Waiting for Adults

First published in the Fall 2011 issue of Educaring, RIE’s quarterly newsletter. You can also find this piece in The RIE Manual.

As I prepare to wrap up facilitating another RIE Foundations course, I’ve been reflecting on the process of sharing this work with adults. It’s a tricky business, this working with adults. Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach, while straightforward on the surface, is actually very nuanced and individualized once you get into it. I’m fortunate in that almost everyone I teach comes to me to learn: parents in Before Baby classes or Parent-Infant Guidance classes, professional care providers, and curious individuals in the Foundations course and workshops. These people are motivated and curious; they want to know. But what about sharing this approach with the, let’s say, “less than motivated” folks in your life?

A little while ago, a student from last year’s Los Angeles Fall Foundations course told a group of fellow students that she was trying to take this work back to her classroom, and she felt a little like she was beating her head against a wall. She was so excited by what she learned in class and could see so many ways that it could be applied in her classroom. She tried telling her co‑workers to slow down, to talk to the babies, not to distract them when the babies cried, and all she seemed to be getting back from her co‑workers were odd looks and avoidance: “Here she comes with another ‘RIE lecture.’”

The process of articulating and modeling Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach is one that I’ve been refining since I was first introduced to the philosophy. In fact, I initially only took the Foundations course so that I would be better able to explain what RIE is . . . and yet I find myself still working on it! I remember watching Seeing Infants with New Eyes (1984) for the first time, and hearing Magda describe becoming accustomed to living in the United States as “peeling the onion”: seeing something more deeply, layer by layer. I’ve heard several of my mentors use the same analogy for learning about and internalizing the Educaring Approach. The longer we practice, the deeper we internalize, the more nuanced our outlooks become. Sometimes the skin is still on the onion, sometimes we’re peeling off layers, sometimes we’re looking in wonder at what we’ve uncovered. Sometimes, like an onion, the revelations bring tears to our eyes.

The part of the onion I’m down to is the part where I’m really seeing that you have to give adults what you give to babies: attention, respect, and space to figure things out on their own. One critical element of what Magda taught is often overlooked when we work with adults: time. While many of us wait and watch empathetically and patiently (or at least outwardly so) as an infant works and struggles to roll over, we lose that patience when watching an adult struggle with something new. We step in quickly, explain, show, teach, hover. Arguably, it’s a different task. What children are doing with their movements is developmental and intrinsically motivated. Given time, children will learn to roll over, sit, crawl, stand; and given the opportunity to develop those skills in their own time and way, they will learn to do those things confidently, competently, and gracefully. The Educaring Approach is not always an intrinsic impulse for adults. It’s certainly not a societal impulse, and so it is something that generally has to be taught or explained, but like any new habit or skill, it takes time and practice to fully understand. Magda used to say we underestimate babies and we overestimate toddlers. Well, I think we also overestimate adults. You can’t simply fill someone up with knowledge and expect them to “get it” right away. Particularly when new ideas challenge deeply held beliefs about what babies need.

 In fact, rushing the process in adults can lead to the same problems we see in children who are rushed through their motor development. Think of a child who has been propped into a sitting position. She might be sitting with a rigid back, have little flexibility in her spine, and be unable to reach for dropped toys without losing her precarious balance. She may slump her shoulders, round her back, and hunch over to stabilize herself. She has to wait for someone to help her down, let herself fall over, or perhaps accidentally topple over to one side or another to become mobile again. And then she is dependent on someone else to get her back up into that position when she wants to get up again. That’s not what we want for children, and it’s not what we want for adults learning about RIE (or anything!). We want them both to be flexible, stable, secure, relaxed, and self-confident.

Think of the time it takes an infant to learn to roll over confidently, then to roll back; how long to crawl, to creep, to cruise, to walk, to run . . . and think of all of the tiny, incremental movements and positions they go through, preparing their bodies to be fully mobile. We have to go through all those small movements and motions, too, as we fully internalize new information. And just like some infants are quick studies in their movements and others seem to take their time, the process for adult learning can be quick or very slow. It’s not something that can be rushed. Just as babies have an internal timetable in their gross motor learning, so do we all have an internal mechanism that helps us assimilate new information. Of course, there are always going to be reasons to rush an adult’s understanding of RIE. Grandma’s got to learn fast because she’s only here for a few weeks, Aunt Leslie’s got to get it because she sees my child every day, the new staff person’s got to get it now because we have to get her in the classroom yesterday . . . but you’ve still got to take it slow and temper your information with time. Slowing down and allowing for the information to sink in gradually will not only provide a more peaceful learning environment, but it will also feel more natural for everyone involved.

And not only will it feel more natural, but that ease will translate into the development of the adult’s understanding of this approach. How you treat adults as they learn will influence how they treat children in their care. It’s called “parallel process,” but infant specialist Jeree Pawl puts it best in defining it as “the platinum rule”: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto others” (Parlakian, 2001). Just as an attitude of respect and trust is paramount in your relationships with children, it must also be present in your relationships with adults. Whether working with children or adults, I always keep the following phrase in mind. I learned it from my mother, Polly Cassady, who also works in early education: “If I think you can, you might. If I think you can’t, I’m right.” In other words, people will live up (or down) to your expectations. Having an attitude of real trust will foster confidence.

But it can be hard to feel trust when you are anxious to see someone change their behaviors right away. You can develop trusting feelings by looking for what you see the other person doing “right” or what they are doing out of love or care for a child. When you see that what motivates them is that sense of care for the child, you can use it as your anchor point for trusting that they tend to act in the best interests of the child, and gently share some new information. For example, you might cringe when you see adults dangle keys in front of a clearly unhappy baby, or prop a “bored” baby up to sit, but if you consider that these actions come from a desire we all share, for children to grow into peaceful, competent, authentic individuals, it makes it a little easier to trust that they might be open to hearing about other ways they can help children have long-term happiness, or at least satisfaction.

The last thing I’ll leave you with is to remember that we adults learn through modeling, just as surely as children do. Actions speak louder and more eloquently than words. Many parents come to RIE Parent-Infant Guidance classes because they have seen this work in action in another family. They’ve seen the relationships between parent and child or parent and caregiver, decided that’s what they want for their own relationships with their children, and so they come looking for more information. If you practice this approach with your own child or in your own classroom, the authenticity and joy of your relationships is evident to those around you and people tend to be drawn in.

In fact, that’s the inspiration for this whole article. Remember the student from the Fall Foundations course? Well, that was only part of the story. She was unfortunately so frustrated that she gave up trying to explain herself and trying to change her co‑workers. Instead, she simply focused on her work with the children in her care, “kept her mouth shut,” and before she knew it, she noticed a change in her classroom: more caregivers pausing before swooping up a child, more “conversations” between child and caregiver at the diaper changing table, and more questions for her about this RIE thing. It was a small beginning, but it was a beginning. Her co‑workers were beginning to struggle with understanding Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach for themselves, and she peeled another layer off the onion.


Beatty, T. (Producer and Director), & Stranger, C. (Producer and Director). (1984). Seeing infants with new eyes [DVD]. Available from http://www.rie.org/categories/dvd

Parlakian, R. (2001). Look, listen, and learn: Reflective supervision and relationship-based work. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE.