’t know the “right” words or actions. They may have come across some misinformation about what RIE™ is or what it looks like and they feel it’s not a match for their style. Because sometimes when you’re living and working with young children and their strong emotions, the very last thing you can imagine feeling, moment to moment, is calm and/or peaceful.

As the leader of an infant/toddler program and primary caregiver to three to four infants and young toddlers in an environment that is home throughout the day to at least eight small people and three adult people, I have days when I leave work on my lunch break and sit silently in my car, breathing in and out, consuming the silence like soul sustenance. There are days when I feel that, rather than anything resembling calm or peaceful, I have been marinating in an environment of disorder, borderline chaos, and noise pollution. There are days when I feel like I am failing.

The reality is that being with children in a way that is authentic, nurturing, and supportive is frequently quite exhausting and intensive. It’s work, this work that we do. It’s often loud and messy and seemingly chaotic. There are times when someone will open the door to my classroom and glance at the toys strewn across the floor, raise their eyebrows at the sound of a baby (or two, or three, or more) crying, and they will make a comment about it being loud, messy, and seemingly chaotic. “Yes,” we say, “we have a lot going on. Yes, we are busy being with our babies.” Sometimes the toys are all on the floor from 8:00 in the morning until after 6:00 in the evening (and sometimes when I’m walking out the door, I just don’t have the strength to put that last item on the shelf). Sometimes it seems that one baby or another has been crying nearly all day. Most of the time, I come home with stains on my clothing of dubious origin.

My understanding of RIE™ Principles makes the work that I do easier not because it is always calm or peaceful and not because I myself am always truly calm and peaceful, but because it gives me the tools to get through those times that feel chaotic and overwhelming. In the group caregiving setting that I work in, my understanding of RIE™ gives me the peace of mind that the caring is the curriculum. It gives me the confidence to consciously slow down in my responses during moments that can seem like little emergencies. My goal isn’t to quiet babies or to rush to meet their perceived needs, but instead to be with them and understand them on a deeper level. It’s an understanding that this moment, while fleeting, is built on in the next and the next and the next after that. Moments stacked together like blocks, building a long, meaningful relationship. I’m reminded that it’s a practice, not a perfect system to somehow flawlessly implement. Treating the children in my care with respect, treating their families with respect, and treating my co-workers with respect makes it possible to see myself with respect — with forgiveness and understanding for myself as a perfectly imperfect human being and caregiver. It allows me to really know the children and for them to know me as well. They know what to expect from me and from our days together.

Interactions, even respectful interactions, with young children are not always either peaceful or calm. They’re not always easy. Something that I frequently see mentioned about RIE™, in outside reviews and commentary, is that it advocates treating children “as adults”. My understanding is that this is an inherently flawed interpretation. Instead, what I understand of RIE™ is that children are recognized for being exactly what they are: children. They’re not condescended to or judged for being somehow less-than or incompetent. They are simply met respectfully where they are. There is not an expectation that they be anything other than human children.

One of the young toddlers that I am currently working with is going through a period of pushing and shoving that is common in children of that age. It is not uncommon for the adults in our classroom to have to stop this behavior and remind the child a dozen times a day that we will not allow her to push and shove. Recently, I was changing the diaper of another child when the child who has been pushing came to stand beside me, whining to be picked up. The child on the diaper table turned to look, hearing the whine, and I said, “Did you hear M? She is asking to be picked up.” I then turned to the child who was whining and said, “M, I am with S right now. When I’m done helping S, I will be able to help you.” Predictably, in her agitated state, this did little to help M. She did pause momentarily in her whining, putting her hand against my leg, but then a third child came over to see what was happening. Seeing the other child approaching while she was trying to get my attention proved too much for M and she yelled in frustration before shoving the other child away from me, hard. The child who had been shoved began to cry loudly, as did M. It wasn’t long before the child on the diapering table began to wail as well. (“What’s happening?! Is this an emergency?”)

I think we can all agree that a moment like this can feel like chaos. I’m pretty sure I started sweating a little bit. The little voice in the back of my head began to question all of my choices.

So what happened next in this instance? Well, first I completed the diaper change, calming S through the familiar routine and then putting her down. I then got down on the floor beside the child who had been shoved and said, “You’re so upset that you got shoved! That looked like it hurt you and scared you. Do you want a hug?” She rushed into my arms and patted my back while I patted hers, her crying slowing to sniffles. And M? She stood close by, alternately crying and screaming. I turned to her, to include her, “M, I hear you. You wanted me to pick you up. O was scared when you shoved her and she needed help. It sounds like you’re feeling very upset too.” M cried, “Up! Uppie!” When another child peered around the corner at her, she put her hand towards them as if to push them away. “M!” I called sharply, “Stop! I won’t let you push.” She turned to look at me and I looked back steadily. The child in my arms had calmed and appeared ready to walk away. I whispered to her, “Can you go see P? She is sitting in the red chair with some books.” O walked away to where another caregiver sat with two younger babies. “I have free arms for you, M,” I said, “Can I help you?” She rushed at me with the full force of her powerful toddler body. She clung to me for a long time… and it was peaceful.

