No one told me to expect a baby who was so decidedly his own person. But, from the day he was born, it was undeniable that my son had his own ideas and preferences, his own likes and dislikes…which, as a scared and exhausted first time mom, seemed to boil down to disliking everything and liking to cry any time he was awake! But the more I paid attention, the more I noticed he was consistently calmed by being laid down on his back to wiggle and look around, by being spoken to conversationally about what we were doing, and simply by being outside. He didn’t want to sit in a swing. He didn’t want gadgets, gizmos, and entertainment; he wanted connection, respect, and freedom.
He wanted this crazy, new world to slow down long enough for him to take it all in. He wanted me to stop worrying about what I was supposed to do with a baby all day and just put him on a blanket beneath a tree so he could gnaw on his hands and watch the light peeking through the leaves.
It went against everything I had been taught about parenting, but I started to listen. I started to do less and trust more. I started to follow rather than blindly lead.
When I discovered RIE, shortly before my son’s first birthday, I wanted to exclaim, “This is it!! This is what you’ve been trying to tell me!” It was so affirming to find an entire philosophy that supported the choices that he had pointed me toward. And the discovery couldn’t have come at a better time: right at the onset of the toddler stage, when the RIE emphasis on consistent, respectful limit setting has transformed a notoriously “terrible” phase of development into one that I absolutely delight in, and in advance of the arrival of my second, allowing me to implement the fundamentals of RIE from birth with her.
There are plenty of sources for a more informed and articulate overview of the principles of RIE than I could provide, so rather than fumble through an amateur answer to the question, “What is RIE?,” I would rather tell you why RIE; what about this style resonated with me as a first — and then a second — time mom and why it has worked so well for our family.
1. The notion that babies are whole people
I once had a woman, toting an infant carseat, chase me down in the parking lot of Target and say, “I just wanted to tell you that I love how you talk to your kids like people.” I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but the frequency with which strangers feel compelled to comment on how I speak to my children “like people” makes me want to ask, “How else I would talk to them?!”
It has made me realize how countercultural this perspective I’ve come to take for granted – that babies are people – truly is. In the mainstream parenting world, we refer to our babies as “blobs.” We give them kisses that they pull away from. We swoop in and pick them up when they are intently focused on something, without a word and without the slightest reservation about what we might be interrupting. We talk about them (and even about older children) in front of them as if they aren’t there. We dismiss their feelings and their ideas. In those, and countless other ways, we treat babies like we would never treat other people. Certainly not people we respect or care for.
2. The belief that children – even babies – deserve respect
At my baby shower, I was given a pacifier that said NO WHINING. The uproar of laughter it elicited from the group made me uncomfortable in a way that I wasn’t yet able to put my finger on.
That feeling was my gateway to RIE; that nagging sense that this baby deserved more respect than our culture had tried to make me believe.
I do my damnedest to treat everyone I encounter with respect. Why wouldn’t I treat my own child that way?
It isn’t as if it’s terribly radical. It simply means that I speak to and with my children rather than at and about them. I acknowledge their feelings and preferences (even when I can’t or won’t accommodate them). I do my best leave them undisturbed when they are focused on an activity. I say “please” and “thank you.” I give them the benefit of the doubt. And, in general, I treat them how I would like to be treated.
3. The reminder to trust
This is a scary one…or at least it can be for me! Parenting has become as competitive as anything else in our culture and it is hard to ignore the “earlier is better” messages that we are bombarded with at every turn, to let go of the temptation to compare our babies to others, and, instead, just trust. Trust that they are capable; that they know themselves; and that they will walk, talk, and learn their ABCs when they are ready.
We have convinced ourselves that our babies can learn only what we teach, ignoring completely the curiosity, ability, and drive to make sense of the world that they all come to us with. Trust asks us to give that back to them, to let go of the race to be first, to take a backseat and wait for them to show us what they are working on and what, if any, support they need.
4. The view of children as capable
At our old house, we had a steep driveway that my son would run up and down nearly as soon as he could walk. Neighbors used to marvel at his balance and coordination, asking how I taught him to navigate the incline.
I didn’t teach him, I told them. I just let him do it.
We do our children a disservice when we default to assuming they can’t do things, or that they can only do them with our help. Children are capable of so much when they’re given opportunities to try…and opportunities to try again when they don’t get it “right” the first time!
