Category Archives: Caregiving

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.

Hmm.

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.

Resources:
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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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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Where Learning Happens

“Growth demands a temporary surrender of security.” – Gail Sheehy

Some of the best advice I ever heard of a pediatrician giving a parent was, “It’s good for him to do some things that are uncomfortable for him.” This advice was given in relation to a young child feeling uneasy about a new experience. Note that the advice of the pediatrician did not suggest that the child should face his discomfort alone, without empathy, or be so uncomfortable as to suffer. But that mild discomfort of doing something new, something unpredictable, is almost always a source of growth. It’s often in that discomfort that the best kind of learning happens.

Let me tell you about my young friend, C. She is twelve months old and not yet walking, but she crawls with great speed. Sometimes she shuffles forward on her knees, sometimes she stands and “cruises,” holding on to the low counter. C. is a highly competent mobile infant who, when self-motivated, can move with ease from one place or position to another. Sometimes, however, C. longs to be rescued. When rescue fails to materialize, C. can become quite dramatic. In a word, she screams.

The other day, C. was outside and I was inside. She was playing at a water table with some peers, splashing and cruising along the edge. Her primary caregiver needed to take a break and the person who came to give her the break was a stranger to C. This made C. nervous, so she began to cry. I heard her, understood the cause, and opened the door. “C,” I called, “would you like to come inside for a little while?” When she saw me, she reached her arms out towards me. “Come on over,” I encouraged, “I’m right here waiting for you.” She wouldn’t come. She screamed intermittently instead. “I hear you, C. You’re asking me to come and pick you up. But I’m asking you to come over here to me so I can do it,” I said. Now, the caregiver who was there covering for C’s primary caregiver had moved away, so she was not blocking C. from coming towards me or interfering with our interaction in any way. She asked, “Do you want me to pick you up and take you to Jenn?” and C. shook her head, shrieked, and waved the caregiver away with one arm.

C. continued to scream for some time. I know her well enough to recognize that she was mad. It made her mad that I was not going to go to her and pick her up. “You’re really mad that I’m not coming to you,” I said. “I’m waiting for you right here. Will you please come to me?” I was sitting on the floor just inside the door and I reached out out my arms, then signed, “Come-here.” C. frowned, moved forward half an inch, then stopped and screamed again.

While we were discussing the situation, several preschool teachers were passing by our classroom and yard. Each one, without fail, was drawn close by C’s screams and asked, “Can I help her?” I would explain that I was waiting for C. to come over to me so that I could hold her. “Let me get her for you,” several teachers said, and moved to open the gate to our yard. I stopped them. “Thank you, but C. can come to me when she’s ready,” I said. They all were visibly taken aback (“She’s so upset!” they all observed), but for me, as a teacher, this was a learning moment. I wanted C. to realize that she doesn’t need rescue. She doesn’t need to wait for someone to come and get her when she’s uncomfortable. She is capable of moving her body and I want her to know it.

I wanted pretty badly to go and pick C. up, cuddle her close to me, kiss her all over, and tell her that everything was okay. It’s not easy to see babies in distress. I was perhaps even more uncomfortable in this moment than C. herself, as I second-guessed my plan to “make” her come to me on her own, but I worked to project an aura of calm reassurance as I talked her through the experience. As I talked to her, the other children were gathering around, watching. “C,” I said, “you could crawl over to me. I’m right here. I’m going to stay right here close to you.” When I mentioned crawling, a few of my walking infants dropped to all fours and crawled between C. and myself. “Look,” I said, “L. is showing you how she can crawl just like you do.” C. watched quietly, even smiled, then resumed screaming. I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

It seemed an eternity, but was actually less than fifteen minutes, all told. In the end, C. sighed a heavy sigh, then crawled quickly to me and climbed into my lap, screams silenced. I hugged her. “You crawled to me on your own and now I can hold you,” I said. She leaned back against me and we sat that way for a little while, both of us enjoying the quiet.

Did C. stop screaming for rescue that day, forever? Nope. A similar scene plays out a few times a week, but increasingly less often now. C. is becoming even more competent in her movement. I still second-guess my choices, but with or without me, she’s growing.

“It is not change that causes anxiety; it is the feeling that we are without defenses in the presence of what we see as danger that causes anxiety.” – Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

Another child, B., likes to climb to modest heights in both our indoor and outdoor space and then shriek to be rescued. If caregivers come close to her, she’ll leap recklessly from where she has climbed, so we began to keep our distance a few months ago, choosing to talk her down instead. B. also does this with her parents at the park. It became something of a game for them when she first began to want to climb, and an unfortunate pattern developed. They weren’t sure what to do about it, but complained of her recklessness. I suggested that we all work together to help B. discover a sense of herself in space and to tune in to her own abilities to navigate tricky situations. (If B. was not safe, we would of course assist her immediately.)

