Posted by: Roseann Murphy | February 28, 2011

Emotional Health and Development of Self-Esteem in Infants

With all the articles and media  attention Magda Gerber and RIE has received during the last few months, we thought it might be appropriate to share some of the wonderful articles Magda and her colleagues have written over the years. While working at UCLA Child Care Services, the then director, June Sale introduced me to Magda and her work.  I first came to know Magda in 1978 while a student at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena.  Magda invited a number of students to participate in the development of RIE and along with my dear friend, Norma Friend; I attended the very first Resources for Infant Educarers training sessions.  Although it was almost 33 years ago, those classes and the time with Magda is deeply ingrained in my being.  Anyone who had the opportunity to meet Magda and spend time with her, knew they came in contact with a very special person.  She was more than an educator; she was a mentor and a friend to many.  When parents and educators met Magda for the first time, most realized this was an important moment in their lives.  Magda not only lived the philosophy but described the philosophy and methodology simply and with a clarity that is impossible to equal.
Today, I had the opportunity to speak to Linda Lingane of Northern California. She was more than happy to share an article she wrote in 1990 while researching self-esteem in infants.  The article appeared on the front page of the Winter 1990 Educaring Magazine.   Even after twenty-one years, Linda’s article continues to articulate the essence of RIE and what Magda was trying to share with the world.

Linda begins:

“A child’s strong self respect is based on two main convictions:  ‘I am lovable. (I matter and have value because I exist,) and I am worthwhile, I can handle myself and my environment with competence.  There is a big difference between being loved and feeling loved.” According to Dorothy Corkille Briggs. “Children value themselves to the degree they have been valued”.  Magda Gerber echoes this thought with “Respect is the basis of the RIE philosophy.  Respecting a child means treating even the youngest infant as a unique human being, not as an object.”
“Helping children build self-esteem is the key to successful parenthood.” “We turn freely to medical and educational professionals to check children’s physical and intellectual progress.  But for guidance on nurturing children to emotional health, we are left largely on our own.  Even when symptoms appear, many parents regard consulting a psychologist as an admission of defeat…We, as well as our children, have to live with the results of our unintentional mistakes.  And these mistakes have a way of being passed on to future generations” (pp.xii-xiv)
“What are the current attitudes toward developing self-esteem in infants:  The RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers) approach is the only practical one I have found so far that focuses on the emotional health of infants.  (Since 1990 there continues to be substantial research on infant brain development, but it is RIE  that continues to lead the way in ‘caring for infants with respect’  after all these years.)   Yet the membership continues to be small.  The lack of interest and understanding is reflected in the fact that even today the overwhelming emphasis about self-esteem focuses on the rehabilitation of self-esteem in people over three years old.  Often times adults offer solutions to children (instead of encouraging children to work out their problems for themselves), and it is often suggested using distraction (which means that the child’s feelings are not being genuinely acknowledged).
RIE is based on the concept of balanced respect.  To be able to focus on respect implies that more basic human needs have also been fulfilled.   Balanced respect means that the parent is responsible for 1) respecting her/his needs and surrounding himself/herself with others who also show respect.  2) Respecting the child’s needs, and 3) striking a balance between both of them when needs conflict, as they often do.  To do this well involves taking the time to be sensitive to just what each side needs, sometimes a moment-to-moment basis.

