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.