Inside, I was already replaying this scene in my mind, thinking about what I could have done differently to meet the needs of each child in my care.

That was not an isolated incident that day. I stopped M from pushing many more times and she succeeded in pushing several more. Each time, there were instances where neither one of us felt particularly calm or peaceful. At one point, we were face-to-face. She was tear-stained and red-cheeked and angry that I was (exhausted and frustrated) again stopping the behavior. “I won’t let you hurt other people,” I told her. She lunged towards me, as if to shove me, and I held up one hand, “Stop, M. I won’t let you.” She screamed (you may be able to imagine the sound if you have a toddler in your life). “What can we do, M? Do you want to go push the scooter or do you want me to hold you for a minute?” Her body slumped and she again asked, “Uppie?” I picked her up and held her until she had another idea of what she wanted to do.

Ultimately, M felt my calm resolve to help keep her from pushing other people. I wasn’t calm, through and through. I was concerned that someone would be hurt. I was concerned that M be able to express herself and communicate what was inside of her. I wanted to understand and meet her needs. But in my resolve, in what I wanted for M and the classroom at large, I was calm and peaceful.

“You have to do what you believe in.” – Megda Gerber

We do our best, my co-workers and I, to shine a light on the RIE™ Principles for our co-workers and families because these principles resonate with what we believe to be best for children and families. These things that I have described are all things that happen in families and with young children: sometimes there is pushing and shoving (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional), screaming, crying, falling down, helping up, and hugging. There are moments that are beautifully calm and peaceful, through and through. And there are moments that are … not. But they’re all real. Messy, maybe borderline chaotic, probably loud, and totally authentic. My understanding of Magda Gerber’s teachings is just like this: It’s respecting children enough to talk them through times that are difficult and uncomfortable and maybe loud and messy, without shaming and blaming and judging and labeling them. It’s being okay with them not being “okay”. It’s trying again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that (when M will finally internalize the limit that has been set regarding pushing and shoving).

I’m far removed from being an expert on RIE™. It’s just part of my journey and I appreciate all that it has taught me. I read, I listen, I reflect. I take those pieces that resonate most with me (for example, that little piece about telling M that I was with S, engaged in her diapering routine, and I would move on from that routine when it was concluded, trusting that M could wait and that S benefits from and deserves my attention and respect during such an intimate routine) and I put them together with the other pieces I have come across over the years from other sources.

About RIE™
What is RIE™?
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) by Magda Gerber.
Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE™ Way by Deborah Carlisle Solomon, RIE Executive Director.
Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Childcare blog.
Regarding Baby, Lisa Sunbury’s blog.

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Review: My Age of Anxiety

I have spent the last week immersed in Scott Stossel’s new book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind. I would like to take a moment to stand and applaud his courage in so candidly and kindly sharing his own story and those of so many other anxious individuals, including his great-grandfather. This is more than a deeply affecting (and highly compelling) personal account of Stossel’s experiences with anxiety and depression. It’s also a meticulously researched account of anxiety through the ages, including examinations of brain science, psychopharmacology, genetics, human development, and myriad treatment options.

I have long considered myself an anxious person. As a young teen, I suffered an extended period of debilitating illness that did not entirely precipitate my anxiety but definitely served to underline and accelerate the symptoms. I was diagnosed with OCD as a result of feeling my life spiraling out of my control and underwent many months of therapy where I learned methods of relaxation and stress management that I continue to use today in both my personal life and in my work with children and families.

One lesson that I will take from this book is that it’s possible to consider aspects of my anxiety (and your anxiety) a kind of gift. Anxiety is a real biological imperative. It has evolved in humans for a reason. In individuals who display certain heightened levels, it has been shown to enhance their so-called social antennae. Stossel writes, “Social phobics are, in at least this one aspect, gifted — faster and better at picking up behavioral cues from other people, with social antennae so sensitive that they receive transmissions that ‘normal’ people can’t.” Your anxiety or neuroses, in other words, could be an asset in certain situations. In my own case, where my job entails a lot of observation of children and families and navigating sometimes sensitive social waters (difficult conversations with parents about their own children), I do believe this is something that has helped me to do my best work. Stossel further examines Freud’s belief that anxiety attempts to highlight something that our psyche is trying to tell us. Sometimes, we know, we need to listen to ourselves — our gut instincts or our heart.

