Why do­ing less for your baby is good for their self es­teem

Little Treasures - - CONTENTS -

Themes in par­ent­ing come and go. In the 1980s when I was a child, par­ents and schools alike had ex­cit­edly jumped on the self­es­teem band-wagon. Nur­tur­ing high self es­teem was ev­ery­thing. We were pretty av­er­age kids but we got tro­phies for com­ing fourth and cer­tifi­cates for par­tic­i­pat­ing. One of my teach­ers had a stamp that said “Al­most!” with a pic­ture of a star on it, and she used it when­ever I mis­spelled a word by one let­ter. I dis­tinctly re­mem­ber do­ing a project at school en­ti­tled ‘All About Me’ and it was ba­si­cally an Ode to My­self about how great I was at ev­ery­thing. I wasn’t great at ev­ery­thing — I had some strong chore­og­ra­phy skills and I liked to write sto­ries. Apart from that, I was just an okay kid who be­came a teenager with a low sense of re­silience (I never had to work at any­thing be­cause I was al­ready so great) or any feel­ings of be­ing re­ally ca­pa­ble (again, I was all con­fi­dence, no skill). In 2010 I had a baby. She was mag­nif­i­cent and still is. I had done a lot of work on my­self and come a long way from the par­ent­ing legacy that was the ‘80s self-es­teem move­ment. I wanted things to be dif­fer­ent for my daugh­ter. I wanted her to have re­silience and the skills to work through tough sit­u­a­tions. I wanted her to have au­ton­omy, to be able to make good and con­sid­ered choices, un­like the teenage ver­sion of her mother. I also wanted her to be able to fo­cus on what­ever it was she felt would be wor­thy of her fo­cus, un­like her mother who had the at­ten­tion span of a sand­fly. In my twen­ties I was clever enough to scrape through a de­gree in Early Child­hood Ed­u­ca­tion (C’s re­ally do get degrees, it’s not just a catchy rhyme) but it wasn’t un­til I learned about a phi­los­o­phy from a post-war Hun­gar­ian or­phan­age di­rec­tor named Dr Emmi Pik­ler that I had the an­swer I was look­ing for. Among other things, Dr Pik­ler ob­served ba­bies and doc­u­mented their phys­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and how it seemed to have a di­rect cor­re­la­tion to their sense of au­ton­omy. Pik­ler and her col­leagues found that when ba­bies had to fig­ure things out for them­selves phys­i­cally, they were also prac­tic­ing the skill of re­silience. And as though she was speak­ing di­rectly to me, Pik­ler told par­ents to Do Less be­cause ba­bies don’t ac­tu­ally need us un­til they do. As a work­ing mother of three chil­dren, if any­one tells me I can do less and have excellent out­comes I am go­ing to lis­ten very, very care­fully. Par­ent­ing is an im­pos­si­ble task. We take the bits we like from the past and try to ap­ply them to the chil­dren who will be par­ents in the fu­ture. We are in ef­fect par­ent­ing blind. But if we make the de­ci­sion to en­cour­age our chil­dren’s au­ton­omy, re­silience, a sense of fo­cus and a view of them­selves as ca­pa­ble and competent, we can’t fail and nei­ther can they. This cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of par­ents have sci­ence on their side — we now know that we need to let our chil­dren strug­gle both to build their brain as well as their sense of self. For the record I don’t think the par­ents of the ‘80s failed at all — I just think they got a lit­tle ahead of them­selves be­cause self­es­teem in a child is built grad­u­ally through big and small in­trin­si­cally-mo­ti­vated suc­cesses — not by some­one else telling us how fan­tas­tic we are. When we de­cide to al­low au­ton­omy, re­silience, and the abil­ity to be fo­cused and feel ca­pa­ble to nat­u­rally de­velop in our ba­bies, we cre­ate the blue­print for the kind of adults that we would like to have as neigh­bours, friends and those run­ning our coun­try. Th­ese skills are not nearly as am­bi­tious as they ap­pear — in fact they are very sim­ple to ac­quire. All we have to do is think a lit­tle deeper about what we are con­stantly do­ing ‘to’ and ‘for’ our ba­bies and the sub­tle mes­sages we are giv­ing to them each time we in­ter­act with them.

