Following Nature's Plan: Child-Centered Parenting in the Early Years
NEW PARENTS face many uncertainties. This is especially true in the United States and other nations that emphasize progress and change. Unlike parents in more stable, traditional societies, U.S. parents do not always feel they can turn to their own parents and grandparents for child-care advice. Instead, today's parents search for newer and better ways, looking for the latest scientific findings and approaches. But the experts aren't always in agreement, and parents can easily become confused and anxious. How long should one breast-feed? Should one feed on a schedule or on demand? Is it good to let a baby cry? Should one teach the baby to walk? Are flash cards and Baby Mozart videos a good idea? To these, as to a myriad of other questions, advice varies.
To make matters worse, parents are constantly reminded of their tremendous responsibility. Magazines and books tell parents that they are their children's first teachers, and what they do will have a tremendous impact. Popular book titles suggest thatit's up to the parents to start teaching the child everything important: Teach Your Child How to Think, Teach Your Child Decision-Making, Teach Your Child the Language of Social Success, and so on. It's easy for parents to believe that if they don't do everything correctly, their children will become failures for life--and it will be the parents' fault.
Parental uncertainties and anxieties are not new. The famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock and the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson wrote about the problem in the 1940s and 1950s. When my wife and I began raising a family in the late 1960s, we had anxieties similar to those of young parents today.
Our insecurities make life unpleasant for us, but they also affect our children. According to Erikson, babies can sense our level of relaxation, and they need to experience a sense of calm within us in order to trust the world as a comforting place. Erikson implied that parents gain an inner assurance through a faith in something larger than themselves, such as religion. But not all parents have a deep religious faith. How can parents acquire the inner calm and confidence that is so important?
I believe that the person who offered the best recommendations was the pediatrician Arnold Gesell. Gesell said the first thing that we, as parents, need to recognize is that the baby's development is not really in our hands. Children enter the world with an inborn growth schedule that is the product of several million years of biological evolution. They are preeminently "wise" about what they need and what they are ready and not ready to do. Thus, we should adopt a child-centered approach: Instead of trying to force the child into our own predetermined patterns, we should take our cues from the child herself. If the baby is hungry, we should feed her; if she wants to play, we should go ahead and play with her; if she is sleepy, we should let her sleep and not rouse her to be fed. The baby follows nature'slaws, so we can safely follow the baby's cues. Thus, there is something in which we can place our trust--nature herself.
Initially, when parents are still expecting the birth of a child, this approach might seem to be just another theory. But once they begin watching their infants grow, parents can become deeply impressed by the implicit wisdom of nature's inner guidance. This was certainly the case with me. As I watched our own children, as well as those of our friends, I saw how babies spontaneously engage in behaviors that I never would have imagined teaching, such as rocking back and forth a couple of weeks prior to crawling. I saw how babies investigate objects with rapt and spellbound attention. I saw that when parents follow the baby's signals and needs, babies work out their own stable schedules of feeding, sleep, and wakefulness. I felt a humble pleasure in watching nature work.
Although Gesell published his major works in the 1940s and 1950s and wrote romantically about nature's inner guidance, he also conducted some of the most rigorous scientific studies to date on infant development. In his more technical writing, he spoke of nature's guidance as biological maturation. Maturation is an inner, genetic force that determines the sequential nature of development. In utero, the genes direct embryonic growth in fixed sequences, and we can see fixed sequences after birth as well. Children begin to roll over, sit up, crawl, stand, and walk according to a set schedule. When, under the direction of the genes, the child's nervous system has grown to a certain point, the child will feel an inner urge to engage in each new activity.
The environment, to be sure, plays a role. But maturational theorists believe its role is primarily supportive; it ensures that children have opportunities they need to perfect their inwardly emerging capacities.
Maturational theorists recognize that while development alwaysfollows specific sequences, children do grow at different rates. Not all children sit up, crawl, or walk at the same age. But maturationists believe that individual growth rates, too, are largely determined by the genes.