  1. Respect for your child- According to RIE and Briggs, parents act as the primary mirrors as the child gradually defines for himself who he is.  In addition, in order to reflect respect for your child, it is important to do the following:
  1. Talk to your baby:  Tell your baby what is going to happen before it happens.  THEN wait for the baby’s response indicating that you were heard.  This is the first step in building an atmosphere of respect and creating the opportunity for you to slow down your pace when you interact with your child.  It also provides respect for whatever activity the child is doing that you must interrupt.
  2. Talk carefully:  Try to only say things in front of your baby that you would want him to hear and understand.  As we know through recent (2010) research babies can understand a tremendous amount from body language and tone of voice.
  3. Respect Feelings, especially “Negative Feelings”:  Babies have feelings, and strong ones.  It would be wise to assume that they can feel as deeply as you and I, just as they see and hear as clearly as adults.  Their organization of all this input is certainly different than an adult, but the important thing is that the feelings are real. Try to empathize, to understand the reasons behind all your child’s feelings. This, as you might imagine, is a draining task.  But it pays off for both of you:  the child receives more respect from you because you understand him (or try to) and, later, you receive more respect from the child because he is using your respect for him as a role model.  Do respect all cries.  Comfort, but do not try to actively suppress or shorten the crying—if he is crying, assume he needs to cry.  If the “negative” feeling –which might include anger, fear and hurt – is not respected by the adult (and it may be hard because most of us do not respect these feelings in ourselves), the negative situation will be unintentionally allowed to continue.  Respecting the feeling begins by acknowledging it and then using its energy to get away from the negative situation.  Separate the behavior from the person.
  4. Support Independent Action:  Do the minimum necessary, and let your child do the rest.  This gives the best opportunity for a feeling of competence to develop in the child.  Encourage your child in his attempt to comfort himself.  Encourage decision-making by offering choices as much as you can.  This method helps teach natural and logical consequences of the child’s sanctions and allows her to feel true mastery of her environment.  But you must be clear that the choices are being made within limits comfortable for you. (i.e., it is not crucial which choices she makes).  Remember how important it is for her to know that her wishes are respected, whether or not she gets her way.
  5. Allow free movement:  If a child is only in positions he can get into by himself, he is much more likely to develop confidence in his body and be able to move around.  Car seats are an obvious exception.  Before your baby is able to roll over, allow him to play on his back, not his front.  He will be able to see and do much more and will be able to relax more.
  6. Reduce Expectations:  With some things, we expect too little (i.e. self-dressing) and do for the child what she might do for herself.  With other things, it is easy to expect too much (i.e., the baby shouldn’t cry when mom leaves for just a while).  Try to limit you expectations to only those behaviors that need limits (even there, your child will take some time to test and really learn where your limits are).  When the child is behaving within the limits you have set, accept your child as he is so that he does not feel he must live up to your expectations or else risk your disappointment.  According to Dorothy Briggs and the RIE philosophy, “Children rarely question our expectations; instead, they question their personal adequacy…the one place parents make their greatest errors is in their expectations.” (pp.49,123)

Actively teaching your child is a common way of requesting performance, since the parent usually offers new information to the child and expects the child to respond in some way related to the teaching.  However, it is very important to “teach” your child in the sense of exposing him to new information.  The difference from the usual practice is that you should allow your child to choose whether or how he will attend to your information.  Remember that simply being around you provides a role model that is always teaching in that sense.  Intentional stimulation for infants should b done during care giving times when the “educarers” both cares for and educates while the child participates and learn cooperative self-help skills.

g. Encourage Rather Than Praise:  The distinction is subtle but important.  Praise is global; encouragement is specific and refers to action in the past tense.  Rather have a genuine encounter which is focused attention on our child.  “Be totally with him, even if only for a few moments.  Look at him with fresh eyes.  Become directly involved with the wonder of him. (pg 69).

h. Trust Your Child to Grow by Himself:  Growing at his own rate, in his own way, is best for him and his self-esteem.  The growth of a child can be likened to that of a plant that you are nurturing.  If you provide the right components, the plants will thrive.  The leaves need not, and should not, be pulled in order to make the plant grow.  The pot in which the plant grows must be made large as the roots grow.  In nurturing a child, it is important to trust her to grow in a safe, challenging environment into a wonderful individual.  Do not ask the child to perform (e.g., “Show Daddy what you did for the first time today! Or “what color is this?”

This is like pulling on plants leaves as it is growing; it does not support authenticity.  Requesting performance is not a problem as long as it is very clear that the child has the option of saying “no”; in other words, the parent does not expect performance.

EXAMPLE: “Please come over here so you can choose which shirt you want to wear”.  It is all right if the child does not perform; in this case the parent will perform instead.  In such situations where the parent would prefer performance by the child but does not need to demand it because of limit setting, role modeling of the action by the parent will have a gradual but powerful affect on the child,

2. Respect yourself, the carer the most difficult, most fundamental task.  Respecting the needs of an infant is far easier than respecting one’s own needs.  After all, the infant is brand new, and what you are doing with her is establishing new habits that replace no habits.  That is not true of respecting one’s own needs.  Becoming a parent challenges one’s development with the opportunity for personal growth.  Why is it important to grow personally, when your whole life is settling down after birth of your child?  Why is taking care of you important?  Why take care of yourself before the baby when your job as a parent is defined as taking care of the baby?  I can only offer my reasons…you must answer these questions for yourself.  The quality of your family life depends on your answers.

Parenting takes real work, especially if the philosophy and methodology I have described is different from what you would otherwise do.  By definition, work is draining.  It takes energy from you, and thus also from your child.

It usually only takes a short time to take care of your immediate needs, and a longer time to take care of your child.

