Friday, February 24, 2006

Ennui-ui-ui All The Way Home

Ennui-ui-ui All The Way Home: The Boring Simplicity of the Montessori Home Environment

Preamble: I said I would talk about something besides crying. Many parents I meet want to know how to bring up a good "Montessori child". To begin, I don't believe that some children are "Montessori children" and some are not. I believe they are all Montessori kids--but you can ease the transition into a Montessori school environment and improve a child's experience if your parenting style is Montessori-compatible. I guess I could start writing about my Montessori parenting experiment anywhere, but I'll start with interior design, just for fun--and because I like it.

For the record, I mean to judge no one's nursery decor. Creating this environment is something of an academic exercise. Call it "Extreme Montessori Decorating"

Designing the Environment:There is a lot of philosophy out there, and many interpretations. Here's my take on designing a Montessori-appropriate home environment, the crux of which is simplicity. It's harder than I had imagined. There are so many cool and beautiful things for our babies that it's hard for a girl to keep her wits about her. I WANT that adorable little egg-shaped bouncer they have at (go check it out, it is so cute!). I want a slick modernist high chair and an heirloom crib tricked out with the dwellbaby crib set. Those things have been marketed successfully to me and I WANT THEM. However, I will not have them because they are not part of the Montessori infant environment and I want to do this all the way.

The following things are omitted by design:

Swings and bouncing contraptions of any kind. We have no bouncy seat, no wind-up swing, no vibrating chair, no exersaucer,and no high chair. The bumbo seat and the bilibo rocker are waiting, gathering dust. There can be nothing to sit on, other than someone's lap, that the baby cannot get into and out of herself, including the chair she eats in. At two months, it's still early for many of those things to be relevant, but the day of reckoning is coming.

Any and all toys that "do" anything. Toys in the Montessori infant environment may not light up, buzz, spin around or move in any way or for any reason that is not visible to the child's eye. My saddest omission in this category is the cute little caterpillar and the bumblebee Lamaze toys--both of which vibrate when you pull the cords. I LOVE these toys. (snif). Rattles must have all the clattering parts on the outside, visible to the child. The Tiffany silver rattle has to stay in its box for now.

The crib. The Montessori mobile infant should be able to get in and out of bed on her own power. Nuvy has a floor bed, which is basically a mattress on the floor, surrounded by a lovely wooden tray, to make it look a little less like a mattress thrown on the floor. Just now she can't move much and she only naps in it, but I'll bet the floor bed thing is about to get very interesting.

Hanging overhead toys. These must be omitted until the baby can get under them or away from them on her own. The Montessori environment may not impose toys on the baby by hanging them in front of her face. She has to choose to play with them. There is a sort of arty, Calder-esque mobile above her bed, but it is high out of her reach, and I consider it an aesthetic element, like paint or a picture on the wall, rather than a toy.

Other environmental design restrictions I'm following:

Separate play and sleep areas. Lucky for me, this is the only practical arrangement in my house. We have two small areas, rather than one big one. There is nothing to play with in her sleep area but a few board books and a "mouthable" book with family photos in it. Later, if she wants it, she can have a "lovey" to sleep with, but I don't mean a menagerie to play with in bed.

Cartoon images. Images of people, animals, or whatever have to be as realistic as possible. I will make certain allowances for stuffed animals, justifying them by not calling them by real animal names. For example, I do not refer to the cutest stuffed horse in the world by saying "This is a horsey!" It isn't. We'll just call it "springy", which it is, and let her figure out that it looks like a horse after she's seen some photos/real horses. Why? So as to preserve the delight she'll get from discovering the likeness herself.

Montessori eyebrow-raisers in my environment:

Mirrors. Mirrors are a subject of hot debate in Montessori infant culture. Those in favor assert that the mirror allows the child to see her own realistic image, and realistic images of other people present. Those opposed say that the mirror image is complicated and confusing--like the rattle with the moving parts inside and out of view--and should be left out as a deceptive element. Personally, I love mirrors, my house is full of them, they brighten and enlarge small spaces of which I have plenty, and I am including them.