Gesell, finally, initiated the current research interest in inborn temperament. He observed that while some children grow rapidly and are blithe and alert, other children have different temperaments. Some children, who grow more slowly, like to take their time and ponder matters. Others, who grow unevenly, are often moody and alternate between disinterest and flashes of brilliance. Gesell emphasized that every child has a unique, inborn growth rate and temperament, and he urged us to respect each child's individuality.
Not all child-centered theorists emphasize the concept of maturation. Jean Piaget, in particular, believed we can describe a great deal of intellectual development simply in terms of the child's curiosity. Children become intrigued by problems they can't quite solve in their usual ways, and as they work on these problems, they construct new cognitive structures. This construction process isn't directly governed by the genes. But Piaget agreed with the maturationists that the child's development comes from within. It doesn't come from adult teachings or environmental influences, but from the child's own spontaneous interests and efforts to create new ways of understanding the world. Thus, Piagetians also urge us to take our cues from the child. We help children the most by giving them opportunities to work on problems they find most interesting.
Today, the child-centered philosophy is most strongly promoted by the prominent writings of Mary Ainsworth and other attachment theorists. Like Gesell, attachment theorists argue that infants are biologically prepared to guide us with respect to the experiences they need. When we respond to their signals and cues, they develop healthy and secure attachments to us. Theyenjoy being with us, and they also use us as a secure home base from which to venture off and explore the surroundings.
DOES THE CHILD-CENTERED APPROACH LEAD TO "SPOILING"?
THE CHILD-CENTERED philosophy strikes many people as too permissive. It would seem that if we always take our cues from the child, the child will become spoiled, thinking that she can always be in control. However, the research evidence, at least with respect to infancy, has supported child-centered theory. In a classic study, Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth asked what happens when mothers respond promptly and consistently to babies' cries (rather than acting on their own ideas of when it is all right for them to cry). The clear finding was that responsiveness does not lead to spoiling. On the contrary, by the age of one year these babies, in comparison to those of less responsive parents, cried less and were more independent. They enjoyed being held, but if the mother put them down, they didn't cry or protest but ventured off into exploratory play. They would check back on the mother's presence from time to time, as is natural at this age, but they were basically quite independent. Apparently, when babies' signals are heeded, they become confident that they can always get help when needed and therefore can relax and venture forth and explore on their own.
Other studies have supported this finding with respect to babies' cries and other signals (such as reaching to be picked up and gestures of greeting). When parents respond consistently and sensitively to babies' signals, babies develop feelings of trust in their parents' care, and this trust frees them to venture out into the world with considerable independence.
Of course, as babies grow and become increasingly mobileand active, their behavior can get out of hand. They can do things that are unsafe to themselves, or harmful or disrespectful toward others. A child-centered approach doesn't advocate complete indulgence. We don't have to allow a two-year-old to scribble on the walls because he's developing his inner artistic urges.
Often it is easy enough to set limits and still allow children to develop their naturally emerging capacities. It's easy enough to say, "Walls aren't for drawing, paper is. Here's some paper." At other times, such solutions aren't so obvious. In general, it seems useful to distinguish between moral and intellectual behavior. It is appropriate to set limits with respect to the moral infractions--behavior that hurts or disrespects others. But we do not want to limit the child's intellectual explorations. (A helpful book on limit setting is Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Child.)
When it comes to the child's intellectual explorations, the child-centered approach trusts the child's own sense of what is important. On some level, children know what they need to learn in order to grow. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret." Thus, parents watch for children's spontaneous interests and give the child opportunities to pursue them.
Often the child's interests may be very different from those of adults. For example, adults increasingly want their young children, beginning as early as one or two years old, to learn numbers, letters, and other skills relevant to their academic futures. But young children demonstrate a passion for other activities--such as running, climbing, jumping, drawing, water play, exploring nature, and make-believe play. Young children's enthusiasm for such activities comes from the children themselves; the activities seem to enable them to actualize their growth.