The world it­self is stim­u­la­tion

A legacy left to us from gen­er­a­tions past is that we think we need to pro­vide ba­bies with plenty of stim­u­la­tion. We are told to hang elec­tronic an­i­mal mo­biles above their heads as they try to fall asleep. To shake plas­tic rat­tles in their faces to distract them from cry­ing. To hang them from the ceil­ing in those bungee-jump­ing con­trap­tions and gig­gle as we watch them, heads un­sta­ble and tiny toes barely touch­ing the ground. When we pro­vide our ba­bies with con­stant un­nec­es­sary stim­u­la­tion we give them the mes­sage that they don’t have a say in how they should oc­cupy their time, or move their body, and that they need to be dis­tracted from their feel­ings. Con­sider this: The world it­self is stim­u­la­tion. Every sound, sight and smell a baby

“Pik­ler and her col­leagues found that when ba­bies had to fig­ure things out for them­selves phys­i­cally, they were also prac­tic­ing the skill of re­silience.”

en­gages with is stim­u­la­tion. Our job is to cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where our ba­bies have ac­cess to as much or as lit­tle of this nat­u­ral stim­u­la­tion as they want or need. Through this ‘choice’ at the most ba­sic level, they de­velop a sense of au­ton­omy — free­dom from ex­ter­nal con­trol or in­flu­ence. By mak­ing the time and space for our ba­bies to prac­tice au­ton­omy, we give them the mes­sage they can have choices in how to be in this world, how to move and how to feel.

Learn­ing to fo­cus

In prac­tice, nur­tur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of au­ton­omy and re­silience couldn’t be sim­pler. It is as sim­ple as ‘leav­ing them to it’ while of­fer­ing words of sup­port, eye con­tact, and get­ting down to their level when they are mov­ing through feel­ings of frus­tra­tion to re­ally let them know you are their num­ber one cheer­leader. Be­gin by mak­ing sure your baby’s phys­i­cal needs have been met, so change her nappy and make sure she is well rested and fed. When her most ba­sic needs are met, she can now fo­cus on her learn­ing. Lay your baby on her back on a blan­ket en­sur­ing she can feel that she is in a safe space with a view — by a win­dow or on the floor in the lounge. Tell her, “I’m go­ing to go and fin­ish mak­ing din­ner but I can hear you and I will be back when you need me.” Make no mis­take, at first your baby will need you af­ter about two and a half min­utes but as her con­fi­dence grows, she will wait for longer pe­ri­ods of time be­fore she calls for you. In time she will learn that she is okay do­ing her own thing, and this will con­tinue into child­hood, ado­les­cence and adult­hood. Dur­ing th­ese pe­ri­ods of time on the blan­ket, you are of­fer­ing your baby the chance to prac­tice re­silience. The de­vel­op­ment of re­silience hap­pens when ba­bies have time and space to work through sit­u­a­tions they ini­tially find chal­leng­ing, such as be­ing away from you or ac­cess­ing her own toys. You can re­as­sure your baby by say­ing, “You’re telling me you don’t like it when you can’t see me. I am just over here and I will come back very soon to be with you.” Then com­plete what­ever task you are do­ing and go back to her. You are giv­ing your baby the mes­sage that you will al­ways re­turn and that you trust in her to be ok about this. Maybe it feels weird to talk to your baby in such an adult man­ner. It will be­come sec­ond na­ture as you be­gin to see how mag­i­cally chil­dren re­spond to be­ing spo­ken to with re­spect, em­pa­thy, un­der­stand­ing and clar­ity. By mod­el­ling this way of speak­ing you are teach­ing her how to speak to oth­ers. As your baby de­vel­ops she will let you know that she wants toys, or as I like to call them, ‘Op-shop de­lights.’ Ba­bies don’t need us to spend money on things. You know as well as I do that ba­bies much pre­fer the card­board box to the flashy toy in­side. Sim­ple ob­jects such as wooden nap­kin rings, vin­tage cot­ton nap­kins, small metal can­nis­ters (with­out sharp edges), and large ban­gles are bril­liant be­cause they are cheap, open-ended ob­jects that cre­ate an op­por­tu­nity for your baby to ex­plore ex­tended, fo­cused play. This is be­cause they are sim­ple ob­jects and re­quire a baby to fo­cus on how to make them in­ter­est­ing. A baby who has the abil­ity to stay fo­cused will grow into an adult who has the abil­ity to stay fo­cused. For a mo­ment, con­sider how you feel when you are deeply en­gaged in an ac­tiv­ity that re­quires you to con­cen­trate. Some­thing you love do­ing. Some­thing you are learn­ing about. Now imag­ine a gi­ant in­ter­rupt­ing you by ex­cit­edly ask­ing, “And what colour is that? Let’s sing the al­pha­bet song!” You’d be an­noyed. In­stead, con­sider ob­serv­ing your baby for a short time. If you need to in­ter­rupt them, choose your mo­ment wisely. They could be on the brink of an amaz­ing dis­cov­ery.

