Category Archives: Infants

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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If Your Baby Cries, You’re Doing It Wrong

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be an indictment of the practice of Attachment Parenting or any other theory or method of caregiving. I believe there is a kernel of truth and value in most practices and I believe that every parent is doing the very best they can in each moment, whether they consciously assign a label to their “style” or not.

My travels around the Internet brought me into contact with the following graphic this past week and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

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The graphic was shared via an Attachment Parenting group and cites research that is often cited by the companies that sell so-called “babywearing” wraps and products. My dismay with this graphic has nothing to do with a parenting style, “babywearing” in general, the research study in question (which is quite interesting), or anything but the hot-button issue of happiness. I take exception to the notion that a crying baby is an “unhappy” baby. The study in question didn’t actually measure the “happiness” of the babies, as “happiness” is not something that can necessarily be scientifically measured, but instead looked specifically at crying and carrying.

Why do babies cry? Myriad reasons. Crying is how babies express a wide variety of thoughts and concerns, from, “I’m exhausted!” to, “I’m scared!” to, “I’d love something to eat!” to, “I can’t see you or hear you and I think I’m alone and I don’t like it,” to, “I wish to be left alone!” When you get to know an individual baby, it doesn’t take long to begin to recognize their different cries and cues. All babies cry. Babies who are carried cry. Babies who are worn on their parents’ person cry. Babies who are laid on the floor cry. Happy babies cry. Humans cry.

The graphic above offends me because it suggests that babies who cry less are necessarily “happier” than other babies. This is a huge stumbling block for many weary parents who are jumping through hoops to ensure their children’s “happiness”, as if it is within their control. Frankly, it’s a bit presumptuous to believe that the true, meaningful happiness of another person is within your control. It’s not. Not even when that person is your baby, your young child, your teenager, or your grown offspring.

Crying and happiness are two separate topics that are frequently worlds apart. From a scientific perspective, crying can be viewed as a biological function unique to humans and imperative to infants. Happiness, on the other hand, is a rather abstract, individualized, highly subjective hippy dippy notion.

I want to be clear:

  1. I’m a huge fan of happiness.
  2. I stand in defense of comfort.
  3. I don’t believe in distracting children from their distress.
  4. Sometimes crying makes me uncomfortable!

I have spent a lot of years with a lot of babies, toddlers, young children, and human beings both happy and unhappy by nature. Having studied development, I have come to understand that temperament is something every person on earth is born with. Some temperaments may result in individuals crying with greater frequency or intensity than some other temperaments. I have spent time with babies who would absolutely love to be held and carried all day and all night. I have spent time with other babies who would prefer not to be held much of the time. There is not one strategy, style, or technique that works with every baby every time. (And any individual, philosophy, or business that suggests otherwise has not, in fact, I am 100% certain, spent time with every single baby on earth. They probably don’t know your baby.)

Here’s what I really want to say: Your baby will cry. You will feel like you need to make this stop. Sometimes it will be appropriate and within your control to do so. Sometimes it won’t be. In either case, it doesn’t mean that your baby is unhappy. As deeply philosophical as your baby may be, it is safe to say that it will be a few more years before they spend a great deal of time reflecting on their own “happiness” or lack thereof. When the time comes that they do, it’s unlikely that their reflection will linger long on the percentage of time you spent carrying them. You could carry your baby all day every day and never learn to listen to them or to know them as the person they are quite apart from you. Don’t make that mistake.

Love them and tell them so. Hold them and let them go.

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In Defense of Comfort

We have built an entire industry around the topic of stress. We study stress, write about stress, read about stress, talk about stress, even consistently stress ourselves out over stress. We take classes, meditate, run, walk, eat and drink to reduce it. It seems that the topic of stress makes headlines at least once a week and it is safe to say that we’ve never been more aware of it and we’ve never been more awash in it. What about our children?

Stress, both good and bad in nature, has an impact on our brains and bodies. Our stress response is hardwired in our DNA as a survival instinct. When we experience what we perceive as stress or danger, our hypothalamus activates. Adrenaline is released into our blood stream, our heart rate increases, and blood pumps rapidly into our muscles and limbs. We’re preparing for “fight or flight,” as our senses intensify and our impulses quicken. Our bodies experience this when we have an argument with someone, when we face an emergency, and when we watch an action movie. Stress is part of life, from beginning to end.

