by Jackie Bartlett
I figured all parents did that. Fathers throw their children into the air.
Last weekend I attended the RIE conference in LA at the Skirball Center. I had a full day of the nuances of RIE--how can we know what babies are saying when they can't use words to tell us? What are the practical considerations of observing children closely, learning who they are and what they need? I had seen some amazing footage of very young children exploring their environments through slow methodical play, making connections between similar objects in their environment. The sensitivity of caregivers to the needs of preverbal children was inspiring.
We all had had a full day and were taking a much needed coffee break and discussing the speakers and workshops. Suddenly, some movement across the terrace caught our attention. A visitor to the adjoining museum was throwing a toddler into the air and catching him repeatedly. The toddler's face was pointed at us. He had a look of resignation and uneasiness. The father (I'm assuming the man was the child's father) was laughing. His friends were standing near. It seemed to be over, but the father suddenly threw the child at the friends, stopping short and pulling the child back to him. The friends laughed. The contrast between what we had seen all morning and the inconsiderate way the father treated his child was stark and gut-wrenching. I could feel the eyes of the other attendees on the man and his son and the simultaneous short intake of breath as we all had the same basic reaction. I wondered if the incident reminded the other witnesses of this quote from Your Self-Confident Baby (Gerber, M & Johnson, A. 2012. Wiley.):
I remember attending a RIE class one day when Raquel was about six or eight months old. When class was over, I picked her up and playfully held her up over my head, wagging her around. She smiled, probably because she was used to it, and maybe because I liked doing it so much. I remember [Magda] saying, "Would you like someone to do that to you?" I had never though she might not like what I did to her. I figured all parents did that. Fathers throw their children into the air. That moment changed the way I parent. I became much more conscious of what I did to, or with, my children.
I don't believe rough play is always bad. Maybe Magda Gerber didn't either; she asked the RIE class father a question, rather than making a statement. Random rough play, however, sends children conflicting messages: This is a person who protects me from harm and provides for my needs, and this is a person who throws me into the air, making me insecure without a moment's notice. How confusing! If we wait until children are mobile and they initiate the rough play according to their own level of comfort, they get to play with danger and power while still being in control. When we, as adults, seek the thrills of roller coasters, motorcycles, or sky-diving, we are choosing those thrills. I don't think anyone would enjoy being taken by surprise by suddenly being pushed out of a plane while being told that he likes it. That is what we do to children when we throw them into the air without permission.
There is another element to this kind of rough play that is more covert even than not paying attention to your child's wishes. This play is often something that fathers do with sons. The message is that this is what men do; they play rough. If you don't like it, hide your feelings. In the incident at the conference, this message was reinforced when the father's friends (also male) laughed along with the father as the child was tossed about. Obviously, I don't know these people. I seriously doubt that the dad was actively trying to suppress his child's feelings while terrorizing him into conforming to stereotypes of Maleness. He was probably just trying to have a little fun with his kid. I am suggesting that we all look at "fun" from the child's point of view and actually ask our children if they like the game, too.
After my initial shock and revulsion, I laughed. I couldn't believe the father's luck. He couldn't have ignored his child's cues in a worse place, as 200 eyes looked upon him with the same disapproval.