Earlier this week we hosted a RIE-sponsored seminar, “Before Baby” at our home. The seminar organizer asked each of us to journal about our time together and what we took away from the lesson. In no particular order, here are some of the reflections I had.
Infancy is an active developmental stage for child and parent alike. Although not capable of verbal communication, the infant is rapidly assimilating to a brand new world and is not only deeply observant but deeply capable of interpreting its environment and sensory input and forming meaningful relationships with the world around it, including the people in it such as its parents. It is a huge mistake for parents and other adults to view the infant in this moment as helpless, unresponsive or otherwise dull or ignorant of these early experiences. The infant is in the process of becoming an interdependent adult and it is doing this difficult work all on its own– it is anything but helpless or ignorant, although it is dependent in various ways.
For the parents, this is a time of habit formation. In what ways will they learn to habituate their behavior toward their child? With what respect will they conduct themselves toward this new member of their family? And as what kind of model will they illustrate their values and beliefs to this watchful eye? It is also a time for meaningful connection to their child through the acts of caregiving and observation. Seemingly mundane tasks such as clothing, feeding, washing and changing the child can be just that, or they can be something more– the fundamental basis of the relationship that is now forming, to be treated with dignity, concern and attention. Will the parents learn to be fully present in their child’s life, even when their child can not share what that presentness means to them personally? Or will they convince themselves they can have a deep connection to another person without actually putting that work in?
Our organizer encouraged us to think about the phrase “Slow down!” Infancy doesn’t last forever, and in the course of the total relationship with one’s child (40, 50, maybe 60 or 70 years if one is lucky) it is a fleeting moment that is soon lost. Take it in, appreciate it, make the most of it. Slowing down also means learning to wait before intervening. Give the infant some credit for finding its own way in a difficult situation– it is learning basic problem-solving skills and techniques in this time which are fundamental to not only its intellectual functioning but also its self-esteem and identity. Don’t take that away from the infant by insisting on doing everything for it.
We watched a couple videos together, produced by the RIE foundation. One was a collection of distilled wisdom by Magda Gerber, the progenitor of the RIE approach. Another was a demonstration of infants at play, showing their interesting physical and intellectual capabilities that are so easily overlooked. The essence of each video was this– if we give infants respect in terms of what they are uniquely capable of at this moment in their lives, we might well be amazed. Balancing, climbing, walking, crawling, socializing, they’re really quite accomplished in their own way and seem to need less of our help (as adults) as we might like to think. It’s important that they have their own world in which they can move at their own pace and explore their own needs.
We briefly explored the RIE practice of “sportscasting”, narrating interactions with the infant. As Magda Gerber put it, people have no problem doing this with their dogs (“Oh, you’re very hungry, I am putting your food together and then I will feed you, please wait.”) but they shy away from this simple communication with their children lest they or others think they’re strange for talking to a being that can’t talk back. But infants are not deaf! They can and do listen and sportscasting not only teaches the parents to see their children as participants in caregiving and family life, but it also gives these little observers an opportunity to connect cause and effect and see predictability in their lives.
We also talked about the place of RIE in a larger parenting framework. Can you take what you want from RIE? Can you follow other parenting philosophies as well or is RIE it? RIE seems to be a valuable set of core ideas about relating to infants and children that is not only useful now and extensible later, but which is potentially valuable in relationships with grown adults and which doesn’t seem to come into direct conflict with other values or beliefs. If RIE is wrong, does that make its opposites right? Can we imagine a world where treating infants with disrespect is good for children and parents? What would the benefit be of that approach?
RIE may or may not be a hard sell when it comes to communicating about it with people who are unfamiliar with the principles. Rather than trying to argue or convince people it is right, it is best for RIE adherents to simply model the RIE behavior and let it speak for itself.