What I Learned In Our At Home RIE Session

Earlier this week we hosted a RIE-sponsored seminar, “Before Baby” at our home.┬áThe 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.

Skeptical Remarks About Dog Ownership

I own a working breed dog, but I do not have a working purpose for the animal as I live in a suburban community that is at least a one hour drive away from the kind of terrain and property arrangements where one might actually be able to put a dog to work. Currently, I also live in a smaller-sized apartment with my wife, the Wolf, which meets our space needs in large part without being wasteful, but which is not ideal for the dog who would do better with a yard to run free in. I have several friends who think our dog ownership decision is something of a lifestyle mistake– they see only costs and are unclear on the benefits.

In the interest of trying to think objectively about my life choices, I want to explore their skepticism as if it were my own. Why do I own a dog? What am I getting out of this seemingly parasitical arrangement?

In many ways, owning a dog is like having a child who never grows up:

  • the dog is dependent upon you for its feeding and care
  • the dog imposes additional costs in terms of food, occasional medical attention, dog equipment (leash, collar, dog toys, etc.)
  • the dog has limited communication capabilities and often leaves its owners guessing as to what its needs are and how they might best be resolved
  • the dog has a penchant for behaving in unpredictable and undesirable ways (barking at strangers, pacing about the bedroom late at night, distracting visitors)
  • the dog puts severe constraints on your ability to travel and come and go as you please, requiring special arrangements anytime you’re out of town for extended periods of time
  • the dog thrives on routine and predictability, which means your life becomes more routine-based and therefore monotonous to the extent you decide to cater to your dog’s needs
  • the dog represents a commitment and the responsibility which entails can not be shed at a whim

These shortcomings and limitations of dog ownership are very real. I have counseled many a friend and young family member to think twice before taking on the responsibility of a dog while single and resource-light. The demands of letting the dog out throughout the day and giving the dog substantial exercise can be extremely stressful to a young professional or amateur careerist operating on their own, not to mention the hindering effect dog ownership has on the attempt to have a nightlife and with it, a sex life! Taking on a dog before you take on a full time partner is like turning on a homing beacon for the irresponsible and imbalanced that simultaneously sets off an ear-piercing frequency that can only be sensed by the collected, cool-headed types you’d ideally want to attract but are instead unwittingly driving away.

And while the ongoing costs of dog ownership are fairly minimal (dog food is the gag fate of impoverished elderly people everywhere for a reason), dogs seem to have a nasty habit of swallowing things, breaking things or otherwise becoming near-fatally ill in the most costly and inconvenient manner possible for those least able to bear the financial strain, and such situations can be an impressive financial setback for those just starting out in life. How would you like to shell out $2,500 cash for surgery on a recently discovered tumor your poor old dog has developed? Or spend multiples of that treating an animal who is congenitally predisposed to the painful and debilitating disease known as degenerative myelopathy?

One of the supposed joys of dog ownership is taking your dog out in public as you traipse about town. But in doing so you take two major risks. The first is that you will attract a crazy person with an obsessive compulsion to pet or otherwise inappropriately interact with your dog. The second is that your dog will become frightened or alarmed by another animal, ideally a small child, and bite, at which point you will now have a dead dog (put down by the authorities) and a costly lawsuit to defend yourself against from the animal’s owners (parents, other dog-owner, etc.) which you will undoubtedly lose.

To avoid such troubles, you might think of taking your dog to the park, where it can roam and run and chase a ball to its heart’s content with little risk of an upsetting interaction with a stranger. But if you live in a town like I do, with strongly enforced leash laws and bans on dog activity on school grounds, which constitute a majority of the open public spaces nearby, you’re kind of out of luck on this draw. You can’t let your dog, legally, off its 6-foot leash which doesn’t make for a fun game of fetch, and you can’t, legally, even go to most of the places otherwise suitable for playing with a dog unless you’re interested in attracting a dog catcher and paying a fine and/or losing your “privilege” to own a dog (said privilege operating on two levels of irony given the tenor of this post so far, and the views of this author on the role of governments in society).