My children are confident that they have the ability to master new skills because their experience and my attitude have affirmed that. They are also extraordinary helpers because I’ve never questioned whether they are capable of putting their own clothes in the hamper, cleaning up toys, carrying in groceries, or wiping up spills!
5. The role of limit setting
There is a common misconception that respectful parenting is permissive. It isn’t. I would go as far as to argue that permissive parenting is disrespectful because it ignores a child’s desire (or, frankly, his need) to make sense of the world around him, something that becomes nearly impossible without predictability and limits.
The way this looks different in RIE than it does in mainstream parenting is that I don’t just set limits and expect my children to follow them. I set limits and I take on the responsibility of enforcing them. This allows me to hold limits from a place of guidance rather than one of judgment, frustration, or anger. This also means that, when a limit isn’t followed, I don’t heap blame on my child; I examine what I could be doing differently to better support and set him up for success.
It means, instead of saying, “Don’t you dare throw that ball in the house,” and then doling out a punishment when my toddler can’t stop himself, saying, “I can’t let you throw the ball inside,” then actually not letting him by calmly taking the ball and, whenever possible, honoring the impulse with, “Let’s go play ball in the yard.”
6. The value placed on observation
There seems to be this expectation that mothers will instantly “know” our children when they are born; who they are, what they need, and how best to love them. That is a charming idea, I suppose, except that I don’t think I truly know anything that I haven’t taken the time to study. When I care about something, I want to learn everything I can. And that doesn’t happen by magic; it happens by asking questions, listening, and observing.
Sure, there are plenty of resources out there that tell us what most babies are like. But I’m not the mother of most babies. I am the mother of two. And the only way to learn who these two people are is to go to the source.
7. The space for natural gross motor development
Demanding ownership of his gross motor development by refusing to be propped, sat, and walked is probably the way that my son most clearly pointed me to RIE.
Even at five and six months, when so many babies love being propped up to sit, he would immediately throw himself back down and get up on his hands and knees. He had been “ahead” on every other milestone and (what felt like) the whole world seemed worried that he wasn’t sitting. Our pediatrician was adamant that I “teach” him but, even before discovering RIE, I didn’t feel right putting him in a position he so forcefully rejected, so I shrugged my shoulders and told her he seemed more interested in figuring out how to crawl.
And, sure enough, he sat up completely on his own within days of crawling…just like his baby sister did a year and a half later.
Once he could stand and cruise, well-meaning family and friends tried to take him by the hands and walk him but, every time, my RIE-hearted baby withdrew his hands. When they persisted, he sat, insisting in the only way he knew how that he would do it himself when he was ready…which, of course, he did.
After having that experience with my son and after trusting my second, from birth, to own her gross motor development, nothing seems more natural. Why on earth wouldn’t we trust our babies to know what their bodies are ready to do? Why wouldn’t we give them the confidence that comes from discovering, not only that they can sit, crawl, stand, and walk, but that they can do it on their own?
8. The importance of independent play
This can be a particularly difficult idea for parents to wrap their heads around. We are told that we have to entertain our babies, that we have to stimulate their brains at all times, that boredom is a danger and stillness is the enemy of development. The notion that you would just lay a baby down on a blanket with one or two simple toys and say, “I’ll be right in the kitchen if you need me,” feels tantamount to saying, “I don’t care about my child’s development.”
But it simply isn’t the case!
I have been amazed at how my children will entertain themselves, and would even as babies. Allowing them to play independently isn’t just not neglecting them; it’s actually serving them in so many ways. It communicates that their ideas and their pursuits are important and worthy if time. It allows them to focus on a task without distractions. It affirms that I see them as capable individuals.
9. The ability to be an ally
This is not strictly one of the tenets of RIE, but has been a byproduct of the philosophy for our family. Instead of feeling like I am at odds with my children, with our desires or agendas in opposition, the foundation of trust and respect that our relationship is built upon allows me to be on their team even when we disagree. It allows me to discipline from a place of compassion and connection. I take seriously my responsibility to guide and teach my children, and RIE has made it possible for me to do those things as their ally rather than their adversary.
RIE has been a gift to our family in so many way, but this one is, perhaps, the greatest.
This piece was originally written as a guest post for the Educated Nannies blog.