Even when it comes to recreation, children have their owninterests. I remember when I first took our daughter, then three years old, to the Bronx Zoo. I was sure she would want to see all the large-animal exhibits. But we had hardly begun walking up the long path to the zoo itself when she spotted a worm. She stopped and looked at it, completely absorbed, for about fifteen minutes. She finally decided to walk along, but had taken only a few steps when she became interested in a long chain that fenced off the sides of the path, and she swung on it for several more minutes. All in all, it was over an hour before we arrived at the animal exhibits, and I was surprised that her interest in them was only modest. They seemed too far off for her; she was much more interested in such things as a squirrel and a feather that were right next to her. Gary Nabhan has reported something similar in natural settings. Whereas adults scan nature's vistas and panoramas, young children focus on the objects and wildlife immediately before them--a pine cone, a flower, an ant. They want to learn about small objects and details.
A child-centered philosophy asks us not only to respect the children's own interests, but to allow them to make their own discoveries. Frequently, we are in a hurry to explain things to children or instruct them. For example, when on a walk with a child and the child stops to observe something of interest, such as a flower or a dog, the adult often labels it and explains how it is similar to something else in the child's experience. But the child wants to examine it on her own. Similarly, when children begin to draw, adults often try to improve their drawing. The adults' behavior, in this case, is extremely misguided, for young children routinely develop their drawing talents in remarkable ways on their own, without adult intervention. We shall discuss children's drawing in some detail in chapter 4, but for now I want to state that at least until the child is seven or eight years old, it is best to make sure children have materials and time to draw, and then step back and let them work on their own.
The psychologist Louise Ames once noted that often it isn't parents, but grandparents, who best exemplify the child-centered attitude. Grandparents derive endless pleasure from just watching their grandchildren go about the business of being children. Whether a child is trying out her first steps, trying to balance one block on another, making up a song while playing with a truck, or watching an insect, a grandparent may sit and watch, smiling, as if something quite wonderful is occurring. Grandparents do not rush in to teach and correct the child--they just enjoy observing. And children often feel good about being in the presence of grandparents. Many parents think children like grandparents because the grandparents spoil their grandchildren. Some parents say, "Of course my son likes his grandparents; they let him get away with murder." But I suspect the real reason is that grandparents have a broader sense of the life cycle. They recognize the special qualities of the childhood years and the child's own efforts to discover what is important to her.
Nevertheless, the child-centered approach strikes many people as too laid-back, especially for today's high-charged society. The child-centered approach seems more appropriate for an earlier era, when the pace of life was slower. Today everyone is anxious to prepare children for a competitive future, and to begin as soon as possible. Adult-directed philosophies dominate the books on parenthood and child development. I will briefly review some major models and then expand on the child-centered alternative.
Diana Baumrind's "Authoritative Parent"
Pediatricians, educators, and even popular magazines draw on psychological research, and there is no research on parenthoodmore prominent than that by Diana Baumrind. Nearly every child psychology textbook highlights her findings on effective parenting.
On the basis of parent interviews and home observations, Baumrind reported that the most self-reliant, self-controlled, and task-oriented four-year-old nursery-school children had parents of a certain type. The parents weren't "authoritarian" parents who were bossy, intrusive, and unaffectionate. Nor were they "permissive" parents who helplessly allowed their children to do whatever they wanted. Instead, the effective parents were "authoritative." They combined firm control with warmth and a desire for the child to become independent.
On the surface, Baumrind's research seems to weigh against the child-centered approach. Her highly effective "authoritative parent" generally sounds more controlling and directive than a child-centered philosophy would advocate.
But Baumrind's findings are much more complex than textbook summaries say. Her major study described not three types, but eight. Moreover, some lenient parents had extremely competent children. These were not the parents whom Baumrind labeled "permissive." The permissive parents seemed confused. But other parents were very clear about their views. They valued a democratic family that respects the voice of every family member, including that of the youngest child. As one would expect, their children were often independent in nursery school. More surprising, perhaps, the children generally did what the parents wanted. The children weren't following parental orders (the parents rarely gave any). Instead, the children seemed to feel that because their choices were respected and the parents were reasonable, they would pay careful attention to what the parents wanted. Thus, a close look at Baumrind's actual data may reveal significant support for child-centered parenting--parenting that credits the child with her own wisdom about her needs.