Infants and young children experience stress as well. This can be hard to imagine, when one looks from the outside in at the life of a baby. “What do they have to be stressed about?!” we wonder. No deadlines. No bills. No boss. No responsibilities. “That’s the life,” we comment, as we watch babies on their backs, peacefully observing their world. But anyone who spends any time with babies or young children understands that their lives are full of stress. They’re completely dependent upon others for their very survival — it’s hard to fathom a situation in life that could be any more stressful than that. Babies don’t emerge from the womb trusting that they’ll be cared for. That trust must be established over time. Just as, over time, they learn that certain sights, sounds, feelings, and smells are nothing to be worried about (the garbage truck will come and then it will go) (you’ll feel hungry and then you’ll be fed) (Mom will leave, but then she’ll come back).

Infants and young children are also dependent upon the adults in their lives for regulating their responses to stress. Through us, they find and understand comfort. This comes through consistent loving, supportive responses to their distress. This comes through authentic, predictable relationships. The brains of infants and young children are working all the time to make sense of the world, so the least we can do as adults is to meet them halfway to scaffold that development.

Meeting them there and scaffolding them in this way is generally our instinct. When we hear a baby in distress, it’s our instinct to help. (It’s important to be aware that our deepest instinct is to make the crying stop and this is when the thinking part of our brain needs to override our instincts.) Our instinct to help must be balanced with our instinct to raise children who are resilient and competent and don’t fall to pieces at the smallest obstacle. We’re more than halfway through the year 2013, living firmly in the future, and we still worry about “spoiling” children by comforting them. Last week I heard a mom describe her ten-month-old as “a wuss.”

If an adult asks me for a hug, odds are I will give them a hug. If a child or an infant asks to be held, I’ll hold them. I think these are good rules to live by. It’s not up to me to decide whether your distress or sorrow warrants a sympathetic response. Where on earth does this notion come from: “Are they genuinely sad enough for me to want to help?” Feelings are feelings! There is no scientific method by which to judge, weigh, and measure them.

I have worked with many caregivers who have very strong feelings about comfort items and children. “Comfort items” are things like blankets, teddy bears, pacifiers, and thumbs. These items often provoke a surprisingly visceral response of disgust from adults. We judge the children using them and we judge (hard) the parents who give them to their child.

I would like to take this opportunity to come out in favor of comfort items. That’s right. My name is Jenn and I’ll give you a binky! Here’s why: they’re healthy, necessary, and appropriate. In addition, I don’t know a single adult who gets through the day without one. Comfort items look a little different (most of the time) in adulthood. Sometimes they’re a run, a smoothie, a cup of coffee, a cigarette, a certain song on repeat on the stereo, or a pair of lucky socks. (Have you recognized yourself yet?)

Look, let’s all agree on one thing: there is a time and a place for a comfort item. We don’t need them all the time and neither do children. There are downsides to prolonged, irresponsible use of pacifiers. In fact, that name alone is like nails on a chalkboard to me, along with the British term for the same (dummy) because that is where the trouble can start. They’re not to “pacify” a child. They’re not to quiet them for our convenience. They’re a tool that an infant or child may choose to use to lower their stress level, to relax. I believe there is a lot of value in empowering infants and young children to begin to manage their own stress. Little by little, with less and less intervention from loving adults, infants learn to calm themselves down when they’re upset. If a blanket or a toy or a binky is a part of the equation, the lasting impact is still positive. With continued love and support as they develop, that child will not need or want that particular tool forever.

The parents of a preschooler that I know were recently encouraging the little boy to break the habit of sucking his thumb. “He’s learning about bad habits,” they said. I cringed a little bit because while sucking his thumb is a habit, is it necessary to label it either good or bad? It’s just a habit that could be replaced with something else as he has developed new methods of coping with stress.

We are a society barely treading water in an ocean of stress. One step towards healthier living may be understanding that comfort items and coping skills and management of strong emotions starts before birth. A better world starts with how we are with our children.

