Baby · Books · Goals · Montessori · Parenting Philosophies · Toddlerhood · Values

Respecting Babies and Children: Parenting Resources and Thoughts

I keep wanting to share some of my thoughts and what I’ve been reading about baby and child development. With Ari, I read sooo much and I was determined, this second time around, to put the books and internet away and just enjoy Sam. But I’m just passionate about baby and child development. I started studying how to be a babysitter when I was about eight years old, started babysitting at about 11 and loved it, and majored in Psychology in college. Having so many ideas about the right way to do things can make me feel inadequate because I so often fail to behave the way I would like to as a parent, but I’m still fascinated by the theories! With Sam, I’m more willing to trust my instincts and discount some of what I read, but I do find inspiration and wisdom out there.

It can be hard to listen to yourself as a parent – and hard to listen to your child. For every question or concern I’ve had, I’ve received opposing advice and opinions from other parents and from what I’ve read in books and online. One parent of four says, “let the kids sleep with you! Soon they won’t even want to be in the same car!” while another parent of four says, “The baby has to sleep in a separate room or they smell your milk and wake up!”

The good news is, pretty much no matter what you do or think, you will find plenty of people out there who agree and will encourage and support you. The bad news is, no matter what, lots of people will disagree with you and think you’re doing it wrong. You have to “stay curious” about your child and trust your child and yourself (but also be flexible and willing to reconsider and change!).

I believe a lot of damage is done to children when parents ignore their own instincts because they are worried about what the people around them think. Not wanting to be perceived as too lenient, not wanting people to stare while your child cries, etc. In these situations, parents often treat children in ways they later regret. When I’m feeling judged, now, I try to focus on Ari and what I want him to learn from the situation. My parenting is better when I block everyone else out! (When other people’s feelings or safety are involved, I try to be equally respectful of them, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to do whatever they may think I should.)

Before I had Ari, I would say the main concepts that stood out for me were (1) treating children with respect and dignity, (2) fostering independence, and (3) promoting healthy attachment. Those are still my values, although sometimes when I’m reading American books I ask myself, “Why is independence the big goal all of the time? Is it really so important to be able to sleep alone and play alone and climb stairs alone, etc.? In other cultures that place more value on helping and supporting and nurturing, do people recognize their interdependence more and treat each other better than Americans do?” I’m just going to leave that question out there!

Anyway, I wanted to offer peaceful, consistent routines so that he could look forward to eating when he was hungry and resting when he was tired and feel secure knowing that his needs would be met. (Man, I’m still really struggling with that one! I think I need to feed myself when I’m hungry and rest or sleep when I’m tired!)

I wanted to help him understand and accept his feelings, and not deny them by telling him “you’re okay” or “stop crying” or trying to distract him with something else when he cried. I read somewhere about not making kids responsible for your feelings as a parent, and it really resonated with me. I thought, “It’s not his job to be happy so that I can be happy. If I set a limit and he’s sad about it, for example, he’s allowed to cry and be sad. It’s my job to not get upset about it. My feelings are my job.” However, I’ve also really struggled with this concept! So many times, I’ve gotten all worked up and upset the kids even further because I can’t stand that they’re crying and I can’t figure out why or I think their reason is insignificant.

I wanted to be kind, honest, and straightforward. I don’t like when people use tricks, deceit, or distraction to avoid conflicts with kids. (But sometimes I do say, “Ari, I’ve already tried to explain this and I’m not going to argue about it or explain it any more. I’m tired and frustrated.”) I wanted to have clear, realistic limits and developmentally-appropriate expectations. Having studied intrinsic motivation in college, I wanted to discipline without punishment, bribes, or excessive praise. (For more on this concept, I enjoy Alfie Kohn’s theories. The two books of his that I’ve read are Unconditional Parenting and The Myth of the Spoiled Child.)

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I also wanted to promote his self-confidence and self-esteem by letting him solve problems on his own as much as possible and by avoiding labels. Swooping in to rescue a child who is struggling can seem like the caring thing to do, but it can also communicate a lack of confidence in the child’s ability or deny the child a chance to feel capable (there are huge cultural variations about this concept, though, and I’m not always sure what to do!). Also, even positive labels such as “smart” have been shown to diminish intrinsic motivation and reduce children’s willingness to challenge themselves – for example, they might become afraid of failure, because they want to continue to be seen as “smart.” (For more on praise, here are articles by Alfie Kohn, PBS Parents, and Psychology Today.)

I’d love to offer a list of my favorite parenting resources and reasons why they’re the best, but more and more, I think the best thing is to read whatever makes you feel less guilty and whatever seems to suit your kid’s style and your own style. Also, in the words of Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, read “Whatever blows your hair back”! When I wonder if I’m doing something wrong by letting the kids sleep with us, or singing and cuddling Ari to sleep, I read some Dr. Sears attachment parenting materials, like his The Baby Sleep Book. Then, when I start worrying that I messed him up for life by working nights and not being there all the time for him, I read some negative reviews of his books to get a more balanced perspective! (Check out this and this so that I don’t have to repeat everything they say, because I can really relate! My fantasies about “natural” parenting in less industrialized countries were significantly challenged when I saw a video of women in Africa doing some kid of grinding or pounding work, throwing their upper bodies forward repeatedly while their babies, tied to their backs, had their heads violently flopping back and forth. I don’t think there’s anywhere in the world where all the women can actually lie around cooing at their babies all day! Also, when I talked to a friend of mine who has studied anthropology and traveled a lot, and I told her about “elimination communication” and not using diapers, and how mothers in other cultures wear their babies and know when they need to pee or poop, she laughed and said, “They did that in Indonesia, and everyone had pee and poop on their clothes!”)

