Review – Your Self-Confident Baby

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities

by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998

I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.

The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:

  • Major premise; your baby comes built in with the tools it needs to learn and navigate its environment, and will create its own learning problems and discover its own solutions when given freedom to explore the world at its own pace
  • Minor premise; good parenting is less about what you put in early on and more about what you don’t, especially with regards to worry, anxiety and active interventionism

This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:

  • American parenting; your baby may be capable of great and wonderful things (which you implicitly choose for it), but like a Calvinist, you will only know for sure if you actively work to develop these talents and capabilities in your child. Failing to do so means risking that your child will turn out to be not one of the Elect, but a poor loser, or worse, quite average and content
  • Asian parenting; babies are stupid and a constant and confusing source of pride and worry for their parents, and if they are not condescended constantly almost from the moment they are born, they risk becoming ingrates, drug users, or worse, free thinkers, rather than guided automatons with eternal respect for their revered elders

American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?

So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.

But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.

Gerber offers these basic principles:

  • basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner
  • an environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing
  • time for uninterrupted play
  • freedom to explore and interact with other infants
  • involvement of the child in all care-giving activities to allow them to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient
  • sensitive observation of the child to understand their needs
  • consistency and clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline

Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.

Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.

According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?

Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.

This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!

Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:

  • As parents, our role in our baby’s development is primarily trust
  • Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as her model of love and the ideal she’ll seek for future intimate bonds
  • The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are
  • Grieving people want and need to be heard, not fixed
  • A nice bedtime habit to start with your child is to recapture the day… You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, present and future and gives her life a connected flow
  • Since our lifespan is getting longer, why not slow down?
  • We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing
  • Babies are dependent, not helpless
  • “Readiness is when they [the baby] do it.” “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it himself.”
  • Instead of teaching words, use them
  • “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to”
  • Purposefully inflicting pain on a child can not be done with love
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Review – Nonviolent Communication

Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life

by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D., published 2003

What is all this hippie nonsense?

A common question, this is the best introduction I’ve found so far, via a lecture given by the author.

 

The NVC Process

To practice the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) process involves four components, which are:

  1. observations – the concrete actions that affect our well-being
  2. feelings – the emotions we experience in relation to what we observe
  3. needs – values, desires, etc., that generate our feelings
  4. requests – the concrete actions we’d like to see others take in order to enrich our lives

The NVC process is not a new way to manipulate other people; it involves giving and receiving a level of respect and empathy common to ourselves and others which entails:

  • expressing honestly through the 4 components
  • receiving empathetically through the 4 components

Obstacles to needs-based communication

There are many pitfalls that trap us in our efforts to communicate our unique needs. One common communication style which serves to hinder compassionate communication is moralistic judgment, an impersonal way of communicating the focuses on the “wrongness” of the actions of others rather than on revealing what a person thinks and feels inside of themselves. In truth, analyzing and judging the behavior of others is actually a reflection of our own needs and values. For example, “The rich are so selfish!” might be an attempt to communicate something closer to, “When I witness poverty, I feel sad; I value living in a community where everyone seems to have enough to take care of themselves.” The danger of moralistic judgments is that the act of classifying can promote violence by creating adversarial, us-them attitudes toward others– people become obstacles to satisfying our needs and values rather than potential partners.

Another problematic approach to communication involves making comparisons, which are simply another form of judgment. When we make comparisons, we block compassion– for ourselves and for others. It is another way to build walls and separateness.

Compassion is similarly difficult to achieve when we engage in denial of responsibility by using language which obscures the connection between our own thoughts, feelings and actions. In Nazi Germany, officers responsible for the Holocaust and other atrocities relied on Amtssprache, or “office talk/bureaucratese”, to deny responsibility for their actions because everything they did, they did because of “superiors’ orders” or “company policy” or “just following the law/doing my job.”

There are many ways in which we can deny responsibility for our actions by attributing their cause to factors external to the self:

  • vague, impersonal forces; “I did X because I had to”
  • condition, diagnosis or personal history; “I do X because I am Y”
  • actions of others; “I did X because Y did Z”
  • dictates of authority; “I did X because Y told me to” (Amtssprache)
  • group pressure; “I did X because everyone in group T does X”
  • institutional policies, regulations or rules; “I did X because those are the rules around here when people do Y”
  • gender, social or age roles; “I hate X, but I do it because I am a good Y”
  • uncontrollable impulses; “I was overcome by my urge to do X”

History is rife with examples,

We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think and feel

Two other ways we create obstacles to life-enriching communication are by stating our desires as demands, and speaking in terms of “who deserves what”.

A demand explicitly or implicitly threatens listeners with blame or punishment if they fail to comply

Similarly, speaking in terms of “deserving” creates the impression of “badness” or “wrongness” and promotes behavior based upon fear and punishment-avoidance (a negative philosophy) rather than goal-seeking and personal benefit (a positive philosophy). In other words,

it’s in everyone’s interest that people change, not in order to avoid punishment, but because they see the change as benefitting themselves

Implementing NVC: nuances and complexities

At this point you might be thinking, “NVC sounds interesting, but how do I actually use it?” Even the first element, observation, can hang people up.

The reason that the NVC process stresses observing without evaluating is that when people hear evaluation, they are less likely to hear our intended message and instead hear criticism which puts them on the defensive rather than being receptive to what we have to say. However, the NVC process doesn’t require complete objectivity and detachment from emotional realities, only that when evaluations are made they are based on observations specific to time and context. In other words, evaluations must be about specific actions taken within specific time periods. For example, “John is a great guy” is a generalized evaluation whereas, “John helped the little old lady cross the street yesterday afternoon” is an observation without evaluation.