In the classroom, B. teetered atop a platform, shrieking and leaning towards her caregiver, who sat calmly a few feet away. “Will you come back down the steps or the slide?” she asked. B. looked to the left (steps!) and then the right (slide!) and then cried, looking at her caregiver. “You can come back down, B.,” her caregiver assured her, “You can sit down and go to the slide,” she pointed to the slide. B. looked to her right again, uncertain, then fussed some more. “If it seems too high, you could sit down,” her caregiver suggested. B. repeated, “Sit.” “Yes, you could sit down,” her caregiver said again. B. sat, then scooted towards the slide. “It looks like you will come down the slide,” her caregiver observed. B. briefly fussed again, reaching towards her caregiver, who moved closer to the bottom of the slide. “I’m right here, waiting for you,” her caregiver told B. B. then slid down the slide and clapped for herself at the bottom. “You came down the slide,” her caregiver said with a smile.

“… by stretching yourself beyond your perceived level of confidence you accelerate your development of competence.” –Michael J. Gelb

It can be hard to determine when to help children, when to support or encourage them, and when to rescue them. It’s not always a black and white, right or wrong issue. It’s a delicate matter of careful observation, knowledge of the individual, and timing. In my experience, it’s uncomfortable for adults. Children aren’t the only ones learning and growing in these moments. At the end of the day, these are often the moments that I reflect back on — these moments of screams and shrieks and occasional tears. I always wonder if I made the right choices, providing the correct balance of support, autonomy, freedom, and assistance. Do my infants and toddlers believe in their own competence, as I believe in them? Not every day. Not every one of them. Not yet. But often enough and enough of them to make me believe that we’re moving in the right direction.

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Other People’s Children

One of the kindest things that has ever been said to me by one of the moms whose children I cared for was, “Happy Mother’s Day! I know you’re not technically a mom, but you are a mother to all of these babies and these mamas and dadas and everyone who needs you.”

I’ll be honest: I cried. Outwardly. I felt so recognized. Like she had shined a light on the best part of me.

One of the least kind things that has ever been said to me by one of the moms whose children I cared for was, “Yeah. Well. I know you don’t know, but things are different when you have kids. You realize what actually matters.” She spat those words at me when I expressed sympathy for her dog dying and said that I had just lost a pet as well.

I’ll be honest: I cried. Inwardly. I felt so marginalized. (And, later, when I told the story to my husband, I will admit that I cried hardest for her dog.)

One of the first things mothers ask of me when they come to enroll their babies in my program is whether or not I have children myself. Some just ask as a way of making conversation. Some out of genuine curiosity. Some because motherhood is a badge and a certification. It’s a club. You can trust a mom to care for your baby because once upon a time they cared for their baby too and they are in tune with those mystical motherly instincts.

Do you know what I would do for the children in my care? I would do anything. I would lift a bus. I would take a bullet. I would give a kidney.

Do you know what I’ve done for them? I’ve lost sleep worrying about them. I’ve celebrated milestones. I’ve seen first steps and heard first words and watched them read or write their names successfully for the first time. I’ve caught wiggly teeth flying from their mouths. I’ve given up nights and weekends making plans for them. I’ve spent too much money on them. I’ve watched them conquer fears and I’ve held their hands and hugged them close when fears conquer them.

I’ve gone hoarse reading favorite stories just one more time. I’ve gotten favorite songs permanently stuck in my head. I’ve memorized those stories, those songs, and also all of the data generated by those children, from their birthdates to their allergies to their medications to their phone numbers to their favorite colors and animals and foods and rituals.

I’ve bandaged wounds, staunched bleeding, wiped fevered brows, bathed bodies, survived every bodily fluid leak imaginable. I’ve held babies having seizures, I’ve braced broken bones. I’ve given bad news and shared sorrow. I’ve ridden in an ambulance with a scared toddler and held him in the emergency room while he wailed and nurses stuck him with needles.

I don’t take them home at the end of the day. But when their families don’t come on time to pick them up, I stay. I stay until it’s dark. I cancel my plans. I skip dinner. I read books and play games and give snacks and answer questions about where Mom and Dad are (“They are on their way. They’re in the car thinking about you!”). I stay until they go. Always.

Do you know the advantage (for you) that I have in caring for your child? They’re not mine. I don’t care for them like they’re mine. I care for them like they’re yours. Like you want them to be cared for. Like a precious, valuable treasure to be returned completely intact if not a little better polished at the end of the day. I love them for you and for them and for me, all at the same time. When it comes down to making a decision, I make the decision based on what you think is best, not based on my opinion. Because they are your child, not mine.

