One of my favorite RIE® Basic Principles is “trust in the infant’s competence.” Starting from birth, we trust that our baby is capable of—and interested in—learning and exploring the world to the degree she is ready. This means we allow her ample space and time to reach milestones on her own, or even to do things like grasp a toy without our help.
The big idea behind this principle is that, if given the space and time to learn and explore on his own, our child will not only develop beautifully, he will also cultivate a sense of his own capacity and capability from a very early age.
I think this principle is applicable to our children long past infancy—indeed, throughout their developmental years. Here’s how trusting our kids’ unfolding can look as they grow.
In infancy, because we do so much for our babies, we often feel pressure to do everything for them. But there are tiny ways we can start to leave space for trust even as we remain present and attuned to our babies’ needs.
We can begin to offer our baby micro-moments of space to do what she can do. For example, as we diaper her, we can invite her to lift her bottom to allow us to slide the diaper out, or to push her arm through a sleeve as we dress her. Babies as young as three or four months can participate in these ways.
We can step back from “helping” as our baby works to roll over—while of course remaining close by to gently assist if he gets very frustrated getting that arm out from under his belly. We can place toys nearby instead of in his hand or dangling above his head, so that, as he is developmentally ready, he can turn toward a toy next to him or inch forward to reach it.
Toddlerhood presents us with dozens of opportunities each day to work on trusting our babies. At this age, sometimes our biggest challenge is allowing the frustration that comes from her efforts, or knowing just how much to spot him as he climbs.
I encourage you to look for the sweet spot in each situation. (You’ll figure out what that looks like for you over time.) Offer help, and be nearby, but see if you can leave most of the doing to your child.
If she’s playing with another kid in the sandbox and a struggle ensues over a toy, you could swoop in and decide who had it first, whose turn it is now, and so forth. Or you could sit nearby and watch what happens. Often if we trust kids to work out minor conflicts at this age, they do it with much more ease and creativity than we expect.
Sometimes we might need to check in with the other child’s parent or caregiver by saying something like “I’m ok with them working this out, are you?” If any sand starts to fly, you know it’s time to step in and offer some gentle help.
Preschool and toddlerhood share some of the same qualities, as your child works to master new physical and emotional challenges. I often hear from parents that this age challenges them most in the realm of social niceties, language, and big feelings.
Trusting our kids as they learn to communicate with the world is as important as trusting them to walk or climb as they are ready. Of course we can’t rush our child’s language development, but we are often tempted to change or control the way they speak, the words they use, or the feelings they have.
In the preschool years we also get a lot of practice making even more space for our child’s big feelings. (I bet you thought you were done after toddlerhood!) As his language develops, his way of expressing big feelings like frustration, sadness, or anger also changes. This is as it should be.
As hard as it can be to watch your child march off from a playdate without saying “thank you,” hit his sister and appear to feel indifferent to her cries, or say “I hate this present!” in front of the loving relative who gave it, remember this: he is still learning. He’s learning from watching you and other loving adults model how it looks to be kind, offer empathy, and express gratitude.
He can “learn” to act “nice,” but feeling kind, empathic, and grateful are felt internally. We express them when we have integrated them authentically. Trust that your child will get there.
Elementary Years and Beyond
As our children grow, we continue to have opportunities to trust the wisdom of their unfolding natures.
Each time a challenge or opportunity arises, we have a chance to choose the path that fosters our child’s growing sense of capability and capacity. We can choose this path over the one that is a shortcut to getting something done for them, or pushing them to do something they are not quite ready for.
This is an especially helpful time to make use of my favorite parenting tool: curiosity.
Are you tempted to sign your child up for weekly violin lessons at age 6? Get curious about that desire. Has he indicated a deep and abiding interest in learning to play? Does he show you that he’s developmentally ready? Who wants it most, you or him?
What if she comes home one day reporting that some kids at school are excluding her? We all want to protect and support our children, as we should. Again, let curiosity guide you. How is this experience for her? Is there a way to support her while also inviting her to participate in making a plan and choosing the path forward according to what feels right to her?
Confidence and Capacity
All of these ways of practicing Trust with our children have one thing in common: they all foster our child’s sense of confidence and capacity. We can’t teach our children to be confident, but we can trust that, with the right amount of space and support, they can develop it.