Do You Want Something or Nothing from a Baby?

As a nanny, I understand that caring for young children is a daunting task. We’re haunted by the belief that we can do better or we’re not doing enough – or maybe aren’t taking adequate care of the household of our employers.

But, what if your role as a nanny could be boiled down to two roles? Not only would this simplify your job, but it might also make the day much more enjoyable. 

Magda Gerber, an early childhood expert and Founder of RIE, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of infant care and education, believed that caregivers and parents oscillate between two roles: we either “want something” or “want nothing” from children. But what does that even mean?

When we "want something"

We want something from infants and toddlers in our care when we bathe, diaper, dress, or feed them. There’s a task at-hand: our role is to elicit the child’s cooperation to complete it. The secret, however, is to believe these moments are not tasks at all; they are prime moments for bonding and connecting with the infant.  

It goes back to a theory developed by Dr. Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber: How we treat children during body care is how we learn about our relationship with them. This is similar to Dr. Montessori’s concept that “the work of the hand that is in direct connection with man’s soul" (Montessori 1964). In other words, do the hands relay a message of respect? Or are they rushed and filled with apprehension?

A caregiver’s primary role, then, is to create a body care routine that is both respectful and mutually enjoyable. They should see engaging mindfully in these tasks as an end in itself rather than merely a means of delivering custodial care.

One key way to make body care routines more enjoyable is to slow down. Remove the cell phone and other distractions. Observe and connect. Make eye contact. Watch where the children’s attention goes and follow their gaze. Comment on what they’re doing: “You’re pointing to the napkin” or “It looks like you’re enjoying that banana!” Be 100% present during bathing, feeding, and diapering.

Your job is not to cajole or persuade. Too often I hear other nannies and parents use food as a tool of punishment or reward: “You can have this snack if you behave” or “I want you to eat your vegetables.” Your job, instead, is only to offer healthy food choices and be okay with whatever the toddler chooses to eat. Then, when she is done, you take away the plate.

When we "want nothing" 

Whereas “Wanting something” presents an opportunity to be together, “wanting nothing” is the time to be apart. Therefore, our second job as caregivers is to create an optimal environment for play. Then we back off. The child’s job is to discover, explore, and learn about the objects in her play environment on her own; it’s not our job to show the infant or toddler what to do.

When caregivers become a part of play, we usually become the scriptwriter and unintentionally steal discoveries away from the child. Instead, we want to envision ourselves as a stage manager: we set up the stage, provide the props, and then let the actors do their thing. As the stage manager of a child’s environment, we set up a space with objects that are both physically safe and cognitively challenging, we ensure there are diverse sizes, shapes, and textures, and then we let children explore on their own--guilt free--knowing that we’re not supposed to “teach” them how to play.

How to curate an environment optimal for play is just one of the many topics discussed by myself and Johanna Herwitz, Ph.D., in our training course called Mindful Care, designed for nannies caring for newborns, infants, and toddlers.

My belief is that working with infants and toddlers is one of the most important jobs in the world. As caregivers, we’re responsible for helping young children to foster the foundational skills necessary for healthy relationships. By dividing the time we spend caring for infants into those moments when we “want something” and those when we are free to “want nothing” and let the child explore freely, we can ensure that our day is defined by the quality of our interactions with children rather than the quantity of tasks completed?