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Becoming The Parent You Can Be

by The Next Family May 12, 2010

By: Elizabeth Memel

Given our hurried lifestyle and the accompanying pressure many parents feel to do what is right for their babies, infant specialist and teacher Magda Gerber’s advice to do less and let the baby’s development unfold naturally, comes as a welcome relief. Volumes of research show that giving babies the lead and becoming attuned by following their cues are the best practices for healthy brain cell growth. The science behind the philosophy is current proof of Gerber’s wisdom.

The essential caring relationship is at the core, and for that role Gerber coined the term “educaring,” which combines educating and caring. She taught that “Real love is demonstrated by showing and teaching respect.” By slowing down, paying attention to, and giving babies –be they our own children, our grandchildren or others in our care — lots of space and time for uninterrupted play, we not only give infants a good start in life, but we also take the pressure off ourselves to constantly be doing. Letting babies be babies allows us to take a breath and just be. “The danger of pushing children to do things before they’re developmentally ready is that it can lead to a sense of failure and disappointment”, Gerber believes. She also counsels against putting a toy directly in a baby’s hand. “If a child is interested in a toy that’s been placed within his reach, he’ll try [when he is ready] to grab the object himself. This teaches a baby to be independent and curious. Above all, it makes a child an active partner in the learning process…” (Child magazine, February 2002)

There are a couple of myths being perpetuated that would be so good to overcome. First is the idea that happy children result from parents’ actions, from doing everything right. Parents are not 100% responsible for their children’s happiness. Parents who make mistakes are not being bad parents; they just are making choices, some good ones and some not so good ones. It’s the way to be human, which we all –including babies –are. “We need to apply humility and generosity of spirit to ourselves as we contemplate what sort of mothers [and fathers] we are or might become.” (Harriet Lerner, The Mother Dance 1999)

Parents don’t want to be inadequate parents; in fact, most would like to be better parents and not make mistakes.  But the truth is, we all learn by trial and error. If you want to be better, the best thing to do is become more conscious of the choices you make.  Try to be more present with those young persons for whom you care, so you can improve your effort as you pursue your long-range parenting goals. And you can surely ask for help to become more conscious; join with other adults striving to be more effective parents and support each other in learning this most important and most difficult task in life…raising children. The weekly RIE Parent/Infant Guidance classes I facilitate in West Hollywood offer family support to fill this very need for growth and learning for all.

Gerber, who was my mentor, in the mid 80’s and 90’s, offered a wonderfully effective body of work to families with very young children as well as their professional caregivers. The non-profit educational organization she founded in 1978, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), has been influencing those who work with infants and toddlers, both in family settings and group care settings, guiding caregivers and parents to, first and foremost, slow down and observe their babies. By doing this, parents and caregivers learn to appreciate babies as competent human beings and get to know the unique individuality of each child. Gerber’s Educaring Approach is based on the principle of respect that takes many forms. For example, it is respectful with a baby whose diaper needs to be changed to a) look to see if you are interrupting the baby, b) tell her that you are intending to change her diaper c) let her know that you want to pick her up, d) ask if she’s ready, and e) wait for her arms to reach out in response. (A baby of a few months will make eye contact and at six months will lift her head forward and crunch her abdomen in anticipation of being picked up). With such an approach, the baby becomes an active participant in her care with a present adult, not a passive recipient who feels like an object being hauled around on someone’s body, dressed up or passed around from person to person. “Do you think the baby wants to be held by me?” Gerber audaciously asked when someone offered to pass over a baby to her.

Can you demonstrate that you often pay 100% attention to your baby’s point of view, knowing that, as a human being, she definitely has one? The ultimate pay-off comes in toddlerhood when your child actually enjoys cooperating because he has learned to trust that his ideas and skills matter. Healthy independencies and beneficial interdependencies will become the everyday norm for families building mutuality into their lives.

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Elizabeth Memel, M.A., Certified RIE Associate, provides weekly parent/infant groups in West Hollywood for families with children from birth to age two. Trained with renowned infant specialist Magda Gerber, Liz has over twenty-five years’ experience consulting with and guiding adults, including professionals, who care for infants and toddlers. Now retired from adjunct faculty in the child development department at Los Angeles City College, Liz has a Masters Degree from Pacific Oaks College in Human Development Specializing in Infants and Toddlers. This essay is based on the teachings of Magda Gerber with excerpted portions from her book, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect, published by RIE. www.rie.org email: lmemel@roadrunner.com

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