RIE, by any other name

In the RIE Win I shared yesterday, I talked about the heart of the Educaring Approach. Yes, the organization calls it an “Approach” (not a philosophy!). I also like to call it a practice, like yoga or meditation…it is something that we do regularly and with intention, sometimes we show up flexible and present, sometimes our head just isn’t in the game…but we still try. A good friend and RIE Momma recently called it a lifestyle, which also resonated with me: yes, this is something that touches every relationship you have…with your child, your spouse, your extended family, your friends, and most importantly, yourself. It colors your world. Once you start to see infants and toddlers with ‘new eyes,’ you can’t really go back.

RIE asks us to slow down, to observe, and to trust. To give children time and space to figure things out. To involve them in their care, wonder about their feelings, and to talk to them as if they understand, waiting to let our words sink in…from birth. For this, Magda Gerber was a pioneer. Her guidance was revolutionary and counter-cultural back in 1978 (when she founded RIE).

(And yes, RIE often still feels counter-cultural in our hurried-up, pushed-down, consumer-driven society.  In the hands of producers who want shock value and editors who want subscribers, RIE becomes a one dimensional, possibly dangerous and damaging, celebrity parenting trend or fad where babies aren’t allowed to be babies. Something to be marginalized, even parodied (though I have to say, getting parodied on The Simpsons is kinda awesome if you’re of a certain age…).)

It was revolutionary, yes, but child development theorists already supported the basic tenants of the Educaring Approach. Yes, in the late 70’s, people who studied infants were well-aware that babies become aware of the world and the people and things in it very early…but many parents were not, as I’ve recently learned. For many years now, I’ve cited a study published in 1979 that supports RIE, even though they didn’t know RIE existed. (If you’ve been in classes with me, you’ve likely heard me talk about it.) Well, I recently got my hands on the original article and one thing that stood out to me was the fact that even though the researchers knew about infants’ early awareness, most parents in their study did not, a fact that surprised them. And that simple fact: the awareness of whether or not your infant could be aware and learn from the very beginning, has a powerful impact.

It was a very simple and straightforward study. Researchers simply asked pregnant mothers a few simple questions, including “at what age do you think your baby will start to be aware of his/her surroundings or know what is going on around him/her?” After the birth, researchers assessed the child at 2 days, then 1, 4, 8, 12, and 24 months. And what they found was a very strong positive correlation between mothers’ expectations and babies’ performances on a variety of scales (mental and physical): the earlier mothers expected their children to be aware (in days and weeks, not months), the better children performed on the scales. Moreover, they also looked at the mothers’ behavior and attitudes and found that mothers with earlier expectations were more emotionally and verbally responsive, offered more appropriate play materials, gave children the time and space to explore, and had a daily schedule that was orderly and predictable.

This, as you may have heard me say, is RIE in a nutshell. You start with the idea that infants are aware, having a unique point of view, from birth. And from there, yes, we ask you to talk to your baby, to allow, rather than hush feelings, to give children simple toys and then try not to interfere with their learning, and to give them predictability in both routines and throughout the day. Of course, there is much more to RIE: natural gross motor development, involvement in care routines, allowance for struggle and frustration, letting children solve problems…I could go on and on (and, um, have, have you seen my website?!) …but I want to tarry on the initial premise.

We start with the idea that we are interacting with a person, a whole, certainly developing, but a whole person. That’s what guides our every interaction and exchange: seeking to understand what is going on in your child’s head and inviting them to begin to understand what is in ours. And that, that right there, is what research continues to say is the most critical for raising healthy, securely attached humans. The better you are able to think about your child’s thoughts and feelings and how those things affect your child’s behavior (called parental reflective functioning in the literature), the better your words and actions convey to your child, “I see you. I wonder about you. I want to know you.” And when your child feels seen and heard, feels felt (thank you, Daniel Seigel), he or she can explore, learn, engage with the world…and perhaps best of all, learn how to wonder about others, too. Children’s capacities to reflect evolves from your capacity to hold your child in your mind, and your child’s experience of your mind as knowable and safe…is the key to intimacy and connection.

Of course, a lot of how we know this is from families where this doesn’t happen and witnessing the consequences. But I was struck, in listening to a webinar for therapists who work with families who are in crisis or otherwise not able to get into a reflective state of mind, that the advice given to therapists on how to structure their interactions with parents, is kind of a step-by-step guide to reflective functioning in and of itself:

  1. Observe and listen
  2. Always affirm
  3. Mirror what is said
  4. Approach with wonder and curiosity
  5. Help them tolerate uncertainty/don’t solve the problem for them
  6. Scaffold
  7. Repair ruptures

If that’s not a how-to of how to engage reflectively, no matter someone’s age, I don’t know what is. And children who are treated like this, will treat others like this.

So, call it RIE, call it respectful parenting, call it Educaring, call it aware, reflective, connected, peaceful, natural, authoritative, unruffled…call it a lifestyle, an Approach, a practice…call it what you will…and enjoy the fruits of your labor…the connections you have with your child and the deep connections they will soon form with others, and someday perhaps with their own children.

And this is a reading from the Parents’ Tao Te Ching that I have shared before, but I came across it again today and it fits so well…

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.