The premise of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) is simple: to educate parents and caregivers on creating a culture of authenticity and resourcefulness. At the heart of RIE is respect—responding to infants and children with the same respectfulness we try to use in our adult relationships.
Proponents of RIE claim the practice encourages parents to foster capable, competent, respectful, problem-solving children, and it also suggests a retreat from overprotective parenting. An article in The Atlantic name-checks Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE Way as an example of parenting advice that refreshingly goes against the grain of what’s been termed “helicopter parenting,” which results in overprotected kids suffering from what psychologist Peter Gray calls a “play deficit” or a severe lack of unstructured playtime. Yet when RIE is in the news, it is oftentimes a target of controversy. Most accusations claim that RIE robs children of their childhood, forcing adult behaviours too soon.
In recent years, RIE parenting has garnered a great deal of attention, perhaps due in part to its scores of high-profile Hollywood followers (a February 2014 Vanity Fair article called RIE a “trend” due to its celebrity following; among them, Tobey Maguire, Penelope Cruz, Helen Hunt, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Hank Azaria).
Characterizing RIE as a recent fad is inaccurate, given that it was founded in 1978 by Magda Gerber, a Hungarian educator who worked closely with pediatrician Emmi Pikler and pediatric neurologist Tom Forrest. Gerber based RIE on her own parenting experience, and on-time she spent volunteering in a Hungarian orphanage, where she worked with Pikler; the whole point of RIE was to simply promote a better way to raise children around the world. RIE advocates often consider it a way of life, one that is promoted in Baby Knows Best, written by RIE Executive Director Deborah Carlisle Solomon and published in December 2013.
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Basic principles of RIE philosophy
The goal of RIE is to develop an authentic child who feels secure, independent, and able. Respect is a large part of the RIE philosophy, which stems from Emmi Pickler’s original methodology. Parents and educators must respect an infant’s ability to learn and develop naturally and give them ample opportunity to do so. Parents should observe their infant understand their own communication and needs best.
Respectful communication among parents and educators provides an environment that encourages learning and growth. Simply the way an adult looks, listens, or speaks to an infant can show respect and trust that their infant is ready to investigate and learn. For example, involving the infant in basic daily tasks by speaking to them and explaining actions allows for active participation. These daily tasks can include diaper changes, bathing, and feedings.
Consistency and communicating expectations with infants can also aid in the development of the discipline. Even at an early age, infants understand verbal and nonverbal cues. Challenging an infant daily with new surroundings and concepts ensures the learning process is continual and that it builds on previous knowledge and experiences.
Gerber was a huge proponent of giving infants time for uninterrupted play so they can explore at their own pace and interest. Instead of teaching infants new skills, this uninterrupted play allows the learning process to stay natural and follow the infant’s interests. Parents and educators must also be able to provide a safe, predictable, consistent, and challenging environment.
The environment should be one where an infant can be completely natural in the way they explore and interact. If an infant’s environment is predictable, it is easier for them to learn because they understand what is about to occur. Since infants naturally want to move around to explore, having a safe environment allows them to do so without restrictions.
Another wonderful aspect of this philosophy of respect, trust, and acceptance is how it works for all ages and promotes overall growth and happiness in life. The main goal of RIE is to create an authentic child who feels secure, autonomous, competent, and connected to the world around them. This sense of security and confidence will remain with them through their educational journey. This journey not only includes academic growth but social growth as well.
Understanding the importance of respect, trust and acceptance allow for the creation of strong relationships in life. A strong sense of self and an even stronger connection to the people and places around them promotes amazing growth and happiness in life beginning as infants and continuing into adulthood.
RIE in nature
As Gerber puts it, we respect a child by appropriately refraining from “interfering with her experience of encountering life.” Nature is a wonderful environment for encountering life! How do we aptly refrain from interfering, especially with the potential dangers of natural areas?
RIE fervently encourages self-directed play, which is a child’s internally-motivated mode of discovery. Through this kind of play, she learns not only about herself and the world around her, but also how to learn, and how to work with emotion and other people. She develops the executive function, including attention, impulse control, working memory, and other processes that enable problem-solving and self-regulation. She develops motor skills and strength. She becomes more self-confident.
