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Thoughts on a Madge Gerber Night

Madge Gerber. She met with a group of us a few weeks ago at Queen of Angels Hospital. It was an experience I’m still munching on. I loved it. For those of you who couldn’t make it there, I’ll recap the highlights.

To tell you the truth, the woman is, how should I say it without waxing weediculous?: tuhriffic! She stood in front of us with her sky blue visionary eyes, her snow-white hair shining – a tiny Hungarian harbinger for all our new, little people and said words that not enough “old” people hear. Words like “respect”, “autonomy”, “listen to”, and “hear” and ‘”watch” and “dignity”. Words to raise children gracefully without the stifling smother-love and ego game and the head trip we all fall into. And which eventually trap our young ones.

To illustrate those words further, Ms. Gerber showed us two mind-blowing films. When she has another film showing, please people, don’t miss it. They are incredible. They are both in Hungarian, you don’t understand a word and yet know everything each child and adult are saying and feeling and doing perfectly. The films were taken at the National Methodological Institute for Infant Care and Education, in Budapest, where Madge was an assistant to Dr. Emmi Pikler.

They are simple films. The first one “How Wonderful It Is To Bathe”, showed a care person bathing infants, toddlers, and then preschoolers. Usually, the ratio of nurses to children is about 1:9, so you know the woman doesn’t have a great deal of time for each child. But this woman sure didn’t show it. Throughout the entire bathing process, she maintained a constant, cheery, loving dialogue with each child. She was rewarded by infant babbles and gurgles, animated, expressive facial reactions, and conversation of the older children. Bathing was obviously a happy, relaxing experience. And, like a fine piece of choreography, it had a kind of ritual to it. The children knew what the washcloth and soap were for, and, while the babies anticipated each step – were obviously cognizant of everything that was happening and was going to happen (we saw babies barely old enough to sit up and reach their arms to the woman to help her soap their tiny bodies) the older children (2 & 3 years) already held their own in this bubbly ballet.

They undressed themselves, plopped into the basin, and then proceeded to wash and soap themselves with the help of the gentlewoman. Throughout the whole experience, each child carried on a constant flow of conversation, laughter, questions, and sing-song babblings and was rewarded in turn by the woman’s happy attention. It was as if each child were her only responsibility and she had all the time in the world. She never cracked her knuckles once! No finger drumming on the tile. Nor any pursed lips, dirty looks, faraway trancy stares, any sense of boredom, anger, frustration, nor any wild hair-pulling scene when water was splashed on her or the floor or when a child decided to try her bath outside of the tub as well as around it and practically under it. The woman was unflappable.

I wanted to run home and wake up my boys and give them a midnight bath THE RIGHT WAY! (Why am I so impatient? What is the hurry? Who is hurrying me and why am I always hurrying them? How joyous, how peaceful those baths looked in contrast to my tub scene of “Batman crazy foam” regurgitating a pound of snaky soap onto two wriggling ditties two and four who are hyped up by my non-stop: “C’mon guys, cuttitout. No Jesse, you cannot eat the soap. Ethan, Jesse doesn’t like the sponge on his head. Yes, I see Ethan’s peeny-weeny, Jesse, but I don’t think he wants you to pull it. OKAY, NOW LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE! I’M SOPPING WET! THAT’S IT! OUT, I SAY OUT!”)

That film has helped me a great deal. It said so many things to me. Like ”quality time” and “peacefulness” and “harmony” and a lot of loving. And the thing is you could see how those not very unusual, actually, very day-to-day routine things done with that sense of one-to-one unity were producing and can produce very secure human beings.

In the following film, ‘More Than Just Play”, we watched preschoolers raised by the Pikler Gerber method as they played unaware of our intruding eyes. It was something else. It too haunted me but in another way. I was left with a kind of overwhelming sadness. Because it focused in my mind on something we accept so readily as the “norm” by our standards. Playtime. We seem to feel that it is normal for children to run around and into and over each other in a kind of nervous tick-tocking OHH spin-a-round called “playing together”. But, look at our playing little people. Do you feel peaceful vibes watching them rip off toys and practically intestines from each other? I’m not saying this happens constantly, but I see it too much and I get this gnawing restless feeling that this doesn’t have to be. What in the hell does “kids will be kids” mean anyway? What if we expected them to feel so important to and good about themselves that they needn’t have to punch out their little pals? Sharing and cooperating and empathizing wouldn’t be such praiseworthy biggies. They wouldn’t be expected of them. Because they would be a part of them. Because they would have been raised with the kind of respect that would enable them to feel respect both for themselves and for other living creatures. So help me, it’s not a daydream, nor a twilight vision. I saw it for real in that film. Little people playing with blocks, rings-over-sticks, tea parties, sandbox games, folding and putting away towels and doll blankets, and washing stuffed bears so tenderly, so lovingly, I ached inside. It was beautiful. Boys and girls were equally tender and so at peace with themselves and each other. They seemed to have enough space for themselves and for their little friends. They weren’t in conflict. And they spoke so calmly as they played. Objects were lifted and placed and covered with the same kind of sensual loving attention we saw the children receive in the bathing film.

Look, I adore tumbling, joyous, leaping, running, shouting, jumping, teasing, miming, dynamic, sky-reaching children. I’ve got two of them, I would freak if their voices or their bodies slowed to a whisper, but I also know that some of that energy is as frenetic as I am. That some of that spinning is because of me and some of mine is because of yours, and yours is because of the next guy’s, and on and on and on. We need peace. Within us. Around us. And through us. And we need time. For ourselves. For each other. We need to be more one-to-one. I wish we could all see those films again together and then hold hands in a united vow to slow down and center ourselves on what’s really important in the scheme of things. You. Me. Our children. And the world we have to nurture for our children’s sake.

There weren’t enough of you at that evening a few weeks ago. Nor were there the kinds of people I also wish would show up for a Madge Gerber session: teenagers, childless couples in the family planning stage, teachers, doctors, nurses, single mothers, and especially working mothers and/or fathers. We’re living in a day-care age and we all need to know we can raise our children guilt-free and securely. And we can, you know. With lots of love and quality time and respect. And Madge Gerber.
Hey, the next time Madge gives a talk, do yourself a favor. Be there.

Copyright@Magda Gerber and Cara Wilson-Granat

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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