One day I will fill a book with the weird and wacky things that have been said to me about my profession. One thing that people like to say is that I must do this job to “practice” for having my own children one day. I’m not actually “practicing”. I’m working. Like I’m trained to do. (Try applying this type of statement to another profession.)

The fact is that my job and the way that I do my job is about more than my training and education and knowledge. It’s all about my heart. When you’re truly a caregiver, it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are. (You may be able to relate, if you’re a parent. Or a friend. Or an uncle. Or a human being who cares about other souls in the world.) Being a caregiver makes my job easier to do and I find it to be a more meaningful way to live. Whether I have my own children one day or not, I’ll have left a legacy.

I’m not a mom, but I understand being a mother.

Review: The LA Nanny Book

I have been looking forward to reading Larissa Neilson’s book, The LA Nanny Book, since I came across her Twitter feed, drawn in by her RIE-influenced content. When I heard the book had been released, I immediately ordered a copy. I’m so glad that I did! Although I am not currently a nanny (I once was) and do not intend to become a nanny in the near future, I still found the book to be a pleasant, positive, informative read and a practical resource to add to my bookshelf. I would recommend it to both parents and caregivers as an eye-opening account of relationships and practices in this unique but widespread field. Larissa writes of her own experiences working within a specific nanny culture (that is, in Los Angeles), but her experience and advice will, I hope, be applicable far and wide.

The book is well-organized into three sections, which makes it both easy to read and easy to reference later on. The first part, beginning with a chapter entitled, “Choosing to Become a Nanny,” is most relevant to current and future nannies, but I found that many elements could be applied to any caregiving situation, including setting reasonable limits from the start, approaching each relationship within the job from a place of respect, and building up those relationships. I would like to share a few quotes from this second that resonated with me.

“Having the heart of a servant means exactly that. You’re passionate about serving others. This has a lot to do with leadership; true leaders serve.”

“We don’t live in a perfect world. That’s why I say my intention won’t ever be to fix, somehow change, or push parents to do or follow exactly what I’m doing. What matters is that the child is engaged with respect and therefore, you impact her life forever.”

“I knew I emptied myself into those children. I felt accomplished because I gave it all.”

The second part of the book introduces the Educaring® Approach and my favorite part is where Larissa describes “sensitive observation” of infants. This is applicable to anyone who is with children in any capacity, be it as a nanny, a teacher, a parent, or a grandparent. I hope that this section invites you, as it did me, to read slowly and thoughtfully, as Larissa shares the wisdom of experience in being with children in a truly beautiful way.

“Being present in mind means you come to the child with a sense of wonder and excitement to see what the child’s up to, what new thing she will do, what new body movements will happen today. Your mind is filled with the word and understanding of respect and you’re calm because you know what you’re doing.”

The third section of the book includes “Leaving a Legacy,” wherein Larissa talks about how and when to leave a family after your years or service. All nannies and caregivers will appreciate her guidance in this area because knowing when and how to say goodbye to a family is difficult and it is a sensitive, bittersweet time.

I should also mention that the book includes lists of resources and citations that will make it a simple matter to further pursue your education on the topics included, if you desire.

Larissa has given us a real gift in this book by sharing her years of experience in the field, her training in and understanding of the Educaring® Approach, and also her personal views on professionalism and work ethics, which I believe can be applied in myriad other situations. Thank you, Larissa!

(You can also follow her on Facebook.)

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Groupcare: The Parent Relationships

Thank you all for the questions and suggestions of what to address in my ongoing series of posts on the topic of group care for infants and toddlers. I made a list and will get to every one of them! And it’s not too late: if you think of something you would like to ask about, please leave a comment here on the blog, on my Facebook page, or send me an email at likewetcement at gmail.com and I will address it.

I decided to begin at the beginning, with some questions posed by Stephanie on Facebook regarding relationships with parents. This relationship is not the most important that you will form in this setting (that is your relationship with the children), but it is the first relationship and it takes priority for a few reasons.

  1. Your relationship with the parent sets the tone for your relationship with the child.
  2. Your relationship with the parent must be positive for your peace of mind and peaceful focus on your work.
  3. Your positive relationship with the parent is imperative to the success of your program.

Your relationship with parents begins with your very first interaction. When I give a tour of our program, I consider it to be a two-way street — we’re trying to find out if we’re a good match, all of us. If they don’t like what they see or what I say, that means they are not a client that I would have been comfortable serving. We aren’t going to change our program for one family. When that family becomes a part of our program, we will always listen to and respect their needs and wishes to the very best of our abilities, but if they don’t understand and support our basic principles from the word go, it’s best for them to find another placement. (This is why it’s crucial that teachers feel secure in their philosophies and that programs be clear and confident in their policies and practices.)

