My first baby cried loudly and slept very little. Therefore, me too.
I was 37, after what obstetricians call a “geriatric pregnancy,” and I smugly assumed that age and experience would imbue me with the kind of maternal wisdom my siblings had to learn on their own. , since they had become parents earlier. Jeni shredded those notions on the way home from the hospital, her needs unreadable behind a wall of moans.
For the first few months, my husband and I took turns taking it at the first sign of distress to warn of the brewing storm. We adored him. So I eagerly consumed Heidi Murkoff’s “What to Expect First Year” and Dr. William Sears’ “The Baby Book,” where the famed pediatrician promoted a concept called attachment parenting. We got so attached that if she sighed, one of us would wear her like a necklace.
I was not alone. Long before I made my way through motherhood, bewildered new moms and dads had fueled the rise of an industry, with professional parenting guides replacing the examples once set by one’s own parents, aunts and cousins.
The gospel of the “good enough” mom a la Dr Donald Winnicott has given way to Dr Benjamin Spock’s notions of all-consuming nurturing, with a succession of others like Sears offering new takes. New parents sincerely shared their successes and failures with strangers in parenting classes that later gave way to online courses, podcasts, blogs, social media pages, and prepared discussions. Today, the click of a mouse can take you to Julie Lythcott-Haims’ TED Talk warning that with “overprotection, overdirection, and taking charge, we rob our children of the opportunity to develop self-efficacy. “.
As we learn to be parents, we adopt a style: tiger moms and hovering helicopters, snow plows clearing a path, drones knocking down obstacles. The process begins in those uncertain first interactions with our own little human, sometimes as wobbly as a toddler’s footsteps. And it happens whether we realize it or not, driven in part by the fear of being wrong. But what if that fear is self-imposed?
The late Magda Gerber was worried like other mothers raising her daughter in Hungary during World War II, but a kind pediatrician shared an idea that changed the whole experience. Dr. Emmi Pikler taught her that even babies could communicate their needs if adults slowed down and paid attention. Gerber came to believe that parents could do far less and enjoy their children more – a notion that started another parenting movement, one that imposes calm, sets limits and treats a baby like a partner, rather than a an experiment waiting to go wrong.
Gerber brought these ideas to America, where she co-founded a parent training program focused on the idea that newborns deserve respect and already have their own inherent skills and knowledge. Los Angeles-based Resources for Infant Educarers – abbreviated as RIE and pronounced “rye” – teaches parents to interact with children wholeheartedly but to interfere as little as possible as long as the child is safe.
The research supports Gerber’s notion that babies are capable on their own. A textbook published by the National Academy of Sciences says babies pick up signals when someone is teaching them. “From an early age, children are not just passive observers, registering the superficial appearance of things. On the contrary, they construct explanatory systems – implicit theories – which organize their knowledge. Babies “even see the unfulfilled goals of others and step in to help them.” In her own research, developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik found that children are master learners from birth, as part of their natural development.
Former actress and model Janet Lansbury, an RIE associate since 1994 and author of two books published in 2014, including ‘No Bad Kids’, says children even exercise creative and global thinking. “They also gain confidence as learners, as they are naturally very self-centered and self-motivated,” she adds. But this motivation can be undermined. When parents insist on redirecting their attention and choosing their toys and providing endless distractions, children can become passive in the face of learning. Children are born eager to learn, she says, but we interfere by deciding what we think they should learn.
RIE associates – who undergo intensive and lengthy training – describe the approach as slower, less demanding and more respectful parenting. Lansbury says the RIE is a gift for parents in particular because it defuses their stress.
When RIE program director Melissa Coyne first discovered the philosophy in action, she already had a bachelor’s degree in child development and work experience in child care. What she saw at the center aligned RIE where she eventually worked for 22 years seemed strange at first. Staff members spoke to babies as if they were older, involving them in their own care. “I’ll come get you and change your diaper. The cloth may be a little cold when I wipe your buttocks.
A carer asked a mum how the baby’s night went, then turned to the little boy: “I’m talking to your mum about how your night was.”
“I thought it was a little strange at first,” says Coyne, who later earned a master’s degree in child development, “until I started noticing kids reacting. Even very young children.
A worker crouched next to a baby who was exploring a stream of light on the floor and told her she was going to change her diaper. Then she gave him a few seconds before picking it up. Coyne watched the baby get ready, as if thinking, “Oh, here’s what she’s going to do where she picks me up and flies me through the air. The baby got ready because she was told what to expect, she said. No surprises, no unexpected takes. Although he was too young to speak, she could see him interacting with his eyes and body language.
RIE parents were taught to focus intensely on their child, while deliberately refraining from action – something that, as a new mother, I often couldn’t figure out how to do when my children were fidgeting. I asked how such an approach might have turned out for me many years ago.
“It depends,” Coyne says — a favorite Gerber phrase. Gerber, who died in 2007, often answered questions with a thought-provoking question. Coyne says parents have varying reservations at any given time. She would have told me to take a deep breath and pause, then talk to the baby, but accept that I still didn’t understand why she was crying. “I hear you. I’m trying to understand what you’re telling me. I just changed your diaper. You ate. Maybe you have a gas bubble. Maybe you want to be shot.
Gerber’s advice, passed down from those she has mentored, including Lansbury, is to always acknowledge a child’s feelings, but not necessarily try to change them. Babies need to experience their emotions. When a baby cries while trying to roll over, an RIE-trained parent watches to see if the baby can do it, calming him down simply by engaging but not helping him. “In our best-intentioned way, we can take away that inner motivation by being overly helpful,” Coyne says. The “educator” intervenes if the baby is too upset or needs help regulating his emotions. After calming the baby, Coyne says she was put back in the same position, to work on the flip again.
Coyne and Lansbury pepper their explanations with quotations from Gerber, spoken with reverence. “Magda said to give the infant or child the least amount of help necessary so that he can take on the task on his own,” Coyne says, because “‘a little wrestling is good'” .
When parents help too much, even babies learn that they cannot be trusted to do things on their own or solve their own problems. “Be present and responsive, but trust the baby can do things,” Coyne says.
Slowing down is like letting a child develop at their own pace. Gerber believed that parents should allow young children to move freely and naturally, instead of forcing gross motor development. Letting a child establish their natural rhythm extends to potty training and other tasks, without worrying about developmental delays.
It’s against American culture. “We’re very racehorse driven,” Coyne says, launching into a staccato: “Does he roll over yet? Does she speak? Is he standing? Do you feed him solid food? Go on! Go on! Go on! Magda said, ‘Why rush when nature has a perfect plan?’ »
In nearly 30 years with RIE, Lansbury has worked with hundreds of families, following infants through their toddlers. She repeatedly saw different parents deal with the same issues, she says, which inspired her when she developed her books and her popular podcast, “Unruffled,” where she answers common parenting questions.
She says even babies need boundaries, first established by having a predictable and reliable routine, which gives them structure. Newborns have entered a world that can seem overwhelming. Boundaries help them feel safe, while keeping them safe and protecting parent-child relationships. Gerber said the absence of boundaries is not kindness but negligence.
But in the end, what difference do different early parenting styles really make? Lansbury thinks that’s probably a lot, but notes that studies can’t capture the nuances or measure how well parents are implementing the skills they’ve been taught.
For her – and for Coyne too, although she started with RIE when her children were a bit older – the proof is in the strong relationships they have with their children.
“Our relationship is amazing. They would say that too,” Lansbury says. “And that’s really all I wanted in the end.”
This story appears in the April issue of Desert Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.