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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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Review: A World of Babies

I stumbled across A World of Babies: Imagined Childcare Guides for Seven Societies one day while browsing Amazon.com and was instantly curious. This book, edited by Judy DeLoache and Alma Gottlieb, presents fictional parenting manuals for seven different cultures across the globe, written by anthropologists, psychologists, and historians, based on their studies of, research on, and interviews with the societies. Books along this vein appeal to me (I recommend How Do Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm? and Our Babies, Ourselves) both because I’m hungry to know more about the world outside my own and because I work with parents from many different cultural backgrounds and I strive to be open to the idea that different ways of doing things are not wrong ways of doing things. It has been my experience that when a baby arrives on the scene, so too do grandmas and grandpas and aunts and uncles from all corners of the globe, ready to assist and advise the new parents on childrearing. More than a few times I have had the honor of giving a tour of my program to not just the parents, but their parents as well, who speak no English. I quickly learn who is really asking the questions and judging my responses on so much more than what I’m saying. I made fast friends with one Chinese grandma. Although we did not speak the same language, we spoke volumes when she held her nine-month-old grandson out to me, inviting me to hold him.

The cultures presented in this book include the Puritans (yes, those Puritans!), the Beng of West Africa, the Balinese, Turkish village life, the Aboriginal Warlpiri tribe of Australia, the Fulani of West Africa, and the Ifaluk of Micronesia. Each one is fascinating! Each chapter, or “manual” offers insight not only to how the culture cares for its babies, but as to their lives in general. For example, the type of work the parents engage in, their marriage traditions, and how they deal with illness and death. The book is classified as a textbook but reads like a novel. The chapters are well-defined, making it easy to engage with each culture individually, and the overall tone is one of warmth and humor, making it approachable and memorably human. In the reading of it, I learned a lot of details about the cultures, but the overriding message was to open my mind to how much babies are universally loved.

There is a temptation, when you read a work like this, to compare and contrast with your own culture or experience. I actively tried to avoid doing so. That is not to say that there is not value in this kind of analysis, but my goal was to simply see each culture for itself. Too often, I think, our own biases and judgments creep into the way of seeing things just as they are. I didn’t want to compare the Beng tradition of keeping the child, “strapped to someone’s back as much as possible,” to my own Pikler-influenced philosophy towards freedom of movement because that’s not fair or relevant to their lifestyle and the practices that have helped them to succeed in their way.

What I most enjoyed was reading about how each child becomes a valued member of the wider community. It was in these descriptions that I felt there were true lessons to be learned. These quotes reflect a fraction of what I found:

“You will probably talk to your baby from the first day of life in this world. […] And you know how important it is to say hello to almost everyone in the village every morning and evening to show that we are all part of the community.” – From, Luring Your Child Into This Life, A Beng Path for Infant Care

“If you have to put your child down to do some work, another person — your husband, a sibling, child caretaker, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or neighbor — should hold the child. Everyone loves to hold a baby.” – From, Gift From the Gods: A Balinese Guide to Early Child Rearing

Ifaluk Child “You should not bring your baby along to work with you, but be sure that you do not leave the baby alone. No one, especially not a baby, should be left alone, for they would feel lonely and sad. Your baby will most likely be taken care of by one or more adults or an older child, perhaps a sibling of the baby, or even someone who is not a relative.” – From, Never Leave Your Little One Alone: Raising an Ifaluk Child

I recommend this book to readers with varied interests: anthropology, parenting, child development, education, ecology, history, geography, and to those generally curious about the world. I think you’ll find it an eye-opening treat.

If you’ve read a book along a similar vein and would like to share a recommendation or review, please leave a comment below or contact me (Jenn) via email at likewetcement at gmail.com.

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.

Speaking in Abstracts

“That’s not nice!”

“Are you going to be good today?”

Good. Bad. Nice. Mean. Kind. Unkind. Friendly. Unfriendly. What do these words really mean to very small children? Most children are masters of reading context and signals to try to decode our meaning. They’re observant and intuitive, to a truly remarkable extent. From your frown and your tone, they will deduce that, “Not nice!” makes you unhappy, and they may feel upset, unsettled, or saddened by this, but will they understand why? And (here is the real heart of the issue) does nice or not nice always mean the same thing? They can’t possibly.