“Just because I can explain your depression using terms such as ‘serotonin reuptake inhibition’ doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem with your mother.” – Carl Elliott

When I was studying child development in college, I completed a case study on a young child suffering anxiety. I was teaching preschool at the time and I had a child in my classroom who suffered from crippling anxiety. I had never before seen such a severe manifestation in a child so young (she started in my class at age three). Conducting research into the topic was hugely eye-opening and has had an effect on my work ever since. After reading Stossel’s book, I have gained still more insight into the topic which will prove helpful in supporting both children and their parents. I heartily recommend this book to parents of anxious children as well as to teachers and caregivers. It could really change the way that you think of and address children’s (all-too real) worries and fears.

Stossel spends time with one of my favorite subjects, Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. He shares, “In 2006, new results from the forty-year longitudinal Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood found that infants with insecure attachments were significantly more likely than infants with secure or avoidant attachments to develop anxiety disorders as adolescents. […] Bowlby’s attachment theory has an elegant simplicity and a plausible, easily understood evolutionary basis. If your parents provided a secure base when you were an infant and you were able to internalize it, then you will be more likely to go through life with a sense of safety and psychological security.”

What was particularly fascinating to me, however, was that rather than one understandable explanation for anxiety, there are in fact layers upon layers of explanations. There is a chemical component, a genetic component (John Livingstone, a doctor of psychiatry who treats victims of trauma, told Stossel, “It’s as though traumatic experiences get plastered into the tissues of the body and passed along to the next generation”) and also the Nurture (vs. Nature) component. One of my co-workers was delighted when I shared with her that studies have found that the coddled child (that is to say the child who is well and affectionately cared for in a highly responsive relationship) rather than the over-protected child (that is, the child who is denied a sense of self-efficacy), is the more confident and less anxious child. (“I can’t wait to call my son and tell him!” she triumphantly crowed.) Stossel writes, “By now scores of studies support the idea that the quantity and quality of a mother’s affection toward her children has a potent effect on the level of anxiety those children will experience later in life.” I think it’s important to note that we can substitute the title of “mother” in this instance with every single important adult person in a child’s life. Their interactions with family, with caregivers, and with teachers can all serve to build a child’s confidence and insulate them against what seems to be an increasingly anxiety-inducing world. In examining the quality of care in childcare centers, one of the key ingredients in children’s later school success is that they have received warmth and responsiveness. In a 2008 paper, Attachment and Psychopathology in Adulthood, it is reported, “Adults with agoraphobia are more likely to rate their parents as low on affection and high on overprotection.” This serves to further validate all that is said in the early education community about how we must allow children to take risks, make mistakes, and actively and autonomously explore the world around them.

There is so much about this book that is enlightening. It’s written in a very approachable style, with much of the science broken down in a way that is easy (and really interesting!) to digest. It’s unlikely that you don’t know someone who battles anxiety, even if you yourself find the topic to be unfamiliar territory, as some 40 million people in the United States alone are said to today. While I think it would be of special interest to those who suffer anxiety themselves or are caring for anxious children, I can heartily recommend it as universally appealing and educational. It was the kind of book that prompted me to sit up in bed and read passages aloud to my husband (a very non-anxious person). Perhaps surprisingly for a book on this topic written by a man who has, by his own account, been treated with various medications for anxiety for over thirty years, it left me feeling both hopeful and empowered.

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When It’s Time to Go

The parent of a toddler arrives at the childcare center where I work, ready to pick up their child and take them home. The toddler sees the parent through the window and shrieks with delight, then playfully runs to “hide” in the spot where they “hide” each day, gleefully awaiting the moment when their parent will scoop them up and hug them. Unfortunately, today the parent is not in the mood to participate in this routine game. They’re running behind schedule and must rush out the door to pick up another child. Perhaps they have had a long, difficult day and their mind is preoccupied with stress.

“Time to go!” they call to the child from the door. The child giggles and burrows deeper into her “hiding” spot, anticipating the playful sense of connection that she believes is coming.

“Let’s go,” the parent repeats in irritation. “We don’t have time to play.” The child peers out of her hiding spot, then dives back down, hiding her face.

“Okay, I’m going,” the parent says. “Buh-bye! I’m leaving!” She opens the door and pauses, waiting for the child’s reaction.

This is the pivotal moment. Every day, a similar scene plays out at schools, parks, and play dates. Time stands still for a brief moment during this face-off between parent and child — who will win control of how events unfold?

In reality, we all know, no one wins because no one feels good in this situation.

As adults, we have our adult agenda in mind at almost all times. We are often heard to lament the fact that there are a limited number of hours in the day. There are jobs to be done, errands to be completed, appointments to make and meet, meals to be made, laundry to do, and through it all the clock ticks on and on. There are times when we observe a young child issuing an invitation to join them in their world and we consciously choose to keep pace with our adult agenda instead. There are times when we feel we simply must.

Our children internalize so many unspoken lessons in these moments. If we are not conscious and careful, they sometimes internalize the message that their own agenda does not matter. They can interpret this message to read, “YOU don’t matter.”