In the United States today, there is a major emphasis on early academic learning. Parents, with their eyes on the future, would like to begin teaching their children intellectual skills early on, giving them a head start on academic success. President George W Bush wants to make Head Start much more academic.
The question of accelerating intellectual development is longstanding in psychology, and research has yet to say for sure how much speeding up is possible. Generally speaking, it seems that efforts to accelerate cognitive growth in day care and preschool do produce some gains, but the gains are temporary. There also is evidence that parents who talk a lot to their children raise their children's vocabularies, especially if parents focus their words on the children's interests. However, adult teaching can backfire. When adults assume too much control, they diminish children's curiosity, which seems essential for cognitive growth.
Moreover, some research warns against introducing academic material too soon. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek found that academic preschools, compared to more play-oriented preschools, produced kindergartners who were less creative and more anxious about their performances. They also liked school less. These children showed some academic gains in preschool--they knew their numbers and letters better than the others--but these gains dissipated during kindergarten. The negative effects of early academic instruction weren't overpowering, but other research points in a similar direction.
An increasingly popular approach to advancing the child's development is that of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky actually wrote his major works during the 1930s, but there is keen interest today in his proposal to teach children in the "zone ofproximal development." This is the forward progress children can make when, instead of working alone, they work with the assistance of more competent people. Assistance is often described as "scaffolding"; we help the child along for a while and increasingly remove our assistance as the child gets the hang of a new skill.
Scaffolding advocates want to avoid total or excessive adult direction. But from a child-centered perspective their approach still presents problems. For one thing, when we try to move development forward, we shorten the time the child has to pursue her current interests. For example, as I will argue in detail later, childhood is a time when children need leisurely time to explore the natural world. If we are always moving the child forward, trying to advance her intellectual skills, we can deprive the child of this time.
In addition, scaffolding advocates don't always recognize the extent to which their method might foster intellectual dependency. Consider the following example, which is a central illustration in Laura E. Berk and Adam Winsler's popular book, Scaffolding Children's Learning. An adult is "scaffolding" the efforts of a young child, Jason, as Jason tries "to put a difficult puzzle together."
JASON: I can't get this one in.
ADULT: Which piece might go down here?
JASON: His shoes. (Looks for a piece resembling the clowns' shoes but tries the wrong one)
ADULT: Well, what piece looks like this shape?
JASON: The brown one.
ADULT: There you have it! Now try turning that piece just a little.
Jason then happily succeeds with several pieces. But note the extent to which the adult has directed Jason's efforts. When Jasonconfronts a new problem, he is likely to look for help once again.
The puzzle, to be sure, was difficult, and it therefore required adult assistance. But from a child-centered perspective, we would question why it was so important that the young child work on this task in the first place. Child-centered educators value the problems that children are determined to solve themselves. Quite often, these are not store-bought toys and games. Instead, they are the countless problems children encounter in their spontaneous activities--drawing, modeling with sand and dirt, using props for dramatic play, pouring liquids, sorting pebbles or coins, creating stories and poems while they play. Quite often, young children become so deeply engrossed in their activities that they hardly pay attention to the adults around them--let alone ask the adults for help.
The Birth-to-Three Movement
There has been a new call for adult intervention in children's early development. The goal is not to accelerate specific skills, but to stimulate neural connections. At a major White House Conference in 1997, Hillary Clinton, the actor Rob Reiner, and some neuroscientists called attention to research suggesting that environmental experiences in the first three years alter the brain for life. They urged all caregivers to take advantage of this special window of opportunity nature provides for stimulating the child's brain development.
In a nutshell, the scientific argument is this. During the first three years after birth, the brain is furiously at work creating neural connections. In fact, the two-year-old's brain already has twice as many synaptic connections as the brain of the adult. But by the age of three years or so, this period of exuberant brain development is over. During the next several years, a pruningprocess dominates; large numbers of synaptic connections are lost. The connections that are retained are those that have been exercised through experience. Whatever the child sees, hears, touches, tastes, or thinks activates synaptic connections and cements them in; the rest wither away. Thus, if we want children to form richly wired brains, we must give them rich experiences in the first three years of life, before the pruning process gets too far along.
