Diamonds in the Vault: The Treasures We Gain From Taking Risks

The topic of this presentation is essentially “nurturing the nurturer.” How do we, as infant family service professionals, keep the work alive? Stay upbeat and avoid the dreaded burnout? I have been blessed with extraordinary teachers. Magda Gerber was a major influence. She truly believed in quality of life and understood the importance of sustainability in our work and lives, which I think is key to any discussion about nurturing the nurturer. I do not want to say to you, remember to breathe deeply . . . take walks . . . talk with friends . . . enjoy the arts . . . because you know this. So what do we do to nurture ourselves?

I think a large part of burnout has to do with continuing to work in systems that are broken, acting in ways that are not in accordance with our inner voices, and drudging through processes that have problems and waste time.

Sometimes we begin to sort of sleepwalk through the day without being truly awake to the child or family that we are supposed to be serving. 

I believe that an effective way to keep the vital energy that propels us forward each day is to take a step, a leap of faith, a VAULT into space, where we challenge the status quo, try something new, or name the elephant in the room. I began to think about this presentation last August when Olympic star Shawn Johnson was vaulting her way to international prominence. I was struck by the courage and trust she must have to risk all and vault into the air like she does. I also wondered, imagined, the thrill, the reward, the rush she must get as she vaults. 

Thus, the title to this presentation: “Diamonds in the Vault: The Treasures We Gain from Taking Risks.” It is funny that the word “vault” has such dramatically different definitions as a locked room full of treasures or a leap into space. What if a vault was not where you keep your diamonds, but instead, when you vault, you find diamonds? I do believe that a leap of faith can lead to treasures. This image of diamonds serves because they are not only pretty and shiny; they are incredibly strong and last forever. 

One wise teacher, Jeree Pawl, a beloved infant mental health specialist, said to me once, “People learn well from what they are already doing” (J. Pawl, personal communication, November 2004).

I believe that everyone has vaulted in some way in their lives and gained subsequent diamonds—sparkling treasures to admire, to share, to gain* strength from. Reflect, now, on a time in your life when you made a change, small or large, where you made a difference, personal or professional. How did you know you had to make a change? To take a risk? Everyone is different, but each of us does have an inner barometer to help us know when we must make a change, and we all experience consequences when we don’t pay attention. I would like to share a couple of stories, which will hopefully illustrate this notion of risk taking as an essential form of self-preservation and personal development. 

At the age of 15, I had a brief foray into the field of fast food. I worked at a fast food restaurant for three weeks. I was learning an important lesson, in those three weeks, that has stayed with me. People would come to the restaurant and order food, pay, get their orders, and leave without ever once noticing that there were live people behind the counter. They literally did not see a person. This was disturbing. I have always felt that the experience I had at 15 helped me to know that every person in service, everywhere, is a person first, with a family, experiences, interests, concerns. In that way I am grateful for my brief experience in the restaurant business.

Another key lesson I got from my first job was from my mother. I would come home from work greasy, queasy, and in low spirits. One day my mother said, “You know, if you really hate that job, you should quit. You can find work you really love. You do not have to hate your work.” I quit that day. (I did not know about the customary two weeks’ notice.) I vaulted. Of course, I was 15 and living at home, so the risk taking, though life-changing, was not life-threatening in any way. I am not advocating quitting your jobs. I am advocating listening to yourself and doing what you need to do. And only you can know what that is for you.

Carol Pinto, a friend and colleague who is a RIE Associate and Feldenkrais practitioner and a longtime associate of Magda Gerber, uses the following exercise in training to help participants tune in to the innate wisdom babies have about their own bodies. I think it fits for this context as well. “Just for a moment, freeze; don’t move. Now ask yourself, ‘Am I comfortable? If not, what do I need to do to become comfortable?’ Now please go ahead and make yourselves more comfortable as needed.” Now the last question of the exercise is this: “Could anyone else have known and told you, in that moment, what you needed to become comfortable?”

We need to remember to trust ourselves, and to listen to our inner barometers. Do you need to make a change, speak to someone, listen to someone? Vault? 

I cast about for a couple of years seeking my bliss, and I found it in the sparkling eyes and chubby fingers of toddlers, in the open gaze and milky breath of infants. I started to work at the Child Educational Center in La Cañada, California, with one-year-olds. I was home, and I began to hear about this lady, Magda Gerber, and her philosophy of respectful care for infants and toddlers. Long story short, Magda became my most influential teacher. Magda was never afraid to name the elephant in the room. She relished intense discussions and would say to students in class, “Go ahead, disagree with me—I love it!” She would encourage dissent and then participate in lively debates. Magda used to say to infant/toddler caregivers, “If you are totally exhausted at the end of each day, you are doing something wrong.” People did not like hearing this from her and would fight her on it. But I always heard her saying, make life sustainable for you and the infants in a group care context, with parents and infants, or in the clinical context as well.