Bright colors. Strict adherence to the Montessori infant-environment-design-code requires that all colors be neutral, so as not to overstimulate the new baby, who's got enough to process as it is without the color riot. I have tried to restrain myself, painting the rooms a rather mellow shade of yellow, but I do have a red rocking chair, red cubby storage, and a bright-stripey rug in her bedroom. It's still pretty austere.

The red rocking chair. Strictly speaking, Montessori gurus do not advocate rocking, bouncing or swinging by human hands any more than by mechanical means. It is said to distract the baby from its chosen work (usually screaming its head off, in my experience). After all that discussion about crying and soothing, I've decided that this is hogwash and I will rock my baby in my own arms to soothe her, but I'll try not to rock her all the way to sleep. That's for another post. The rocker gets in by being my contraption, not hers.

Slings and carriers. Same principle. Baby can't control it, baby can't get in and out of the carrier on her own. I object on the same grounds. It's a device to help me use my own body to soothe the baby. Plus, I love wearing her. (Lalala, I can't hear you, Magda Gerber!)

The co-sleeper. It's not exactly co-bedding, but almost, which is not forbidden, but sort of frowned upon. Well, go ahead and frown. When she stops nursing at night and starts rolling over a lot, I'll put her in the floor bed at night.

The Product:

Nuvy's Sleep Room

Nuvy's Play Room

Results so far: So far what seems to happen is that I am humanly responsible for all the forbidden mechanical activities and entertainments, by virtue of my unwillingness to let her cry (Ok, I almost got through the whole thing without talking about crying). I swing, bounce, carry, lull, and make noises and movements for the purpose of her entertainment. Thusly, I have sort of justified the invention of all the conveniences I shun. Of course today, she finally found her thumb, and has spent much of the day in her spare environment, sucking it with relish while gazing at the muted walls or the patterned bandanna she is given to play with. All in all, a pleasant start.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ineffable Infancy

Ineffable Infancy: Magda Gerber and the Existential Baby

One last brain-twister regarding crying, and I promise I'll talk about something else. I re-read some sections on crying in Magda Gerber's Your Self-Confident Baby, and found a sort of black hole of the unknowable baby-mind waiting for me that I had simply overlooked before Nuvy came.

First of all, Gerber makes the rather weird assertion that, since a baby's language is crying (this is one of the few points over which she and Sears might not come to blows), a (fed, dry, etc.) baby should never be stopped from crying. Seriously. Here's the quote:

I feel a baby should never be told not to cry
or be distracted from crying, even if listening to it is difficult for the
parent. I often say to parents that if you tell your child not to cry, you'd
better set aside lots of money to send her to Primal Scream Therapy when she
grows up. People go to therapy because they no longer trust how they feel,
thinking, "I feel desperate, but maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm okay after

Now, before I had my own baby, I read this passage without even a pause to ponder how deeply crackpot this advice might sound to a parent. Nothing but red onions will bring me to tears faster than not being able to comfort (read: quiet) my sweet little shrieking baby. I have heard a lot of babies, and have not had too much difficulty keeping my head around other people's crying children, but it's against my every instinct to sit over my own child and watch her cry without doing anything. I mean, I can do it, but I almost have to breathe through it as if I were in labor again--careful not to make any "shh" breaths that might be misinterpreted as a suggestion that the baby cut short her screaming jag.

Gerber has clearly heard this argument before. She goes on:

Parents have asked me, if crying is a
child's language, isn't she telling us to do something? My
answer is, not necessarily. It's different from when a grown-up
cries. It's the baby's mode of self-expression. Since an infant
cannot talk, crying is the only way she can express her feelings or
discomfort. Babies also cry to discharge energy. They don't run and
play as older children do.