Honesty is the best policy

The most important equation in parent relationships is honesty. Even when you feel that parents are not being honest with you — and this can happen — it is still imperative that you are honest with them. Even when (especially when) you feel that what you’re going to tell them might make them leave your program, you must be honest with them. Even when (especially when) it’s hard and it’s uncomfortable and it’s downright scary, you need to be honest with them. And this starts when you tell them, “This is what our program stands for.”

Things that I tell parents during a tour include:

  • We will not hold your baby all day. They will get one-on-one attention, they will be loved, they will have all of their needs met, but they will also witness their peers having one-on-one attention that does not include them, and they will witness their peers being loved, and they will witness and wait while their peers have their needs met.
  • Yes, sometimes they all do cry at the same time.
  • The less that your child can be in childcare, the better. Forty hours a week is too much. Fifty hours a week is unacceptable.
  • They will become attached to their primary caregiver and their primary caregiver will become attached to them. This will not ever reduce your child’s love and adoration of you.
  • If it seems like something is wrong, we will be calling you. You must be reachable. If, on a particular day, you will not be reachable, you must leave us the contact information of someone who is reachable.

Do we always end up with families who are the perfect match? No. But that’s how it is with families!

Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. – Jane Howard

Over time, we get to know all of their annoying habits and their quirks and sometimes we butt heads. Most of the time, it’s because one or both sides are advocating for what they think is best for the child. And that’s what keeps us together in the end. There are always bumps along the road, but in general, I am so proud of the relationships we build. I learn something from every single family.

My first year working in the program where I am today, there was one parent (a dad) who was incredibly challenging to work with. Nothing was ever right. His first question to his toddler at the end of every day was, “What’s wrong? What happened?” (His son was most often playing seemingly happily when his dad arrived to pick him up.) His child had never eaten enough food. He’d never napped long enough. Or, he’d napped too long! His diaper tapes were fastened too tightly. Or they were too loose. He wasn’t interacting enough with the other children. He was spending too much time with certain other children. Every day was something.

One day, he came to get his son and found him crying hard with me sitting nearby. “What happened? What’s wrong?!” his panic knew no bounds. “I’m not really sure,” I said, “He got up from his nap about thirty minutes ago and he’s been crying off and on since then.” I would have gone on, but he had whisked the little boy out of the room and went to register a complain with my supervisor (he said that the little boy had been, “Sent to the corner and ignored,” because he had been crying). I was waiting for him the following morning. I approached him directly, “Could I speak with you privately? I wanted to talk to you about what happened yesterday.” He was immediately flustered. I’m not sure if he expected that I would have been fired or cowed or perhaps both, but this direct approach was not one he had anticipated (to be frank, I would describe this man as the kind of person who had found it most effective to be a bully all of his life). “I wanted to apologize to you because when I was told about your complaint, I realized that I had made a mistake. My mistake was to assume that you knew I would have done everything possible to help your baby when he was upset. Let me tell you about his afternoon, moment by moment. He woke up crying and I went and spoke to him, then picked him up from his bed. I asked if he wanted a drink of water and he said no. I asked if I could change his diaper and he continued to cry. He needed a diaper change and I knew you would be coming soon for him, so I changed him. While I was changing him, we talked about how upset he was and how I wished to help him. I held him for a little while after we washed his hands, but then he wiggled away and continued to cry. When I asked if he wanted to be held, he said no. I told him I would be right there, right by him, if he needed me. That’s where I was when you came in. I don’t know why he was upset, but I want you to know that I was there for him to the best of my ability. If you had not come for him at your usual time, I would have called you and explained how upset he was and I would have asked you to come. I assumed that you understood this about me and about our program, but that was wrong of me and because of it you went home feeling upset. I really regret that.”

From that day forward, I never got anything but respect from this man. He continued to complain about little things, like how much or how little his son had eaten that day, but just as he came to understand how carefully and thoughtfully I did my job and how much I cared for his baby, I came to understand that his complaining was a part of his personality that could not be turned off.

When I spoke to this parent, directly and honestly, my hands were shaking. I was uncomfortable. I had never had a parent register a complaint about me, no matter how informal. I was also pretty indignant because he had really exaggerated the story (far from being “sent to the corner,” his son was in the middle of the room, beside me). But those were my feelings, my projections to set aside. Taking a step back, I tried really hard to see his viewpoint, and approached him with empathy. It worked.