In the past few years, psychology researchers have found a good deal of literal truth embedded in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain regions involved in processing physical pain overlap considerably with those tied to social anguish. The connection is so strong that traditional bodily painkillers seem capable of relieving our emotional wounds. Love may actually hurt, like hurt hurt, after all. [Source: “Why Love Literally Hurts”]

It can be difficult (sometimes, seemingly impossible) to reconcile what we know about children’s behavior and how to respond to said behavior in textbook fashion with what we’re feeling about children’s behavior within the context of our complex and layered lives. Because, come on, when we feel like it’s time to go, it’s time to go, full stop. On the inside we’re screaming that we don’t have time for this!

Parents and caregivers frequently list as a goal for children that they “listen.” By “listen”, they often mean, “comply.” We want children to follow our directions (and to keep pace with our agenda) for a multitude of reasons. Janet Lansbury shares five of the most common reasons that young children won’t do as we ask. She writes, “Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own. Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.”

Establishing a relationship of mutual respect is, in my opinion, the best way to foster the sense of connection (and love) that will lead to smoother transitions for yourself and your child. Understand that your child is an individual with plans, needs, and a schedule of their own. Your child is a whole person. Whatever they may be engaged in at any given time matters to them. (Think about how you feel when interrupted or cut off or dismissed.)

In the scenario that I describe above, the toddler is seeking connection with their parent. They’re anticipating a joyful mutual physical expression of love in a reunion routine they have previously engaged in. On another day when the parent was hurried, they visibly shook off their own preoccupations to respond to the glint in the child’s eye and, rather than opening the door and calling out the empty threat of departure, they crouched down by the door and opened their arms to the child. The child immediately ran from their hiding spot, the parent scooped them up, and off they went to the car, both smiling.

If you find yourself teetering on the edge of engaging in a battle of wills with your young child over departures, some advice:

  • Communicate in advance. With young children, this conversation will need to be frequent and consistent. “When it’s almost time to go, I will give you a warning. You can finish what you’re doing and then we’ll go to the car together.” Give your child the advance warning, “In three minutes, we will go to the car.” When you consistently employ this strategy, your child knows you’re not bluffing. They may still show resistance, but they know what is going to happen. It may seem that your child is too young to comprehend this kind of communication, but in my experience children respond very quickly when it is used with consistency as they’re experts at internalizing these cues and routines.
  • Provide choices within the limits of the necessary departure. “We are going to go to the car now. Should we hop or skip to the car? Do you want to walk or be carried? Do you want to carry your bear or your bag?”
  • Stay connected. Remember that you’re in this together — it’s not, “I’m leaving now!” it’s, “We’re going to leave now.” Look your child in the eye. Connect physically with your child. Extend your heart to your child — when you consciously release your struggle and strain, you’ll find that you’re joyfully met.
  • Use empathy: “I see how much you love to slide! It’s so hard to stop having fun here. We can come back again tomorrow and slide some more.” Do not dismiss or ignore what your child is doing or feeling.
  • Communicate about what is going to happen. Explain where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and what will happen next. You will find that when they know what’s ahead, many children will quickly shift from resistance to engagement.
  • Be consistent and predictable.

You may be interested in further reading on related topics:
Reunion Meltdowns
Easing a Toddler’s Daily Transitions
Little Kids and the Power of the Five Minute Warning

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Favorite Letter-Writing Books

This is the time of year (Valentine’s Day) when many preschool classrooms explore themes related to writing notes and letters. For many programs who have a policy of not explicitly celebrating holidays, this is a way that teachers address the seasonal topics that can arise. I’m of the opinion that letter-writing at any time of the year is one of the very best activities to incorporate into your household or curriculum. It’s a unique way of connecting with people we care about while developing literacy and community skills. In our age of technological communication, there is something extra-special about putting pen to paper, sticking a stamp on a letter, and visiting an actual mailbox or post office! Allow me to put on my grandma hat for a moment and ponder whether kids today will learn how to properly address an envelope, look up a name or number in the phone book, or write an actual check. Are these lost arts? They don’t need to be.

Every preschool classroom (and home) should have a well-stocked writing center as well as a system in place for exchanging messages. In general, children love exchanging messages. In fact, who doesn’t? When I sift through the mail and find a hand-addressed card from my mom among the bills and junk mail, my heart skips a beat. If you need ideas and inspiration for creating, expanding, or maintaining a writing center, I suggest taking a peek at Pinterest (search terms: preschool writing center, writing center, preschool mailboxes), with the warning that you can easily lose hours down this rabbit hole.

There are countless beautiful books for all ages that center around writing letters or exchanging messages. Below you’ll find some of my personal favorites for preschoolers.

