Melissa Clark Vickers, Huntingdon, Tennessee, USA
Originally published June 2016, republished with the express permission of the author.
What would happen if all of your clocks, watches, and other devices that tell you the exact time of day were to disappear? Could you survive? Could you entertain the notion that you might actually be better off without knowing the precise time of day?
How you answer that question might be partially based on how many external connections you have during a typical day. Agreeing to meet someone when the sun is at its zenith might make for some frustrating appointments—especially if you are dealing with multiple time zones!
Could you survive without a calendar? How critical is that invention to your knowing what day of the week it is, or what month, season, or even year it is?
It’s hard to imagine not having these admittedly helpful tools to guide our plans and especially our interactions with others. And yet, it begs the question whether these time-keeping tools are “tools” or if they have become “chains,” somehow impeding what we do.
I would argue that clocks and calendars, while perhaps unavoidably helpful in the adult world, carry potentially more harm than good when used with babies and small children. In our quest to quantify everything, measure everything precisely, and predict future events, we have become overly reliant on those tools.
It starts with pregnancy, if not before! A pregnancy is supposed to last 40 weeks, right? Well, that’s the average. Pinning a date on a calendar nine months away has nothing to do with whether that baby arrives on that date – or is even ready to arrive. Envisioning that due date as an absolute leads to concern when it doesn’t happen on time. And that can lead to unnecessary interventions designed to hurry along something that simply might not be ready to happen.
And even if we allow labor to begin on its own, we may be pushed into thinking labor is going too long and something needs to happen to hurry it up. Faster is not necessarily better, and can actually interfere with a mother and her baby bonding. (For an interesting discussion on birthing practices based on a baby’s biological need, see this article by Jill and Nils Bergman.)
And then the quantifying data collection really begins – we dutifully measure a newborn’s input, output, and feeding intervals, as if somehow charting all that improves on what the baby is quite capable of handling on its own.
I’m reminded of a couple I visited to help the mom latch her newborn on to breastfeed. I was sitting on a couch with the mom, and the dad was sitting across the room. We got the baby latched on and nursing beautifully. Dad would periodically ask, “Is he nursing?” Yes. “Is he nursing now?” Well, I think he’s taking a little breather ….
That went on a few times and I turned to look at the dad, who was dutifully timing all the sucks and swallows with a stopwatch. I told him to go bury it in the backyard.
Babies, just like adults, are more than capable of telling mom they are hungry – with gentle cues, not just screaming. And they can tell us when they are full. The mom who learns to read her baby’s feeding cues goes a long way to establishing feeding patterns for later in life that are based on hunger and satiety, not just time of day and empty plates.
And then we look to the developmental charts about when babies are “supposed” to accomplish various tasks, like smiling, rolling over, sitting up, and walking. These charts are helpful in identifying the children who are not developing as they should (and therefore might benefit from intervention), but they aren’t designed to match up exactly with each baby. Again, they are tools, not chains.
Starting solids, toilet training, and weaning have traditionally been tasks determined by the calendar, rather than the readiness of the individual child. Toilet training was probably the first of these three to be allowed to happen (more or less) in its own good time, and a similar trend is happening now with starting solids. Weaning is still too often determined arbitrarily by a calendar date, though many of us have learned the value and benefits of letting the child take the lead there, too.
It’s an interesting change in viewpoint, from “training” to “learning” – when we as parents “train” the child, whether it’s when to eat solid foods or use the toilet, then we are directing traffic, calling the shots, and generally taking responsibility for the success. If we allow a child to learn then we have given the child the power to direct his or her learning, and take a much more active role.
Waiting for the child to become a willing learner also is an indication of internal motivation or desire to achieve, not just a desire to please mom or dad. This requires a change in our perspective as well. If we are “training” then we are the teachers. If we are allowing our children to be “learners” – at their own pace – then we become facilitators. We learn to read our child’s readiness cues, we set the stage for learning by providing opportunities, and we can offer praise and encouragement appropriately.
The rewards of this approach? Not only is it a lot less stressful for parents, it is less stressful on the child. It builds the child’s self-esteem and encourages self-motivation. It builds trust in our relationship with our children – they learn to trust that we will be there to guide as needed, protect as warranted, and recognize progress. And in the end, we are encouraging independence – all in good time.
“The central task of education is to implant a will and facility for learning; it should produce not learned people but learning people … In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future.” – Eric Hoffer
MELISSA CLARK VICKERS recently retired after nearly 28 years as an LLL Leader. She is the mother of two, grandmother of (soon-to-be) five, and helps edit the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) Mother Support for Breastfeeding newsletter. She also writes and edits for Family Voices, a non-profit organization dedicated to keeping families -especially those with children with special health care needs – at the center of health care. She was honored to help LLL Founder Marian Tompson write her memoir, Passionate Journey—My Unexpected Life. Melissa credits LLL for helping her parent according to her children’s needs, and sees that influence moving forward in how her own children parent their little ones.