The "birth to three" message rapidly spread through the media. Numerous science writers, private firms, foundations, and governmental agencies have urged parents to take advantage of this extraordinary window of opportunity nature has provided. Parents, they say, should give their children as much sensory and intellectual stimulation as possible in the first three years, during this period of exuberant brain growth. Otherwise, the window will shut and the educational advantages that parents might have provided their children, including their children's hopes of getting into Ivy League colleges, will be lost forever.
Many scientists, however, are more skeptical. One attempt to put the birth-to-three movement in perspective is that of John T. Bruer. In his book The Myth of the First Three Years, Bruer makes these points.
First, most of the brain research is not that new. It's over two decades old.
Second, our knowledge about brain development, in the first three years and after, is still sketchy. There's much we do not know.
Third, it is true that some scientists hypothesize critical periods, time periods when the organism is most receptive to environmental stimulation. But it is wrong to think of birth-to-three as the one-and-only, all-encompassing critical period. Instead, there seem to be several specific critical periods, and only someof these occur during the first three years. For example, there might be a critical period with respect to color vision during the first three years; babies need to see colors during this time if they are to develop this capacity. But other critical periods, such as those with respect to language learning, occur later.
Fourth, critical periods do not govern most learning in life.
Fifth, significant aspects of brain development occur long after the age of three years. For example, the prefrontal lobes, which influence intellectual processes such as planning and reasoning, do not seem to even begin pruning until puberty.
Sixth, it's wrong to think of sheer numbers of synapses as good and pruning as bad. Pruning may bring order into synaptic connections, enabling us to stay goal-directed and avoid distractions.
Bruer's points are sensible, but the birth-to-three message is still going strong. It also is creating considerable parental anxiety. Parents have the impression that the first three years of life are somehow critical, and they should be doing something, but the advice they are given is confusing and contradictory.
Some birth-to-three experts advise parents to just use common sense. But other experts recommend that parents provide as much stimulation as possible--a "full court developmental press every minute during the birth-to-3 developmental season." To help them stimulate youngsters, parents will find bookstores and toy stores selling flash cards, "Brilliant Beginnings" instruction kits, classic-music videos, and new books with practical advice.
Sometimes the same expert gives contradictory messages. An example is the book Start Smart: Building Brain Power in the Early Years. In its early pages, the book cautions against overreacting to the birth-to-three message. What babies need most is simply our loving care. But the book leaves the overall impression that parents should bombard young children with stimulation: talk,stories, TV, songs, dances, puzzles--everything possible. Some of the stimulation involves problem-solving instruction that far exceeds the three-year-old's capacities.
In a more academic book, What's Going On in There?, Lise Eliot offers parenting advice in light of a vast amount of research, both on brain development and parenting practices. But Eliot's advice often requires parent to walk a difficult tightrope. She suggests that parents stimulate children, but not overstimulate them. Parents should be "demanding," but not "pressuring."
Eliot recommends ways of "sustaining babies' interests" and "encouraging children's attention." In particular, parents can rotate toys and trade toys with friends and neighbors so the children won't tire of them. But once again, parents must worry about overdoing things. They shouldn't present so many toys that the child becomes confused and loses focus. Parenting becomes a very difficult balancing act.
THE NATURAL EXPLORER
THE BIRTH-TO-THREE child-rearing advice, then, is often confusing and difficult to follow. I believe this has happened because the experts have sometimes lost sight of what young children are like.
Most notably, the experts generally assume that adults must encourage babies' and toddlers' attention and sustain their interest. But simple observation suggests otherwise. Without any urging on our part, babies investigate common objects--a wad of paper, a pair of eyeglasses, keys, pots and pans--with rapt attention. They examine such objects for several minutes, oblivious to all other stimulation. In fact, the intensity of the infant's concentration often seems much greater than that of most adults. I have often been struck how the expression of the baby whenexamining objects is similar to that of great athletes and artists during their peak efforts.