In that case, you might go to a dog park. These are specially designated areas where a variety of dogs of differing size, temperament, training discipline and owner profile all congregate and go nuts on one another, rolling in fleas, transferring diseases to one another, pissing and shitting all over the place and more than occasionally getting into fights. Many of the owners are the same caliber of insane as the standard weirdos who might try to approach you when you’re out about town walking your dog, which is also enjoyable. And you can still get sued if something goes wrong. (You could also be mauled yourself!) A dog park is actually a good case in miniature for a broad policy of social segregation, of dogkind and mankind alike.

It’s actually difficult for me to think of anything I enjoy about owning a dog that I could not enjoy without the dog itself. I could say that owning a dog is a good excuse to get some exercise and walk the neighborhood, but I could surely do that without the dog and in fact many people do, some jog instead of walk but nonetheless they get it done without a four-legged friend. I could say that a dog is a good home security system, but it’s probably inferior to today’s WiFi and app-connected DIY home monitoring system technology in both cost and effectiveness, and unfortunately this “security system” goes on vacation whenever you do, needing to be boarded at additional expense away from home when you’re away. I could say that a dog provides one with warmth and companionship, but that’d be an indication of an imbalanced, emotionally needy mind that could probably get that relationship more authentically from another human being after some workouts with a qualified therapist. And I could say that a dog adds a playful spirit of spontaneity to one’s life, but I’ve never been fond of jumping out of airplanes and I imagine you could accomplish much the same thing that way if you really wanted to do so. Besides, as I said before, where I live there’s no place to play with my dog and it’s hard to be too spontaneous in the living room in the small hours of the evening.

What value, then, is there in owning a dog? For someone with a working purpose connected to their lifestyle (shepherding, farming, mountain rescue, police/security work), dogs probably make sense. In fact, anthropologists and evolutionary theorists posit that dogs were domesticated thousands of years ago precisely because of the important functional relationships they could establish with hunter-gatherer societies.

But we don’t live in those societies anymore, at least, I don’t, and for the modern, non-rural person such as myself a dog doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose.

And since we all live in interventionist welfare societies now, maybe it doesn’t make any sense to have children, either.

Our Philosophy of Parenting in 60 Seconds

When I meet people who have small children or recently gave birth, I typically ask them the following question: “What is your philosophy of parenting?” I usually follow that up with, “Are there any specific methods, practices, approach or ‘-isms’ you subscribe to in raising your kids?” I mostly get puzzled looks, even from close friends who know me well and should have an idea of what I am getting at with my questions.

If someone were to ask me the same question, here is how I would explain our philosophy in approximately 60 seconds:

When we chose to conceive, we made a conscious decision to bring another life into the world which would be physically, emotionally, intellectually and financially dependent upon us at birth. This child did not have a choice in entering the world in such a state. As the child matures, it will develop the capability to transcend this condition of dependency. Our obligation as parents is to help our child gain physical, emotional, intellectual and financial independence as it progresses in its development, always being mindful and respectful of the limitations it has at any given “stage”, but also being cognizant of the great potential it has to go beyond it. We will seek to always treat the child with respect for its eventual independent personhood. If we can not only help our child to successfully achieve its independence, but also instill it with a desire for interdependence such that it sees value in voluntary relationships with us and other people in society, we will feel greatly rewarded. We hope we can be living examples to our child of the value of peacefully relating to others for mutual benefit, rather than seeing the world as a zero-sum game where our child gets trapped in the master-slave mentality.

If my conversation partner shows additional interest at this point, I might follow this up with an example of a specific methodology we plan to follow, which we have researched extensively and which we have observed the beneficial effects of with our own friends and their young families– RIE, or Resources For Infant Educarers. RIE is the first actionable link in a chain starting at infancy and extending to that moment of independence/interdependence which seeks to build a conscious, self-confident identity for the child in a relationship built on respect for differing needs and active communication.

These are examples of our “philosophy of parenting” and how we plan to practically execute it in raising our own children. It’s maybe worth exploring what our philosophy IS NOT, and the kinds of parental obligations we philosophically reject, but that is probably grist for another post.