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Don’t Stand Me Up

By Janet Lansbury

An infant sits stiffly on the floor, unable to move his legs or extend his arms without losing his balance. A toddler steps off a platform and takes a tumble. Another toddler climbs the bars to the top of a wooden structure, then panics and cries out for his mom, who rushes over to rescue him.

These are children who are less physically self assured than they might be for one simple reason: Their motor skills are not being allowed to develop naturally.

Infant expert Magda Gerber, the late founder of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), advised parents to trust an infant to do what his body is able to do, and to give the child time to achieve the next physical milestone when he is ready, without adult interference. Unfortunately, this central tenet of the RIE approach to childcare runs counter to society’s conventional wisdom. Doctors, friends, and neighbors inadvertently make us feel that our children’s motor skills must advance as quickly as possible. They ask if our children are sitting, crawling, standing, or walking yet, and if the answer is no, we worry that there might be something terribly wrong.

Parents should relax in the knowledge that each infant’s development is directed by his unique inborn timetable. Infants will always do what they are capable of doing, and are naturally wired to advance their physical abilities independently. They never hold back. An infant who is given ample opportunity to move freely on his back will discover “tummy time” on his own. Eventually he’ll learn to roll onto his back again. He’ll then progress to crawling, creeping, sitting, standing, climbing, walking, running, and jumping, all without the need for parental prompting, propping, or other intrusion. As Magda Gerber said: “Readiness is when they do it.”

There are countless benefits to giving a child ownership over the pace of his gross motor development. For one, he gains self assurance, because each new skill is initiated and engineered by the child. The child will instinctively work to develop the muscle strength, flexibility, and balance needed to achieve the next step. These children advance with a keen awareness of their physical capabilities. Magda Gerber reminded parents, “Earlier does not mean better.” She taught caregivers to appreciate the quality of a child’s movements, rather than rushing the speed of their development.

Having observed infants for years, I can usually distinguish a toddler who was allowed to achieve his mobility freely from a child who was not. Magda Gerber was able to perceive these differences even in older children. Several years ago at an RIE conference I met a young teacher named Leslie who shared an account of Magda’s observational abilities. Some of the students at Leslie’s preschool had been cared for in an infant center associated with RIE, while others had not. To Leslie’s amazement, Magda was able to identify these children on the playground. Magda said that she recognized the RIE children by their agility and poise. Astounded, Leslie was compelled to attend the conference to learn more.

There is also a practical reason to permit infants to develop their abilities naturally: physical safety. Safety is a word that attracts parents’ attention, and a child who develops his motor skills independently is much safer than one who is helped to sit, stand, or walk, held by the hand while going up or down stairs, or placed on a slide or climbing structure. Children will naturally seek balance, but when parents help, they give a false illusion of physical competence that can literally be dangerous.

My husband, Mike, encountered this brand of danger head-on when his friend Joe dropped by with his 18-month-old son, Colin. The two dads talked for a while on our front porch, and then Joe went inside to use the bathroom. Mike stood beside Colin, who was walking toward the brick steps leading to the lawn. Having raised three children who would never attempt to walk down steep steps at that stage (but might crawl down, or find some other way), Mike was blindsided by what happened next.

In a flash, Colin made a move to walk down the steps without even a gesture toward Mike’s available hand! He took a header, and when Joe returned a moment later he found his son in tears and sporting an egg-shaped lump expanding on his forehead. Of course, Mike felt terrible (and his baby-sitting career was finished), but Colin’s parents contributed to this incident by habitually assisting him when he took steps. “Helping” Colin along rather than allowing him to find his balance and his own safe methods of mobility put him in danger, because it gave him an inflated sense of his physical ability.

This false sense of security is learned when adults place children atop ledges, slides, climbing structures, giant boulders, or almost anything, and then help them to get down again. The child may believe he can get down by himself (after all, it was easy enough to get up), or he might reach out, expecting to be helped, and end up falling. The general rule is this: If a child can climb up by himself, he should be relatively safe climbing down again, and the child should be given the opportunity to practice both maneuvers. The adult should stay close and spot, but not touch or help the child.

If a child is stuck in a place that he has climbed to himself, the best way to proceed is to talk him through getting unstuck in a soothing voice, or take the smallest possible action to help (for example, helping a child to unwedge his leg from between two bars so that he can then climb down). The child who is allowed to work through the problem as autonomously as possible will learn the most from the experience. Quite often, the child who has had a frustrating and difficult time getting down from the climbing structure in my class will then immediately climb up to attempt it again.

There is joy in observing a child persevering to overcome physical challenges and discovering and mastering new forms of mobility. In my RIE parenting class, 7-month-old Bianca spends much of the time in side-splits and has a flexible, spread-eagle style when maneuvering around the room. Jason lies on his back and does leg-lifts and torso lifts that any Pilates teacher would envy. Audrey crawls agilely down a set of wooden steps head first. Alex walks down a ramp, trips, falls, and gets up again. Sophie climbs into a wooden box and struggles to climb back out. She finally gets out by placing her hand on my shoulder as I crouch next to her. Predictably, she climbs back into the box.

Dr. Emmi Pikler, author of Peaceful Babies, Contented Mothers, wrote that a trusted child “learns to do something on his own, to be interested, to try out, to experiment. He learns to overcome difficulties. He comes to know the joy and satisfaction that is derived from his success, the result of his patience and perseverance.”

These self-initiated learning experiences are infinitely more beneficial to a child’s development than a parent’s efforts to “teach.” After all, we can look to the animal kingdom for models of the physical abilities we most admire. Gazelles, leopards, and monkeys never need to be taught how to move.