So here we have a child who is using a mode of expression that, for an adult, indicates extreme negative emotion, but Gerber seems to assert that, since the child's expression is not codified according to learned meaning, her emotional state is unknowable to us. Therefore, we should not project our adult meaning onto the gesture the child is making--one of a very limited repertoire available to a very young infant. Lets assume she's not hungry, wet, sick or injured. Perhaps some crying doesn't indicate discomfort at all. She could be expressing anything, or nothing in particular--just letting off a little steam, or maybe conducting a little linguistic experiment by testing the parent's reaction.

But then, if we posit that expression is integral to experience, and the child has only two means of expression, crying or not, does that mean the child only experiences contentment or despair, and that nuances of expression become apparent alongside nuances of experience? Well, that doesn't seem so far fetched, does it? And supposing we do accept that, does it get us anywhere?

It's easy to fall off that particular precipice in either direction. You could say that, if the child is in apparent despair, with no apparent reason, you must treat it as real despair and relieve it in any way possible, trusting that experience and expression will become more modulated with time. I would call this "Attachment Parenting" or "Searsism". Alternatively, you could say that, if the child expresses despair in a situation that doesn't seem to call for despair, you must modulate your response in order to allow the child to discover nuances of experience and expression authentically. I would call this "RIE Parenting" or "Gerberism".

Either way we get to the same place, right? Listen to your child's unintelligible signals. Once you've interpreted those signals, respond to them according to our very-well-researched model. Otherwise you run the risk of raising a very damaged individual.

Great. Thanks. I should have gone into the head-shrinking business.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Shutdown Syndrome

The Shutdown Syndrome: Sears Sucker-Punches the Maternal Guilt Complex

Welcome back to the crying game! To continue our discussion, I found an anecdote at that I found worthy of deconstruction. Anyone care to join me?

Dr. Sears writes:

Heather had previously been a happy baby, thriving on a full dose of attachment parenting...The whole family was thriving and this style of parenting was working for them. Well-meaning friends convinced these parents that they were spoiling their baby, that she was manipulating them, and that Heather would grow up to be a clingy, dependent child.

Parents lost trust...They let Heather cry herself to sleep, scheduled her feedings, and for fear of spoiling, they didn't carry her as much... Heather went from being happy and interactive to sad and withdrawn. Her weight leveled off, and she went from the top of the growth chart to the bottom. Heather was no longer thriving, and neither were her parents.

Baby lost trust. After two months of no growth, Heather was labeled by her doctor "failure to thrive" and was about to undergo an extensive medical exam. When the parents consulted me, I diagnosed the shutdown syndrome...They unknowingly pulled the attachment plug on Heather, and the connection that had caused her to thrive was gone.

Ok. I can picture this situation. Everybody is telling you how to handle your perfectly happy, well adjusted child. You make some ill-advised changes based on half-assed renderings of child-rearing wisdom from people you didn't agree with to begin with, your new grudgingly-imposed restrictions work for no one. Everybody loses. But seriously, how far did these people go? Failure to thrive? Sad and withdrawn? Top to the bottom of the growth chart? Pretty dramatically not good. Did they lock her in her room and pass her a bottle through a slot in the door every four hours?

Where I get hung up is with the "shutdown syndrome" part. It's not that I don't think emotional deprivation has physiological consequences, that's been shown everywhere. It's just that a thing like "shutdown syndrome" gets sketchy when the first symptom of it is the child not crying--unthinkable failure masquerading as success. Ouch.

To illustrate, here's Sears again:

Babies thrive when nurtured. We believe every baby has a critical level of need for touch and nurturing in order to thrive...We believe that babies have the ability to teach their parents what level of parenting they need. It's up to the parents to listen, and it's up to professionals to support the parents' confidence and not undermine it by advising a more distant style of parenting, such as "let your baby cry-it-out" or "you've got to put him down more."

True, who would argue against the idea that children need to be nurtured. You can't walk away from a newborn and expect her to sleep through the night. If you have one, your whole being forces you out of bed in the middle of the night to give that baby the physical and emotional nurture she needs. However, are we to equate nurture with shutting the baby up no matter what it takes? Binkies? Wind-up-swings? All-night car rides? Car seat on the washing machine? Is it OK to tend the child's physical needs, and then just hold her or sit beside her through the hurt we can't solve for her? Supposing we succeed! And if we do, what do we do with the next statement?

