Questions and Answers
What do children need in order to grow up to become successful, fulfilled individuals, and adults that our society needs them to be?
Individual attention is essential in helping children to grow up to become the kind of creative, flexible and adaptable people, capable of utilizing their talents and fulfilling their individual potential. Empathic understanding gives rise to child rearing practices that promote emotional, intellectual, and physical growth.
Each newborn child is a unique individual. Parents seek to discover the characteristics and potentialities of each infant's personality in order to synchronize themselves with their baby. As you hold your infant in your arms, feel the baby's changes in muscle tone, watch his/her facial expressions, listen and respond to the baby's sounds, and have playful 'baby-talk' dialogues with the infant, you become tuned into each other.
The empathic mother is attuned to her infant's emotional signals and communications and tries to imaginatively fill in the gaps to form a more complete concept of what the baby is feeling. You temporarily merge with the infant, sharing the baby's feelings, feeling them as your own as a way of knowing and understanding your baby in order to respond to provide the care he/she needs.
For the infant, this consistent, empathic, nurturing relationship lays the foundation for developing the trust and confidence to gradually explore, discover, and play by themselves, confident that the empathic mother will be there for him.
Empathic responsiveness does not need to be perfect. The child's life does not need to be, and certainly will not be, entirely free of frustrations and discontinuities. What is important is that there be a general overall tone of positive interest in, respect for, and responsiveness to the child, and appreciation and encouragement of the child as his or her own person.
Even during fetal life an infant starts to experience, becomes a participant in, and shares some aspects of the mother's emotional states because maternal hormones such as adrenaline cross the placenta into the child's circulatory system. Mother's emotions and her changes in mood continue to be transmitted to the baby after birth through biological channels and nonverbal communication. The infant experiences and responds to changes in tension or relaxation of mother's holding arms, changes in the rhythm, pitch and cadence of the sounds of her voice, and changing facial expressions that signal the mother's emotional state. Gradually, the baby discovers that nonverbal emotional signals from the mother are meaningful and useful in helping to anticipate mother's responses.
An infant who has received empathic responsive care retains memories of the changes created by mother's caring responses and may identify and replicate her maternal soothing behaviors in self-soothing activities or in empathic-like behavior toward mother or toys. The child is copying mother's behavior, but his/her understanding of another person's feelings is still limited at this young age since he has not yet fully realized the separate individuality of the other person, or developed the capacity to imaginatively put himself into the other person's point of view.
Parental empathic encouragement and support for the toddler's growing efforts to explore, experiment, observe and think, and draw conclusions on his own contributes to the gradual development of psychological insight into other people's feelings.
In the last half of the second year, children show evidence of being more aware of and more able to conceptualize their own emotional states and more able to appreciate and interpret the feeling and perceptions of others.
Empathic parenting does not require that mother and only mother be the primary caregiver. A child does not necessarily need an exclusive relationship with a single mothering parent IF a comfortable relationship is available with parenting partners who are mutually compatible, communicate well with each other, and are reasonably coordinated in their parenting styles.
What is important is that there be a general tone of positive interest in, respect for, relatively reliable responsiveness to, and encouragement of the child as his own person. If day care workers and other auxiliary parents provide a major component of the overall world and nurturant parental environment of the very young child, it is crucial that they function as 'co-parents,' forming a collaborative shared-parenting team.
When is a child "ready" for day care?
Although it is preferable that a child not be pushed forward to explore the new and unknown until he is developmentally ready, that is until he has established enough of a sense of himself and internal concept of mother, it is often not feasible to wait until the second or third year when the child has become stabilized in the developmental process of separation and individuation before mother returns to work. In these circumstances, it is particularly important to find a nurturing and supportive child care arrangement.
What should I expect in an optimal day care setting?
Particularly for children younger than 8 months, it is important that the day care setting have sufficient staff to provide individual attention and have enough time to get to know the baby. Daily communication between parent and co-parent can also help coordinate and provide some consistency in child care. The goal is to relate to the child in ways that are reasonably emotionally symmetrical and coordinated so that the child experiences a minimum of confusing discontinuity and disorientation.
Child care staff and parents should become collaborators in the service of the child's needs. Competitiveness and major discontinuities among parenting figures can be very traumatic and harmful.