Stair Anxiety

Stair Anxiety

Stair Anxiety

“It is not the best thing to try to keep your children happy all the time,” wrote Magda Gerber, founder of RIE®. “That is not the way life is.”

RIE, which stands for Resources for Infant Educarers, is an approach to parenting that encourages parents to expose children to life as it really is, and trust in their children’s ability to handle it. When we have confidence in our children, their self-confidence thrives. When we cushion our children from the realities of life, or over-protect them, we communicate our doubts and fears: we are telling them: “you need my help in this situation because you cannot handle it.” This can have a detrimental effect, as so much recent research has shown. See for example Hanna Rosin’s article in The Atlantic, “The Overprotected Kid”; Or read any of the umpteen recent New York Times, Slate, Time, etc. articles warning that helicopter parenting robs children of opportunities to develop independence and resiliency, thereby crippling them emotionally later in life.

But even when we understand these messages intellectually, changing our behavior isn’t necessarily immediate or easy. It can be one of the most difficult trials a parent faces to sit on her hands as her 10-month-old – or 4 month old! — struggles, but that non-intervention is one of the greatest gifts you can give as a parent.

In my RIE parent-infant guidance classes, classes I have a small stair structure, excellent for gross motor development, building judgment skills and developing understanding of height, depth, risk assessment, the body’s relationship to its surroundings, and more! The children love it, the parents, not so much. Some parents can’t embrace the opportunity to watch their babies learn a new skill, challenging their bodies and their brains because it’s just too damn scary.

Most of the babies and toddlers in my classes haven’t been on stairs on their own. This structure is much less steep than stairs you’d find in the average home, and it is surrounded by yoga mats to cushion falls. The babies are capable of crawling up and down the stairs, or partway up and partway down, but even so, it is unnerving for parents to watch. The babies get stuck, they take their time figuring out their next move, and they might express some frustration or discomfort as they undertake this physically and mentally challenging task. For parents it can be an ordeal to watch their babies negotiate these challenges, especially when a child chooses, as so often happens, to take a little break while poised on the exact edge of the highest step. But here, in a microcosm, is the parenting experience: Your child is learning to take on the world, as you observe, maybe aching to help, maybe wondering if you should offer help or warnings, but knowing that sometimes the best help you can give is to let her/him figure it out on her/his own.

Hanna Estroff Marano in her 2008 book, “A Nation Of Wimps,” warned that children who are protected from grappling with difficult tasks don’t develop what psychologists call ‘mastery experiences.’ Her research demonstrated that kids who have this well-earned sense of mastery are more optimistic and decisive; they’ve learned that they’re capable of overcoming adversity and achieving goals. But they cannot learn this invaluable lesson if we as parents pave the way, removing obstacles or offering “helping” hands.

Stair AnxietyA RIE parent-infant guidance class is the perfect place to practice not intervening, allowing your child the freedom to figure out on her own what’s the best way to climb up or down the stairs, giving her the freedom to fall and learn from the risk she took. Despite the many physical challenges, the RIE classroom is a safe space – the equipment is tested, mats are provided, and a facilitator is constantly monitoring safety so that parents can relax and observe. We only present challenges that the infants or toddlers can actually meet – even though parents might not at first believe their child *can* meet them. But for many parents relaxing while observing can be too challenging. Especially for parents new to the class, the temptation to get up to remove their child from the stairs, to offer a helping hand, or simply yell out a warning, can be irresistible. After a few weeks of observing, seeing that their child can navigate the stairs, can weather a fall and regain his composure, or will seek out her parent when in need of comfort, parents have an easier time sitting still and watching their child’s progress. That is when the value of non-intervention really becomes clear.

There are so many kinds of rewards for white-knuckling it as one’s oh-so-vulnerable-seeming infant takes on the stair challenge. Seeing the look of intense joy and confidence as she/he finishes a successful ascent and descent is one. But also, the thoughtful appreciation you experience watching your child come to a sensible decision, i.e., “I’ll climb up the first step, but that’s all I want to do today,” or the pride you experience when your child takes a tumble, but falls beautifully, protecting himself and keeping his head off the floor, collects himself afterward, and goes right back to the stairs to try again.

Fast forwarding through life, it’s easy to see how a calm supportive parent, observing her child’s efforts, available if needed but not intruding in her child’s process could produce a young adult who is confident in her abilities and knows she has the resources to take on the challenges life presents. Does this mean no help ever? Of course not! We also want our children to know that help is available, *if * they need it.

Should a child get truly stuck on the stairs, perhaps she has found herself in so awkward a position she really can’t get down on her own, or has just reached the point at which further effort would no longer be productive, then the facilitator moves in closer, giving the child encouragement in the form of recognition, “I see you’re struggling to get your leg out from under you,” or whatever the case may be. Sometimes that is sufficient to give the child renewed energy. If not, and the struggle intensifies, the facilitator might eventually provide whatever extra physical support the child needs to untangle herself and get off the stairs. “Here, you can lean on my shoulder if you want to get down.” That way the child still experiences accomplishing the task on his own – we wouldn’t remove her bodily from the stair or rearrange her limbs, both of which send the message, “you need me to manage this for you,” but we will provide the missing support with our body, in the same way you’d offer an adult a step ladder to help her climb down from a high place.

Once parents have internalized these ideas and can truly relax, they can allow their children the opportunity struggle, and come to respect them for their courage, patience, and persistence.   By refraining from intervening, or providing only the minimal help needed to overcome an impasse, parents demonstrate their trust in their child’s competence and allow them to enjoy the mastery of their own actions. It’s not always easy, but that’s one of the beauties of the RIE class: providing support to parents as they learn how best to support their children.

Read the full article at A Child Grows in Brooklyn