It nearly always works, in general, to meet other people with empathy and honesty. In response to Stephanie’s question, the best approach with “difficult” parents is to try your best to understand them, and to make them feel heard (and if you’re any good at working with young children, this will be almost second nature). Janet Gonzalez-Mena writes beautifully about this. It’s important for caregivers and teachers to recognize their own culture, judgments, and biases so that they can set them aside in favor of building, maintaining, and improving relationships with families. You don’t always have to be right, be perfect, be the rescuer, or be the expert. Every parent is an expert on their child and it’s unspeakably important to value that. I believe that the mistake that I see too often in this field, causing a disconnect between families and caregivers, is when caregivers believe they need to correct, inform, educate, and change the families into what they think the family ought to be. How presumptuous!

Parent education should be a valuable piece of every quality early childhood program, but to truly succeed it needs to be a cooperative, inclusive process. Rather than creating a situation where an all-mighty lecturer tells parents, “This is how you need to do it,” it’s best to foster ongoing dialogue. Many parents are open to learning about different ideas, techniques, and philosophies. Most parents see very clearly that each family, each child, each situation is unique and that life and relationships are fluid. Are teachers and caregivers open to the same? They must be.

So this is the foundation of parent-caregiver relationships:

  • Honesty.
  • Empathy.
  • Receptiveness.

I plan to write a bit more about the day-to-day nitty gritty of it. What do transition visits look like? How do you communicate about a child’s day? Do you tell parents when you have witnessed a child doing something new for the first time (like walking)? How and when do you report on “behavior”? What about when children get hurt or get sick? You tell me — what else do you want to know?

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Group Care Schmoopcare

The idea of “group care” for infants is pretty uncomfortable, right? I mean, I hope it’s uncomfortable for you. It’s uncomfortable for me and I make my living by providing it. Even before I ever imagined that I would be doing this job, I engaged in philosophical debates regarding its (lack of) merits. Several years ago, one of my co-workers at the preschool where I taught reaffirmed my belief that infants should never be in group care. She told me stories about seeing them in the infant program at the place where she used to work and how someone was always crying and they never really got what they needed because the only thing they really needed was their parents. We climbed up onto our high horses, hastily constructed in our child development classes, and talked about how group care would impact their brain development. We shook our heads sadly: those poor babies.

Around the time of our conversation, I had to conduct some observations and evaluations at an infant care center for a class I was taking. I chose the one where my co-worker had once worked not only because I wanted the opportunity to see what she had seen, firsthand, but also because the program in question was the highest rated infant care facility in our city. Its reputation was second to none.

Conducting these observations changed my life. If I had not seen what I saw on those days, I would not be doing what I am doing today. In fact, it is fair to say that one child changed my life. I don’t know his name. He was sixteen months old, chubby, and gregarious. He was one of only two babies in the room the first time I visited the program. The other child was asleep and this toddler was being strongly encouraged to, “Be quiet.” At one point, when the caregiver mentioned the other child who was sleeping, the toddler wanted to take a look at him (clearly recognizing the child’s name and knowing also where the child slept). He went to the gate that separated the play and sleep areas of the room and stood on his tiny tippy toes to take a peek. He was as quiet as a mouse. Quieter, even! But the caregiver quickly grabbed him by one arm, without saying a word, and dragged him towards herself. There is no kinder, more generous way to describe her behavior towards him. She roughly hauled him into her lap, began to rock the rocking chair in which she sat, and said, “I told you to be quiet. Now let’s read a book.” It’s possible that she then read him a story and it’s possible that it was a beautiful booksharing routine, fit for my notes, but I can’t recall and I never wrote a single word about that. Instead, my heart pounding with injustice, I recorded exactly what I had seen.

I spoke to my class about my experience and, in dismay, on the verge of tears, expressed that if this was what “high-quality” care for infants looked like, I wanted no part in it. Not ever. I told my class that it seems easy to say that a program is “high-quality”. For example, the environment offered to children in that center was beautiful. Flawless. (Provided that caregiver was absent.) Their stated philosophy? Inspiring! Their written policies and practices regarding infant care were obviously very carefully crafted by someone(s) who really knew what infants need as individuals and in a group setting. However, there was clearly a severe disconnect between the public image, the written material, and the reality of day-to-day hands-on work with children. In my experience, there often is.

The thing about caregivers is that they’re human beings with flaws and weaknesses and baggage. (Except for one of my assistants. She is practically perfect in every way. She makes Mary Poppins look like a shrew.) In our society, those who work in the field of early care and education frequently work long hours for low wages and have little opportunity or motivation for professional growth. In some areas, this is changing, but it’s truly an uphill climb. Until we decide as a collective that children and families are a top priority, it will continue to be a battle.

