It’s 8 AM. I pour myself a warm up in the coffee mug. I turn the radio on. Familiar voices read the latest news. It’s breakfast time. My favorite time of the day. Since Caroline was 6 months old I have always enjoyed sharing breakfast with my children. She loved her morning oatmeal from the very beginning. I would mix it up with apples or bananas and she would gleefully open her mouth to each spoonful delivered. She was happy. I was happy. What a great start to our day. So naturally I was excited to continue this tradition with Elliott around the same age.
Same breakfast. Same mom. Same morning routine. The spoon is full and kindly offered to baby. Baby grabs spoon. Food is spilled. Ok. No big deal, I think. I spent years working with feeding therapists and occupational therapists. I have an endless bag of tricks. We will make this work. I keep trying, meal after meal, offering a different spoon, changing the temperature of the food, adding more banana, less banana, thicker texture, thinner texture. I keep trying. It sometimes takes 10 offers before a child accepts a food, they say. Maybe he isnt’ supported enough in the chair? Maybe I started too early? Maybe he will never eat food and I will be battling a “picky eater” for the rest of my life?!!!!!!!!
Can you sense the frustration a bit here? I’m a mother just like anybody else before and after me. There is no handbook to parenting and no perfect child. We all know that. But, you see, I have this added benefit (curse?) of having a little bit of bonus knowledge with a masters in child development and nearly 10 years working with professionals in the field of early child development. So generally a problem arises and I can recall a solution. But here, in these moments, I am pulling out all of the tricks, and he isn’t having any of it. And I am not handling it well.
“I give up. You do it then.” I give him the bowl. Not my husband “you.” The baby “you.” In frustration and anxiety I just gave him the bowl. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. If he didn’t want me to feed him then maybe I should just give up and let him play. He does not hesitate. Hand in bowl, swirling the food around and around. Both hands now, squishing and poking. Then the hands go to his mouth, tasting and licking. The bowl ends up in his lap. The food ends up on his face, his hands, his arms, his shirt, his chair, his table, a 3 foot radius around his chair. And he is grinning ear to ear.
He loves this, I see. He is making a mess and doing it all on his own and I don’t even know how much at all is getting into his mouth. But he loves this. He is smiling. And I am smiling. Why didn’t I think of this before? Of course! Sensory exploration! Some children just need to make a mess. They need to feel the world with their whole body. I had tried all of the researched and categorized methods for encouraging a positive and healthy eating experience. But in the end, when I just let him have fun and explore, when I stopped listening to my mind and just led with my heart, I discovered exactly what he needed. Mealtimes went on like this for a couple months. Messy. Oh so very messy. But he was happy and slowly learning to accept more and more flavors and textures on his own. He is a remarkable eater now. But I had to let him get there on his own terms. I had to stop trying to figure out what the experts would tell me to do and instead just listen to my own child, my child who just wanted to be playful before he developed.
I call this parenting style Intuitive Parenting. Well, technically, I put a phrase to it when I came across child development researcher Stephen Camarata in his book The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child is You. I have not read this book yet but I have cued it up at the library and am excited to jump into his philosophy. I did however read an interview with him from Brain Child Magazine, and I found his response to parenting to be remarkably inspiring for all parents to read, and precisely what I have expressed to many parents I worked with long before becoming one of my own. I believe at heart we are all excellent parents, particularly well matched for the children we are called to care for. But too often in our current world we are filled with anxiety and low confidence levels that we try to push development too quickly. As Camarata says, modern society is “undermining parents’ self confidence…creating needless anxiety, and stealing the fun and joy out of raising children.”
In this particular example, I knew it was time to begin the journey into solid food. I knew how I had introduced food before and how I had read about it and thus I figured this was exactly as it should go with my next child. But it was the point in which I threw out prior knowledge and research and just let my child be playful that true learning was achieved. At first I thought I was just giving in and giving up, but as it turns out, I was just listening to what he needed, what he wanted. And he wanted to play. He wanted to make a mess. He wanted to learn and explore on his own terms. I had used my own intuition to let my child grow and we were thus both happy because of it.
I believe all learning stems from this very place. When we relax and play with our children in a way that feels natural and comfortable, it is surprising to discover there are some pretty amazing developments happening in what appears to be a humble moment. Vygotsky (another classic child development researcher, known for his research of Social Development Theory, Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) called this learning process “scaffolding.” It is our role as parents and teachers to begin where our child is first before we help build that bridge to where they are going. When people ask me how they can help a child do this or encourage a child to do that, I often hear after giving a suggestion “oh I do that.” At times unaware, we are building those bridges for our children.
So I would like to explore this topic from a snapshot perspective. I want to take a play activity, a toy, a moment in a child’s day and talk about all the learning opportunities that are happening. I hope we might discover, together, because as you can see I need reminders too, that we really do know how to help our children grow. There is science to back up all sorts of play and it is fascinating to have a well-researched theory to support what we are already doing.
It may get messy. Really messy. But I promise there will be plenty of smiles in the end.
Here is where you can help. Do you have a toy sitting on your shelf you don’t know what to do with or are bored with? Is there a routine in your day that frustrates you and you want to know how to understand it? Is there a particular milestone of development that kind of freaks you out? Or maybe really fascinates you and you want to know more? My sister sends me ideas all the time but I want more. Every child and parent is different and I want to reflect that in this space. Or, in keeping with my one little word, I want to shed some Light on the subject (I had to throw that in there!)
Comment away! Let’s get messy!