This morning I was out taking my two dogs for a walk around the neighborhood. We walk through the residential neighborhoods, a nice mix of blue collar, young professionals and multi-generation families from diverse backgrounds. As we were walking, I saw ahead of us a young father and his infant child standing on the sidewalk. The child was at that wonderous age of taking his first steps. He had that unsteady posture and toddling gait that we teachers recognize in children anywhere between nine months and 13 months.
My two dogs are a bit unruly on the leash. They bark and jump and dash about. The father saw us coming from a ways off and picked up his child. He did it beautifully… in a way that was caring and yet did not startle the baby or give the baby cause to fear my two dogs and me as we approached. He remained with his child, safely in his embrace, as we neared. He didn’t make a move toward the house or in some other direction. He turned so that the child could watch us.
My dogs barked and leapt about happy to meet new friends. The father had done all this in such a skillful way that the child watched peacefully, did not cry or seem startled. I smiled and we continued past. After passing, I turned back to look at the father and son. The child was still in his father’s arms glancing at the dogs and then back to his father. The father was cooing something quietly to the child – I don’t know what he said.
It made me proud to be a man.
I noticed that the father and baby were in synch. Some parents might have gone into directive mode when I approached with my two dogs. Many might have said something along the lines of, “Look at the doggies. Aren’t they cute? Say “Hi” to the doggies.” These parents might have had wonderful intentions, but the interaction would have been forced or determined by the adult. Kovach and Da Ros-Voseles (2011) say that “… most adults are better at giving information than receiving it.” They go on to state that “repeated social encounters that are rich and spontaneous are what fosters the relationship between babies and caregivers” (Kovach & Da Ros-Voseles, 2011). This father took his cues from the child. The two of them maintained an even, smooth, warm connection even as a stranger with two rambunctious pups passed right beside them.
While I wasn’t able to hear what the father said to his child, I can say that it made for a remarkable moment as the father transitioned seamlessly between the roles of supporting his child’s efforts to walk, to protecting his child from possibly being knocked over or licked mercilessly by strange beasts, to bonding warmly. Not once did the baby seem startled, distressed, or confused.
I can’t think of anything that the father might have done better, although I would have loved to hear what he said to his baby. The father was gentle, gave sufficient time to picking up the child so that it was not an abrupt action. In doing so, the child avoided any message that might have said dogs are frightening or strangers walking dogs are scary. O’Hair et al (2012) might describe the father’s non-verbal communication codes as “affect displays… displaying the sender’s emotions.” He also used “regulators… (used to) manage our interactions.” In this way he communicated meaning about his interaction with the child – supporting his baby’s efforts at walking – and their interaction with us – that everything was safe and smooth.
I wish that we, as teachers, were more like this father. I for one, would have tended to overly sportscasting the interaction. I would have been the adult saying, “Ooh, look at the doggies. Hi doggies! How many doggies are there? Two doggies? Look, one has a black leash and one has a pink leash. Do you want to say hi to them?” I would have been guilty of turning the situation into being about the dogs instead of being about the wonderful, warm engagement between child and adult.
This tells me that I need to slow down. To become more facile at taking cues from the child. Becoming less of a teacher and more of a co-constructor.
Kovach, Beverly & Da Ros-Voseles, Denise. 2008. Communicating with babies. YC: Young Children (66)2, 48-50. Retrieved January 22, 2013 from: http://ezp.waldenulibrary.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=60001533&site=ehost-live&scope=site
O’Hair, Dan & Weimann, Mary with Mullin, Dorothy Imrich and Teven, Jason J. 2012. Real communication: an introduction (second edition). Bedford/St Martin’s. Boston and New York.