Quality Time. Well, we got some good questions and answers to toss around! I’m really excited by the response you’ve given Madge Gerber. This is all very encouraging. Before we go into your letters, I want to talk a little about quality time. That precious time of truly being with your child, Madge feels that the best way to begin this gentle balance of you-see-me-and-I-see-you is at the bottom. Literally. It starts by making the diapering time, and all other care, a special time.
Picture yourself diapering your child. Most of us pick him up, lay him down, and as we proceed to take off his wet diaper and wipe, salve, pat, and kiss his bottom, we also perform a circus act of distracting techniques. We hand him everything in sight that jangles, jingles, and shakes. We tickle him, we clown around, we hold him down with kisses and hugs, we sing to him while we keep our eyes on the wet diaper, and the dry diaper, and the whole process taking place below his belly button. In other words, we do a lot of doing to him, for him, under, over, and around him – but not really with him. Ms. Gerber feels that this is a special time when the phone should be off the hook, visitors should not be talked to – no distractions. It’s just the two of you doing a ritual thing in a pleasant, peaceful, and rhythmic way. Starting with infancy, you talk to your baby while you diaper. Not just small talk either.
You talk about everything you are going to do and are doing. “Okay, love, let’s take off this wet diaper. Do you see this cream? It’ll probably feel a little cold. Okay, now the dry diaper, etc.” You see what I mean: the child and you are a team. Your eyes are not frozen on the diaper, and you are not under the pressure of dealing with a frustrated baby who feels trapped. In a published manuscript by Ms. Gerber, she says: “Most of the time mothers spend with babies is spent in daily caregiving activities. If they are carried out as chores to be rushed through, the infant reacts by resisting, fussing, and crying. The interaction results in unnecessary frustration. We believe that these most consistently repeated experiences in the infant’s first three years of life have a cumulative and a lasting influence on him. They lay down the basic patterns for his relationship with his mother and for future learning. Therefore, the goal is not only a dry, clean baby but the use of all learning possibilities.”
Now, to your letters and Madge Gerber’s responses.
The mother of a three-month-old boy: “I clean house and set him up in his infant seat and take him from room to room with me. However, he still gets fussy and I feel guilty for cleaning instead of playing with him. Am I letting him demand too much of me?”
Madge Gerber: This mother’s problem represents the trap I feel too many mothers fall into. The trap created by books and advisers that say that the baby needs mother around all the time; at least in vision. The basic assumption, therefore, is that the child should be put in an uncomfortable position in an infant seat and can barely move around. All he can do is kick his legs. Most three-month-olds can at least turn from side to side. A confined baby cannot. Every baby needs time on his own without seeing his mother. If the baby would have a pleasant place to play where he can move around on his own and the mother could do her work, both are being satisfied. The baby needs lots of time to be alone and happy by himself; however, when the mother is finished with her own time, then when she does interact with her child, it should be total. Better off being away from the child and then later coming together without tension, frustration. No infant needs constant attention – doesn’t have to see or hear mother all the time. He should feel secure, and the fact that he’s carried from room to room is not necessarily security-inducing – doesn’t mean that his needs are truly being met by the mother’s activity. Try not to start the child on something that you won’t want to continue later. People tend to think in terms of only the present, not what the action will do for the future. A child shouldn’t be kept in restrained positions. Movement is the way he learns. An adult way of life is not a child’s way of life; and because of some kind of compromise, neither one is satisfied. Everything is in-between. Neither child nor parent does his own genuine thing.
The mother of a two-and-a-half-year-old boy: “…frustration at not being minded, which turns to my shouting which I do not like… I want to stop the night game of bottle, then potty, then bottle, potty, etc. I am the only one with whom he cries and whines about having a bottle. I am stumped as to why he still demands it.”