You are the primary role model for your child, ad by respecting your own needs; you are setting a very important example for your child to later learn to respect his own needs.

Only after we truly respect ourselves are we able to genuinely respect others.

When you are able to satisfy your own needs on a regular basis, you are more able to nurture others:

3. Respect for both carer and the child:

a. Encourage Independent Play:  That gives the child important “alone” time away from the parent in a separate safe environment (a gated doorway is essential), allows him the chance to initiate learning and allows the parent to do whatever she wants to do when the child is awake.  This is less obvious when the baby is young and needs more attention, but it pays big dividends later to start liberating habits early.  Pay attention to whether you are feeling obligated to entertain your child.  Aim to be with him when you want to be.

b. Be Genuine:  This is not easy because authenticity is no as valued as politeness.  Keep in touch with your feelings as often as possible.  Tell your child how you are feeling when you are grumpy…and that your mood is not her fault.  Your anger can be thought of as a result of miscommunication and can be reduced as you improve communication both within yourself and with others.

c. Set Clear Limits:  As babies grow, they try to find out where their limits are.  You need to set limits where they are comfortable for you so you can consistently enforce the limit.

Being Respectful:  Let the baby test freely all the way up to the limit, then be both respectful and firm.  Be respectful of the person and firm with the behavior.  It is much easier to be one or the other, but balancing these goals is important.

Be respectful by acknowledging feelings.  Be brief and as concrete as you can while offering reasons for the limit.  If the child is very upset, save the reason for later. (A person cannot hear clearly when he is upset.)  If you make a habit of giving reasons for your request, you are much less likely to become controlling.  After all, if you cannot think of a good reason, then the request by definition unreasonable and perhaps should not be made.  (This is true only for requests made for the child to do or not do something; it is not true for statements you make about your feelings, for which you may not know a reason.)

Being Firm:  Firmness in limit setting allows the child to feel more secure.  Then he can work on being competent within those limits.  Firmness also demonstrates the conviction of the parent’s own rights and feelings, separate from the child.

Linda goes on to say: “I have set two kinds of limits for my son:  physical limits at the point of safety vs. non-safety (if I set it any sooner than that point, I would not be consistent over time).  I set the emotional limit around the concept of respect, meaning respect for me, other people, other life (plant and animal), and property.
Stanley Coopersmith, one of the major researchers of self-esteem in The Antecedents of Self-esteem (1967) writes ‘families of children with high self-esteem are marked by well-defined limits of behavior and clear statements of right and privileges, coexisting with the greater tolerance for individual expression and less drastic form of punishment… The parents of children with high self-esteem have continued to assert their authority…while at the same time permitting open discussion and dissent.” (pp257-260)

References:  Briggs,Dorothy Corkille  “Your Child’s Self Esteem”
Magda Gerber  “Dear Parent Caring for Infants with Respect”

-Post by: Roseann Murphy

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Responses

  1. Beautiful. Thank you!

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  2. Thank you!!! Magda’s philosophy is clearly, simply, and perfectly described here. I especially appreciate the “translation” of the theory into guidelines for caring for and relating to babies with respect. I also enjoyed hearing a little bit about how you came to know and work with Magda. Just beautiful!

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  3. What a powerful article. I’m just learning about RIE, and I appreciate how you’ve laid out the foundations of it. This is something I will return to again and again. Thank you.

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  4. I am new to this all, but I am just in love with this philosophy! I agree with Janet, you put it all together beautifully.

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  5. Respect and Encouragement; two very important tools needed in raising our children. Thanks for the magnificent article!

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    • Patt, thank you so much for your encouragement. You as a life-long educator know the value of these words. Take care and thank you for all you do for children.

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  6. […] Emotional Health and Development of Self-Esteem in Infants […]

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  7. […] With all the articles and media  attention Magda Gerber and RIE has received during the last few months, we thought it might be appropriate to share some of the wonderful articles Magda and her colleagues have written over the years. While working at UCLA Child Care Services, the then director, June Sale introduced me to Magda and her work.  I first came to know Magda in 1978 while a student at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena.  Magda invited a n … Read More […]

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  8. […] post below and loved it.  This is the method we are following with Belle.  Here’s the link: Emotional Health and Development of Self-Esteem in Infants With all the articles and media  attention Magda Gerber and RIE has received during the last few […]

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  9. Thank you a lot for sharing this with all of us you really know what you are talking about! Bookmarked. Please also seek advice from my website =). We could have a hyperlink change agreement between us

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  10. […] Emotional Health And Development Of Self-Esteem In Infants by Roseann Murphy at Little River School Online […]

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