Dear Annie by Judith Caseley. Our heroine, Annie, has exchanged letters with her grandpa since the day she was born. This is a lovely catalog of their relationship, as well as providing great examples of the process of sending and receiving mail. A simple story at its heart, it provides rich fodder for class discussions about writing, adventures, and grandparents. Every child will be inspired to write a letter of their own to someone special.

Dear Juno by Soyung Pak tells a similar story of a grandmother and grandson, with the twist being that the grandmother writes in Korean and the little boy expresses his message with pictures. This is a gorgeous story about cross-culture communication (and cross-generational) that speaks to preschoolers who can’t fully “write” their messages. It’s an essential addition to the classroom library of every diverse program.

Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Farmer Brown’s cows have begun sending him typed messages with their requests. This is a laugh-out-loud funny book about some ingenious barnyard animals and their sophisticated negotiation tactics. Children who feel empowered by putting pen to paper will particularly enjoy the message and the story can prompt some wonderful conversation about how to peacefully express wants and needs and how to meet in the middle. I have found this book to also be a great springboard to talking about different ways of communicating (what if you couldn’t speak? how would you communicate?) and what typewriters and keyboards are for.

A Letter to Amy by Ezra Jack Keats. This is the story of a boy who wishes to invite a girl to his otherwise all-boy birthday party and he wants to send her a written invitation. On his way to mail the invitation, he runs into the girl and knocks her down. He worries that she won’t wish to attend the party. The story may not seem highly relevant to today, but I think the work of Ezra Jack Keats is timeless. Preschoolers in particular are at a heightened awareness of boyness and girlness and that storyline will appeal to them. It will prompt passionate discussion about what should be done when you knock someone down, accidentally or not, and how friendships can start in the most unlikely of ways.

From the Frog and Toad Are Friends story collection by Arnold Lobel comes the perfectly lovely story, The Letter. Toad mournfully describes the time of day when the mail is delivered as the saddest part of his day, as no one ever sends him any mail. Frog immediately realizes what needs to be done and he sends Toad a letter. This is a classic tale of friendship for any age but resonates with particular meaning for small children. This short story is best for small group readings and is really enjoyable as an audiobook.

Send It by Don Carter follows the journey of a package cross-country. The simple but engaging book is wonderful to have on hand for independent reading while a classroom explores the ideas of writing and sending.

Tell me: what are your favorite books about corresponding?

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Favorite Toddler Books

When toddlers come to love a book, they LOVE IT with the kind of love that only toddlers are capable of, from the top of their heads to the tips of their toes. It’s impossible to read the book too often because until they tire of it, their love for it is tireless. They may like and enjoy other books along the way, but there can be no substitutions for their true love. You’ll have it memorized within days and you may find yourself quietly reciting it at odd times (I myself carry a small toddler library in my mind). You’ll stealthily slip it from their grasp when they’ve fallen asleep with it clutched in their arms. You’ll make sure that you pack it each time you leave the house. In later months and years, you may go decades without picking up the book again, but then one day you’ll come across it and it will be, as they say, just like riding a bike — the words and pictures be as familiar to you as if you’d last seen them five minutes ago. Aren’t books wonderful?

Below you’ll find a sampling of the kind of books I have seen toddlers fall hard for. Please share your own favorites in the comments! And remember this advice from author Mem Fox, “Children need to hear a thousand stories before they can begin to learn to read. Or the same story a thousand times!“.

Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy E. Shaw. This is such a fun book to read aloud. Toddlers love the rhyming language, the hilarious flow of the story, and the combination of familiar words with more sophisticated language. I worked with one seventeen-month-old who fell head over heels for this book and, after hundreds of readings, acted out pieces of the story with farm animal toys! This one will always be high on my favorites list.

Skippyjon Jones: Up & Down by Judy Schachner. I had never heard of Skippyjon Jones until someone donated this board book to my program a couple of years ago. The book was immediately claimed by one toddler, who memorized the entire sequence of events in words and signs. His love for this book prompted me to order another Skippyjon Jones book (the delightful Skippyjon Jones Shapes Up), only to have him react with anger as it seemed to him like trickery to present a book so similar to his favorite that featured altogether different events. What he loved best of all, you see, was the predictability of the book. Many toddlers will.

Llama Llama Wakey Wake by Anna Dewdney. It’s hard to go wrong, in my experience, with a Llama Llama book. The gentle themes, rhymes, and soft illustrations are universally appealing. What toddlers love about this book, in particular, is that it mirrors their own lives. They brush their teeth! They comb their hair! And, sometimes, they have to say goodbye to their mamas too. (Dewdney’s Llama Llama books were first designed for an older audience, but toddlers can enjoy spin-offs just for them like this one and Llama Llama Nighty-Night.)