Madge Gerber: The child is smart. He cries for his best audience – the one who is most bothered by the crying. Though this mother is too vague in saying when the child minds or does not mind, I would still say give him as many choices within the limits as possible. Try and demand few things kindly and consistently. Choose one thing that bothers you the most – give many choices and then reinforce the one thing again. If your words are too much like a broken record then nothing gets done – everybody loses. As for the bottle, discontinue it. That’s not only because of the flooding bed at night, but bottles are also bad for the teeth and bad for the digestive system. Eating should be for food intake alone and not for solace. It isn’t easy to go through weaning, so be very kind, very gentle. Don’t be concerned about the child minding; it’s a hard thing to go through as anybody who has tried to quit smoking or alcohol would confirm. When the child cries out at night, give him water or weak tea in a cup. Tell him gently that he can’t have the bottle, but you are giving him a cup instead. If it seems impossible at first, then put a little water in his bottle at bedtime. But I would prefer you’d eliminate the bottle entirely.
The mother of a ten-month-old girl: “…doubts about handling the baby’s willfulness. She yells, often hits, and our demonstrations of being gentle aren’t taking hold yet. Neither is it easy to distract her.”
Madge Gerber: Willfulness is not the opposite of gentleness. A ten-month-old wants things but doesn’t have judgment. If she could have a safe environment in which she can exercise autonomy and learn mastery of the things she’s doing through exploration, then you can teach gentleness at certain appropriate times and she won’t fight it. If she’s given freedom in her own environment to be tough and rough, then she’ll be more open to learning gentleness. Distraction techniques? I call distraction The Cop-Out, it means not solving the problem but paying attention to something else. What does the child need? What is making her willful? This is the problem and it must be faced; and to all mothers, I say that if your children would have time on their own to move about and explore, especially outdoors, 50% of the problems would be solved on their own.
The mother of an eight-month-old boy: “… concerned about whether I’m teaching enough…”
Madge Gerber: Teaching is not a separate function. It is an everyday life experience. (Read How Children Learn and How Children Fail, by John Holt.) Too many educators put pressure on mothers of infants to try teaching them earlier and earlier. What should infants really learn? If the mother always tells the child what she is doing, the baby is learning. He is learning about the real world around him. An eight-month-old is learning about himself, about his world. A safe environment in which he could move and another eight-month-old to play with in this special play area is the kind of learning experience the child profits from the most. Teaching is one thing and learning is another. Be more interested in what the child is learning. What the mother teaches is herself. Her moods, her reactions, her facial expressions, her touch, etc. These are real things.
The mother of a twenty-month-old boy: “… feeling resentful that he is so demanding of my time to the exclusion of my interests …during times I must discipline, i.e., running into the street, etc. How to handle it? I am now using force and don’t like it…time spent with him never seems enough for him.”
Madge Gerber: It would be ideal if he could have one or two babies of the same age to play with. A twenty-month-old is constantly on the go. He needs a yard with a tricycle or some kind of moving toys – toys to manipulate, climbing, crawling toys, ladders, boxes, tubes, tunnels — lots of room to move and run. They don’t have to be expensive toys. Cardboard boxes, raised wooden platforms, beach balls, lots of water and sand play – anything that allows the child to initiate his own kind of play. Obviously, when it comes to life dangers, that’s not the time for mother to be gentle, but everyday life can be arranged so that his safety can be maintained. Reorganization has to happen. The child needs a safe place indoors and outdoors, no matter how small, it must be his to be free in. If the child has this kind of environment, he wouldn’t have to be entertained. Be available, learn about him, and enjoy him, but don’t feel it necessary to put on a show for him.
For the sake of expediency, I am using “him” in reference to the baby being talked about. Please little “hers” don’t feel offended. I wish we could have a word that said both. “Shim?” “Shers?” And though we talk a lot to mothers, this is not to ignore the fathers. This all applies to the daddies, too! If you want your names mentioned or if you’d rather remain anonymous, please let me know. There are now some openings available in Madge Gerber’s classes. If you are interested, please contact Carol Pinto at 663-6093. Again, don’t be discouraged, and be open to change, whether that means changing a service porch into a playroom or changing a rigid schedule or philosophy or attitude to a more relaxed, negotiable one. Believe me, life around my house is anything but calm and peaceful. While talking on the phone to Madge and hearing her profound thoughts on children, my baby, Jesse, was climbing up my back, and my dog, Gypsy, was chewing on the pen I was writing with … (now, Cara, face the problem, face the problem, face the …) Remember, your letters keep this column going, so write in fast!
Copyright@Magda Gerber and Cara Wilson-Granat