Caregiving – A RIE Chat Summary

(Beginning in mid-March 2020, when the world shut down, I began a bi-weekly conversation with the parents who had been in my RIE classes. Since not every family could make it to these conversations, but each conversation touched on important elements, I would often write up a summary of the conversation. What follows is one of those summaries.)

Thanks so much to the families who called in today! We had really wonderful conversations, with excellent questions…unfortunately, my time management skills escaped me today, so I’m going to save those topics to explore in an upcoming article. (Though I WILL mention that I’ve been getting interest in RIE in the Wild. I can’t wait til those classes start happening, too…that will definitely make for some interesting content!!)

Not to worry, though, I’ve been noodling on a topic this week that I think is a kind of timeless, and therefore always relevant reminder:

Thanks to some of the conversations I’ve had this week, I started thinking about caregiving as a topic for an article. Well actually, caregiving has been on my mind for a while now as one of the things I’ve been doing recently is reviewing all of the articles I’ve written since this whole mess began, categorizing them and trying to clean them up a bit…and one of the things I realized is I’ve talked very little about caregiving. Shockingly infrequently, actually. It surprises me because caregiving is one of the backbones to this Approach…It’s right there in the name: Educaring.

Yes, the goal of the Educaring Approach is to cultivate respectful, reciprocal relationships with children. To help children maintain (and ourselves return to) a state of authenticity. To slow down and observe, letting children take the lead, within thought-out and consistent boundaries. But caregiving is the secret sauce to making it all work.

You’ve all (likely) heard me talk about the origins of this work come from an orphanage in Hungary…an orphanage that had ratios of 8 children to 1 adult, but still, this institute managed to raise children with secure attachments, who were readily able to be adopted or reintegrated into their families. What they did there wasn’t magic…or perhaps it was…the magic of paying attention and providing specialized, attuned care to each child in turn…that is what provided the anchor in those children’s otherwise unpredictable worlds.  

Caregiving offers a unique opportunity to foster healthy attachment. How, do you ask? Attachment is activated and reinforced when someone has a need that is seen and responded to by someone else. Often when we think about seeing and responding to needs, we think about emotional ones…and those are absolutely critical to notice and respond to…but so are physical needs. Thanks to her work with Dr. Emmi Pikler (at said orphanage), Magda Gerber recognized this as a vital way to help foster secure attachments with infants and young children. After all, what is caregiving, but meeting physical needs?

Being with young children gives us lots of opportunities for caregiving…diapering, dressing, feeding, nursing/giving bottles, bathing…the list goes on and on. Children depend on us for their physical care for a long time: years…and because it is something that is so ongoing for so long, we can easily start to forget the magical opportunities for connection that caregiving offers us. These tasks can easily become, well…tasks. Especially when children are resistant or disinterested in the task (hello, diaper changes….). In those cases, it can be tempting to rush through, to distract…to use a means to an end so you can get on to the rest of your day. Instead, when your child protests, I encourage you to slow down. To remind yourself that this is a chance to connect with your child. As Magda said, “the natural time to be wholeheartedly with your child is the time you do spend together anyway – the time while you care for your baby.”

To that end, set yourself up for success…no matter the task, let your environment support you: make sure you have everything you need within easy reach, find a place that is as free of distractions as possible (for both you and your child), and make sure you and your child can be comfortable. Thinking about diapering specifically, I recommend a place that is big enough for a child who’s rolling to, well, roll a bit…but just a bit…Maybe a portion of your bed or a place on the floor, with your legs stretched out in a V. The idea being that they can roll onto their stomach, but not roll (or crawl) completely away from you. And for a child that’s standing, learning to do stand-up diapers (again in a defined space), will decrease the power struggles.

The other thing that decreases power struggles? Involving your child…look them in the eye, tell them what’s going to happen, invite them to participate where they can (fastening and unfastening their diaper, lifting their legs, selecting a new diaper, pulling out wipes, squeezing the diaper cream tube onto your finger…as they get older, perhaps assisting with dressing and undressing…). When your child loses focus, give them a beat, maybe follow their lead and interest for a moment, and then gently bring them back to the task at hand…as Magda said, caregiving times are “wants something time” (vs “wants nothing time”): this is a time when you have a goal, and part of that goal is eliciting your child’s cooperation.

Lastly, mindset is the most important piece: remembering that caregiving is an opportunity for connection, for relationship-building, for shared attention…remembering that how you handle and interact with your child in their first few years sets the stage for how they feel about themselves and how they should expect the world to treat them…this is what you want to keep in mind as you gear up to change the diaper of a resistant child. Maybe pause and connect with her first, let her know you’re there to do this with her, not to her.

I know I’ve talked a lot about diapering here (that may or may not have been the impetus to this piece), but this mindset really applies to all caregiving: feeding, dressing, bathing, tying shoes and brushing hair, washing hands, and adjusting masks…and it keeps applying, throughout early childhood, and really throughout life. Think about how many cultures express their love through food, think about how we gather around dinner tables for first dates and family dinners. Think about how you feel when you are as sick as can be and someone comes and just brings you some water, or helps you adjust your blankets. And then again think about how many opportunities for attachment and connection you have with your child…just through caregiving moments…over the first couple of years…no wonder attachments are formed in the first two years! Funny how nature works that way, isn’t it?

Getting back to that funny word that is the name of this Approach: Educaring…Magda coined it, thinking “we care while we educate, and we educate while we care.” What could be more important than the curriculum of connection?

And of course, it wouldn’t be a Saturday without a reading from The Parents Tao Te Ching.

It’s a good one today, y’all.

And, as it so often does, it ties in beautifully with today’s writing. I invite you to take a breath before you read it. And keep its message in mind during your next interaction with your child…

10. As They Are

When you are with your children
be one with them.
Let every part of your body relax
and become as supple as your child’s.
Allow all expectations and anxieties to melt away
so that you can see clearly.
Love them as they are
in this very moment,
without needing to change a thing.

When their lives are filled with trouble
allow events to unfold
without pushing or straining,
and you will understand clearly
what your role should be.

You nourish them without possessing them.
You guide them without controlling them.
You help them without worrying.
Being with your child can be like meditating.
When you are with your child next,
forget the past,
forget the future,
and let your mind and heart come
to be where your body is.