Are your expectations reasonable? Is your environment supporting you? What can you change to make life easier for you and the babies? 

Can you imagine how exhausting it is to try so hard to get babies to do something like that every morning? Not only that, but we have learned that this sort of experience is not compatible with how infants learn. Another teacher, Maria Montessori (1912), said, “A still and silent child is not obedient, he is annihilated” (p. 86). Infants move, make noise, change their minds.

Magda taught me that infants learn in the context of secure relationships, from following lines of inquiry and being supported in discovery. A baby explores with constant inquiry. “What does this feel like? What if I bang it? What if I bang it again? What is this over here? Mmm. She is warm and smells good.” I doubt that infants are cognizant of risk taking as risk taking, but I think they are continuously engaged in risk taking as they press the world for more and more information.

Magda Gerber, who understood how infants learn about the world, would encourage people who work with infants and families to examine their own behavior and expectations and find a rhythm in daily life with children and families that is realistic. Magda Gerber also said, “What children get, they come to expect, and eventually need.” In terms of a daily interaction, do you want to have ten steps for a bedtime ritual or two or three? What kinds of routines can we live with and sustain each day, as family members and as professionals? We all know the difference, when our work gives us energy and we feel pumped up or when our work is wearing us down day by day. If that is the case for you right now, what do you need to do to change that?

I once observed a well-meaning teacher who was trying to have a circle time with babies. Has anyone ever tried to herd cats? Well, that is similar to trying to get a bunch of babies to all concentrate on the same thing at the same time, a topic the teacher picked the night before. In this infant circle time, one teacher had an actual old-school pointer and was showing babies pictures of animals on the wall while the assistant played cat shepherd, trying to get the babies to sit and watch the pointer. We may ask why? 

I would like to share another example of a small and significant vault, which yielded a shiny diamond, which I observed at the Pikler Institute, a residential infant care facility in Budapest, Hungary. The Pikler Institute is named after its founder, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, who was also a mentor to Magda Gerber. The Institute is known for its extraordinarily sensitive care of infants who have been placed there by the Hungarian authorities due to some kind of trauma or loss. Usually, when you think of an orphanage in eastern, or in this case central, Europe, you do not imagine a tender, therapeutic setting; but the Pikler Institute has the answers to successful residential care, and they are a methodological institute providing training to residential care facilities all over the world. At the Institute, there is a strong emphasis on the relational aspect of the daily caregiving routines such as meals and bathing, which they call the pleasures of life. Children are recognized as active participants in every process that involves them. They have primary caregivers who develop close relationships with each child. 

Two infants interacting during a RIE Parent Infant Guidance Class

I visited the Pikler Institute in July of 1998 with a small group of colleagues. The first morning, Anna Tardos, who is the director of the Pikler Institute and Emmi Pikler’s daughter, told us the stories of the 40 children who were living at the Institute at that time. The stories were devastating. There were siblings who had been found locked in an apartment where their father had killed himself three days earlier; there was a baby recently brought from a Romanian orphanage who still rocked on hands and knees occasionally. When we were sent to different parts of the Institute to observe, we were each amazed to see thriving, sun-kissed, smiling children who were in relationships, playing, and helping others. One little boy, about two years old, with paralysis down one side of his body, was determinedly creeping up a steep sand hill to triumphantly grab a shovel at the top; he turned and grinned to share his victory with his caregiver.

One story we heard the first morning was of 18-month-old twins, a boy and girl, who had been brought in only the day before. They were found with their mother living in a train station; the mother was probably engaging in prostitution and possibly doing drugs. These two children were visited by their mother once or twice a day, when she would breast-feed them at the Institute. We saw her a few times. My heart ached for her. She looked hungry and angry.

The Institute staff members were very concerned about the mental health of the twins, and during the week of our seminar the whole Institute was wrapped up in how to best serve these children. They said the little girl seemed depressed. They were more concerned about her than her brother, who was responding to the warm care, eating well and beginning to play. They said these two children had never played. There was a lot of crying from both of the children, and the sound traveled in the small center, straining everyone’s ears and hearts. The nurse had tried having the children sleep together in the same crib, but the girl was biting her brother. They were together all day and night in the same small group and shared a caregiver.

