Sunday, September 2, 2018

Anything you can do, I can do too! A rally call to fathers!


For nearly 100 years Social and Behavioral Scientists researched bonding and attachment. Bonding is the chemical process of sensory processing that creates a secure "chemistry" between an infant and their primary caregiver. Attachment is the bond that endures over time due to consistent nurturing and caring behaviors. However, this nearly 100 years of research was conducted and normed on infants and their mothers exclusively (Keller & Rehm, 2015).

Infant Massage
As a Family Scientist conducting a review of Infant Massage articles, it became evident that any past research on infant massage can and needs to be replicated with fathers and babies. While both parents play a distinctly different role in their caregiving and impact upon a child, there is also overlap. In her research on fathering, Dr. Andrea Doucet, describes the generalized differences between mothering and fathering. While mothers are biologically primed to protect and ensure the safety of children, fathers are primed to push children to the edge of their limits. Both provide a clear benefit to children's human development.

During my research on Infant Massage, I discovered research on fathers and infants was very new and only two rigorous studies were conducted and published. I subsequently focused on fathers and their infants. After conducting this research, I realized that any and all prior bonding and attachment research on mothers and infants now compels us to duplicate the same studies only with fathers instead of mothers. We need to develop a new measurement tool normed on fathers and their infants to determine bonding and attachment.

Only one longitudinal study focused on father attachment to their children at the time of my study, which indicated that men did not necessarily bond and attach the same as mothers. However, the study was conducted with fathers and their teens and provided no caregiving information about the beginning years or the years in between. During the adolescent stage, their main two skills are is defining themselves as emerging adults by practicing social skills with their peers and developing a sense of privacy (sense of self). Neither of these developmental milestones is conducive to examining bonding and attachment in teens and their fathers especially not with theory only normed on mothers and infants. The results of these studies have confirmed that all prior research needs to be replicated with fathers and their infants to delineate the bonding and attachment processes unique or not so unique to this family dyad.

My research interest is, exploring optimal caregiving practices for infants, toddlers, and children. Among these are Emotional Availability, Touch, Play, and Communicating Empathy. Each of these is critical to supporting the infant and can be focused on by both or either the mother and father.

The skin is the largest organ in the human body. The surface provides more than just a barrier to keep environmental threats out and human biochemistry inside. The skin is the largest receptor for sensory stimulation. The importance of touch is best revealed by the results of deprivation of human contact. When humans are not touched they literally die. The truest form of neglecting a baby is not touching them. Touch communicates emotion and safety and so much more.

Infant Massage
Infant Massage is one of three science-based bonding and attachment caregiving activities. The three are breastfeeding, kangaroo care, and infant massage. I am not focusing on breastfeeding or kangaroo care as there is plenty of research to establish these caregiving activities as science-based. Infant massage is an intense biochemical experience as all, but one physical sense is involved during an infant's massage. In addition to the many emotional and physical benefits of massaging the infant for both the infant and the parent, the additional benefit is sleep! The benefits are bi-directional, meaning both benefits from a message. Who does not sleep better after a massage?

Infant massage became known in the US after Vimala McClure, an anthropologist who traveled through India, noticed the mothers massaging their infants. Some mothers experiencing abject poverty would sit beside the road in the dirt and massage their infants. The juxtaposition of poverty and nurturing touch in a country lacking in violence was compelling to Vimala and there began her passion for Infant Massage. We owe her much for her perseverance and persistence in working with infants and their caregivers in the United States.

Infants are born communicators. They are a bundle of pure emotions and void of human vocabulary. That we struggle to understand their wants and needs is not about their inferiority, it is about our superiority. As adults, we value verbal articulation and precision of vocabulary which is appropriate for an adult to adult relationship. It is when this expectation is applied to developing human beings that it becomes a form of superiority, demanding an infant, toddler or child communicate in the adult language places an undue hardship on developing human beings, frustrates both communicators, terrifies the child and is, in my opinion, a form of control versus empowerment.

Infants require responsive emotional communication to feel seen, heard, and valued. That's why we "talk" to them. How they communicate back to us is through the emotional expression of their feelings. Listening with our hearts rather than our minds supports all of the above.

Non-verbal forms of communication require more research to gain notoriety in academia, however, preliminary and rudimentary research indicates two may play a role in supporting the developing family ecology.

