Don’t Move the Baby

One of the exciting things about creating and publicizing my website is that it has brought me back in touch with people I knew, loved, and worked with over 20 years ago, folks who were my introduction to the Educaring Approach. It’s kind of a funny story: I like to say I learned about RIE backwards… experientially, rather than cognitively. That is, I learned by doing, rather than by being lectured to. Let me explain:

When I figured out that I wanted to be a parent educator, I hadn’t even finished my first Child Development class, but was eager to start working with children. I had been floating around for almost 4 years after high school. I had two years of college under my belt, but no direction, so when I found my calling in a random community college class, I wanted to start on that path immediately. It was easy to pick the place I wanted to work: it was the only place that would hire someone with no Child Development units! But as it turns out, it was the best place I could have possibly landed…at this center, the owners, the infant/toddler director, the staffing coordinator, and many (most? all?… it was 20 years ago, forgive my poor memory!) of the infant and toddler teachers had all had RIE training. I didn’t know what RIE was, thought Magda Gerber was related to Gerber baby food (she’s not! Just an odd coincidence!), and had never even seen a developmental preschool in action before, but they gave me a job anyway.

I landed in the youngest infant room, and found myself completely in love with babies and my work. As I’ve said elsewhere, I came in early and stayed late, asked for extra hours. I loved my job! It wasn’t the fact that I was learning about child development, though certainly that helped, no, it was because the center was RIE-based. While I did eventually get formal RIE training, my introduction was in listening to the way my co-workers talked to the babies, watching them comfort (not shush) crying children, and being encouraged to sit back and observe children, rather than entertain them. I was slowly absorbing the culture and learning how to practice as I went, but I remember my first real “RIE lesson.”

It was a sunny afternoon and I was out on the covered deck with one child, while my lead teacher was sitting out in the grass with a few others. All was peaceful: the babies in the yard were balancing around or slowly moving push toys through the grass (protip for parents of new walkers…push toys on firm surfaces like hardwood floors or tile will move quickly, more quickly than your child is likely ready for. Putting them in the grass or on thick carpet will make them safer and more useful to your child) and cheerfully smiling and playing with my lead teacher. The baby on the deck with me was interested in the small plastic climber/slide…it looked like this:

(Wow, it looked exactly like that…crazy that they still make those!)

Now, you can see that there’s a way to climb up this structure, from behind, but this baby was having none of that…she was steadfastly working on going UP the slide. She was tall enough to reach the top of the slide, but not strong enough to pull herself up, so she was digging her toes into the plastic of the slide, trying to get the traction to get up. But her foot kept slipping…one step, two step, slip: Her feet slid out from under her and she was flat on the slide. One step, slip. One step, two step, three step, slip. As she geared up for another try, I was cheering her on (despite the fact that she wasn’t looking at me, nor was she even particularly frustrated…but I was frustrated for her). She was almost to the top and I could see that her toes were starting to slide, so I reached over and surreptitiously put my hand under her foot, to brace her. And that did it! She was able to get all the way onto the platform. She turned around and beamed. I glowed. I was so happy for her!

A little later in the afternoon, in another quiet moment (yes, those exist in infant classrooms sometimes!) my lead teacher sat down next to me and checked in to see how I was doing. Then she very gently said to me, “I noticed you helped H as she was climbing.” Still happy, but now a little wary…by now I’d learned that we don’t put children into positions they can’t get into on their own in this classroom (no propping them to sit for example) …I replied that yes, I had. I’d observed that she was struggling and thought it would be okay because H didn’t even know I’d helped! Yes, my lead replied, but that’s the problem…what will happen the next time H tries to climb this slide and you aren’t around to give her that little boost? After letting me absorb that, she went on to point out that H wasn’t even visibly or audibly struggling…she was focused and engaged and working hard on doing it herself. She wasn’t asking for help, so there was no need for me to jump in and offer it.

What my lead teacher was gently leading me into was a deeper understanding of what it means to allow children’s gross motor skills to unfold naturally. Because truly, the lesson goes deeper than H simply figuring out how to reach the top of the slide…the lesson is greater than the physical act. Allowing H to figure out how to move and climb on her own, to look inside of herself when she’s struggling, is a powerful thing. Of course, we all need support from time to time, but having a mindset that acknowledges and accepts challenges, that understands that a little bit of struggle is required in life is so valuable. And the idea of “I can figure this out” vs “I need someone else to do this for me” is key. And these messages can be internalized from the very beginning.  

