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November 7, 2018

Giving kids the gift of resilience and self-esteem begins on the baby blanket - but parents will be delighted to learn that this involves doing less for your kids, not more, writes early childhood educator and mum-of-three, Sanna Cooke... 

Themes in parenting come and go. In the 1980s when I was a child, parents and schools alike had excitedly jumped on the self-esteem 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 self-esteem 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 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.

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