Working with infants and toddlers, I have often reflected on this quote from poet Maya Angelou: “People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
These babies come into my life for what seems like just the blink of an eye, but they stay in my heart for all time. Long after they have left my program, moved to other towns and cities, started preschool, forgotten all about me, I remember with great clarity details about their care and their amazing personalities. I remember the stories of their families. I remember the very first moments we truly connected — sometimes minutes after meeting, sometimes weeks, sometimes even months. I remember singular days we spent together — the very, very worst and the very, very best. I carry them with me for years and years, knowing all the while that they have moved on and would likely not recognize me if we passed on the street. (Sometimes I see children I worked with as kindergartners or third graders or fifth graders and my heart does a little flip-flop, seeing them now as half-grown people out in the world. Sometimes they look right past me, with no idea that I once helped them to add two and two and tie their shoes and rubbed their back when their friend hurt their feelings, while I study their faces for traces of who I knew them to be and breathe a few silent wishes out into the universe for them.)
Last year I ran into a family I had worked closely with when their baby was between eight and eighteen months old. The mom and I hugged, the baby’s two big sisters danced around excitedly, and the once-baby boy eyed me intensely while his mom asked him, “Do you remember Jenn?” I smiled and crouched beside him, saying hello and, “I knew you when you were just a little baby.” After a period of serious silent consideration, he smiled slowly and passed me the toy frog he had clutched tightly in one hand. “He remembers you,” his mom declared delightedly. I was not quite so certain, but I do like to think that on some level every child I have worked with carries a little bit of something inside of them that I helped to plant there.
When I was teaching preschool, the teachers and administrators would frequently have very serious discussions about kindergarten-readiness and preparing our students for all that lay ahead. We had lists of expectations from the public school kindergarten teachers (“Children must be able to follow directions!“) and we had goals and strategies and hopes and fears for every child. It’s an unfortunate reality for young children and their families that in many schools in many cities across the United States, kindergarten is becoming a really difficult year for them to get through — filled with pressure and stress and expectations that often seem unrealistic for their stage of development. Over the years, from preschool teaching to infant and toddler caregiving, I have taken the approach of filling the children in my life up to the brim before they leave me. The world will not always be kind to them, but I can be. I can fill them up with the goodness that will help to light their way through the darker places. I can foster their resilience, their creativity, and their sense of themselves, at any age. (And I’ll tell you a secret: preschool children don’t get ready for kindergarten by learning to walk quietly in lines and sit criss-cross applesauce; they get ready for kindergarten by learning to trust that teachers have their best interests at heart. They follow directions like real champs when they have had reinforced to them that everyone deserves to be listened to and treated with respect.)
One of the very best and the very worst things about my current position is that my time with the infants, toddlers, and their families is limited. The children tell us when they’re ready to move on, and we owe it to them to listen and follow their lead. They deserve new challenges, new adventures, and the opportunity to expand their little community. It’s a wonderful, magical gift to see them grow. It’s also heart wrenching to see them go.
I like it best when the children in my care move to the room next-door, then across the yard to the preschool rooms, so I can continue to be with them, albeit at a greater distance, for a few more years. They often come by to visit with their families, standing outside and pointing through the window, saying, “I played with that when I was a baby. You held me like that when I was a baby.” They love when their infant caregivers tell them stories about when they were babies. One little girl, now a preschooler, is so tickled to hear about the days when she “cried and CRIED!” She prompts us, “What did you do? How did you help me when I cried and CRIED?” We tell her, “We held you. We carried you. We sang you a little song. We said, ‘We’re here with you.'” She smiles.
Recently, a child who had left our center after graduating from my room returned over a year later as a three-year-old ready for our preschool program. One day I ran encountered him and two other Infant Program graduates in the kitchen with their preschool teacher. We chatted about when they were babies. “I remember when I was a baby,” one girl proudly stated. This very quiet little boy, who had been gone from our center for over a year, said shyly, “I remember too.” I asked him what he remembered. “I would play outside and I would play inside. Then I would eat lunch. I would take a nap and cry a little. Then it would be tickle time, and then my dad would come and pick me up.” “Tickle time?” I asked him, laughing to myself on the inside. “Yes, it would be tickle time,” he said somberly. When I relayed the story to my assistants, they reminded me of another boy who had been a toddler at the same time and, having been tickled at home by his sisters, liked nothing more than to rub his fingertips against the bare soles of other children’s feet, laughing, “Ticka ticka ticka!” Perhaps it is the memory of this shared experience that sank deepest into this small boy’s memory.
As an infant and toddler caregiver, I often reflect on the positives and negatives of group care. There is much to be said for both sides. I wonder how it impacts the very youngest of children — two, three months old — to begin forming their sense of self away from their families for long periods of time. How does it impact their worldview and their overall well-being? It’s all quite individual, I believe, and it’s not possible to make blanket statements except to say that all children require high-quality and personalized care (at every stage). One thing I can say with certainty is that it could never be a bad thing for a child to know that they’re loved by so many: by not just their families, who made the effort to determine where the best care for them could be found, but also by their extended family of caregivers. I know that when these little ones leave my program, they know in their heart of hearts how it feels to be loved.