On the move

Your baby’s de­vel­op­ing mo­bil­ity will be a chance for her to learn about how ca­pa­ble she is. She might drop one of her op-shop trea­sures and ex­tend her hand or roll slightly to try to get it. Here you have a choice: You could save her the frus­tra­tion of not be­ing able to reach her ob­ject by plac­ing it eas­ily in her hand. You could save the day! You’d be a hero! Or, you could choose in­stead to be with her while she in­ves­ti­gates her own phys­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties and al­low her to work through a bit of frus­tra­tion (which beau­ti­fully dove­tails into build­ing re­silience and per­se­ver­ance) to reach her ob­ject. If we choose the lat­ter, we give our ba­bies the mes­sage that they are ca­pa­ble and can solve prob­lems for them­selves. Even­tu­ally, she will get her ob­ject. Maybe not to­day but soon. Her jour­ney, and tri­umph when she does get it, will be hers to en­joy. I’ve used the ‘baby on a blan­ket’ as a sim­ple anal­ogy for any sit­u­a­tion your baby or young child might be in. As par­ents we have choices about how to man­age our chil­dren’s frus­tra­tions, sense of au­ton­omy, jour­ney to re­silience, and their ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Peo­ple who pos­sess th­ese skills have the abil­ity to work their way through any sit­u­a­tion with con­fi­dence. New school? Yep. Stress in their job? Yep. The end of the world? Prob­a­bly. By tak­ing a step back and wait­ing a lit­tle to see if they can work through it, we of­fer them an op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice th­ese skills. If we de­cide to solve each prob­lem for them, we take away their op­por­tu­nity to prac­tice the skills they need for the fu­ture. We don’t know what the fu­ture holds for our chil­dren, but you can be sure that if we help cre­ate a sense of au­ton­omy and com­pe­tence, re­silience and fo­cus in our chil­dren, we of­fer them a higher chance to suc­ceed. And high self-es­teem.

Sanna Cooke is a trained Early Child­hood Ed­u­ca­tor with a back­ground in man­age­ment, par­ent classes and teacher ed­u­ca­tion. She has a strong in­ter­est chil­dren learn­ing through play and child-led learn­ing en­vi­ron­ments. Sanna has three chil­dren and lives in Auck­land.

“When we pro­vide our ba­bies with con­stant un­nec­es­sary stim­u­la­tion we give them the mes­sage that they need to be dis­tracted from their feel­ings.”

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