As hard as it can be to accept, she doesn’t need you for this kind of play. In fact, most kinds of parental involvement restrict play or make it less internally motivated and directed, undermining development.
Natural areas are wonderful environments for self-directed play because they provide so many resources, but not ready-made games, instructions, or buttons. Let her take advantage of this by not suggesting, directing, entertaining, teaching, or needlessly interrupting.
Instead, let her play! Observe. Trust that whatever she chooses to do—even if it looks like not much—it is a good choice for her.
If you have reasonable plans to impose, say meeting up with others or reaching a destination, wait for a good time and let her know. We’re meeting Stevie, so I’d like us to walk down the trail now. Working with her like what she is doing is important. I see you are climbing on that log—would you like more time to finish?
Let the children struggle
RIE emphasizes letting a child develop motor skills by himself and on his own schedule, rather than teaching, assisting, or restricting him. It likewise encourages giving him room to problem solve cognitive and social challenges on his own. Not only does he learn by doing things without help, but he also develops a keen sense of what he can and cannot comfortably do on his own—the essence of self-confidence. He also becomes more self-directed in learning new things because he’s learning how to learn.
Nature is an amazingly rich environment for encouraging the development of motor, cognitive, and (in groups) social skills. When a child is struggling, say trying to climb down from a rock, avoid teaching, assisting, coaxing, or encouraging (which undermines his ability to assess situations for himself).
Start by just observing. You might be surprised by what he can do given time. You can reflect out loud to affirm his experience. You are trying to get down. I see that it is hard for you. Support awareness of any danger that concerns you. The edge is here. You are close to the edge. Spot him as needed. If assistance is requested or required, start minimally. My hand is here if you need it.
Of course, we have to safeguard against undue harm. It’s amazingly easy, however, to rescue when we don’t need to, robbing children of essential experience.
Let the children self-soothe
RIE encourages letting a child learn how to understand and work with her emotions. This is done primarily by providing emotional support but not taking responsibility for her emotional experience. Difficult feelings are normal and healthy, and we undermine emotional development if we act as if they are ours to deal with or problems to get rid of as quickly as possible. Parents usually have a lot of work to do in becoming comfortable with children feeling bad.
Nature provides many opportunities for difficult emotions, like when a child falls—especially if you give her the freedom to fail. Unless medical intervention is immediately required, rather than defining the situation for her (You’re OK), telling her in essence that she needs outside help (Let me kiss it and make it better), distracting her (Oh, look a blue jay), or diminishing her feelings (Look, it’s not so bad), find out what she is experiencing and wanting.
Observe. Reflect out loud. I see you fell down. I hear you crying. Inquire. Was that scary? Do you want some hugs? Shall I hold you? Do you want to try again? Empathetically allow her what she feels.
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Let the children motivate themselves
RIE supports inner-directedness and self-motivation by encouraging self-assessment, rather than relying on the outside judgment. Praising achievement, which we often do as a matter of course, actually encourages a child to look outside himself for approval (or disapproval). It fosters an environment of judgment and implies negative judgment when it is hoped for but not given. Praise is also often given insincerely, which children eventually can sense and undermine the authenticity of your relationship. Much scholarship indicates that kids who are praised for achievement are preoccupied with how they perform, avoiding learning opportunities for fear of failure. In contrast, those praised for effort try harder.3 Children experience satisfaction for themselves, if they are not conditioned to look elsewhere.
A child will likely experience many victories and defeats in nature! Avoid approval-seeking by not cheering, clapping, grading (Good job), or commenting on his merit (Wow, you’re such a good climber).
If you want to interact, when it won’t interrupt his focus, you can reflect. You got to the top. You can acknowledge his effort or praise his process. You tried really hard to get up there, and you got up. You tried really hard—maybe you’ll get to the top next time. Talk about feelings. How does it feel to reach the top? You seem frustrated.
Be clear and decisive with limits
RIE excels in fostering cooperative behaviour. One key idea is rather than shaming, distracting, bribing, or threatening with made-up consequences, and it is best to calmly provide empathy, set clear limits, and enforce them quickly and consistently.
