“A respectful beginning is an investment in the future of the relationship between your child and you, your child and others, and in your child’s exploration of the world.” –Magda Gerber, RIE® founder
You may have heard about the Educaring® Approach, or RIE®—sometimes called “respectful parenting”—on the playground or from a friend who is a parent. But what is RIE® really all about? Is it right for your family?
Magda Gerber, who founded RIE®—which stands for Resources for Infant Educarers—believed that babies are whole, capable people deserving of our respect from the moment they are born. “Of course!” you might say, “who would argue with that?” But Magda had a specific idea of what respect looks like when it comes to babies.
Let’s review the RIE® Basic Principles as a way of understanding this unique approach.
TRUST IN THE INFANT’S COMPETENCE
For Magda Gerber, respecting babies did not mean, as some people believe, treating them like little adults. But it did mean seeing them with what she called “new eyes” (Dear Parent, p. xvi)—as more than just helpless creatures who rely on us for their every need. Magda believed that, almost from birth, babies are capable of interacting with the world, making choices, and participating in the things that happen to and with them every day.
When we see infants as dependent on us instead of helpless, as well as inherently capable, we begin to notice the small things they can do, right from the start, if we allow time and space for them to try.
A typically developing young infant between four and six months old will roll over on her own even if we never show her how, and at fourteen or sixteen or eighteen months she will walk, too, even if we never take her by the hands and “monkey-walk” her.
A five-month-old can lift his legs to help with a diaper change, or push his arm through a sleeve. A ten-month-old can throw her own wet diaper into the pail after she is changed. A fifteen-month-old can climb a stool to wash his hands, or pick out his own shirt to wear if we give him two choices.
When we allow our child to reach her milestones and participate in her world in these ways, we show that we see how capable she is, and build her self-confidence and self-worth.
This respectful approach asks us to become more attuned to our babies—to work to truly understand who they are. We do this through paying close attention in our interactions with our children, and we also set aside some time every day to simply observe our babies.
During this time with a pre-crawling baby we might sit nearby, and place the baby on his back with one or two very simple play objects nearby. We let him choose what to pick up—or not—and we think carefully before we “help,” knowing that sometimes he can work through a struggle on his own, or that we may inadvertently interrupt his process if we intervene.
As our babies get older, this sensitive observation extends to play times with other children. We make space for the child to practice working out conflicts before we rush in, though we stay nearby for safety.
We learn who our child is and what he is capable of during these observation times, and we make space for his own discovery, too.
CAREGIVING TIMES: INVOLVING THE CHILD
We often say that in infancy, caregiving is the curriculum. So much of what we do with our babies in the first two years especially revolves around caregiving—feeding, diapering, bathing, dressing. Instead of “getting through” these times, why not use them as built-in moments to connect with our children?
For example, because we diaper our babies thousands of times in the first few years of their lives, often parents rush through changes to get them done as quickly as possible. When we diaper a baby using the Educaring® Approach, we slow down and talk the baby through every step of the process, inviting her to participate to the degree she is able.
We let her know it’s time for a change, and wait for a small indication that she understands—eye contact, a slight tensing of her body to be picked up, perhaps—and then we pick her up carefully and slowly. We talk her through the removal of her clothing and diaper. We invite her to do what she can to help—“can you lift your legs?” or “can you pull your arm out of the sleeve please?”—and acknowledge and thank her for the ways she has participated.
In these respectful caregiving moments we show our respect for our child’s capability, her feelings, and her desire to be an active participant in her experiences. We show her that we value her.
A SAFE, CHALLENGING, PREDICTABLE ENVIRONMENT
Babies and children thrive in environments that allow for exploration. In order to make that exploration truly enjoyable for both the child and caregiver, the environment has to be safe (no objects or equipment that are dangerous or too advanced for the child’s age and stage); predictable (similar play objects and setup each time); and offer just the right amount of challenge (not too simple or difficult to explore).
