It’s the first day of a new year and a new decade (though, being who I am, I have some issues with that whole rah-rah new decade idea, because isn’t every 10 years a decade, regardless of the year that you count as year one, and geez, other people assert that a decade doesn’t start until the “1” year anyway, but that’s neither here nor there and my peculiar mind is not really the subject of this blog, and mindful parenting is, so let’s move on, shall we?)
As I said, it’s the first year of a new year and a new decade (yay new decades!!). What better time to contemplate our hopes, wishes, dreams, and intentions for the new era? Now, I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but I did come across a graphic today that said something like “Forget resolutions, focus on intentions” and that I can get behind. I love me a good intention, and that’s pretty much the underpinning of Visible Child, so let’s talk about intentions.
Magda Gerber, the founder of RIE®, a phenomenal advocate for respect for children, and one of my personal heroes, is well known for saying “Observe More, Do Less. Do Less, Enjoy More.” Or it might be “Do Less, Observe More, Enjoy Most,” it depends who you ask. Or maybe she said both of them. Either way, same idea. At the moment, I want to focus on the middle one of those. Observing. Because, if you asked me–which you didn’t but maybe you should have and hey this is my blog–that’s the one I am suggesting you take on in this new year. It’s irreplaceable and invaluable, the most powerful tool you’ll ever have.
For whatever it’s worth, I have long held that the singular most powerful reason that I am good at what I do lies in my skills in and passion for observation. I. Notice. Effin’. Everything. I can’t help it. I suspect that some of that came naturally, some of it came in a not-so-great way, via the hypervigilance I developed as a child, and a healthy chunk of it came from ruthless, intense, extreme, and exhausting training in observation of children very early on in my academic career. It was somethin’ else–I’ll tell you that story another time (or wait, I talked about it here.) But man, it worked. For a slightly different lens, I have recently been informed that my level of observation is near pathological (no, that’s not what was said, but you know, it was the gist), that the number and detail of things I see and hear and perceive are, let’s just say, several standard deviations from the mean, out there in the tail of the distribution (throwing a little bone to you statistics geeks there.). I admit it. So don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting you “be like Robin.” That would just be weird. And probably excessive. What I am suggesting is that you get curious. More curious than you already are. Really, that’s plenty. Because the cornerstone of observation is curiosity.
If you’re not looking, you won’t see. This is what I mean by curiosity. Or, to say it slightly differently: Observation is seeing. You can’t see if you don’t look. And you won’t look if you’re not curious.
Curious about what, you ask? Well, to be fair, my answer would be everything, but that’s me and we already know that I have a curiosity disorder (see above.). So let’s narrow it down a bit. What do I want you to be curious about? I want you to be curious about your child or your children. Really really curious. When I say curious, I mean Curious. You know, with a capital C.
I want you to want to know who your children are. What makes them tick, what motivates them, what dissuades them, what they’re good at, what they struggle with, what fascinates them, what bores them, what sustains their attention, what their personality is like, how they interact with peers, how they interact with adults they are close to, how they interact with adults they haven’t met before, where they are cognitively, what and how they think, where they are in their development across different domains, what frustrates them, how they express emotions, how they change across the course of a day or a week, how connected they feel and what it looks like when they do feel connected, how they move their bodies, where their confidence emerges and where it recedes, what teh early signs of emotional disregulation look like, what makes them feel most loved, what sort of communication works best with them, quirks they may have, patterns of emotional regulation….I could go on, but I think that gives you a good enough start. I want you to know who they are. Because you are their anchor, their guide, their cheering section, their support, their safety. And you can’t be those things, at least not well, if you don’t know who they are (warts and all.) And besides, there is no greater feeling than being fully seen and appreciated–all children deserve it, and for that matter, all adults do as well. I want you to know who they are.
And the way to find out who they are is to observe. By looking. By noticing. By being “ruthlessly curious.”