Free play doesn’t mean anything goes. Some activities carry too much risk of harm to people, property, or nature. Social play can get too intense. It’s also important to remember that we prize nature in part for its tranquillity. Boisterous children may need limits to honour the “Leave No Trace” wilderness ethic’s principle of being considerate of other visitors.
When a child needs a limit, reflect out loud what’s happening. You are ripping off the flowers. That hurts nature. Tell her what you want, rather than asking, and explain why. We’re going to leave in 5 minutes because we need to go home for lunch. Avoid turning your statement into a question by ending it with “OK?” If you want acknowledgement, ask for it. Did you hear me? Acknowledge her desire. You don’t want to go. You’re having a good time, and it’s hard to leave! If possible, you can model desired behaviour and point out alternatives. Please be gentle with the flowers, like this. Sticks are not so delicate. Discussion and negotiation are great (if she’s able) but don’t give a standoff time to get a footing. To enforce a limit, offer a choice between cooperation or you taking control. You aren’t coming. Do you want to walk with me or do you want me to carry you? Follow-through consistently!
Pros and cons of RIE-style parenting
Believers in RIE-style parenting say that the method yields long-lasting benefits—that the RIE principles you incorporate today become the foundation for a future, the lifelong relationship of love and respect. Through RIE, which is based on the concept of “educaring” (“We should educate while we care and care while we educate,” Gerber once said), parents evolve too. Ultimately, according to Solomon, RIE offers a “path to an easier and more pleasurable life with your baby, one based on mutual trust and respect for each other.”
There are obvious elements of RIE-style parenting that celebrate childhood. For example, RIE favours modest toys and free play with simple household objects over loud, battery-operated toys that perform only a single-use. It encourages parents to slow down and enjoy and respect their toddler’s pace. It relinquishes the distractions of cell phones, television, and Internet in favour of one-on-one, uninterrupted time together. (This isn’t unique to RIE-style parenting, however. There is a lot of research highlighting the benefits of free play and limiting screen time and other tech distractions for children.)
But, for many parents, it’s difficult to ignore some of RIE’s more controversial elements, some of which suggest that the parenting practice is not for everybody. Many critics and parents find the RIE guidelines too strict and not developmentally appropriate for their children, thus setting up unrealistic expectations. For example, not all toddlers are developmentally ready to understand or implement the kind of self-regulation required in conflict resolution and may require parental intervention. And while RIE’s emphasis on observation is laudable when it encourages children to discover their own reliance and independence, it can be an issue when it stops parents from responding to their instinct to provide immediate help and care for their children. For example, critics of RIE would suggest the “wait and see” approach to a crying child is detrimental, especially for babies, who require consistent care and immediate attention in order to develop trust and foster a bond with a parent and/or caregiver.
Does RIE work?
Critics of RIE argue that it does not always reflect current science. Although Gerber worked closely with Pikler, a pediatrician, and Forrest, a pediatric neurologist, they relied upon information available in the late 1970s. As our knowledge of children and infant development evolves, RIE seems to stay its course.
However, Gerber was a parent herself, and so is Solomon, who raised her teenaged son the RIE way and said that there is more flexibility in the practice than one might think.
“At RIE, we invite a baby to cooperate, but we don’t require it,” says Solomon. “We adhere to the concept of readiness. We would respect these differences and of course, be responsive to each baby, accepting his readiness and not expecting him to do something he is unable to do. RIE gives parents practical tools for responsive, respectful caregiving. It also helps parents to look inside, to see when they are responding to their baby out of their own need rather than a true need of the baby.”
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 pyjamas 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.
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 two months old or 20 months old, we respect and acknowledge 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 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 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.
Many of the core values and principles of the RIE philosophy align with those of the Reggio Emilia approach found at The Compass School. The Reggio Emilia approach views the child as a strong, capable, and independent learner, while the teacher is seen as a partner in the child’s learning process. Respectful communication and interaction between teachers and infants are strongly encouraged by the RIE methodology and The Compass School. This respected and trusted relationship allows infants to grow and master skills in a positive and encouraging environment. Using the classroom environment as the “third teacher,” children’s actions, questions, and interests are observed and documented for further exploration.
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