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Raising can-do kids begins with baby

Published on: April 01, 2005

Nothing in the world expresses pure potential like a baby. As a parent, you revel in his coos, head-lifting and first smile. And as baby grows, there comes a steady stream of tasks to master -- rolling over, crawling, first steps. Along the way, the child meets challenges and faces frustrations. How can parents encourage little ones to persist and learn from mistakes, and how can they quiet a child's fear of failure? How can we raise our kids with a can-do spirit?

It may seem counterintuitive, but some child-development experts say that doing best for your baby sometimes means doing less. In Your Self-Confident Baby, author Magda Gerber writes, "My cardinal rule for showing your baby respect is to become a sensitive observer." By slowing down, taking a psychic step back and calmly watching her, parents can get to know baby better. That in turn will help Mom and Dad more accurately address baby's needs, which will ultimately nourish her confidence.

Here are some hints to help sow the seeds of perseverance:

Watch, talk and listen

There are several ways to orient a baby in her new world, says Gerber, the founder and director of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE), an organization that helps parents and children from birth to 24 months learn to treat each other with respect. "The most important ones include observing your baby in order to understand her, helping her form attachment by talking to her and telling her what you are going to do, being slow and gentle with her, and waiting before intervening."

When baby is upset, it can be hard for parents to accept; often we want to change her mood or "shhh" her feelings so we feel more at ease. Vicki Smolke, who teaches infant classes through the Bellevue Community College Parent Education program, suggests that while parents meet baby's basic needs, they also accept her range of emotions -- the cries as well as the coos.

"I try to encourage parents to just be with the baby, with crying included, and give time to see what the baby needs instead of quickly trying to eliminate the emotion," she says.

Carla Hershman, director of the 0-to-3-focused Parenting Center at the Seattle Jewish Community Center, encourages parents to cultivate curiosity about their children. Imagine: What's interesting to them? What's hard for them? This thought process is "very powerful because it gives your child an even more active role in the relationship because you are not presuming to know what they are thinking, need or want."

Be a supportive assistant

For little learners, offering the right amount of help is a balancing act between "doing too much for them and doing too little," Smolke says. A child who is just starting to scoot can reach for a toy that has been placed far enough away for her to extend her arm. Put the rattle too far, and the chance to succeed is beyond reach.

Gerber encourages parents to help kids develop problem-solving skills by figuring things out on their own, such as pulling apart two cups that are stuck together. "If you do it for her, you also take from her a valuable learning opportunity."

Recognize the effort

According to Smolke, the healthiest way to praise a child is to give acknowledgement. When your little one has success, such as bringing her hands together for a first clap, mirror her happiness with a smile or gentle touch. When children begin to use words, describe what you see, and say, "You did it!" But Smolke suggests avoiding the expression, "Good job," because it is a caregiver's judgmental interpretation of the effort, and "older children pick up on judgment quickly."

And when things don't work out, empathize with a child's disappointment and guide him into troubleshooting other options. Hershman says, "Parents help teach kids to calm themselves down so they can go on with their task of learning and exploring on their own."

Set the stage

When older babies start crawling, it's important to make their surroundings as safe for exploration as possible. "If the environment is dangerous, we spend more time as a parent saying, "Careful! No! Stop! Don't!" Smolke says. "If we are always saying no, that drive to explore becomes diminished."

Provide appropriate challenge

It's important to know where children are developmentally, Smolke adds, and to have realistic expectations for their emerging abilities. For instance, a child who struggles to build a block tower simply may not be ready for that challenge.

"Our job is to help them develop (new) skills; they all have their own timetable," Smolke says. Once parents know a new task is safe, we can support kids' progress by offering new opportunities. For example, a baby who is always given soft and pureed foods eventually needs to try chewing and using a spoon. Smolke notes, "We know it will take twice as long for the experience and be twice as messy, but how else do they learn?"

Repeat after me...

Within limits, respect a child's need for repetition as part of the learning process. For example, parents can allow a few sessions of dropping something off the high chair. To ease the transition to a new activity, Smolke suggests, you might say, "You want to keep trying to see what happens when you knock the toy off the high chair. We'll do that another time; Mommy has to do something else now."

Get giggling

Most of all, give yourself permission to play on the floor and have fun with your child, and share the ups and downs of everyday life, Hershman says. Whether it's the distress of losing a blankey or the joys of exploring, these experiences "set the base for what will be an intellectual competency and an emotional competency," she adds. "You've got to have both to feel successful." And before you know it, your tiny bundle will be bursting with toddler glee and saying, "I can do it!"

Michelle Feder writes about a wide range of subjects and has a 2 1/2-year-old son.

Resources for Parents


  • Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser
  • What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, by Lise Eliot
  • Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child's Natural Abilities-From the Very Start, by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
  • The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, by John Gottman
  • First Feelings: Milestones in the Emotional Development of Your Baby and Child, by Stanley Greenspan
  • Help! for Parents of Children from Birth to Five, by Jean Illsley Clarke
  • The Emotional Life of the Toddler, by Alicia Lieberman

Web sites

  • Zero to Three, at, provides A-Z parenting tips and information on how your child learns and grows.
  • Talaris Research Institute offers a timeline for typical child development at
  • The Resources for Infant Educarers,, features information and materials based on the teachings of Magda Gerber.

Classes and discussion groups

  • The Parent Education Program at Bellevue Community College offers classes for parents and children set in a fun, nurturing environment. The Infant and Wobbler classes address family interactions in the important first months of the child's life. See or call 425-564-2365 for more information.
  • Seattle Central Community College, through its Parent Child Center, offers classes for children 2 months to 2-plus years and their parents or caregivers. To enroll in an upcoming quarter, contact Missy Chow at 206-587-6906 or email to be placed on the mailing list.
  • The Stroum Jewish Community Center offers activities such as Wee Wiggle movement classes, Little Bubblers swim classes, Listening Mothers new-parent groups, and Creative Beginnings early learning classes. Open to people of all faiths. Call 206-232-7115 or see for more information.

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