…having a mindset that acknowledges and accepts challenges, that understands that a little bit of struggle is required in life is so valuable. And the idea of “I can figure this out” vs “I need someone else to do this for me” is key.

Speaking of the beginning, let’s go back to another of my early lessons…this time, the calendar has rolled forward a few years. I had received my Bachelor’s in Child Development, taken the RIE Foundations course, and started the second level of RIE Training (Practicum). After working with older infants, toddlers and two’s, I was back in the young infant classroom again, this time as a lead teacher myself.

At this stage, I not only knew the rule about not putting children into positions on their own, I understood why. I knew that the young infant on his back in my classroom wasn’t a lump, but an active mover and that everything he did on his back…from lifting and kicking his legs, to twisting to look from side to side, to moving his arms, and rolling to balance on his side…was preparing him to roll over. Helping him build strength and flexibility so he could not only roll over, but comfortably press himself up, rather than be mashed into the floor. I knew that I wasn’t putting any pressure on him to ‘hurry up’ and get to that next milestone, sending him the message that where he was developmentally was just where he should be. I was giving him time to ‘discover his hands’ and start to notice the world around him. I was trusting that when he was ready to roll over, he would.

But he didn’t.

This child, J, was the happiest baby I think I’ve ever met. All smiles and coos…happy on the floor, happy in your arms, even happy during diaper changes. My Infant/Toddler Director used to be delighted when I called her to come cover a bathroom break for me because she reveled in his smiles. “Don’t hurry back,” she’d say, her eyes locked on J. Yes, J was a happy baby…but here’s the thing, he was so happy he didn’t even mind if he couldn’t reach the toys on the blanket around him. He’d reach for one, stretch a little, but not quite reach it, and then just flop back on his back and grin at the ceiling as if to say “oh well!”

We had other babies joining the class. Younger babies. Babies that were already rolling over. I couldn’t help it: I started to worry a little. What’s going on with J? I could tell he was healthy and alert, sociable, and growing well, but he just didn’t seem to have any interest in rolling over. “Here he is,” I thought, “this is the kid that proves RIE wrong…he’ll never roll over! He’ll just get longer and longer, and then get up and go to kindergarten one day!”

But then one day, the happiest baby became the fussiest. He fussed on the floor, fussed in your arms, fussed during diaper changes. He seemed uncomfortable, but was fed/rested/not sick/in a clean diaper…we just couldn’t figure it out…until one of those fussy periods on the floor yielded a roll. He rolled right over onto his stomach. And that’s when I realized: children really DO have an internal clock that tells them when it is time to move on to the next phase…just like you don’t have to tell your developing fetus “hey, time to grow some ears!” you likewise don’t have to teach your children to move.

Each child, of course, figures out movement in their own unique way and time. J’s good friend (and yes, I think they were friends…I don’t call children ‘friends’ simply because they are in the same classroom…these guys delighted in one another, looked for the other, and played with one another as they grew) also took his time in learning to roll, but the first time he did it, he rolled clear across the room…he did the same thing with walking. Every child is different, but watching for their milestones and all of the millions of incremental moves they make before they hit those milestones, can maybe tell us a little about their personality. And it can help you build that muscle of waiting before you jump in to help a child solve a problem…just as they are building their muscles, you are practicing slowing down, observing, allowing. This is your own experiential learning of RIE – enjoy it!

And I can’t let a Saturday go by without a reading from my favorite book, The Parents’ Tao Te Ching:

70. Trust the Tao
The teachings of the parent’s Tao  
are simple and natural.
Yet when you try to practice them
you will meet with great resistance.
Children have been raised
contrary to the Tao
for countless thousands of years.
No one will support you.

But look around at the effects
of these countless thousands of years.
Then look inside your heart.


The Way of the Tao
has always been here.
Some parents have found it.
Few talk about it.
It seems to them only natural
They don’t call it the Tao.
They just enjoy it.
But for many of us
parenting has been filled with struggle.
There is a better way.
You don’t have to learn it.
You already know it.
You only have to trust it.