Think of the limitless possibilities in these subjective descriptive terms. A day can be nice, in general. A person can be nice, in general. A specific act or word or gesture from a person could also be nice (sharing is nice, hugs are nice, smiles are nice). Ice cream can taste nice. A sunset can look nice. Some music can sound nice. A new sweater can feel nice… or not nice, depending on how scratchy the wool may be. Wearing a sweater that doesn’t feel nice could make a person act, “not nice,” by inciting grumbles and moans and disgruntled expressions. Hopefully it wouldn’t lead to hitting or pushing or biting, but if you’re sensitive enough to scratchy fabrics and you’re having a day that is reaching that level of “not nice,” it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and that really wouldn’t be nice at all, would it? It certainly wouldn’t be good. Oh, but don’t get me started on good and bad. I’m not sure I could be nice about it.

Here’s my point: say what you mean. If you want a child to sit down in their chair, on their bottom, with their feet under the table, tell them that, rather than, “Sit down nicely!” If you want a child to stop hitting or pushing, tell them that, rather than, “I want you to be good today,” or, “Be nice!”

The issue with these subjective adjectives is that very young children will have a hard time deciphering what we’re asking of them, leading to frustration on our part and A LOT of frustration and confusion on their parts. I believe they are more often than not trying their very best to understand a pretty consistently confusing world. I don’t believe it’s fair to them. (Especially when they don’t live up to a seemingly arbitrary standard of nice or good that they didn’t understand in the first place and then we accuse them of not listening!)

Young children tend to be pretty black-and-white and literal in their understandings. I’ll never forget when my little brother was about four years old and was having a hard time expressing something to me. “Spit it out!” I told him, impatiently, and, panicked look on his face, he began frantically spitting onto the carpet in my bedroom, thinking that there was something awful in his mouth. Talk about a good reminder for me to say what I mean! When it comes to children’s black-and-white rules, we need to tread lightly with terms like “good” and “bad”. When we request that children, “Be good!” we are not only providing no clear direction for what we specifically want them to do or not do, but we’re also applying an unreasonable amount of pressure. If they’re not “good” in every sense we’ve ever taught them, are they then “bad”?

Communication is always a two-way street. Children are doing their part to read between the lines, jump through hoops, and understand what in the world we’re trying to say. The least we can do for them is do our best to be understood.

Reading in Our Changing World

Mari Passananti posed the most interesting question in her blog post, “If You Read But Your Child Doesn’t Realize It, Does It Count?” She writes,

Many of you will remember a widely reported twenty-year study that concluded that the mere presence of books in the home is as important as parental education level in determining children’s educational level. Everyone knows reading to your kids is good for their brains. And since children learn by example, it follows that seeing adults reading is beneficial.

But the study about the mere presence of books was a ground breaking testament to the power of suggestion. If a child sees things, in this case books, treasured and valued, the reasoning goes that s/he will grow up to share those priorities. Which in turn will hopefully set off a desirable chain reaction: I.e. value books, love reading, love learning.

So here’s the gazillion dollar question:

Do ebooks count?

What do you think?

I love this question and the dialogue that it can prompt. The Pew Research Center reports that parents prefer physical books for their children, even while they value e-readers for themselves.

Parents of minor children do not necessarily read more than adults who do not currently have minor children (“other adults”), but they are heavier consumers of audio books and e-books. Sixteen percent of parents have read more than 20 books in the past year and an additional 13% have read 11-20 books while two in ten parents (22%) report no reading in the past 12 months. [more]

In-person focus groups by Pew revealed what I would have speculated:

  1. Parents want to recreate for children the shared reading experiences that they themselves had as children.
  2. Parents want children to know that they’re reading, so choosing a physical book seems a better choice than a device that could be used for other activities like games, Facebook, etc.
  3. Parents value the sensory experience offered by physical books as opposed to e-books.

As a teacher and reader, these are the same things that I argue in defense of physical books. Although a study conducted in Germany found there is no difference for your brain between reading a print page and reading a screen, readers often insist that the experience is different. (Please note that the study in question involved adults, not children.) That’s because the act of reading a book is more than your “reading behaviors” and eye-tracking. The act of reading a book may be the experience of turning pages, smelling paper and glue (and maybe some mildew or smoke or other traces of the book’s journey through the world), marking it up, and sharing it with others — it is undeniable that there is a difference between passing a book to a friend over coffee, with your dogeared pages and broken spine, than sending a link via email. I fully, deeply acknowledge the sensory pleasures of books and reading, even while I do the majority of my reading via e-reader these days. My house is still packed with books, stacked on tables and floors and overflowing their shelves. If I love a book, I want to see a physical embodiment of it in front of me. I just do.