Magda Gerber used to say that what we are looking for is passive toys, active babies (Dear Parent, p. 101). In other words, we offer open-ended play objects that can be manipulated and enjoyed many different ways. Some of these kinds of toys can even be found in a home kitchen—silicone cups, small plastic or wooden bowls, containers with easy-open lids—and allow babies to deepen their play and curiosity. These toys stand in contrast to “active toys,” in which the child might push a button to hear the toy do or say a certain thing over and over.
When we set up a child’s environment in this way, we allow him to develop and grow his skills at his own pace. We build his sense of safety and his natural curiosity.
TIME FOR UNINTERRUPTED PLAY AND FREEDOM TO EXPLORE
As new parents, we sometimes feel compelled to “do something” with our babies to fill the day. Often this leads to overdoing it with outings, games, and—as our children get older—scheduled activities. This can lead to overtired children and stressed-out parents.
Magda Gerber argued that that we actually need to do fewer things; she was fond of saying, “do less, observe more, enjoy most” (magdagerber.com).
Young children thrive on having uninterrupted time to play and explore in a safe environment. Over time, this kind of uninterrupted playtime can help children develop greater focus and longer attention spans—two things that most parents hope their children will possess when they reach school age.
As a bonus, allowing time for uninterrupted play also frees parents up from having to entertain their children all day long. We can be nearby and observe our child at play, and appreciate his self-motivated, curious nature.
In making space for uninterrupted play, we show our child that we value his decisions and work, and we help him discover the world in his own way. We help him learn to focus and explore.
Babies and young children also need consistency and clearly defined limits. With very young babies, we can develop consistency by creating rituals and rhythms throughout the day that help the baby anticipate what will happen and relax into that predictability.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be rigid with your schedule or grip tightly to your routines, but rather that you can create enjoyable and relaxed time together by developing a special way of doing things that is predictable and unique to your family.
The easiest way to create this consistency is with caregiving. With resting times like bedtime and naps, for example, babies relax—and we can, too—knowing that there is a particular order to the routine. It might look like getting cozy in pajamas first; then wiping hands and face with a warm cloth; reading a book or two; having a bottle or nursing session; singing a few treasured songs; and finally turning off the light to rest.
As children get older and begin testing limits—as they should!—this consistency becomes important in a new way. Children start to look for the boundaries on their experience, and it is our job as their loving caregivers to help them know where those boundaries are and to hold them. A whole blog post could be written on this one topic so I’ll save a deeper explanation for another time.
By creating consistency and clearly defined limits for our children, we help them feel safe. We help them develop internal discipline and an understanding of how to be and act in the world.
ONE MORE THING: ALLOWING EMOTIONS
I always like to mention one more thread that is woven into the fabric of the Educaring® Approach that I am particularly fond of: allowing emotions. In all of our interactions with our children, whether they are 2 months old or 20 months old, we respect and allow any feelings that arise.
Our tiny little boy might wail out of tiredness after a long day of activities and too little rest or downtime. Our toddler girl might cry in frustration while trying to zip her own jacket. Later, he might yell in anger after being gently told that he can’t climb on the table. She might sob with disappointment after learning she can’t have an ice cream before dinner.
We come close, and we offer comfort. We offer words (what we call “sportscasting”) to help bring understanding to the child’s experience. We hold the limit, if one needs to be held. But we don’t distract, shush, yell, or try in other ways to stop the child’s emotion. We recognize that feelings come and go for all of us, and are an important part of being a person. They don’t mean a child is bad or a brat, or that he is trying to manipulate us or give us a hard time.
When we allow emotions, we show our child that we are not afraid of his feelings, and he needn’t be either. We accept him for who he is.
THE AUTHENTIC CHILD
The goal of the Educaring® Approach is an authentic child—one who is at home in her skin, knows who she is, and sees her own value. When respect is the foundation of our interactions and communication with our child, we make space for her authentic nature to blossom.