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Dear Magda

Who is Dr. Emmi Pikler

In preparation for the upcoming conference, Magda and I discussed her work with Dr. Pikler, the LOCZY philosophy, and the philosophical bridge from Hungary to the United States. Excerpts of our discussion follow:

Noreen: Magda, who is Dr. Emmi Pikler?

Magda: I can describe her in one sentence. She is an original. Which means she cannot be compared to anybody else. She has her own ideas. Her own way of carrying them out. She is a very complex person who has an enormous impact on people. Which is very interesting, because if you hear her talk to a mother, she talks very slowly, very quietly and almost hesitantly. That mother then goes to another mother and says, “But Emmi says I must do it. Otherwise, it’s horrible.” Though the way she delivers an answer, [she] really focuses inside and thinks of it. She certainly, absolutely dislikes ready, catchy answers. This she never does. She also of course doesn’t like to just give advice without knowing a lot about the child, the mother, the situation. The fact is that when she says something it comes out very sincerely – a very strong message, even though she doesn’t deliver it in a strong style.

Noreen: You first met her when you were a mother of young children?

Magda: I first met Emmi when my children were five and two years old. I often tell the story of my first child who says, “I brought Emmi into your life. Therefore I launched your career.” It’s true, because Emmi’s daughter, Anna, who is a psychologist at LOCZY, and my daughter went together to school, kindergarten. So when our doctor was not available she said, “Why don’t you call Anna’s mommy who is a pediatrician?” Of course, I knew about Anna’s mommy, because everyone in Budapest who had a young child knew about Emmi Pikler. She has been an extremely controversial figure in Hungary. There were almost two camps. One for whom Emmi was the prophet and whatever she said they would do almost blindly. Then others who absolutely hated her. [Many professional pediatricians] couldn’t believe that a person really truly would want to visit a family every week, which she did. Every week. And then she’d spend hours, just watching the children.

Noreen: She was doing that for the child’s good, or because she was doing research?

Magda: At that time, if you wanted her to become your pediatrician you made a contract and you paid her yearly.

Noreen: Is that unique in Hungary?

Magda: No, you did pay pediatricians on a yearly basis sometimes. Now, if you had a child who was constantly sick, she came constantly. Of course, a Pikler baby wasn’t constantly sick. Everybody would say that right away. The joke one other physician said was that if a child was sick she had to call a consultant because she had unlearned to be with sick children. She has only been with healthy children. Now the fact is that if you do lots of good preventive, healthy things, like the child has good nutrition, good care, good everything, they are not that often sick.

Noreen: How did Emmi become one’s pediatrician?

Magda: What she liked to do best was discuss everything with a pregnant woman. She would say what she stands for. She made it very difficult to have her for your pediatrician. It would be an enormous waste of both the mother’s time and her own time to just stop, because she does invest a great deal in it. If it [didn’t] work, she would stop. And she stopped with many families. Very gently. Again, there was no animosity. She just said, “Look, you thought that you agreed with me and I can see that you don’t. It’s hard on you. It’s fine. There are many other ways to raise children. Go ahead, but, I’m wasting my time.”

Noreen: When you talk about agreeing on goals between a parent and her, it would be the goals, basically, of the LOCZY philosophy? Gross motor development?

Magda: That is the first basic thing, because that kind of then spreads over to all the other things. And the basic thing is that you have to respect and trust a healthy, normal baby’s inborn capacities. His natural desire to take in from the world, to learn and take in, is very important. Anything that you would intrude into that would just disturb the natural flow. Our role is to create an environment in which the child can best do all the things that the child would do naturally. The misleading thing about this is that it sounds so easy. Most parents would say, “Sure, that’s what I want. Of course, that’s what I want.” … If you follow that now in this country, it’s fully against what the whole society is all about. The whole society pushes you constantly. In education what was expected at age seven in second grade is now done in nursery school. While what Emmi really stands for seems the simplest, the most natural thing to do. You don’t have to do more. She doesn’t say work more. She says work less. Enjoy more. Work less. Just sit and enjoy your child. It’s a miracle. It does happen in front of your eyes. Yes, of course you have to be sensitive to your child’s needs… The child has to feel your caring presence. But, you don’t have to teach. You don’t have to buy more gadgets. You don’t have to do anything. Both of you can just exist and enjoy the developing relationship between you. Doesn’t that sound simpler and easier? But, it isn’t, because each of us are bombarded to buy books and [follow] everyone who tells us what to do. Now, if that’s what you hear, it’s hard to resist. What if you just wait and your child won’t do it? How can you really trust? How can you teach a person to trust? Now, I’ll tell you what the big difference was. When you had Emmi as your pediatrician and when you really trusted her, she provided constant guidance. And this is the big difference. You know, here nobody gets constant guidance. You then believe the person who tells you how marvelous it is when you have a bouncer. While the child is bouncing, you can take your shower and you can even be on the phone. The child is safe and doesn’t fall down, and is happy and doesn’t cry. Everybody in their right mind would feel that that’s not a natural thing for a child to hang there and bounce. And yet it’s so easy to believe it. Everything here makes mothers feel [that] the here and now, the very minute would be easier if you just do this and buy that. The idea in our society of enjoy now and pay later is what makes it so hard to do anything that is on a long range where you do all the work now and enjoy it while you do it. But, you do it with the idea that you are building a future for children. It’s just been given lip service. But very few things are done with the thought, ‘How will what I do now affect my child one year, ten years, twenty-five years from now?’ And this is what Emmi meant [for us] to keep in mind. Where are you really going? What is your real goal?