Doggies by Sandra Boynton. No book list for toddlers would be complete without at least one title by Sandra Boynton. Her illustrations and lyrical prose appeal to all ages. This book is perfect for toddlers to share with an un-self-conscious adult who is prepared to make a fantastic variety of dog sounds. In no time at all, toddlers will be assigning unique calls to each featured dog. It’s also a subtle counting book and even younger readers will enjoy pointing to the dogs in turn. (At the end of the day, do not overlook Boynton’s classic, The Going to Bed Book.) Along the same vein is the slightly more verbose Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? by Dr. Suess. It introduces a sequence of wonderful sounds that you can make along with the amazing Mr. Brown, including the moo of a cow, the boom boom of thunder, and the sound of a hand on a door, knock knock.

I Love You Through and Through by Bernadette Rossetti Shustak lists all the sides of a toddler that you love. Just as they need to hear stories at least 1,000 times before they’re reading to learn to read, they need to hear these messages of love and affirmation time and time again. They’ll eat it up and you’ll see it reflected back at you. This is a wonderful book to share with a child.

From Head to Toe by Eric Carle. When it comes to reading with toddlers, it’s a toss-up as to which Eric Carle book they will prefer, but odds are pretty good that they will be drawn to at least one. This is a close contender with the classic Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and toddlers will choose it for it’s interactivity. The words and illustrations invite them to stretch and move their bodies in different ways, giving language to both familiar and previously un-articulated body parts and animals.

The Okay Book by Todd Parr. Most of Todd Parr’s books send a strong message that it’s “okay” to be yourself, to be different, and to do what makes you happy. This book is no exception and I love it for that. Toddlers will enjoy the bright illustrations (Todd Parr’s art is unique and delightful) and the simple, positive text.

You may also be interested in previous posts on Favorite Sensory Books and Favorite Nap Reads.

Now tell me: which books do your toddlers LOVE?

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Thoughts From an Introvert on the Internet

In a very real sense, the writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself. – Alfred Kazin

It’s a funny thing, publishing a blog post.

Writing is (most of the time) a fairly solitary, introspective act. For many people, it’s a way of processing and developing a deeper understanding of events, ideas, and imaginings. It can be a way of traveling through your own psyche — for me, I often start off writing about one thing and find in the end that what I truly wanted to articulate was something else entirely. When writing, I rarely feel like I’m in complete control, but I almost always feel a sense of freedom.

Some days, I’ll wind up with a jumble of words that I think might be worth sharing with other people and I’ll muster up the courage to press the little blue “Publish” button on the screen. A blog is a fairly selfish endeavor, really. What I share here are my personal opinions and musings based on my own experiences and accumulated knowledge. When I decide to share something, I do so with a sense of hope that it may connect with someone else when I send it out (otherwise I’d never press “Publish”). I don’t write for you, to be honest, but for a general idea of you. I write down the things that I most wish to say, from a place of passion and enthusiasm, but don’t necessarily have an everyday forum for.

The thing about putting your ideas out on the Internet is that they’re Out On the Internet. Anyone with any sense knows that this is the most dangerously vulnerable place to leave your ideas. There they sit, trembling, sacrificial lambs before the slaughter. They’re there to be mocked, contradicted, and misinterpreted. Anyway, that’s how it sometimes feels.

In my Real Life, apart from this oft-neglected blog, I’m an introverted person. I am a person of Opinions, as I may seem here, but it’s not often that I’ll be the loudest voice in the room. I’m good at listening and I have developed professional observation skills. Sometimes when I’m done listening and observing, I’ll think, “I have to write about this.”

What I want you to know is that what I write here is the honest expression of a genuine person.

The funny thing about publishing a blog post is that it takes this personal collection of words and makes them available for instant feedback. I think that’s kind of fantastic (if terrifying). It’s one of the things I love most about the Internet: the easy access to all kinds of ideas and information from other people and the ability to make an authentic connection with them based on shared interest. It’s this desire for genuine connection that compels me to write in this space and that makes me clamor for your feedback. It gives me a thrill each time I receive notice of a comment! I appreciate the comments that give me pause and make me think.

There are some topics that you would think (or, I guess, I would think) are not subject to controversy. The Internet has proven, time and again, that this is a patently false belief.

The Internet, you may know, is home to people who wish to anonymously express opinions that may or may not be truly, deeply genuine but are, either way, designed to raise someone’s blood pressure. Some comments read like a slap to the face. I’m not new to the Internet, so while I may not empathize with the intent, I at least recognize it. Each comment posted to this blog is set for “moderation,” which means that I’m asked to approve or reject each one. I read each one. (And the introvert in me internalizes each one.) I click “approve” on 99.9% of comments. The other fraction are lost to the ether and echo only in my mind.

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It Makes Me Sad

I encountered a flustered mom on the sidewalk outside my work building the other day. She was a mom that I knew by sight, not by name. For several months she and her son had been attending the parent-and-me class that takes place in the classroom next-door to mine a few times a week. Recently, she had made the decision to enroll her son in a preschool class that he would attend on his own for a few hours per day.

