RIE Parenting Basics (9 Ways to Put Respect into Action)

In recent weeks, several readers have asked me to write a post they can share with family and friends to explain the RIE basics. Admittedly, ‘simple’ and ‘succinct’ aren’t my specialty, evidenced by the hundreds of 1000+ word blog posts I’ve written, all conceived to be under 700 words. With that caveat, I will give it a try. (Feel free to skip to the bullet points at any time.)

RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies. We perceive and acknowledge them to be unique, separate people. We enhance our awareness by observing them — allowing them the bit of space they need to show us who they are and what they need.

RIE parenting also makes us more self-aware. Through our sensitive observations we learn not to jump to conclusions; for example, that our babies are bored, tired, cold, hungry, or want to hold the toy they seem to notice across the room. We learn not to assume that grumbling or fussing means babies need to be propped to sitting, picked up, or rocked or bounced to sleep. We recognize that, like us, babies sometimes have feelings that they want to share and will work through them in their own way with our support.

We learn to differentiate our children’s signals from our own projections. We become more aware of the habits we create (like sitting babies up or jiggling them to sleep), habits that can then become our child’s needs. These are artificially created needs rather than organic ones.

In short, RIE parenting asks us to use our minds as well as our instinct, to look and listen closely and carefully before we respond.

Sensitive observation proves to us that our babies are competent individuals with thoughts, wishes and needs of their own, and once we discover this truth there’s no turning back. Then, like Alison Gopnik, one of several psychologists on the forefront of an exciting new wave of infant brain research, we might wonder, “Why were we so wrong about babies for so long?

Practiced observers like RIE founder Magda Gerber weren’t wrong. More than sixty years ago, Gerber and her mentor, pediatrician Emmi Pikler, knew what Gopnik’s research is finally now proving: infants are born with phenomenal learning abilities, unique gifts, deep thoughts and emotions. Pikler and Gerber dismissed the notion of babies as “cute blobs” years ago, understood them as whole people deserving of our respect.

Gerber’s RIE approach can perhaps be best described as putting respect for babies into action. Here’s how:

1. We communicate authentically. We speak in our authentic voices (though a bit more slowly with babies and toddlers), use real words and talk about real things, especially things that directly pertain to our babies and that are happening now. We encourage babies to build communication skills by asking them questions, affording them plenty of time to respond, always acknowledging their communication.

2. We invite babies to actively participate in caregiving activities like diapering, bathing, meals and bedtime rituals and give them our full attention during these activities. This inclusion and focused attention nurtures our parent-child relationship, providing children the sense of security they need to be able to separate and engage in self-directed play.

3. We encourage uninterrupted, self-directed play by offering even the youngest infants free play opportunities, sensitively observing so as not to needlessly interrupt, and trusting that our child’s play choices are enough. Perfect, actually.

4. We allow children to develop motor and cognitive skills naturally according to their innate timetables by offering them free play and movement opportunities in an enriching environment, rather than teaching, restricting or otherwise interfering with these organic processes. Our role is development is primarily trust.

5. We value intrinsic motivation and inner-directedness, so we acknowledge effort and take care not to over-praise. We trust our children to know themselves better than we know them, so we allow children to lead when they play and choose enrichment activities, rather than projecting our own interests. We encourage our children’s passions and support them to fulfill their dreams.

6. We encourage children to express their emotions by openly accepting and acknowledging them.

7. We recognize that children need confident, empathetic leaders and clear boundariesbut not shaming, distractions, punishments or time out.

8. We allow children to problem-solve and experience and learn from age-appropriate conflicts with our support.

9. We understand the power of our modeling and recognize that our children are learning from us through our every word and action about love, relationships, empathy, generosity, gratitude, patience, tolerance, kindness, honesty and respect. Most profoundly, they’re learning about themselves, their abilities and their worth, their place in our hearts and in the world.

Note: these are not Magda Gerber’s official RIE principles (which are found HERE).

The outcome of all this? I couldn’t agree more with the promises stated on the RIE site: “RIE helps adults raise children who are competent, confident, curious, attentive, exploring, cooperative, secure, peaceful, focused, self-initiating, resourceful, involved, inner-directed, aware and interested”.

But what I’m most grateful to Magda and RIE for is the deeply trusting, mutually respectful relationships I have with my children. Respect and trust have a boomerang effect. They come right back at you. As Magda promised, I’ve raised kids I not only love, but “in whose company I love being.”

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