Struggle Happens

Struggle Happens
by Eileen Henry

“When I saw my daughter trying to turn over by herself, I wanted to rush in. It was as if I saw myself writhing on the floor, incapacitated, like a beetle trying to flip itself over. I had trouble separating her struggle from my own. I took a deep breath and trusted Magda’s ideas. I remained a supportive presence as she tried and tried. My daughter showed me that I could tolerate her grappling with the inevitable change which needed to take place…I tolerated her need to struggle, and I learned to be less afraid of my own struggles.”

This question of struggle is one we ponder often in the Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE™, parent/infant classes. If we are constantly rushing in to relieve our child’s struggle how will this benefit them in the long run? What are we as “well meaning” adults trying to protect them from? Frustration? Disappointment?

Coping with struggle becomes an important issue as infants develop the abilities required in order to control the large muscles of the body for walking, running, sitting, crawling, and other activities. There are many devices and gadgets that claim to help gross motor development. There are seats that enable infants to sit up without falling. There are mats that prevent infants from rolling over. Bathing pods and harnesses attached to leashes that will hold up toddling toddlers. We often see devices that help “simulate the womb environment.”

Magda Gerber, the founder of the RIE™ philosophy saw these as unnecessary. She believed that once a healthy full term infant is out of the womb we must honor their need and readiness for gross motor development. Over 50 years ago Magda studied and apprenticed with a pediatrician named Emmi Pikler whose clinical research started with her interest in the physiology of motor development and a question. Dr. Pikler wondered if we didn’t “assist” young children in their development would we have two different populations, one part reaching their milestones within a certain range and another group who were floor bound for much longer and reaching their milestones later in childhood? In her studies Dr. Pikler found almost no mention of motor development based on the infant’s own initiative and independent experimentation. The practice was and still is referred to “milestone charts” to get a general idea of where babies fall on the average curve of development. Dr. Pikler noticed that on these charts were milestones such as “sits when assisted” or “walks with assistance.”

In her practice in pre War Budapest, she recommended that parents not place their infants in sitting positions before they were able to get in and out of the position themselves. No one taught these children to stand or walk or to go down stairs in any other way than chosen by the infant. Dr. Pikler reassured the parents that choosing to go down stairs head first is a smart choice for the young child. This way the child can see where he or she is going and use the movement of the hands, arms and elbows to stop themselves. Developing this reflex would become important later on when they were busy catching themselves to protect their faces in the many falls of toddlerhood. It was said that people could identify infants and toddlers who were under Pikler’s care. They were referred to as “Pikler babies” and seemed to be “poised and graceful, alert and friendly, and so confidently independent.”

Dr. Pikler’s research extended outside of her private practice when in 1946, she adapted her philosophy to an orphanage called Loczy, where she was the executive medical director. Detailed records of every minute detail of care, gross motor and socio-emotional development are kept on each child during their time at Loczy. Dr. Pikler became an advocate of “non-interference” of motor development and strongly believed that this also influenced all other areas of growth such as social, emotional, cognitive and even character formation.

Magda encouraged us to see infants in a new way. In her book Dear Parent:Caring for Infants With Respect she says, “If we could observe infants as completely competent for the stage at which they are, we would learn from and about them, rather than teach them.” When we truly see and appreciate our children for who they are and what they are capable of, how might this affect them and our relationship with them?

The one interesting finding of Pikler’s research was that children who are allowed to develop physically in their own way in their own time and never placed up on objects they didn’t get up onto themselves (climbing structures and slides) were far less likely to have more serious injuries and fractures later on in childhood. I have observed in my own RIE children and the countless other’s who I know that when climbing they seem to know their own limits. They stop themselves if they get too high or feel unsafe. They are very present in their own bodies and have a deep and accurate understanding of where they are and what their capabilities are in relationship to their physical environment.

Don’t get me wrong. I do intervene when their ideas of safety don’t match my own. Here I try to take ownership of my perceptions and tell them, “I know you feel capable of this (acrobatic feet) but it makes me uncomfortable and you can come down yourself or I will help you down.” Even from high up on the climbing structure practicing his new skill, before I open my mouth, my son has already sensed my unease. I hear him say, “Don’t freak mom. It’s o.k. I know what I’m doing.” He pauses, our eyes meet. “I feel safe” he ads. He grasps that my number one priority in life is to keep my little birds safe. My conscious and unconscious intention is to protect them even as they tumble out of the nest and into this unpredictable life. Fortunately their father doesn’t share my fear, so they are able to practice more of their incredible physical boldness on his watch. Balance is a lifelong learning process and as Magda said, “Learning how to fall and get up again is one of the best lessons of life.”