Dunstan Baby Language
Dunstan baby language was developed by a woman who was a world-renowned musician and had her first child. She noticed rhythms in her infant's cry and responded as she believed her infant was communicating to her to meet its' needs. Since then preliminary studies are showing this tool supports communication between the infant and its caregivers. Remember anything mothers can do so can fathers even if their results are different. Pick up a DVD here and begin today!

Try it for free right here!  Remember learning something new is always a beginner's experience. We all do better after many repetitions, that's why it is called practice. It isn't too hard, it is just new.

Sign Language for Infants 
I often watched people who spoke through sign language. I was dazzled by the emotional expression of people who signed emoting as they communicated. It was sometime later in life when I was working on my Ph.D. and came across studies that indicated that teaching sign language to infants supported emotional bonding and attachment because babies were able to make a connection with their primary caregiver that I became focused on communication with infants. The only criticism was that possibly teaching infants sign language delayed speech; however, infants who signed were more likely to have richer vocabularies after they began speaking a few months later than their peers.

Studies indicated infants would not pick up sign language until around 6 months of age. However, parents have reported to me their infants were mimicking signs much sooner than 6 months of age. My own daughter began teaching my granddaughter the "T" sign (T for toilet) whenever she needed her diapers changed. She was about 5 months old when she began showing us the "T" sign whenever she needed her diaper changed. She had already learned the sign for "food" and "more." There were no "terrible twos." Today, sixteen years later, she still signs "more" when she gets very excited!

Can you imagine being an infant in an adult world, without language to communicate when you are hungry, tired, hurting, needing to be changed? Parents often share how frustrated they feel when they do not know what their infant needs, it has to be more frustrating for the small developing human being who has no words and can't understand what you are saying no matter how well-intentioned you are about assisting. We need to remember while we have been on the planet for a couple of decades these tiny vulnerable human beings have only known their entire existence inside of a human body with all of their needs met. This is their first learning curve and it is as steep as it will ever be in their human development across the lifespan.

I suggest parents first teach the everyday signs, T for the toilet, the sign for eating or hungry, the sign for more, mother, father, etc. everyday living signs first, then add in signs to communicate feeling words. Emotional communication goes a long way in human development and relationship building. You can even sign and sing along. Make this fun for both of you.

Emotional Availability
"Studies show that a parent's emotional availability may frequently be more important to a child's emotional development than physical availability and that parents can be trained to read the body and verbal language of their infants and children to understand whether they are securely attached to their parents." Universal Language of Love, Zeynep Biringer, Ph.D., International Center for Excellence in Emotional Availability. 

Family Scientists have discovered the caregivers' opinion on how they are meeting the infant (child's) emotional needs do not impact the outcome of the process of child-rearing as much as the child's opinion of how they perceived the parent and child connection. In other words, you may believe you did everything right and still, that is not where the proof is, it's in the child's perception of their childhood and their relationship with their parent. Did my parents get me? You may ask, "How can there possibly be a disconnection?" in "Raising a secure child", Zeynep Biringen, Ph.D. leads us through the process of identifying emotional availability and what it looks like and how it is demonstrated. This has critical implications on current parenting programs as we evaluate the outcomes based upon parental input rather than collecting information on the child's perception of change in behavior and the relationship with the parent. In other words, we need to primarily examine the impact upon the child's perception of the relationship.

Peaceful Parenting 
Infants, toddlers, and children are at first sight a mirror into our own souls. They challenge us to meet their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. Then when they are developed as human beings, they become the mirror to all that we need to heal in our soul. Every feeling of frustration, anger, resentment, etc. becomes an opportunity to understand our own internal processes and heal what still needs to be repaired. The family ecology requires peaceful parenting to support a new developing human being.

Infants do not come into the world with an agenda other than getting their own basic needs met. Any frustration you feel is not about them. They are frustrated because they do not have the developmental speech to tell you what they need. You are disappointed because you do not know how to read them and possibly your parents did not understand how to read you. So the cycle continues until it changes and the only person in this family ecology that can change is you! How can the family ecology be changed? Through mindful peaceful parenting practices. Parenting is truly from the inside out.

Role Modeling Self Compassion
In this age of bullying and unprecedented emotional cruelty in our society, it is no wonder it has become typical behavior in our children and in our schools. Parents and society became focused upon developing self-esteem in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. What we have since discovered is that increasing self-esteem without self-compassion produces people with severe and debilitating attitudes of entitlement. When we raise children by modeling self-compassion and empathy for others that is the power of parenting. All children are wired to survive and their first initial skill is observational learning. As most of us grew up we were asked, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Instead, ask children What problem do you want to solve when you grow up?" The first question is not developmentally appropriate, the second question's answer grows up with the child.