What's more, as babies begin to walk and become toddlers, they go through a period in which they are the boldest of explorers. They rush down hallways, opening closets and cupboards. They energetically climb chairs, couches, and stairs, seeing what they can find. And they march along sidewalks and across lawns, elated by their ability to move about on their own and taking pure delight in their discoveries. A flower, a bird, a puddle of water--the world is full of new wonders. If they slip or fall, they simply get up and keep on moving. The psychoanalysts Phyllis Greenacre and Margaret Mahler referred to this time as one in which the child has a "love affair with the world."
Toddlers become so exuberant in their explorations that Mahler and her colleagues have been moved to call the early toddler period "precious" and a "pinnacle of perfection." The younger baby, to be sure, also explored the world with great intensity. But for the first several months, the baby was confined to the mother's lap, so his explorations were restricted. And when the baby was able to crawl away from the mother, he also was concerned about the mother's presence. Thus, although the baby certainly explored energetically, he also frequently checked back to make sure the mother was still there. Now, when the baby can walk, and with a basic trust in the mother reasonably well established, the baby feels a boundless freedom to venture forth. As Mahler's colleague Louise Kaplan says, it's as if the baby's deep and persistent urge to explore is finally released. The youngster often becomes so consumed by his explorations that he forgets about his mother altogether. Occasionally, to be sure, the child does still remember her and gives a quick glance back at her. But he ventures forth with such courage and joy that the world seems to smile on this new conqueror.
This period of full-tilt exploration lasts from about twelve toeighteen months. During the months and years that follow, childhood continues to be marked by intense curiosity and exploration, but childhood is mixed with new doubts and new concerns about one's place in the social world. There isn't quite the same never-ending exuberance of the toddler on the move.
The elation and courage of the young toddler also characterizes some of our adventures as adults, as when we sail new waters, hike over new terrains, climb steep cliffs, and dive into unexplored waters. The difference is that the toddler's elated explorations occur day in and day out. The child's whole waking life is one wonderful adventure.
It would seem, then, that adults might find it easy to just enjoy the youngster's courage and exuberance. But this is not the case. Instead, adults generally assume that they must instruct or help the child. They think they must show the child how to jump, climb stairs, open boxes, and so on, even though the child learns such activities with great pleasure on her own. And, as we have seen, even advanced scholars assume that adults need to improve the infant's and toddler's curiosity.
Of course, some infants and toddlers become bored and listless. But when this happens, it's generally wrong to assume that the problem somehow lies with the child. Rather, it's likely that adults are imposing their own interests on the child and curtailing the child's natural way of learning.
For example, in Manhattan it is now rare to see a toddler or young child walking outdoors with her caretakers. Adults push the children everywhere in strollers. While pushing, the adults often try to engage their children in educational conversations ("Now today is Friday. What comes after Friday?"). But the children are hardly interested. I am sure that if the children could express themselves in words, they would say, "Here I am, eager to move about on my own and explore what I encounter, but the adults pick me up and force me to ride. And all thewhile, they talk about things that they think are important, but which I can't even see. There's a fascinating world to explore. Why do they rob me of the opportunity?"
The child-centered philosophy, then, holds that we help children learn by respecting their own ways of learning. Like a tree whose branches grow toward the sunlight and whose roots reach out toward water, the young child eagerly reaches out for the experiences she needs to develop. Thus, we should bring the baby and toddler into contact with a world in all its richness and then give the child a chance to explore what is most interesting to her. And instead of trying to assist or direct the child's investigations, we should give the child a chance to learn on her own.
OUR UNOBTRUSIVE PRESENCE
QUITE OFTEN, THE child-centered approach is criticized for going overboard in its emphasis on independent learning. This approach seems to be so opposed to adult guidance or assistance that it wants us to leave the child completely alone--a recommendation that sounds like neglect.
Actually, there are many ways that we, as parents or caretakers, can help children learn on their own. We can, for example, give them educational materials that arouse their curiosity and then let them work on the materials themselves. This is an approach that is integral to Montessori and some Piagetian nursery schools. But for children under the age of three or so, such materials are fairly scarce; the available materials do not compare to the countless resources--physical and social--that children find fascinating in their everyday worlds.