Here is something that is unlikely to change: parents will need to work. Having a job, or two jobs, or three or four jobs per household should not and does not prohibit procreation. (I believe that some parents are better parents because they leave their child for a period of time every day.) Consequently, children need a place to go. Children of all ages. There are many reasons that parents choose to place their child in a center-based program rather than a home-based one. From my own life experience, I can share with you a big one: centers are more likely to have accountability. It’s less likely to find a caregiver completely alone, unsupervised, in a center-based program. It’s more likely to find a cohesive philosophy and overall plan for hiring and firing and caregiving practices in general. Many parents love the idea of their child spending the day with other children. Additionally, a center-based program is often more likely to have an opening when a parent needs care. But, really, the reasons that parents may choose this option for their children is irrelevant. The reality is that they do. And, in several specific cases, I’m sure glad that they do because I remain employed in a job that I never thought I would love but that my heart now beats for. It is hard to imagine what my life would be like without these children and families and the whole extended community we have constructed around us.

It turned out, those four and a bit years ago, that one of the other members of my class was part of the organization that was taking over the operations of that childcare center where I had done my observations. The center is a collaborative project between the city and the school district and the organization that had been running it for many years (and had hired the caregiver I had observed in the infant program) had not had their contract renewed. My classmate and her employers were starting fresh. And they were hiring someone to lead the infant and toddler program.

I thought a lot about the little boy I had observed in that infant room. I thought a lot about what I knew about Magda Gerber‘s teachings, Janet Gonzalez-Mena’s inspirational examples of quality caregiving, and my own teaching philosophy. I thought about how much I hated the fact that babies needed to be in full-time care settings. My ego got on board and I started to think about how I would do things. What would I have done with that little boy, for example? Finally, as you have probably concluded, I applied for and interviewed for the job. I got it. I’m doing it. I love it.

I’ll tell you the truth — it is very difficult for some babies to be in a group setting. It is stressful. There are times when it is difficult to be there with them. My entire day is consumed with helping each child to feel that they’re not in “group care” but are simply loved, valued, and cared for as an individual. And they are. They also get to be part of a warm, extended community. (I have written before about their relationships.) There are certain “benefits” to group care, but there are also harsh downsides that should not be ignored or brushed aside. It is especially important that parents who have chosen or are choosing this type of setting for their child be aware of the realities. One example is that their days are too long. Babies in group care don’t get a lunch break or coffee break where they can walk away from their peers and caregivers and get some alone time to regroup when they choose to. Babies in group care have to do more waiting, every single day, than they are comfortable with. Do you know that every one of them knows what time their parents come to get them at the end of the day? They learn this so quickly. They don’t know about the clock, but they know about routines and they can estimate the passage of time in a sophisticated manner. A mom of a toddler asked me one day, in genuine bafflement, “Why do all of the preschoolers go home so early?” They don’t, really, they just go home before the last infants and toddlers. Every day. Many of the infants and toddlers stay with us until closing time. I told her my theory: “They can tell their parents, with their words, how much they’re going to miss them, how much they want to stay at home together, and they can ask them to come early or at a specific time. The babies would tell you the same — sometimes they try! — but they can’t use words to pierce your heart. They’re happy here. We take good care of them. But they always, always want you.” (Maybe it’s a coincidence, but this mom now arrives at least thirty minutes earlier than she used to at the end of the day.)

I’m going to be working on a series of blog posts about group care for infants and toddlers because it has occurred to me, in my own education and wanderings in the world, that there is not enough information available on the subject for caregivers or families. So please send me your burning questions on the subject. You can leave a comment below or send me (Jenn) an email at likewetcement@gmail.com. I promise to tell you the truth about the inside of this industry.

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On Trusting Infants

When I was a young child, I refused to drink milk. I couldn’t. I would dutifully raise the glass to my mouth when prompted, but the smell, the taste, the texture, it all made me begin to gag. My parents were at their wits end with me. They bribed and threatened and begged and pleaded. “Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?” my dad would ask. I would shrug. If drinking milk is what it would take, I thought, I wasn’t really all in. They were desperate for me to consume the appropriate amount of nutrition because I was very small for my age and I wasn’t growing. I went a couple of years without growing, in fact. And each night I would arrive at the dinner table to see a glass of milk set out at my place and my heart would sink. “I can’t drink it,” I would think, panic building inside, “I can’t do it.” There were times when I would try to get it over with in a hurry and I would choke it down, only to cough it back up. Sometimes I cried.

When I was eleven, I was tested for lactose intolerance. I didn’t exhibit the classic symptoms, but my mom pushed my doctor to give us the referral for the testing anyway, “Just in case.” The technician at the hospital later told my parents that she thought the machine was broken. She had never seen a positive result happen so quickly. Yes, my name is Jenn and I’m severely lactose intolerant. I don’t drink milk. In fact, to this day the sight of it can sometimes make me nauseous. This is due to psychology, not physiology. I’m scarred, emotionally, from years of forced milk-drinking. (Do I lord this over my parents to this day? Maybe sometimes.)