The age-old and time-tested parenting tool still remains the most effective parenting tool, "modeling." When children see, hear, and watch their parents practicing compassion and empathy, they learn to be compassionate with others. When we fill our own cup of compassion (Self Compassion) our infants, toddlers, and children exhibit self-compassion as well. Remember from the time they are born developing humans are studying us to determine our trustworthiness, honesty, availability, credibility, and integrity and to learn about the world. They are not concerned about our intelligence, just how much we will love (caring) them and for how long. We, adults, build that relationship and maintain it throughout the lives of our children. That is all on us, not them.

This can be a monumental task for those who did not receive self-compassion or have a nurturing childhood. If this is you, do not despair. There is plenty of support to build a new life a new way of being in the world. Change just one thing, your own practice of self-compassion compassion, and the rest will fall into place. Remember that asking, 'what is wrong with me or them?' is a shaming question most of us remember from childhood that shuts down communication. Asking instead, 'what happened?' or 'what is happening?' indicates concern and opens up the communication.

Brenee Brown author of the "Gifts of Imperfection" and Kristen Neff author of "Self- Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself" are the two authors I highly recommend as personal growth changers. Both of their work is based upon decades of research on vulnerability and self-compassion.

It is only in the last century that adult humans have come to understand the critical role of play in supporting the developmental processes of infants, toddlers, children, and adults. Child-led playtime is essential in communicating with children. Why? It is a form of listening to what the child is telling you during the time of play. Play supports cognitive, emotional, and social development. One of the first mistakes we make as parents is usually forcing children to share their toys. Sharing is not bad. Being compelled to share when your brain is only wired to parallel play is frustrating when you don't understand what you did wrong. Not understanding what you did wrong can make you feel bad about yourself inside. Children are wired to parallel play until they are about 3 years old. Can you see how this doesn't work for the child? Instead, let the child lead the playtime and pay attention, it is time for mindfulness. Look for opportunities to support emotional development by positively coaching the child.

Rather than having a teaching moment or directing the play to teach the child something, let them show you something. Let them lead just for today. You will learn more about what is going on inside your child's development than any other way. That is critical information to build an understanding of your child's inner world and a bonding opportunity through that connection of mutual understanding.

A quick word about parenting-child training. Discipline is a word that gets thrown at parents and by parents to determine if they are doing an excellent job of raising their child. This is outer focused feedback that is not appropriate in a child's development. It is not their job to make adults 'look like good parents.' They are too young to meet adults' need for societal approval. Furthermore, the word is misunderstood. Discipline means to teach, to instruct, and to provide structure. It was never about being cruel or violent with children although it has been a practice of cruelty throughout our history. Rather than continue to talk about what it was, let's jump to what I saw revealed a more appropriate understanding of discipline (consistency) in the most fantastic kindergarten class I have ever visited.

I was volunteering in my granddaughter's classroom and as I entered the class one day I did not see the students or the teacher. They were outside. Except for one young man who was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. I asked him why he wasn't outside playing? Are you in trouble? "Oh no," he said, "I am just calming myself," I asked how and he showed me how he was following his breathing. I wondered if it was working and he said yes, it always does! This kindergarten teacher's response to getting out of step in her class was to have the student sit in a chair and practice mindfulness through breathwork! It was obvious the child did not feel shame about what had required him to sit there and follow his breath. He was self-calming as breathing slowly and repeatedly, allows our autonomic system to calm down.

Furthermore, I attended many school events that year and I never heard anything other than squeals and giggles. There was no hollering, yelling, or otherwise aggressive behavior in this little school of 9 grades. This one moment of the experience was memorable and sent me down a path of exploring optimal child caregiving activities.

We spend time learning to drive, we spend time learning to cook, how much time do we need to learn to care for vulnerable developing human beings? Is it realistic to just wing it? Or to do as our parents did 20, 30 or 40 years ago? Who parented as their parents had 40, 60 or 80 years ago, or so one and son back through the generations. Why would we not desire to do the very best for our children as Family Science defines best practices? It is natural for the survival of the species to want each generation to be better than we were. If that is missing, we are all doomed.
Mary Kay Keller, M.P.A., Ph.D., S.S.W., C.E.I.M., C.F.L.E., & F.L.C.A.
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