When I encountered her on the sidewalk, it was after one of her son’s first days in the preschool class. It was nearing lunchtime. Her little boy was refusing to get into the car to go home. Instead, he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, wailing, while the mom cajoled, threatened, and bribed in rapid succession to attempt to hurry him along. She was visibly flustered and frustrated, as nearly anyone would have been in her shoes. It is a unique test of one’s patience to stand in public alongside a wailing child. Even when you seem to be completely alone, you feel the sting and burn of a thousand eyes on you.

The mom glanced my way as I approached and, her patience at its limit, grabbed the little boy by one arm and hissed, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words!” The boy screamed as she finally lifted him up and put him inside the car.

I passed by and walked into the building to begin my work day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene. I still can’t. And here’s why: this mom is a shining example of someone who is trying to do all the “right” things. She is really trying to use the “right” words with her child in a difficult situation. She once worked in a preschool setting herself, I had learned. I would have guessed at it, had I not been told. Because somewhere in the history of preschool training, parents and teachers began to use the phrase, “It makes me sad when you…” in an attempt to dissuade children from behaving in ways that make the parent or teacher feel a number of emotions that may or may not include genuine sadness. (Does it matter how the child is feeling?)

When the mom on the sidewalk glanced my way, I wanted to communicate somehow with my body language or facial expression or even with words that I was not judging her. I wasn’t. If anything, I felt empathy for her situation. Have you been there? I have. I’ve wrestled a reluctant toddler into a carseat more than once. It’s not fun for anyone involved. (Think how the toddler feels!)

I looked at the mom’s face as she hissed angrily at her little boy. His eyes widened as he looked into hers. Her mouth told him, “so sad,” but her face told an entirely different story, as plain as day. I wish she had told him what she was feeling. Why not? He was doing his very best to express his honest, raw emotions to her. (What was he feeling?)

In that long, uncomfortable moment on the sidewalk, the goal of this mom was most likely (we can presume) to get her child into the car so they could head home for lunch and a much-deserved nap. Thinking long-term, I like to imagine that the goal of this mom, who uses phrases like, “It makes me so sad when you don’t listen to my words,” is to raise an emotionally mature and connected individual. This is a mom, I imagine, who doesn’t want to snap and yell and berate her child. This is a conscious, caring woman who has read something about child development. She is someone like you, perhaps, and someone like me.

We know by now how incredibly valuable empathy is. It’s important to empathize with your child. Empathy is a package of abilities in the brain, shaped by experiences. The way I think about it, each time you meet a child with empathy, you’re helping to wire their brain for future success. Plant this seed in your own mind and you could quadruple your patience in trying times like the one described above.

I don’t believe you can be empathetic or teach empathy to a child without honesty. What does that mean in a real-life situation like this? It means that you don’t tell your child that their actions make you sad when what you’re really feeling is frustrated. You’re feeling angry and embarrassed. You’re feeling tired. (Of course you are!) Even if your child doesn’t have the words for these emotions, they know them. They know them in themselves and they see them in you. When you grab their arm and hiss about feeling sad, they probably don’t even hear your words but you know they see through you.

Being honest doesn’t mean joining them in their tantrum and screaming out your frustration too. It might mean crouching down in front of them, meeting their eyes with your own, and saying, “It sounds like you don’t want to stop playing and get in the car. It sounds like you’re really mad right now. I’m frustrated too. Your choices right now are to climb into your seat or to have me help you. Will you climb in or do I need to pick you up?” If you need to pick them up, you can tell them, “I hear you. I know you don’t want to fasten your buckles right now. You’re feeling really upset that we have to go. I’m upset too, but this is something that we have to do right now.”

Later, when your child has calmed down, you could talk more about leaving preschool and getting into the car. You might have to talk about it often over the next few weeks. Your child might tell you that it makes them upset when they have to stop playing. You might tell your child that it makes you upset when they scream on the sidewalk. It’s okay to tell your child that their actions make you feel whatever it is that they make you feel: angry, scared, frustrated, overwhelmed, even sad. What’s even more important, however, is to show and tell your child that you notice and care about what their actions express about their own feelings in that moment.

You may also be interested in the post Reunion Meltdowns.