Milk wasn’t the only nourishment I boycotted as a child. I was also anti-meat for just about as long as I can remember. I have distinct memories of summer cook-outs with my grandpa. He would arrive proudly bearing beef steaks and I would cringe, knowing that someone in my family would encourage me to just try, “a few bites.” I’ve tried a few bites of steak in my life, which is how I know I don’t like it. I also don’t like chicken. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years, but when I was a child I once wrote and illustrated a book, dedicated to my parents, called The Chicken Strike. It was about how I would no longer eat chicken. My parents went along with that one pretty easily, since who can really complain about a child who loves to eat their vegetables (and writes a book about it)?

Most people have some experience of being coerced or borderline forced into eating something they didn’t want to as a child. Then they grow up, have their own children, and shock themselves by saying or doing nearly the very same thing to their own child.

“Just five more bites!”

“Taste it!”

“You can’t have your dessert until you finish those beans.”

“It’s good for you!”

“Don’t you want to grow up to be big and strong?”

It starts with infants. I see it nearly every day in my program, as well-intentioned, loving parents fill me in on their child’s unique feeding schedule and routines.

“She won’t be able to focus on the bottle without the white noise machine in the background.”

“You have to swaddle him to keep his hands from pushing the bottle out of his mouth.”

“She’ll fight it, but if you persist, she’ll drink five ounces.”

“I sneak bites of it into his mouth when he’s trying to eat the other foods.”

I nod and smile and do my best to radiate reassurance. Of course we will feed your baby. We will never let your baby go hungry. Then I explain about how we provide relationship-based care and that when the children have established a trusting relationship with their primary caregiver, feeding times are a joy. I talk about trust and respect and how infants are really very good at regulating themselves (when we trust them to). Our stomachs are generally about the size of our fist, I mention. Our fist! It expands to the size of our open hand when full. Then we look at the infant and consider the implications of this for a moment.

Then I ask the million dollar question: How does your baby let you know that they’re hungry? I want to know how you know that they’re hungry so that I’ll know what cues to look for before their need to feed has reached a critical point. When your baby tells me they’re hungry, I’ll feed them. When your baby tells me that they’re all done, we’ll be done with that feeding, even if they haven’t emptied the bottle or bowl. It’s an issue of respect.

Let’s be real… Our society needs more of this. We need to know when we’re all done. We need to know how to tune in to our bodies. We need to know how to say no to things and to be heard when we do so. Children of every age need to be allowed to make choices for themselves so that they will know how to make choices and how to respect the choices of others.

That said, I get it. I’m currently working with an infant who has established a real power struggle around feeding routines. She will ask to eat, but then she can’t seem to allow herself to do so. Her first instinct is to vehemently refuse food (breast, bottle, solids). Her parents persist and persist and persist until she eats what they consider to be an acceptable amount. It’s remarkable how long she can go between feedings and how little she can survive on, but this baby continues to grow and thrive, so I think she knows something we don’t. Intellectually, I know that I can trust this baby to eat when she’s hungry and needs to eat. Emotionally, however, it’s a completely different story when you offer to feed a baby (a baby that you have a loving relationship with) and they refuse, and refuse, and refuse to eat. I know on one level that she is fine. On another level, I’m stressed. I want to force her to eat. I get exasperated! I have actually said, to this eight month old infant, “Are you kidding me? You’re going to spit it out?” She looks at me with the wisdom of the ages shining in her eyes: “Yes. Yes I am.”

There are days when I reach a place of serenity regarding this infant and her feedings. When one of my co-workers asks about her schedule, I blissfully inform them, “She will let you know! Just follow her lead.” I breathe deeply, I remind myself of all I have learned of infants and feedings and this infant in particular, and I am calm. I am at peace. I am her student, she is my mentor. I observe her cues, prepare her bottle (just the way she likes it… once in awhile), and we settle in together happily for feeding. She looks brightly, happily into my face as she eagerly sucks in some milk. Then she spits it into my face before screwing her mouth firmly shut and wiggling away.

Then I have to start all over again, reminding myself of all that I know intellectually so that all that I feel emotionally can move to the backseat. This is not an easy process, but I know that this infant has come through my program and my life for a reason. She is here to teach me deep and lasting empathy for parents. She is here to remind me to respect and trust infants and young children to be able to regulate themselves. She is here to remind me to never establish these patterns of struggle surrounding feeding times that someone unfortunately established with her. Every child I work with has a lesson for me and I believe that this is hers. By the same token, I do my best to offer a consistent message to her: I’m here when you’re ready. And: I trust you.