Respecting your kid’s particular style seems more important to me now that I have kids. I used to follow a blogger who is a Montessori teacher and I decided I wanted to do everything in the Montessori style for my own kids, because the peacefulness, organization, simplicity, and discrete tasks really appealed to my own nature, as well as the natural materials and the child-sized tools designed to facilitate independence. Now, I know that there are many Montessori-inspired classrooms and they do not all operate in the same way, but we toured one, a preschool, and I was so impressed by the kids working quietly and independently, taking out a tray with an activity on it, pulling out a chair, sitting down and doing the activity, standing up and pushing their chair in, and putting the activity back on the shelf. The activities were arranged so that you moved from left to right on one shelf, then started on the next shelf. There was no skipping around or mixing of materials allowed! I loved it, but A. (who actually attended a Montessori preschool himself, and I think he and his parents loved it) said it felt like training to work in a factory. Hmph. Well, now I see Ari in his Reggio-inspired classroom with kids running around, shrieking, engaging in imaginative play they’ve invented themselves, being encouraged to use whatever materials they can find for whatever purpose they can come up with, and coming together for stories, songs, and dancing, and I’m so happy he’s there! I might have felt overwhelmed in his classroom, but I think it suits him. I still check in on the Montessori teacher’s blog, though, and now I see that she is trying lots of things to help her oldest child with “self regulation and impulse control,” and I wonder if she is just too hyper-disciplined and expects too much from him.

Okay, on to what I really like right now!

For babies, I recently read Magda Gerber’s Your Self-Confident Baby and it’s my favorite so far. Her approach is called RIE (pronounced “wry”), or “Resources for Infant Educarers”. The style is similar to the Montessori approach (or Waldorf), with a focus on simplicity, nature, and play, and the advice to avoid flashy, noisy toys and in favor of “passive” toys that children actively manipulate and explore in their own way. However, it goes even farther in the direction of keeping things simple. There are no prescribed mobiles for infants to look at, and she doesn’t even like mirrors or rattles because infants don’t understand them. She recommends giving babies simple household items, cloths, and balls. She doesn’t say you have to avoid plastic! I enjoyed the pictures of classrooms with babies exploring plastic tubs and balls, to make me feel less guilty about not providing my own kids with only the expensive naturally-dyed wooden and organic cotton materials. Mainly, the book made me feel less guilty about the way that I like to sit and watch my kids while they entertain themselves (or, sometimes, do my own thing while they entertain themselves!), instead of constantly engaging with and entertaining them. She says that quietly observing and following the baby’s lead is exactly the right approach, and points out how new every little thing is to a baby. It’s okay for them to spend hours just looking at their own hands and feet, or a square of light on the floor, because those simple things are incredibly stimulating to them. In contrast, constantly offering new toys, shaking things around in their faces, pointing things out and trying to tell them what to pay attention to, is depicted as bombarding them with too much stimulation, and hindering their development of curiosity, initiative, and sustained focus. She says to “trust” that your baby knows how to be a baby, and how to learn and play! I love that approach. I also love that she says that caregivers have to take care of themselves, too, by hiring babysitters frequently and taking breaks. However, it can be a bit dogmatic, too, and I’m now an experienced enough mother that I’m not going to run out and buy a tiny table to replace our high chair, or worry that any time I retrieve a toy for Sam or, later, hold his hands to help him walk, I’m “disrespecting” him.

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If you’re interested in the RIE approach, Janet Lansbury has a blog that is a great resource. Many of her posts are very counter-intuitive and fascinating, even though I’m not going to rigidly follow all of her advice. For examples, I’ve enjoyed reading The Case Against Tummy Time, infants’ need to feel competent, reasons to not walk babies (but then again, another perspective), how to help children, and encouraging independent play.

For toddlers, early on I read The Emotional Life of the Toddler and really enjoyed it. I’ve also enjoyed the RIE book 1, 2, 3…The Toddler Years.

For more of a focus on discipline (without punishment), I’ve learned a lot from these books:

Positive Discipline (and Positive Discipline for Preschoolers, for Toddlers… Here is the website).

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (here is a good review).

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How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (a good review).

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But time to get back to what I was originally trying to say, about reading things that make you feel less guilty. Right now I’m reading Parenting by Heart and The Power of Play, and both of them make a good case for just being more relaxed and leaving kids alone, and taking care of yourself.

In Parenting by Heart, author Ron Taffel points out that one factor of poor parenting that is frequently ignored is the sheer exhaustion of parents. Reading that, I thought, That’s true! I’m a much better parent when I’m not burnt out. If I would spend less time reading these books, and more time sleeping and taking care of myself, I would naturally be a better mom and wouldn’t need to read so many books!

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In The Power of Play, which I am still reading, author David Elkind muses (annoyingly, at times) about the good old days when kids spent hours every day playing freely, making their own toys and creating their own adventures. When he made the case that because families used to be larger, parents weren’t so “over invested” in each child, and that today’s parents – in spite of our work schedules – actually spend more time with their kids, I thought, Maybe instead of feeling guilty about it, I should think of my job as a replacement for those other two (or ten) kids, to help me to create a little healthy distance, or space for my kids to be themselves.

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Not that I’m going to stop documenting their lives here! Heh heh heh…

My goals this year are to sleep, have more fun and share joy with my kids, keep us all pretty well fed, and keep them safe. Not to be perfect! But I’ll probably keep reading. 🙂

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