The last morning I was to observe in the group where the twins were. The nurse was bathing the girl twin, and she had moved a crib nearby so that the brother, who had just had his bath, could stand in the crib and watch his sister, and she could see him. He would not be wandering around the bathroom requiring the attention of the nurse; he was safe, and nearby. The sister, I’ll call her Stela, was sitting in the tub, which is intentionally placed at a height that allows the nurse to have face-to-face interactions with the child. (Every aspect of care at the Institute is so carefully considered, it is humbling.) The child had already been washed all over; she was soapy and shiny, and her eyes downcast. 

The motions of all the caregiving routines at the Institute are very predictable, prescribed, so that children, who have experienced the most unpredictable upheavals in their short lives, can predict, anticipate, and participate. That said, the routines are not rigid, because the child, an active participant, brings a unique flavor to each event. In this case, the nurse was giving space and time for Stela to play in the soapy water. The child sat motionless, not meeting the gaze of the nurse, who was speaking gently to her. 

Now for the vault, the risk moment; so tiny, so significant. 

The nurse scooped up a small handful of suds; she was patting them and showing them to Stela. She blew on them; they splattered on Stela’s tummy. Stela looked up and a tiny, little, shiny, beautiful smile appeared. It even traveled to Stela’s gorgeous brown eyes. The nurse smiled and said something to the child like, “The bubbles are on your tummy. You smiled a bit then.” The nurse’s whole body showed her relief and joy. She glanced at me for a second and I smiled. I saw it, too, and we both had tears in our eyes. Stela’s little smile was certainly a diamond.

Now it may seem like not much of a risk or a leap to blow bubbles on a cute little tummy at bath time, but a lot was going on, and one thing to consider is that this woman had seven other babies in her group to care for. Not only that, but she does these baths every single day; she could so easily be just going through the motions. But she was so alive to the moment with that child, observing every little movement and following her gaze. Additionally, this nurse had no way of knowing if this child would be there for the long term or only a short time. She did not let this uncertainty dampen her efforts at creating a connection with this child. At the Pikler Institute they would say that she was “listening” to the child, not just following the prescribed actions.

How do you know when to vault? To try something new, to risk a little emotional safety for a better emotional climate? I have been asking people this question for months now. My good friend and colleague, RIE Associate Ruth Anne Hammond, is involved in a study group with Dr. Allan Schore of the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. I asked her, “How do you know when to take a risk and make a change?” She said, “You know because your body tells you.” I asked Ruth Anne for clarification and she said that basically your right brain is operating at such high speed, taking in information through the senses, reading cues; it is nonlinear, global, emotional. The right brain is connected to your sense of well-being; your body tells you whether or not something feels right—it is a body-based feeling; it is not a thought. Our culture has taught us to ignore our bodies and that linear thoughts are more real; yet in relationships with infants, who  are all feelings, we must engage on a feeling level. Trust your own feelings in responding to infants—as the nurse did with Stela. Taking a risk is important. If we don’t ever mess up, we don’t ever get a chance to grow. Growth happens in times of disorganization, which is a necessary component of growth. What if Stela had not smiled when the bubbles were blown onto her belly? What if she had been startled and cried? 

I have been reading material and having discussions about attunement and misattunement. I am learning about how the “rupture” that can occur during misattunement can then be “repaired.” If the nurse had indeed created a stress response instead of a playful response by her actions, perhaps she might have initiated repair by soothingly saying, “I am sorry; it seems that I startled you. I thought you might like it. I will remember you did not like to be splashed on your tummy. Shall we wipe it off?” Making a mistake is okay. The process of repair is the important thing. It still moves the relationship to a new place. The fact that she tried something is significant.

This budding relationship between Stela and the nurse was not an attachment relationship, though it may well become one. I recently had a conversation about this with Miriam Silverman from the Infant Parent Program at the University of California—San Francisco, and I asked her,

“How important is the repair process if there is a rupture when a relationship is just forming?” “Extremely important,” she said. The child is just learning what to expect from the adult. Stela is finding out if she can have an effect on her nurse. Miriam also said that the repair is the most important, that there is no need to manufacture ruptures to accelerate the process. She said some people actually believe they need to create difficult situations for children so they can learn to cope. This is unnecessary. Life does this for us. So there is a little breathing room. You do not have to be successful every time you leap! 

So what does it mean? Should we all vault out of here and blow soap suds on babies’ bellies? No, of course not. But to be alive, to be awake, to notice when the gap appears and vault when the vaulting is good! And maybe catch some diamonds.

Deborah Greenwald, MA, RIE Associate

Adapted from a keynote address at the Zero to Three National Training Institute, Los Angeles, California, December 6, 2008.


Montessori, M. (1912). Chapter V. The Montessori method (A. E. George, Trans.) (pp. 86–106). New York, NY: Frederick A. Stokes.

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