I’d been trying to articulate to Matthew why I often find mom and baby groups uncomfortable, until I realized that it comes down to this: I deeply desire to be a respectful parent. One who is supportive of Peter’s current stage of development, both in terms of his abilities and limitations. One who allows him to express himself freely and grow into the person he’s becoming.
But so often our culture isn’t respectful of children and their personhood, and this is reflected in many mainstream parenting practices.
As much as it will sound like one, this isn’t a judgment of the parents at these groups. The disrespect shown to children is deeply rooted in our culture and in the parenting norms that are being passed down to us. We’re all doing the best we can.
Simultaneously we put limitations on babies that don’t allow them to fully explore the scope of their abilities because to do so requires a lot of energy and patience, while at the same time, we often expect behaviour from children that isn’t realistic given their biological and developmental norms. We want them to reason like adults when this isn’t an ability that is reached until adolescence. Or we push them towards maturity faster than nature intended. We give them Bumbo seats and walkers that don’t respect the innate processes that push babies to develop these skills in their own time (and these “learning devices” can have serious consequences for physical and mental development). Then we lament how fast they grow up, even though we’ve been pushing them along the whole time.
Of course we all want what’s best for our children and often we think that giving them a little nudge in the right direction will help them get ahead in life. But what is lost when children are rushed through their childhood? What do they learn when the achievement of milestones is valued over the process of learning?
And even as we’re in this midst of this pushing, we’re also hindering our children’s natural abilities and curiosity with the other hand – both for our own convenience and their protection. Just as they show an affinity for climbing the stairs, we put up stair gates. Even though they desperately want to help with our daily tasks in their own little ways, we continue to do everything for them because to have them participate would be too slow and messy (or we don’t even consider the fact that they could help).
I’ve slowly been learning about the Montessori and Waldorf approaches to child development by reading blogs like Friday Be Mighty and The Montessori Notebook and books like Simplicity Parenting and You Are Your Child’s First Teacher and it’s opened my eyes up to the wonderful ways in which we can help foster our children’s innate curiosity and independence. Not by pushing or forcing them to do things before they’re ready but by giving them opportunities to freely explore their interests and abilities with our oversight to keep them safe – even though they’ll make mistakes and messes and often slow life down to a snail’s pace.
Of course there isn’t always time to let a child climb the stairs themselves or pick out their clothes or cut their snacks or wipe the table. Often we have time constraints meaning we need to step in and just get things done. And we have to honour our own energy limits when it comes to involving our children in our day-to-day activities. But by consciously involving our children in daily life when time allows, we help them to be independent, confident people.
So much of what it means to take a respectful approach to parenting is summed up in this quote from You Are Your Child’s First Teacher:
“We need to begin to see the child in a new way, one that takes into account physical, emotional, and mental development, as well as less tangible spiritual dimensions of the human being. Once we begin to perceive the whole child and how he or she unfolds, then our choices will begin to have coherence. No longer wanting a cookbook of ‘how-to’s,’ we will trust our own decisions, based on our understanding of the developing child and our observation of the resultant flowering of our own children.”
(And I highly recommend this book as a starting point for learning about child development).
There’s no cookie cutter solution, no one-size-fits-all for treating our children with respect. What works for our family and makes sense for Peter, likely won’t be the same for you. Respecting some children will mean honouring the independence they’re showing by putting them in their own bed from a young age and for others it may be cosleeping past toddlerhood. When we combine an understanding of child development with our unparalleled knowledge of our own child, we can intuitively make respectful choices that are right for our families.
A video recently went viral about asking your baby before changing their nappy. The expert cited has been ridiculed and her advice wildly misinterpreted. Of course a baby, who’s ability to communicate is very limited, is not going to give clear, unambiguous consent to this question. And even if they could, they might still protest. But what was really being suggested is that we practice respecting our children’s bodily autonomy and give them opportunities to learn that their responses matter. The fact that people have been so outraged by this idea is very telling.
Although his capacity to help is still quite limited, I’m trying to give Peter some agency in his life in ways that are age appropriate. He picks between two outfits in the morning. He has complete control over how much or how little he eats. He turns the pages of the books while we’re reading and helps me pull the laundry out of the hamper to put in the wash. We practice safely climbing up and down the stairs and he helps to clean his hands after a meal.
I also try to extend this respect to the things I still need to do for him – of which of course there are many. Using warm water to wash his face. Explaining what I’m doing and where we’re going throughout the day.
Even though his capacity to understand and help are still so limited, I think that by starting early, I’m creating good habits for myself in respecting his personhood and fostering his abilities.
And of course there is respect in recognising the limits of his abilities. That he still needs our close physical proximity throughout the night. He has big feelings that need to be expressed and soothed. To him, his needs are immediate and desperate. They cannot be reasoned away.
I’m in no way doing this perfectly. Often I’ll rush to get an outfit on him without thinking to give him a choice or I’ll practically pin him down to change his nappy. But by growing my understanding of what he’s capable of (and what he’s not) and trying to stay mindful of this throughout our days, I hope to create a world for him in which he’s a respected participant.
Ageism towards the young is a form of discrimination that is still seen as acceptable in our societies. Yet, even though they lack many of the capacities of adults, babies and children are still people. And the way they are treated and what they experience in their first three years of life will fundamentally shape how they view themselves and the world. I hope that by making respect and gentleness the foundations of our parenting that we will help Peter feel confident, independent, worthy, and unconditionally loved.