A few weeks ago there were 9 of us in a Peruvian restaurant. A two-year-old had an ear-splitting tantrum and his parents walked him out and back into the restaurant 3 times. I happened to be speaking to someone about my work – about my parenting classes and philosophy – and my husband jokingly told me later he thought I might go over to the child (moves his hands around as if performing magic with his eyes closed) and say “This child needs agency” and the child would stop his tantrum. It struck me as funny that my husband would use this word to tell his joke because though, of course, I talk to him about my work, having raised two children together, we no longer have much occasion to speak specifically about my philosophy. Yet it was telling to me that he would pick this word “agency” because I think it is without doubt one of the keystones to understanding my work.
I have always had Spanish speaking assistants in my work in my hometown of Chicago. Many times I’ve tried to explain my philosophy to reach a consensus of why and how we work with the children. I’ve never been able to translate this word “agency” very well. There doesn’t seem to be a perfect Spanish equivalent. Even in English, I’m not sure people know what I mean when I talk about a child having agency. I use analogies like “think of the motor driving the car, the thing that is causing the movement, is providing the agency.” As it refers to children, I see so little agency in children being raised today.
For instance, this week I saw this well-intentioned mother “rocking” her daughter on the see saw. The other children, who may have gotten on to provide the other half of the see-saw experience were watching. Who had the agency in this play experience? It was not the child.
Did you know that babies come into this world with an “inner director?” They have much of what they need to survive. Did you ever see a newborn crawl three feet to his mother’s breast and latch on without help? Amazing! Children are great problem solvers. But they are slow. We need to give them lots of time. But we hardly EVER need to guide them. Even the games we typically play with them can take away from the joy of their discovery of their own games and ways of playing. Are we going to teach them how to roll a ball? Or are we going to let them discover the properties of a ball? Have you ever seen a child discover peek-a-boo by himself? His blanket lands on his face and he whisks it away? You’ve never heard such powerful laughter as a baby discovering his own joke. We often teach what he will learn anyway. By teaching we take away his chance to discover.
In our culture today children start out being held around the clock or propped up in infant seats. Then we move them to car seats and baby swings. We take the car seat out of the car and bring it inside so they don’t have to awaken. We put them in strollers which adjust in every degree from an upright 90 to a flat, laying down 180. When they are not in these specially-designed-to-support-them devices, they are propped up on the couch or bed or in a boppy or plastic molded chair while we ooh and aah and jabber nonstop to them. Who has the agency in all of these scenarios? Is the child making decisions on how to move his body? Where to go? What to discover? Is he deciding with whom or if to interact?
He can only move in limited ways in these devices. He can only discover what he can reach and often his arms are so constrained in these devices he can’t even hold his hand in front of his face, which should be his very first discovery. He has no choice but to interact with us when we are right in front of his face forcing the issue. That which isn’t used dies. That is a hard fact of science and children come to believe they don’t even HAVE agency. He sees his role in life is to passively receive the agency others are carrying out on his behalf. He comes to know that his job is: to be moved, not to move; to be talked to, not to instigate relationship; to be fed, not to make decisions about food and feed himself. The incredible sense of agency he is born with slowly diminishes and can disappear altogether. I have seen two year olds with none. They wait for me to feed them without lifting their hands to the food in front of them. They wait for me to put on the clothes that I am holding in front of them. What we don’t use, we lose.
This is the catastrophic disservice we are doing to children. Nature gave them agency. Nature hard wired them to come into this world with one question? “What do I need to DO to survive here?” Agency answers this question for them. They are directed toward that which they need. But we hardly let them DO anything. Recently I was in a restaurant holding a 7 month old. I put a few drops of water in a cup and let him hold the cup and try and bring it to his lips. He had never done anything like this and all five of the women in his life that were watching were interested in his attempts. Later during lunch I saw one of his “aunties” cradling him in her arms, on his back, as she used an eye dropper to put water into his mouth. He received the water but I had to wonder if I didn’t see a little defeat in his eyes – as if he were giving up a little of the agency he knew was inside of him. Children learn all in the right time if we let nature lead them. Our job is to follow and support them only enough to keep them safe. Scaffold is my word for this role and is another key word for me in my work.
I was born in 1961 and grew up in a time when children had incredible freedoms. I was raised in a newly suburban area surrounded by rural and bucolic farms, fields, creeks and streams. We were completely free to explore to our heart’s content on the school playground, in the stream, climbing trees, riding bikes for miles, with no adults to supervise us. I remember once seeing a road from the top of our sledding hill and it looked so very far away. It seemed to be the end of the earth. A few years later I realized which road it was exactly and then I decided I would ride my bike down it. It was probably 3 miles from my house and I road down it about another 2 miles. So at about 8 years old I had wandered alone 5 miles from my house. It was not a neighborhood road but on the periphery, windy and fast with farms alongside. I still remember the heady exhilaration of being so far from home on my own. I felt like an explorer, an adventurer and it was thrilling. All of the kids in the neighborhood banded together and walked for miles, going to faraway stores, as those were the only kind, to buy a piece of gum or candy. The age range might be from two to 12 and we would be gone for hours if not all day. Sometimes we brought the little ones home to nap when they were tired. But we never dreamed of going inside ourselves. We had complete and full agency!
For many years I have taught two-year-olds in a morning toddler class. I also teach parent-infant classes where the parent comes with the child and we discuss child development and other pertinent topics. But my toddler classes are always such fertile ground for me because I see what is going “wrong” in parenting. I see how children are impaired and stunted and have lost the inborn tendencies and abilities they were born with. By the age of two!
More about newborns crawling to the breast: I used to love to do an “experiment” with my own two babies. As newborns, 12-24 hours old, I would put them at the end of the bed and open my shirt and watch them slither toward my breast following the smell of the milk. It was always so incredible! Such agency, power, drive, strength! I couldn’t believe it! My goal was to always give that agency as much expression as possible. How did I do that? With a prepared environment and the right attitude.
Yes, babies have everything they need but, guess what? Parents do too! There is nothing to be anxious about. There is nothing to teach your child. When you try to teach him you send the message “I know what you need. Your competencies are not enough.” Instead the message could be “I support what, when, and how you learn. I love where you are right now.” This kind of parenting promotes self-confidence. And this kind of parenting will carry you through the college years.
A baby who learns “My inner initiator is my best guide” is well served for his lifetime. Babies are learning how to learn. Isn’t it a great thing to learn to follow your inner guide, your best judgment? When a child overcomes a difficulty, he earns the satisfaction of enjoying his own success. We can’t give self-esteem but we can provide the environment where it grows….by cultivating, promoting and allowing AGENCY!