What I would like recommend here is not specific materials, or even a specific technique. Rather it is an attitude, a way of being with the child.
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, in a brief comment on the baby's first attempts to walk, said that for the parent, "The art is to be constantly present and yet not be present." That is, we must be present for the child's safety, yet not in the sense of imposing our anxieties, instructions, or assistance on the child. We need to stay sufficiently in the background to give children the freedom to learn by themselves.
This attitude--this unobtrusive presence--is helpful in a wide range of situations. A young child can only explore many new settings or try out new activities, such as climbing stairs, running downhill, or wading in water, because we provide the opportunities and stay nearby for protection. But the child can only learn freely and independently if our presence is unobtrusive.
Maria Montessori also tried to describe this attitude and offered some examples of it. She described, for instance, ways in which sensitive parents accompany their toddlers on walks. Such parents do not force the child to keep with them, or pick them up and put them in strollers if they can't keep up. Instead, the parents follow the child's pace, stopping whenever the child stops to examine things, giving the child opportunities to explore. As the parents stand patiently by, they quietly enjoy the fascination that the child shows for the most common things--a leaf, an insect, a puddle of water. These parents are clearly not neglecting the child, nor are they controlling the child's learning. Rather, their patient, unobtrusive presence gives the child the chance to investigate the world on her own.
Although the caretaker's unobtrusive presence is helpful in a variety of circumstances, it seems to emerge most naturally in one particular context. This is when children, soon after they can crawl, begin what Mary Ainsworth calls "using the parent as a base from which to explore." If, for example, a mother takes her nine-month-old son to the park, he will typically stay close to her for a while, but then become increasingly interested inthe environment and take little excursions away from her to investigate it. From time to time he will look back at her, or actually return to her before venturing forth once again--as though to reassure himself that she is still there for him. The mother senses that it is just her stable presence that the child desires. He wouldn't want her moving about or shadowing him or trying to control him through verbal commands. It is simply her calm and stationary presence--what Margaret Mahler called her "quiet availability"--that gives him the courage to explore the world on his own.
Here, the adult's actions are limited. The parent's behavior is like that of parents in many species of animals, whose method has been characterized as "watching all the time, but acting only when the baby demands it." Sometimes, however, we may wish to be more active, as when we bring infants into contact with objects that are beyond their reach. If, for example, an infant girl shows an interest in a high door handle, we can lift her up so she can reach it. At this point, however, it is often best to become still, to do nothing more than hold her. Having set the stage for learning, we turn the action over to the child.
The child also wishes to investigate other people, and here again our unobtrusive presence is most helpful. I remember one day when I was watching a kids' soccer match while holding our five-month-old daughter. We were standing next to another spectator, a boy about ten years old. Our daughter looked intently at him, and then she reached for his face and began touching it. She was completely absorbed in her deliberate study of his face. I expected the boy to pull away or change the interaction to some "baby talk" game. But I was surprised that the boy just stood perfectly still and gave our baby a chance to explore in her own way. He just stood quietly, with a slightly amused smile. He somehow knew that this is how babies learn about people, and he gave her an opportunity to do so.
Our unobtrusive presence usually requires a good deal of patience. It takes patience for us to just stand by while a baby perfects the skills of walking or stair climbing or investigates a flower. It requires patience for us to hold still while a baby explores us. But we soon find ourselves taking silent pleasure in the intensity of the child's actions. I believe we get the sense that the child is engaged in activities that are vital to her growth--and we are quietly giving growth a chance to occur.
I have described one way of helping children learn on their own. It is only one way. As mentioned earlier, we can also provide toys and materials that engage children's independent efforts. We can also interact more fully with children in ways that facilitate learning without infringing on their independence. For example, Daniel Stern and others have described how infants and mothers often begin playing together, with the mother loosely imitating the baby's sounds and gestures and also varying them in ways the baby finds interesting and enjoyable. The baby is exposed to new stimuli, but the baby also plays a large role in regulating the pace, intensity, and rhythm of the interaction. Nevertheless, it is frequently just our patient and unobtrusive presence that gives the child the security and the freedom to explore the world on her own.
Copyright © 2003 by William Crain