Babies who are "trained" not to express their needs may appear to be docile, compliant, or "good" babies. Yet, these babies could be depressed babies who are shutting down the expression of their needs. They may become children who don't speak up to get their needs met and eventually become the highest-need adults.

Now this is just what the Maternal Guilt Complex needed. I mean, are we talking walk-don't-run trained, wind-down-a-few-minutes trained or Romanian-orphanage trained? Supposing I follow my mother's advice and do everything I would normally do (rock, sing, walk the floor) then put the baby down and go away for a few minutes. What if the baby actually stops crying? How can I tell if my baby is content or depressed? Do I get to blame my mother for making me a "high-needs adult?" Where are the data on high-needs adults?

Actually, lets construct some data. If there are any readers lurking out there who think they could classify themselves as either "high-needs" or "low-needs" adults, go call your mom and ask her what she did with you when you cried as a baby, then let us know on the comment board. We'll compile the data and see what we get!

The Crying Game

The Crying Game: Magda Gerber and Dr. Sears Face Off

Welcome to the philosophical paradox of crying babies. Beyond the obvious reparable (or irreparable) reasons, nobody knows why babies cry, and nobody can keep them from crying from time to time, yet all the experts agree that this no-apparent-reason crying is a meaningful, authentic form of communication that must be honored, interpreted and responded to by the parent. Experts further agree that if you follow the advice of the wrong expert, you will do irreparable damage to your future relationship with your child, and to your child's self-esteem as she grows up.

In other words: everyone knows you can't win, but nobody can call off the game, and just to keep it interesting--loser gets a kid who's scarred for life. Well, I protest! I will sit down and extemporize while my fussy baby yells herself purple in my helpless, sagging arms. I will do this because nothing I do will do any damn good anyhow. I might even wear my iPod while I type!

For the benefit of grannies, childless people, and other readers who are less baby-obsessed than I am, I will explain who these people are. If you have a young infant you probably already know, so skip the next bit and go attend your screaming baby. If you're pregnant, go take a nap and when you wake up, get your doc to write you up a scrip for some Librium. Trust me. It's for later.

In the white corner, wearing yellow trunks: Magda Gerber, founder of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), disciple of Dr. Emmi Pickler, who did a lot of research with some very nice Hungarian orphans, and author of Your Self-Confident Baby, which is required reading for Montessori infant-types. Magda would like for you to respect your child's individual competence as separate from you. She would have you respect her "need to cry" by letting it be "ok" for her to cry sometimes. She cautions against rocking, swinging, bouncing, walking the floor, cars and washing machines, and other physical stimulation methods of baby soothing, as they intrude on the baby's natural ability to work through its newfound emotions. She would have you go to the baby's bed, talk to the baby, maybe lay a hand on the baby's tummy, and "be present" while the baby screams its head off.

In the red corner, wearing blue trunks: Dr. Sears (actually, now there are three--Dad and two sons), Attachment Parenting (AP) guru. Check out the whole AP philosophy at Dr. Sears would probably like to eat Magda Gerber alive. He cautions against "letting your baby cry-it-out" as this is against almost every parent's natural instinct toward her child, and will damage the trust bond between parent and child, cause easy babies to become apathetic (i.e. quiet), and difficult babies to become totally unglued (i.e. disturbingly noisy). He advocates bouncing, swinging, "baby dancing", walking the floor, pacifiers, and pretty much anything you have to do to soothe (i.e. shut up) the baby, and he advocates doing this for as long as it takes. No "crying it out" ever. He does make a certain allowance for colic, and at some point in the future, moving from being a "yes mom" to a "yes-and-no mom", though he does not specify when or exactly what the hell that means.

And so I'm...Stuck in the middle with you.

Let's all digest while I settle in for the 2:30am feeding. Anyone have upfront opinions before the main event?