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Making Space to Be Upset
Offering solace, not just solutions, to children and grown-ups
This week, I’m talking about making space for vulnerability and dependance without solving it. On Thursday (barring my baby being born), I’ll share highlights from your conversation about gift economies.
The New Yorker had a recent profile on Janet Lansbury and the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach to parenting. I’d never heard of Lansbury or this program, but it turns out I’m a partial beneficiary, since we have a Pikler triangle climber in our playroom for Beatrice.
Like many articles on parenting, it’s fun to read, since it includes anecdotes like this one:
In the back yard, a mom told Lansbury that her two-year-old throws tantrums every time he’s told no, bonking his head against the floor. Lansbury looked at the tiny culprit. “Sometimes you go down on the ground because you don’t like it when someone says no?” she asked. Turning to his mother, she suggested putting a blanket under his head, so he wouldn’t hurt himself. “He’s got a right to object,” she continued. “It’s so healthy for them!”
Recapping toddler behavior, especially in New Yorker tones, quickly becomes comic.
The article is also studded with another common feature of parenting advice: sane-sounding general principles that have absurdly specific codicils (RIE takes a hard line against swaddling). But this was the summation that stuck with me:
Many of the adults were struggling against the urge to parent like helicopters (circling their children, incessantly surveilling) or, worse, bulldozers (plowing aside every obstacle before their kids can encounter a moment’s difficulty). Lansbury and [Magda] Gerber urge people instead to be a “stable base” that children leave and return to—an idea that many modern parents find intensely difficult to apply.
This is our general approach, and in practice, it looks like letting children explore and get upset. To pick a recent example, we had friends over, and our two-year-old doesn’t have a lot of experience with bigger kids interacting with her toys.
She and the three-and-a-half-year-old both wanted to be holding the pieces of a puzzle, and were audibly upset. I was in the same room, and I stayed where I was, in the grown-up conversation, and didn’t intervene until my daughter came over to me to get help.
If I tried to summarize what I’m trying to teach, it’s that it’s ok for things to be hard, and it’s ok to be upset. I’m happy to help, but frustration isn’t a crisis, and I don’t treat it the way I do things like, say, climbing up the oven to get to the burners. It’s up to her (to a point) if she wants space to keep struggling.
I find this way easier to do for a baby than for a friend. I tend to jump straight to problem-solving. “Oooh, that sounds tough,” always initially sounds like white noise to me when I say it to a friend, even as I say, “You’re frustrated about wearing your jacket,” multiple times a day to my toddler.
But I forget that my adult friends may also want to just be accompanied in their frustration. And that they can appreciate having their frustration treated as okay, not something that has to be cleaned up and solved like an urgent spill.
I like helping by solving problems, but the more I default to only that, the more I accidentally tell my friends, “I don’t know what to do with problems I can’t solve. Maybe you shouldn’t bring them to me… maybe they’re too terrible to bring up.”
We are more likely to rise to the occasion when it is clearly an occasion—a moment of crisis, a time-bound period of stress. […] When the crisis simply continues without resolution, when the illness grinds on and on and on […] there isn’t an obvious way to integrate that kind of struggle into the realm of everyday life. It’s not clear what the healthy person is supposed to give to a friend or family member who isn’t dying, who doesn’t have some need that you can fill with a discrete act of generosity, but who just has the same problems—terrible but also, let’s be frank, a little boring—day after depressing day.
I worry a lot less about disappointing my daughter by not solving her problems. In some ways, I find it easier to believe that she can trust in my love, and I can trust in hers, even when I am not helpful.