RIE in Real Life…Please, step away from the babies

Whatever your traditions are at the end of the calendar year, though, you’ll probably be spending more time in the company of friends and family…which can be welcome and wonderful…or trying* (or both). This means you may be introducing a new way of interacting with babies to the adults in your world. And while I could talk (and have) about how to have patience with adults who are new to RIE, I know one thing that will likely come up for everyone is the issue of bodily autonomy. What do I mean by that? “Come give Grandma a kiss! Oooh, let me hold the baby! I’m going to [reaches for baby] tickle, tickle, tickle you!”

Please, step away from the child!

Is what I want to say, but I’m typically more diplomatic. But seriously, it can be an issue: RIE teaches us to remember that babies have feelings inside of their bodies. Points of view! We learn to let them find their own way of moving through the world, both physically and emotionally. The problem is that world doesn’t always take children’s feelings into consideration. Even loving, well-meaning folks want to swoop in and love on babies…because we can! As Dr. Pikler (Magda Gerber’s mentor and colleague) reminded us, it can be so easy to simply move a young baby around like an object. And it can be so easy to let our delight in them spill over into unsolicited hugs and kisses on them. Of course, every family and every child is different…some families are very physical and cuddly and that’s who they are…I’m not saying you have to request permission for every hug! But be mindful:

I was trying to comfort a very upset child earlier this week by rubbing her back… “DON’T TOUCH ME!” she screamed as she felt my hands. I stopped. Of course…for some, a touch can feel confining! It can add to the stress, rather than reduce it. And earlier this month, my Mom (visiting me for classes in an uncharacteristically chilly December) stretched out her feet near me, and even though she was bundled up and wearing socks, she was cold. Without a word, I reached down to chafe her feet between my hands to warm them up…only to have her draw her feet away. Of course! I didn’t even ask!

But this can be challenging to communicate briefly and politely to well-meaning family and friends. This year, of course, you have a lovely out…”oh, we’re keeping our distance because of (take your pick of the myriad of illnesses that are swirling through the collective ether),” but what do you say otherwise? Well, I always turn it back to the child: “Do you want to give Grandma a kiss?” (I like what this article suggests…a hug, a handshake, or a high five). And for the infant who can’t yet speak for themselves, you can model: look at your child and narrate: “Auntie wants to hold you, would you like to go to her?” Your child may not want to and you can reaffirm that (it looks like he’s not ready right now) or he may want to…but either way, you’ve modeled for the adult that your child is an active participant in this conversation. You’re also communicating this to your child, which is something they will carry with them for life.

Ultimately, waiting for children to come to you with their affection is way better than any solicited hugs or forced kisses…a few weeks ago, I asked a 2-year-old to let me hold him while his mother got his baby brother out of the carseat…he waited a beat, but then melted into my arms. (And of course, if he had declined, I may still need to have taken him out of his mother’s arms…but it would have been done slowly and carefully.)

Again though, this is something that may feel foreign to a lot of your friends and family…I remember it feeling strange to me…what do you mean I shouldn’t kiss the babies, I asked when I got my first job working in childcare. It was explained to me that I could share my affection and love through my caregiving…slow down, invite participation and cooperation, tell them what you are going to do before you do it…but words (and kisses) are cheap. Real affection comes through in actions. And you know what? Toddler hugs and kisses given freely and spontaneously really are the very best thing ever (as evidenced in the ancient picture at the header of this email – yes that’s me, circa 2000).

I hope you have some of those this weekend.

Sending care and respect,


*I couldn’t help but laugh as I read through an FBI crisis negotiator’s tips on defusing family feuds yesterday…fresh off a TON of quality time with a fabulous 2.5 year old, I realized that their tips (use brief responses, paraphrase, label emotions, ask open-ended questions and I messages, and slow down and allow for pauses) were pretty much the short list for interfacing with a intractable toddler…If you have a moment, read it and just think “toddler” instead of “frustrating family member”…it’s fun! (And if you don’t have a subscription to the NYT, don’t forget that your Los Angeles Library card gives you free access to an online subscription for 72 hours.