Magda Gerber asked us to “look at babies with new eyes,” and consider what it means to treat a baby with respect. Her suggestion to treat a baby with the same respect we’d treat an “honored guest” is still not widely understood or practiced by most.
In Always A Bundle of Joy, (at Positive Parenting: Toddlers And Beyond) the author asks, “Do you think all the labels we have pinned on young children, such as “brats” and “terrible twos” and “tyrannical threes” may have distorted our lens through which we view them?”
I think if you are a parent, caregiver, or teacher of young children, the way that you parent, care, or guide, is governed by (sometimes unconscious) beliefs you hold about the children in your care. Even parents who claim to eschew parenting philosophies and follow their instincts, are acting out of underlying beliefs about what they think young children are like, and what they need.
This is why I begin almost every workshop I do by asking parents, caregivers, or teachers to complete a few simple sentences: Babies are _____________. Babies need _______________. Toddlers are _____________. Toddlers need ____________. I ask workshop participants to spend about ten minutes completing this exercise, writing down the first ideas that come to mind. We then go around the room and share our answers. Generally, this leads to a lively discussion, and people are often quite surprised to discover their own biases, and how strongly their beliefs impact their approach to caring for and interacting with children.
If we change our beliefs, we change the way we act. If we change the way we act, we change the outcomes we get. It’s as simple as that. Even when we can’t change the outcome immediately, the way we think about what’s happening can lead us to a more (or less) powerful, peaceful place from which to respond. (For instance, babies cry, and sometimes we don’t know why, nor can we easily soothe them. Depending on our beliefs about why a baby cries, what the cry means, and what a crying baby needs, we will respond in different ways and more or less calmly, even if we can’t easily soothe the baby.) I’ve been reflecting on this simple truth lately, and have been collecting some words of wisdom to inspire me in my daily work with children. I’d like to offer the following as food for thought:
There are hundreds of different images of the child. Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child. This theory within you pushes you to behave in certain ways; it orients you as you talk to the child, listen to the child, observe the child. It is very difficult for you to act contrary to this internal image. For example, if your image is that boys and girls are very different from one another, you will behave differently in your interactions with each of them.
The environment you construct around you and the children also reflects this image you have about the child. There’s a difference between the environment that you are able to build based on a preconceived image of the child and the environment that you can build that is based on the child you see in front of you – the relationship you build with the child, the games you play.
when we adults think of children, there is a simple truth which we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life, childhood is life. a child isn’t getting ready to live – a child is living. the child is constantly confronted with the nagging question, “what are you going to be?” courageous would be the youngster who, looking the adult squarely in the face, would say, “i’m not going to be anything; i already am.” we adults would be shocked by such an insolent remark for we have forgotten, if indeed we ever knew, that a child is an active participating and contributing member of society from the time he is born. childhood isn’t a time when he is molded into a human who will then live life; he is a human who is living life. no child will miss the zest and joy of living unless these are denied him by adults who have convinced themselves that childhood is a period of preparation.
how much heartache we would save ourselves if we would recognize the child as a partner with adults in the process of living, rather than always viewing him as an apprentice. how much we would teach each other…adults with the experience and children with the freshness. how full both our lives could be. a little child may not lead us, but at least we ought to discuss the trip with him for, after all, life is his and her journey, too.”
– professor t. ripaldi
Finally, Janet Lansbury offers this insight borne out of her experience:
One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned since becoming a mom– reinforced by observing hundreds of other parents and babies interact — is that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy to the way we view our babies. If we believe them to be helpless, dependent, needy (albeit lovely) creatures, their behavior will confirm those beliefs. Alternatively, if we see our infants as capable, intelligent, responsive people ready to participate in life, initiate activity, receive and return our efforts to communicate with them, then we find that they are all of those things.I am not suggesting that we treat infants as small adults. They need a baby’s life, but they deserve the same level of human respect that we give to adults.
What do you think? Do you think the image we hold of a child makes a difference in how we treat them? Do you think children “live into” our expectations (even if they are unspoken)? What images do you hold of babies and toddlers? What labels do you assign to them or to their behavior? Do you have any favorite quotes to share about the way we see children, and how our thinking might guide our actions, and impact the response we receive? I’d love it if you’d share!