He’s Perfect

I work with a toddler who may be “on the spectrum“. It’s too soon to say for certain what a diagnosis would look and sound like, and it’s much too soon to say for sure exactly who this sweet boy will be in later life. He’s receiving some wonderful intervention and support therapies, in addition to the exceptional care and support offered to him every single day by his mom and dad. He’s going to be just fine. In fact, he’s going to be fairly exceptional, it’s plain to see. I can see it in his bright blue eyes that beam into mine with wisdom and understanding. I can feel it in his gentle embrace of my neck before his nap each day. I can hear it in the voices of his parents when they greet him at the end of the day, exhaling with, “I missed you, buddy.” He’s going to be just fine.

That is not to say he will not face challenges unique to his situation. That is not to say that his parents won’t (continue to) lose sleep sometimes, worrying, wondering. The fact is, he’s not exactly who people expect him to be, and that will be difficult at times.

This boy was originally “scheduled” to transition out of my program and into the room next-door several months ago, due to his age. Instead, we kept him with us, where he was just starting to feel comfortable and confident, so that we could support him in emerging a bit more from his shell. At the time, we didn’t know that he may be “on the spectrum”. What some would now call warning signs or symptoms at the time looked like possible and predictable separation anxiety and uncertainty about his new environment. It’s never easy for children to adjust to a group care setting (even when it looks to be “easy,” there is generally more churning under the surface) and part of my job is to slowly melt through the shields of anxiety, stress, confusion, and fear to find out who that child really is and attune myself to their rhythms and needs.

It’s been an unexpected journey to the heart of this little boy. I have treasured it. I could write pages and pages on what he has taught me about himself and about myself along the way, but instead I write pages and pages of notes to help his new caregivers understand him (to help them to love him, like I love him) because the time has come for him to transition out of my care. It’s difficult to accept that someone else is going to be taking care of him and that they’re going to care for him differently than I do. They’re going to care for him with their own philosophy, their own agenda, and their own ideas about what is best for him. He and I will both have to set forth with some trust in the process and in humanity.

It’s my belief that young children should not have to learn to conform to the way that I, as a teacher and caregiver, want them to be. Their only task, in my care, is to be their perfect selves. It’s my job to be who they need me to be and to create the environment that best suits them. That’s one of the things that makes my job a joy to do. Every day is different. Each child is a new challenge, a new experience. This beautiful boy in my care does not have problems that require fixing. He’s not an issue to be resolved. He’s perfect. While I, as a teacher, and his parents, as parents, want him to be the best possible version of himself, we realize that this is subjective. He can be only himself. He’ll change and grow and develop in ways we can’t even fathom today, as we see him before us now, less than two years old. There’s no stopping the process. There’s really no controlling it, although we’ll try, sometimes without even realizing it. All we can really do is influence the path he follows.

The best advice I can give to his new caregivers is to follow him, come alongside him, and reach out a hand. This is the best advice I can give to all caregivers. Just slow down and learn who this child is, at their core, before you make decisions about what you think they need. As Magda Gerber said, “Observe more. Do less.” There are times, in my work, that I feel like we’re all in a hurry to diagnose and intervene and arrange for services for every possible “issue” that could arise. This is not to say that early intervention does not have a very important place — I truly believe that it does and I’ve had the opportunity to see this good work in action, getting very real results. But I also think that too many caregivers look more for the “problem” than they do for the person. I believe that we sometimes waste time and energy on trying to fix things and change individuals who we could learn something from, exactly as they are.

On the days that this little boy is so deep inside himself that he seems unreachable, it’s on me to set aside my agenda and honor who he is. Sometimes he has a need to retreat (don’t we all?). I wish I knew where he goes and what he sees there, deep inside his own thoughts. Sometimes I sit close by and just watch quietly, but sometimes I can’t resist tossing him a line. Once in awhile, he’ll grab on and allow me to pull him back to the surface, where I wait. He does that for me, I think, because he’s perfectly content in his own thoughts, deep inside, but he recognizes my need. (It’s his recognition and acknowledgement of that need that makes me realize, upon reflection, that he will be okay, out there in the world without me.)

When I look at him, I think of all of the adults I know today who are “on the spectrum”. They’re at both ends: at one end, a highly successful attorney with a young family; at the other, a woman living in a group home with a very small, very insulated world around her. Here is what they all have in common — they all have love, support, and passionate, diverse interests. They all have things that make them laugh and things that make them cry. They all have things they’re really very good at it. Some of them have had years of intensive therapies and some of them didn’t even have a diagnosis until they were well-established in life. They’re all okay. They’re all perfect and unique, like you and I and my young friend, about to fly.

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