Here’s where it gets a little dicey. And where another of Magda Gerber’s pearls of wisdom dovetails so very nicely: “Go slowly, and with great patience.”
We often speak about the importance of “waiting”, of not jumping in too quickly to help children, to “fix” things for them, to soothe them. Please note that “too quickly” is the key phrase here. It doesn’t mean don’t help or don’t soothe or don’t be a resource. It means wait to give your child an opportunity to do it (it being pretty much anything and everything) themselves, which allows them to guide timing, help, etc. If we wait for them to tell us what they need–which can sometimes be really hard for us–that is far more respectful than deciding what they need before they tell us. They get to be the masters and guides of their own experience and lives. Think about what you want or need when you are upset or sad or somehow disregulated. Do you always want someone to jump in very quickly to make sure you “calm down” or stop crying as soon as humanly possible? When you are frustrated, do you want someone to reach over and say “let me do it” and finish whatever you were working on? Or do you want to have a voice and autonomy in your own emotions and experience? Right. Same goes for children. Even infants.
So what does this have to do with observation? Oh. Right. We were talking about observation.
The thing is, my friends….the thing is….when we insert ourselves into our child’s experience or distress, even by making a comment or moving close, we change it. Sometimes that’s necessary and sometimes that’s important, don’t get me wrong. But we change it. Call it coregulation, call it helping, call it mediating, call it emotional responsivity, call it connection, call it interference, call it invasiveness, call it loving care, call it soothing. Any person that enters any other person’s emotions or situation changes the nature of that experience.
Again, sometimes that’s good. But for some of us, we’re too quick or it’s too much of a habit or it’s our own coping strategy because we find our children’s discomfort or struggle too uncomfortable. And so we step in. Quickly. Too quickly. And when we do, we change it. And when we change it, in that instant, we have lost the opportunity to know who our child truly is, as an individual, as a separate person. We only see who our child is when they are “held up” or “helped” or “scaffolded” by us (or others.). We don’t know who they are. We don’t know how they cope on their own, what strategies they have, what strategies they lack. We don’t know how they solve problems. We don’t know about the speed and the way in which they move through emotions. We don’t know how long they would have stayed with whatever-it-is, we don’t know about their persistence (or lack thereof.). We don’t know so many things. And on top of that, in our rush to “fix” things–or to avoid a meltdown or their frustration–we steal from them their own learning, agency, and autonomy.
Don’t misunderstand me. To be sure, young children are interdependent. They do co-regulate. They do need us to mediate. They do rely on our presence and our support. That lessens naturally as they grow (so if you’re reading this and you have an 8 year old and you still think they need what they needed in this regard when they were three, time to recalibrate.) And even when they are very young–even infants and toddlers–children can be trusted to guide that interdependency. To know and express when they really need us and when they don’t. But here’s the thing: they tend to lose that ability if they are not regularly given the opportunity to exercise those muscles. They begin to see themselves as helpless and not competent, people without power in the world, people who can’t come up with good solutions to hard problems. They start to believe what we have modeled for them–that they “need us” to do all of those things for them, that they “can’t”, we have to help. In case you’re not sure, let me just be clear: that’s not what we’re after.
If we are to be thoughtful, conscious, mindful, appropriate supports for our children, we need to learn who they are (including all that stuff up there.) To learn who they are, we have to step back and give them space so they can be who they are without interference or outside influence. We have to observe. Without jumping in. We have to wait. We have to watch. We have to see. Without reacting. We have to practice being invisible and noticing what our children do, how they speak, how they move, how they behave, how they interact with others, how others interact with them, as if were anthropologists or investigative reporters or spies. We have to be motivated by wanting to know who our children are as people, as separate people from us, not reflections of us, copies of us, or exhibits of our successes or failures as parents. There is no better way than to become phenomenal observers. Indeed, there may not be another way at all.
It’s the first day of a new year and a new decade.
Make this your first step. Your intention.
Get curious. Stay curious. Live curious.