Your Baby's First/ Best Toy: You!
You are your child’s first and best toy! Your body is their world; your face, their map. Of course babies have basic needs to be addressed, but beyond those needs they have a drive to learn and develop. Your body feeds them, cares for them and keeps them safe, but your face, voice and interests give them information. Babies smile and coo first with their parents; looking for the response and slowly building on that experience to try the next. Parents are happy to oblige and create a game of their own that the baby responds to as well. This back and forth play between parent (s) and child is essential in the social emotional development of the child and essential too for the brain to make positive connections. It is also what bonds us as a family.
Toys are the instruments of learning. Babies need no other toy at first than their caregivers. We can tune into what our baby likes: our fingers for grasping, our bodies for rocking, swinging and transporting, our voices that sound high pitched and sweet, and our eyes and exaggerated facial expressions. We are mulit- purpose in our ability to entertain and teach our babies. All of these interactions with our baby are part of the learning process that is necessary for development. Therefore, you’re the most important toy your child will ever have.
How to play or interact with your child is not mine to say. Let your own baby’s actions and interests guide you. Each baby is an individual. Allowing him to initiate the play is a wonderful way to learn about your baby and offer him respect in the process. Follow your child’s lead… another concept many professionals recommend, but often is unclear. Observant parents can tell what their baby wants through their behavior, and note when the game is over. Too much stimulation may cause an abrupt change in the quality of the play. Note the change for next time; immature nervous systems need time to accept multiple stimulation.
T Barry Brazleton tells us, “As your try things out, let the baby tell you whether you are right or not. When you’re on the right track, her face will be placid and content, her body will be relaxed and her responses will be organized and predictable. When you are on the wrong track, she’ll be disorganized and unreachable.”
As your child grows, you can introduce toys to enhance the play you have developed. Rattles, ribbons, balls and mirrors are all great additions to his favorite toy, you
A meltdown, the typical response from a two year old when he is unable to have the thing he wants, can be the ultimate problem for parents. Couple that meltdown with a public display, and a seemingly calm and confident parent turns into a whining, bribing, pleading yelling out of control adult! Why?
John Gottman a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, tells us to let go of your “Parental Agenda”. He explains that when a child has big emotions and is feeling out of control, it is a time for parents to label the emotion for their child, accept this as a teachable moment, and demonstrate empathy. He further explains that we need to let go of what we think should happen and accept what is. Our response will then come from the part of the brain that calms emotion and problem solves: the frontal lobe.
Taking a closer look at that child who is out of control, we see a child who is developmentally in the “me Stage”: he wants it, and in his mind then he should have it. The parent has set the limit and the child has hit a wall. The limit has been set, but we can still imagine how that child feels…we can empathize with him. By verbalizing his emotion back to him,” I think you’re angry or frustrated”, and saying we know how that feels, we offer the child a moment of understanding, of connection. We can tell him that we wish he could get everything he wants, but as a parent we know that is not good for him. We can use this as a “teachable moment” and problem solve with him, or suggest something else to do. Of course if the child is unable to “hear us”, we might need to wait it out and then offer the labeling and empathy.
Emotion regulation is the ability to understand and manage feelings. When we can regulate emotion we have less stress and can control our impulses. As parents we want to help our children become regulated, as that will increase their ability to learn and problem solve, which are abilities that are tied executive functioning of the brain.
Gottman tells us, “Empathy not only matters, it is the foundation of effective parenting”. We need to create an “Empathy Reflex” and make it the first response to an emotional situation. This skill entails: describing the emotion you see, then making a guess as to why this is happening. This will help you to defuse the anger, and connect to your child in a way that will help calm you both.
This skill, like all skills takes time to learn. Understanding your emotions is the first step in this process. Allow yourself to accept your own strong emotions, label them and try to identify what are the issues that create the most emotion in you. Once you have reflected on this, you can create a mental plan as to how you can handle these strong emotions when they arise. This pattern will flow quite naturally to helping your children to do the same. Meltdowns will still happen but their intensity and regularity will lessen and your ability to stay calm will increase.