Noreen: How do you transmit the LOCZY philosophy to American society?

Magda: I feel sometimes like the arbiter or bridge. The lifestyle in this country makes it very difficult to raise a baby the way Emmi wants. She has a strong feeling that if you give a young child a peaceful beginning where the basic idea is that the child develops a natural rhythm, a rhythm of life which becomes predictable for both the baby and the mother, [then] the mother can say, for example, “I know my child sleeps from this time to this time and then I can get my work done.” It really doesn’t include lots of driving children from place to place, expecting children to behave, to live as an appendix of an adult. The adult wants to go to a workshop in the evening [taking the child], so the child cries. The child has to be hushed down. The child cannot behave according to his own needs. He has to adapt to the needs of the parents. First we have to let the child develop his own rhythm and then later he can grow more into adult life. The [conflict] for parents is that they would like to do everything. Every parent makes his own choices. One could say, “Yes, take your child wherever you go, on a ski tour or wherever and then the world will applaud you that you took care of yourself. You didn’t give up anything, which now is looked upon as something bad.” Or, you can think of having your baby, and this is a unique time like no other time. It never comes back again, that you can both enjoy. And that’s the time for you to invest in, to put time in. You will have the rest of your life to do all the things that you want to do. If you don’t program yourself that you want to do something else while you are with your children— it is this ambivalence, this being torn that makes it so hard. That does not mean you cannot also go away and make arrangements. This is the time when [you] want to let go. [You] want to feel at ease, soft. Not hurried. Not pushed. Not wanting to achieve. Not even when people say “I cannot afford it.” I do not quite believe it. Not affording is always a question of time. We can always afford what we really actually want. The question is what price do our children pay for our having done to them so many things that they really didn’t need? Why do we do it? And many times what we do takes more time, more energy, more money, more everything, so it doesn’t make it easier. The one thing [Emmi is] very much against is any substitutes for the real thing. Usually the substitutes are gadgets and the real thing would be time or attention from the mother. So she goes away, feels guilty and brings home a gadget. The child equates love with all these different things.

Noreen: What is Emmi’s position at LOCZY now?

Magda: She is no longer the Administrative Director. She goes there every day, has the same room and does her own research. Writes her own papers. When she started LOCZY she no longer worked at her own practice, because that was more than full time. The person who is now the Administrative Medical Director is Dr. Judith Falk. Judith was Emmi’s student. She took the same class I did learning about caring for infants, and then became a pediatrician. She has been with LOCZY for twenty years [or] more.

Noreen: Have others like yourself left Hungary and taken the LOCZY philosophy to other countries?

Magda: Oh, yes. Agie Szanto in France. In France [Emmi] is known and respected absolutely as the authority. Her books are being translated into French. Agie herself was a Pikler baby’ and she is really teaching it all over France. She goes back to Hungary to visit LOCZY almost every year. She made excellent 8mm movies [of] LOCZY and she teaches at the University. Emmi has been invited to many European countries, Germany, Yugoslavia, the U.S.S.R.

Noreen: How does she feel about people taking her philosophy to other countries?

Magda: What they feel at LOCZY altogether, not only she, is that the most difficult part for LOCZY is their job. They are the teaching and supervising institute for all infant care in all of Hungary. What Emmi finds most difficult is when people pick up some of what looks like the philosophy, but not the essence. Many people pick up some of it, but they don’t quite understand the underlying principle. That’s when Emmi stopped working with a family. You can do it your own way if you understand why you do what you do. You always help the child. It’s the way you do help the child. It can be very easily misunderstood. I now can go to places and see exactly if people know the spirit and then they can do things differently from the way I would. Or they do things almost as an imitation of what they saw me do and they have no idea why they are doing it.

Copyright © 2022 Magda Gerber Legacy 

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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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