Another element of NVC that new adoptees struggle with is separating feelings from non-feelings (thoughts). It is a common construct of the modern English language (and many others) to use “feel” in place of “think”. Red flags for feel/think confusion are the use of the following after the word “feel” when making a statement:

  • words such as “that,” “like,” and “as if”; “I feel like a failure” or “I feel that you shouldn’t do that”
  • the pronouns “I,” “you,” “he,” “she,” “they,” and “it”; “I feel it is useless”, “I feel I am always running around”
  • names or nouns referring to people; “I feel my boss doesn’t like me” or “I feel Jeff is doing a great job”

In NVC, there is a difference between expressing how we feel, and expressing what we think we are (self-evaluation):

  • feeling; “I feel disappointed/sad/frustrated with myself as an X”
  • evaluation; “I feel pathetic as an X”, which is better stated, “I am a pathetic X”

Part of developing our ability to accurately express feelings entails developing our feelings vocabulary, and learning which words connote states of being or evaluations of capability, and which words can authentically convey an emotional response to such values or needs.

The other critical component involved in accurately expressing out feelings is taking responsibility for their cause. The common misconception is that external factors cause internal emotional reactions. The reality that, while external factors may provide a stimulus, the direct cause is our internal values, beliefs, expectations and needs; when they are satisfied, we have one set of feelings (positive) and when they are violated or negated, we experience a different set of feelings (negative).

When we receive a negative message from another person, we have four options for choosing how to react to it:

  1. blame ourselves
  2. blame others
  3. sense our own feelings and needs
  4. sense others’ feelings and needs

Accepting responsibility for our feelings involves acknowledging our needs, desires, expectations, values or thoughts. We commonly mask these things by using unaccountable language such as:

  • use of impersonal pronouns such as “it” or “that”; “It makes me so X when Y” or “That makes me feel Z”
  • use of the expression “I feel X because…” followed by a person or personal pronoun other than “I”; “I feel X because you…” or “I feel X when Z…”
  • statements which only mention the actions of others; “When Y does X, I feel Z”

The simplest remedy is to adopt use of the phrase “I feel… because I need…” which connects our own feelings to our own needs. This can improve our communication with others, as well, because when people hear things that sound like criticism they invest their energy in self-defense, whereas when we directly connect our feelings to our needs we give people an opportunity to behave compassionately toward us.

If we express our needs, we have a better chance of getting them met

The liberation cometh

Emotional liberation is the state of being achievable through disciplined and consistent practice of the NVC process wherein an individual is able to freely and safely express his authentic feelings and needs to others, and to similarly be free and secure in receiving these authentic feelings and needs from others. The movement from emotional slavery to emotional freedom typically involves three transformational stages:

  1. emotional slavery; we see ourselves as responsible for others’ feelings
  2. obnoxious observation; we feel reluctant as we realize we no longer want to be responsible for others’ feelings
  3. emotional liberation; we take responsibility for our intentions and actions

Implementing NVC: the final step, making requests

The fourth component of NVC, making requests, is in some ways the most challenging of all. To practice effective request-making it is important to be in the habit of utilizing positive language as it is hard to “do a don’t.” Thinking of a way to express your request in the form of “Would you be willing to do X?” instead of “Please stop Y” serves to remove incentives for resistance and fighting and gives the other person an opportunity to make a positive contribution to your well being.

Similarly, the focus should be on making specific, concrete, actionable requests rather than something general, ambiguous, vague or abstract.

We often use vague and abstract language to indicate how we want other people to feel or be without naming a concrete action they could take to reach that state

Being clear about what you’re requesting from another person makes it more likely they’ll be willing and able to comply with your request– how can a person satisfy your needs if they don’t know what they are and don’t know what they could do to help you with them? Don’t make people guess!

Additionally, expressing feelings without providing a request can confuse people and lead them to believe you are trying to pin guilt for your emotions on them, rather than prompting them to take some corrective action. For example, “It bothers me that you forgot to do X” is not a clear request for a person to do X and may be interpreted as “You make me feel bad!” which is antagonistic and inspires self-defensive reactions.

Whenever we say something to another person, we are requesting something in return

Another guideline for making requests is to ask for a reflection– ask the person you just made a request of to reflect the request back to you to confirm you have been understood.

After we’ve communicated a request, we’re often interested in knowing how our the other person has reacted. We can get a better understanding of this by soliciting honest feedback through one of three ways:

  1. inquiring about what the listener is feeling
  2. inquiring about what the listener is thinking
  3. inquiring as to whether the listener is willing to take a particular action

A key here is to specify which thoughts or feelings we’d have to have shared; without specificity, the other person may reply at length with thoughts and feelings that are not the ones we’re seeking. Particularly challenging situations arise when making requests of a group.

When we address a group without being clear what we are wanting back, unproductive discussions will often follow

Keep in mind that there is a difference between making a request and making a demand. The difference is that when a person hears a demand, they believe they will be punished or blamed if they don’t comply. This leaves them with two options:

  • submit
  • rebel

Notice how “respond with compassion and seek resolution” is not one of the options. If the speaker criticizes or judges the listener’s response, it is a demand, not a request. A request implies that a person is free to disregard it if they don’t want to comply; that’s their right as a free individual with their own needs and wants.

Making a request implies we are prepared to show empathetic understanding of another when they are unwilling to comply with our request. However, if someone doesn’t comply with our request, we don’t have to give up. We do have an obligation, though, to empathize with their reasons for not complying before attempting to persuade.

Conclusion

This is a powerful and transformative framework for not only communicating with others but better understanding one’s self and one’s own needs. The world would be a much different place if it were more widely understood.