Two to Tango

KATE BARBER talks with PENNIE BROWNLEE, author of Dance With Me In The Heart, about respecting our babies, getting out of step with our toddlers, and learning new dance steps.

There is nothing as precious as your new baby: perfectly formed, incredibly vulnerable and determined to form a deep attachment to you. Yet, as every parent knows, as their little one grows, conflict can arise – as the not-quite-so-little bundle makes a play, and another and another, for autonomy. ‘This lifelong quest for autonomy begins in earnest’, says Pennie, ‘when your baby enters toddlerhood’.

It is a challenging idea, but Pennie talks about how, without thinking, we routinely ‘do stuff to babies and children we would not like done to us’: picking up babies and toddlers from behind and without telling them; wiping children’s nose and faces without asking and waiting for them to indicate they are ready; and taking things out of children’s hands using force – as a few examples.

While babies may put up with this, as they develop into toddlers, things change. ‘She will decide that she has had enough of doing things without her consent’, says Pennie. ‘Her autonomy blossoms with her increased mobility and communication skills, and toddlerhood sees the advent of the powerful energy called will.’

Pennie urges parents to rethink the toddler ‘stage’ and do away with unhelpful, detrimental labels like The Terrible Twos. She offers another way of looking at it: ‘one fine day, a child’s drive for autonomy outstrips the adult’s knowledge and skills for partnership.

‘When you attempt to continue to dance on your terms, is it any wonder that she says, “No”? Is it any wonder that she runs away when she sees you coming with the facecloth to wipe her runny nose? She knows full well what is coming and it doesn’t look or feel like being in a respectful partnership.’

She is not being naughty. Pennie is firm on this point. ‘Escaping from a person who won’t dance the partner-dance is neither naughtiness nor disobedience – rather, it shows high intelligence.’

So, what can we do to develop or restore a peaceful, respectful partnership? The first step is the intention: ‘you really need to want to have a partnership with your child’, says Pennie; ‘and you invite people into partnerships, you don’t force them’.

Pennie invites me to sit with both arms outstretched, slightly bent at the elbows, palms upwards – and to ‘notice what is happening to your jaw, your shoulders, the palms of your hands, your breathing…’. As Pennie says, ‘everything about a person in this invitation posture speaks of genuine, peaceful, openness to equal partnership, and the toddler reads that perfectly.’

But, in offering an invitation – to have her face wiped, for instance – you are offering a choice. ‘While the baby will accept the invitation every time, the toddler may well want a turn at leading the dance.’ For a child, ‘saying “no” feels very different to saying “yes”, and it certainly gets a different reaction: mum’s Buddha-like peace and calm vapourises instantly!’

At this point, explains Pennie, you can offer the toddler a choice between two options, both of which will work for you: ‘Do you want to climb into the pushchair yourself? Or, do you want me to lift you in?’ This is trickier, and as a parent you’ll be thinking on your feet – offering choices where the answer to either choice will ultimately see you moving in the same direction.

‘Toddlers, like the rest of us, take a while to process a request and then switch to a new activity or idea. So, the next step is about adding a time component. For example, you might say: “I have put your pyjamas on the couch for you to put on before we have dinner. Let Daddy know if you want him to help you.”’

Pennie emphasises the importance of negotiation as a life skill, which can be wrongly interpreted as defiance. ‘Young children are not skilled in negotiation: they learn by practising their skills over and over again – on you’, says Pennie. When your child is ‘playing negotiation’, things can get messy.

‘Sometimes a deadlock can occur because the toddler cannot get themselves out of a corner into which they have negotiated themselves. This is your cue to take the lead in the dance – offering the child a way out, by restating the different options, and offering to make a choice for her if she is finding it too difficult to make it herself. “Sweetheart, here is the choice: you can walk to the car or I will carry you. Choose now, or I will choose for you.”’

Learning these new dance steps is not easy. But, Pennie assures parents that it does get easier. And, ‘as you practice – with more and more success – you sow the seeds for your kids to respect and have empathy and tolerance for each other, and also to stand up for themselves.’

Pennie Brownlee’s early childhood experience began with motherhood and grew through her involvement with Playcentre. Since 1990, she has been facilitating residential retreats for parents and teachers, exploring creativity and learning. Visiting summer schools at the Emmi Pikler Institute in Budapest, Hungary opened Pennie’s eyes to what respect really looks like with infants, toddlers and young children, and she continues her crusade to share the information that ‘so inspired’ her.