But we’re not talking about me or us as adult readers. We’re talking about the experiences of children and what children need to be successful readers. An opinion piece by Amira Hood entitled Physical Books Provide Tangible Benefits mentioned a study reported on by The Guardian.

This is an age where, according to a study reported by the Guardian UK, children are being deprived of the joys of reading a physical book. The study determined that when children used e-books, it “prompted more non-content related actions (eg behaviour or device-focused talk, pushing hands away)… Children reading enhanced e-books also recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

Even though the campaign to get kids to read is nothing new, new attention is being drawn to the subject due to the many lifelong dangers presented by e-books for both children and parents. “Some of the extra features of enhanced ebooks may distract adults and children alike from the story, affecting the nature of conversation and the amount of detail children recall.” In the article, researchers say that the priority of “literacy-building experiences over ones intended ‘just for fun’” will give children a better foundation.

The study in question looked at so-called enhanced e-books, which offer bells and whistles not found in physical books, which frequently distract from the reading experience. The thing I found most interesting from the study was the report on non-content-related actions. “The enhanced ebook was less effective than the print and basic ebook in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions. When adults prompt children with questions pertaining to the text, label objects, and encourage them to discuss the book contents in terms of their own experiences and curiosities, this elicits increased verbalisation by the child and can lead to improved vocabulary and overall language development.” I think this is really the most important aspect of the study because it gets to the heart of this discussion as it highlights the parental behavior. Are you teaching your child to use an e-reader or tablet or are you sharing a story? There have been studies in the past that reveal the same sort of behavior-correcting actions with physical booksharing. We know, in child development, that the best booksharing with young children allows for them to skip pages, to “read” back-to-front, to stop “reading” the story altogether to talk about the picture of the dog or to ask questions like, “What do you think is going to happen next?” When we bookshare, we don’t just open to the first page and read each word on each page from front to back until The End. It’s a shared experience, a conversation, a dance. When parental corrections intrude on the experience, they intrude on literacy and relationships with books.

When we read with babies, they learn how to turn pages (fine motor!), to track with their eyes, to make meaning of symbols, to understand conversation. They also hear our hearts beating, feel our arms around them, feel the rhythm of the language from our throats and chests, hear emotion, and — often, I hope — taste, smell, and feel the book itself as a physical object. Many of these aspects of booksharing can be effectively created with “basic e-books,” that present the words and pictures without the bells and whistles. A large portion of the sensory experience, in terms of holding a physical book, will be lost, but will a child miss them? A child will choose the sensory experience of a parent’s arms over the sensory experience of a book just about any day.

The question becomes: Do we want our children to live in a world without physical books? Will this happen? It could, but I think it will be a long time coming, due to our own nostalgia. Parents who were raised on physical books can’t resist passing that tradition down to their children. Last night, my husband leafed through one of his childhood books before bed, having unearthed it from a closet in his parents’ house while they packed to move. He was transfixed, a wistful smile on his face. Books, like so many sensory experiences, can be portals to another time. We live in a nostalgic society. For example, Polaroid cameras are very in (again). I have a weakness for old typewriters. My generation obsessed over 60s and 70s fashion and now I see young kids in 80s-style clothing. In this kind of world, books will never fade away.

readers

So what are parents to do? READ WITH YOUR CHILDREN. Read books, real books! Go to libraries. Read e-books. Explore enhanced e-books and resist the urge to correct what your child may be doing “wrong” in the process. Listen to audio books. Read store and street signs, magazines, newspapers, online articles, letters, junk mail, cereal boxes. Read, read, read. Model reading: read cookbooks, read warning labels, read driving directions, read books and read e-books. Write, and model writing. Make lists, leave notes, draw maps, send letters, and write down stories. Type. Let your children type. Most surveys seem to indicate that in the era of e-books, people are reading more. Let’s go for it, full-force. Don’t let the bells and whistles of brain-draining technology distract you. Your child’s brain will develop at a rapid pace, so make sure that yours continues to work at it as well.

Literacy and a love of learning don’t develop in a bubble, with an iPad. They’re developed through curiosity and enthusiasm and relationships. Follow your child’s passions and consciously bring books and reading into the equation. That’s your job, in fostering a future reader. And if you’re really dedicated to the task, demonstrate how books — physical books — can be used for research purposes, not just Google. But that’s another post for another day. Stay tuned!

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