I attended a really interesting lecture recently at the Western Cape Association of Infant Mental Health. Pam Versfeld is a physiotherapist who works a lot with babies and children who are not managing in their bodies as well as expected. What I found so useful about her talk from a psychological perspective is that she showed with video footage how a baby who is developing normally is naturally, instinctively motivated to move, gradually more and more, as he increases in strength and maturity. Usually with or without assistance he teaches himself to roll, then sit up, then pull himself up to standing, cruise around furniture and then take his first few steps. These developmental milestones occur roughly within certain time frames, although with some variability. For those babies and children who are struggling to reach their milestones at the expected age (for example, those babies who are not walking long after the end of their first year), Pam advocates a method of physiotherapy that manipulates the child’s physical environment to encourage the desired movement. In this way, the child finds his own way to get to the next level of physical development. He is able to experience the joy and triumph of achieving by himself what he hasn’t yet been able to achieve. See Pam’s website for more information.
I have been thinking about how we can apply this valuable approach to children more broadly. Sometimes as parents and therapists, the inclination we have is to be too involved, too directive and really rather interfering. Children can’t stand it when their parents are pushy and intrusive and it can cause them to dig their heels in and refuse to budge. The alternative some parents try is to back off completely and ignore the problem, believing that it will come right on its own. But rather than leaving the child to sort himself out, what Pam helped me to see is that it often works wonders rather to make subtle changes in the child’s environment in order to help him to manage the next step. Maybe this would be simply putting a cushion behind a 5 or 6 month old baby so that he can enjoy the experience of sitting up to view the world and play with his toys. But on another level, maybe it would be to introduce your older child to something that you imagine might be enriching for him, such as a particular book, person, website or a different kind of sport or hobby.
So, perhaps what good physiotherapy can teach us about parenting is the art of placing carefully positioned stepping stones down for your child. Should he choose to use them, it could solve some of his problems, enrich his life and bring great satisfaction and fulfillment.