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The Best of Intentions

The best and the worst aspect of my classroom is that it is located at the front of our facility. We have walls of windows that overlook the courtyard and our play yard faces the lobby. This is the best because we have an environment that is positively flooded with sun all day long, we have lovely views of trees and leaves and butterflies and birds, and we can observe the comings and goings throughout the day (we especially enjoy the daily “parades” of half-day preschoolers). It is, at the very same time, the worst because we can sometimes feel that we’re in a fish tank or a zoo, as everyone who passes by is compelled to stop for a moment and admire the infants and toddlers like puppies in a pet store. “They’re so cute!” they squeal, peering over the fence as the toddlers climb the slide, ride their scooters, and glance in puzzlement at the strangers on the other side. One year there was a mom of a preschool student who was enamored with one of the infants in particular, admiring his golden curls and blue eyes and wide smile each day. One day she asked his caregiver if she could hold him. His caregiver shook her head and explained, “He doesn’t know you.” A smile from a baby doesn’t make you friends. When his parents leave him with us, they’re not anticipating that he’ll be passed over the fence into a stranger’s arms like a loaf of bread. This baby, this person, feels best in a safe and secure space. This baby, this individual, may prefer some privacy as he works. This baby, this human being, is not here for your entertainment.

We can stop other people’s disrespectful movements towards the children in our care to some extent. We field their comments as best we can (for example, countering, “They’re so cute!” with, “Yes, we are really enjoying water play today!”). (This is not to say that they’re not so cute. They are, of course. They’re ridiculously cute. It just doesn’t always need to be articulated. They’re really so much more.) Sometimes, however, our well-defended and intentionally constructed borders are breached. For example, one day a member of the staff rushed into the room because through the window she had observed a baby’s nose running and felt the need to wipe it. What happened instead is that her arrival in the room startled and upset a handful of other children who then generated enough tears and mucus to keep us busy for (what felt like) hours. When my aggravation had subsided, I tried to explain to the staff member why this was not okay and how it was not really about the baby or the nose but about her, the adult. “I was there to help!” she said. “I know. I think we all appreciate your intention,” I said, “but it can’t happen again. You can’t wipe the nose of a stranger.”

I believe that nearly everyone has nothing but the best of intentions towards infants and young children and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the elderly and infirm, when they seem to be in need of help. I also believe that there are very few situations that warrant jumping in and helping someone without assent.

We don’t tend to think of babies or young children that we don’t know as “strangers,” do we? My co-worker was offended by this word choice. We seem to have the idea that babies belong to the world! If they seem to “need” something, anyone with good intentions could provide it. The reality is that infants, young children, teenagers, adults, and stray dogs and cats are individuals all. They may not need or want what we have to offer. It’s generally best to slow down and consider what you’re offering. In this example, rather than grabbing a handful of tissues and rushing towards a baby, perhaps hold out a tissue and observe, “It looks like your nose is running.”

Another staff member looked through the window one day and observed an infant crying on the floor. She opened the door. “Can I come in and pick her up?” she asked. The baby’s caregiver explained, “She’s feeling frustrated because she is working to roll over and she hasn’t gone that way before. We are giving her time.” Not to mention that this baby, as an individual, is very wary of people she does not know and an offer of arms from a stranger would be far more distressing than the moment of struggle she was working through (and did work through). Again, the intention was wonderful (and that she stopped and asked was outstanding) but completely adult-based, stemming from this woman’s distress at hearing a baby — any baby — crying.

The other day I was outside with a few infants in our garden. The same baby mentioned above, now a master of rolling over, was deeply engaged in digging her fingers and toes into some mud. To me, it was a wonderful moment to witness, as she explored the texture of mud for the first time. Another infant sat nearby, dipping a finger in the mud and smearing it on her bare leg. Both babies were busy and content. A staff member stopped by, alarmed, and cautioned me, “Oh! She has mud on her finger! Don’t let her put it in her mouth!” The infant who had been smearing mud on her leg stopped her work and stared at the staff member, then looked at the mud on her finger. I acknowledged her acknowledgement, “H. was noticing the mud on your finger. I saw you were putting it on your leg. I wonder how it felt on your leg.” She resumed her work. I smiled at the staff member and reassured her, “They’re okay. They’re busy exploring the mud. I think it feels good.” She walked on. A few minutes later, a preschool parent was passing by and stopped to mention, “That baby has some mud on her.” I smiled again, “Thank you.”

Some of us have ideas about how babies should appear: faces wiped clean (noses not allowed to run); fingers scrubbed; socks on. I have many parents request that their children be changed into “clean clothes” before they are picked up to go home at the end of the day. I understand these desires. We encourage our toddlers to clean their faces after each meal, passing them a washcloth and talking about “cheeks, chins, mouths, and noses.” When they have done their work and food residue remains, I ask, “Can I help to clean your chin?” and when they agree*, I wipe them clean. This keeps their sensitive skin from becoming irritated, ensures that they don’t rub the residue off elsewhere in the room, and makes them both look and feel cared for. When we have played in the mud, we always clean up afterwards. And when a nose runs, we address it with tissues. Together. We don’t do these things to the babies, but with the babies. It makes all the difference.

* In general, when toddlers don’t “agree” to have their face wiped by an adult, we take a look in the mirror together and talk about where else on their face seems to require wiping. We encounter little resistance when it’s not made into a battle and it’s being done in a matter-of-fact rather than a directive manner.

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