Magda Gerber said that we often underestimate babies and overestimate toddlers.
It’s true: since babies are born so dependent on us, it’s easy to get into the habit of thinking of them as helpless. Conversely, as babies grow into toddlers that can clearly understand us, it’s easy to think that just because they heard us, they will be able to listen and follow directions, control their impulses and emotions, share readily and apologize gracefully*.
But the truth is that infants are not completely helpless: they can communicate, they can move, they are constantly learning and adapting. And toddlers are miracles in and of themselves: learning to move and speak and developing ideas and expectations about how the world works in the span of mere months (and really, in a blink of an eye) is a stunning and staggering accomplishment when you really consider it…but they are still so very new to this world, and quite literally do not think the same way we do.
*Controlling impulses is the domain of the frontal cortex, which doesn’t start developing until children turn 2 (and continues developing until the mid-twenties). Sharing and apologizing can happen spontaneously with toddlers, but doesn’t consistently begin appearing until children are 3.5. And listening/following directions is actually a skill needed for children to succeed in Kindergarten… when they are over 5!
So, what’s a parent to do? How do you not underestimate or overestimate your child? It starts with your mindset. You see, we care for children based on how we see them, so RIE asks us to see children as capable and competent, to believe (and look for) their own unique point of view. We are asked to slow down to practice observing, really observing… to see what is happening, rather than what we think is happening. To try not to live in the past or the future, but to be with your child in this moment.
And that’s really hard to do!
Our brains are wired to make predictions, to make sense of our worlds…we’ve been doing it, well, since we were infants ourselves! We learn through our experiences, and we use that experience to guide our behavior to make our lives easier. And as an adult, you’re probably really good at it. It’s innate. But it’s a problem when you apply it to infants and toddlers! They are growing, changing, and learning themselves, at a much faster rate than us…by the time we have identified a pattern and can adapt our behavior to it, odds are they’ve moved on…physically, emotionally, or cognitively…or all of the above!
That’s why we practice slowing down in RIE classes. When we slow down, we have the opportunity to see what children are capable of. We let them figure out what they want to do, what they are ready for. And when we do that, we can’t help but be struck by their brilliance. And speaking of learning…when we do this, when we allow children the opportunity to explore the world and one another, when we trust them solve their own conflicts (with supervision and support), and comfort them, but not distract them, from their sadness…we are teaching them that we believe they are capable and competent. And you know what? That’s what they are…and that’s what they will continue to be.
RIE, or the Educaring Approach, can be challenging to articulate. Honestly, when I took the RIE training almost 20 years ago, I took it for the sole purpose of being able to say what it was! And you know, I still had difficulty at the end of the training, and even today, I don’t explain it in the same way every time. What it is is simply…
A way of being with children.
A way of seeing them.
A way of allowing them to do for themselves, yet staying in harmony.
As I said to someone today, this is a way of life. You’re not always going to get it “right,” nor should you…there is perfection in the imperfection.
Yes, this is a way of life, and it takes living to understand it.
What follows is an excerpt from one of my favorite readings from the Parents’ Tao te Ching. I love almost every reading in the book, but this is the one that stopped me in my tracks one day as I headed out to teach a brand new RIE class. And it is the one that persuaded me to bring the book to every class, reading a passage at random at the close of each session.
1. Words of Life
You can speak to your children of life,
but your words are not life itself.
You can show them what you see,
but your showing and their seeing
are forever different things.
You cannot speak to them of Divinity Itself.
But you can share with them
the millions of manifestations of this Reality
arrayed before them every moment.
Since these manifestations have their origin
in the Tao,
the visible will reveal the invisible to them.
Don’t mistake your desire to talk
for their readiness to listen.
Far more important are the wordless truths they learn from you.
If you take delight in the ordinary wonders of life,
they will feel the depth of your pleasure
and learn to experience joy.
If you walk with them in the darkness of life’s mysteries
you will open the gate of understanding.
They will learn to see in the darkness
and not be afraid.
Go for a slow mindful walk.
Show them every little thing that catches your eye.
Notice every little thing that catches theirs.
Don’t look for lessons or seek to teach great things.
The lesson will teach itself.