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Posted on Sat, Jul 17, 2010 : 5:30 a.m.

Wise parents a welcome sight on road trip

By Kerry Novick

Dear readers,

While on a road trip this week, I was in the ladies’ room at a rest stop on the interstate. I saw something that made me think about how parents know what their babies need.

A young mother had changed her baby, who looked like he was about 9 months old, and then wanted to wash her hands. She secured her baby in the little seat on the wall inside the end stall. But then someone else came up to wash her hands at the last sink in the row, right in front of that stall. Rather than go to a different sink, the mom waited patiently.

Finally the other woman noticed her and realized that she was waiting for that particular sink, even though others were free. She hurried to finish, while the mom said, “That’s all right, I just wanted him to be able to see me.”

This mom knew that her baby needed to keep her in sight - why? What difference did it make? She would only take a minute or two to wash her hands.

When mothers let themselves know it, they realize how important they are to their babies and how much their babies love and need them. Young children before the age of about 1 year don’t have much capacity to keep others in mind when they aren’t visible. From a baby’s point of view, out-of-sight is out-of-mind. And if you can’t keep your mother in mind, you are all alone. How scary! This mom knew intuitively that her baby would feel safe and would better manage sitting in the chair with the security of being able to see her even when she was at a distance. Maybe without even realizing it, she was drawing on months of practicing reading her baby’s signals, watching his reactions to make sure he is happy. Every day, parents and babies learn more about each other. They become experts at knowing the other’s feelings and are able to catch subtle signs that tell them what the other is feeling, reacting to and planning. Babies pick up on grownup’s intentions as young as 1 year-old — research demonstrates that they do their best to help grownups accomplish their goals. For instance, putting keys that missed their target on the table instead of just handing them back to the adult who dropped them. I saw some other nice incidents in the rest stop lobby while I was travelling. A beautiful little 18-month-old was running around the big floor space, leading his dad in a merry dance. Instead of stopping him, his father faithfully followed, occasionally asking, “Would you like some milk?” while offering a cup. This, too, demonstrated for me the sensitivity and intuitive wisdom of parents. The little guy had been cooped up in a car, maybe for hours, so his dad understood that he needed to run. Ordinarily parents would stop a toddler rampaging around a space filled with other people, but this dad was cheerful and patient, putting his child’s needs above excessive politeness. Everyone else got it too, since no one frowned. They just smiled and walked around the speedy little guy. In the food court, the lines were long. It was a hot day, so even though everyone was enjoying being cooler indoors, everyone was also tired and a bit cranky. Waiting in line is hard for kids at the best of times, but this was not the best of times. I saw a dad and a mom look at each other, look at their kids and decide to make the waiting fun. They began to play patty-cake with their young children; then they sang a few songs; then they took turns guessing how many numbers it would be before their turn and counting with the children. Instead of getting crabby themselves, these parents were responding to their children’s needs and finding a way to get some fun out of a hard moment. They had the emotional muscle to stay cheerful and get the reward of pleasure. And they gave their children the gift of a good example of patience and the refusal of boredom. Ordinary parents and children in ordinary situations - but how much learning and growing can take place! My road trip was fun and it was enriched by watching the pleasure that can blossom from the seeds of parental confidence and competence.

Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns. The ideas and opinions in this column are Kerry Kelly Novick’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Allen Creek Preschool, MPI or MPC.