As a fan of Janet’s work and her website, this is a reader comment I come across occasionally: “Oh, great! Another article that makes me feel like a bad parent.”
Well, not this article. Nope. This article wants to assure you that nothing Janet writes about respectful parenting is designed to intimidate or humiliate, but only to inform, educate, and to offer readers a shot at a parenting experience beyond their dreams. The wise-guy in me wonders, “If you feel like a bad parent, then why don’t you consider the material and take some contrary action?”
Becoming a parent is relatively simple, but parenting is an art. The RIE principles are simple, too, but they must be practiced like an art, in good times and bad, from one situation to the next. Trust in our kids and consistent messages are key. As practice becomes habit, and habit becomes second nature, we are encouraged by small insights and sometimes revelations. The payoff is overwhelming.
If your take-away from Janet’s work is “I’m a bad parent,” you’re missing the point. By most definitions, you are likely a very decent parent who does the very best you can, at the moment, in any given situation. I suspect you know that. I also suspect that you may attempt from time to time to follow a suggestion – like allowing your baby to struggle a bit in her apparent quest to find her thumb – but if it doesn’t work immediately, you decide either a) your baby is particularly fussy; b) you’re too kind a person to allow your baby to experience or express the slightest discomfort when a pacifier or a run in the Sweetpeace Soothing swing would do the trick; or, perhaps, c) you’re just a bad parent. ‘C’ is a cop-out.
This parenting thing is no cakewalk, and it’s particularly confounding if you’re making it up as you go along. When we’re having difficulties, most of us are open to advice. In fact, we are desperate for it – if it works. Unfortunately, respectful parenting doesn’t include quick tricks, tips, or magic pills. It is truly holistic and means first challenging our inherent perception of infants as helpless, then applying a new perspective to our daily interactions. It’s a process, and results don’t always manifest overnight, but for the parent, this process is enlightening, rewarding, and ultimately life-changing. We view our children differently, so we treat them differently, and therefore our relationship changes in the moment and forever.
When the principles of RIE are considered with a willing and open mind and applied with patience, love, and consistency (as opposed to “I tried that, it didn’t work!”), small successes eventually lead to major triumphs, and everything we thought we knew goes out the window. I know this from experience. Our very intuition actually transforms, and when this happens – whenever it happens – everything about parenting and our relationship with our children changes. Yes, there is plenty of frustration and confusion along the way – one step forward, two steps back — but the only way we fail is if we quit.
Here are some thoughts I’ve tried to keep in mind on my personal journey:
Relax. Your baby is competent, cognizant, and capable. Your primary duties are to feed, bath, clothe, love, and keep her safe. Understand that even if she is just lying on the floor staring at her hand or the sky, she is busy. She is developing both physically and mentally. By simply observing and being present, allowing your baby to move freely, imagine, discern, and make her own decisions, you are deeply involved in good parenting.
Keep an open mind. 20 years ago much of RIE’s parenting philosophy clashed with my instincts. I wanted to get busy – participate, manipulate, and fix any little problem I perceived my child might be experiencing. I assumed that was my job. But I kept an open mind, deciding to try a few of Janet’s suggestions and see if they worked. It took patience and not a little self-control to sit on my hands, but gradually I came to understand and appreciate the value of observation. I learned the difference between helpless and dependent, and I was amazed by how truly capable my child was (and would become). Something clicked, and by doing less, I felt like a good parent.
Be consistent. Janet is constantly reminding us that infants and toddlers respond to consistency, and that they absolutely love ritual. Knowing what to expect has a calming effect because children feel involved and in control. This applies to diaper changes, bed time, meals, dressing, and just about any part of their day. We are advised to do things with our infants and toddlers, not to them (what a concept). I found that one by-product of this consistency is cooperation. The other is a foundation for a trusting relationship that flourishes into lifelong friendship, a privilege enjoyed by good parents.
Be confident. For once in our lives, we are completely in charge, and we need to remember this at all times. As a parent, I found that my children’s antennae for self-doubt and weakness are particularly sensitive, and it makes them uncomfortable. So approach this parenting thing with confidence, and assume you’ll make mistakes along the way. Yes, even super good parents are allowed to make mistakes. In fact, when we do make a mistake, it’s a perfect opportunity to strengthen our relationship by admitting it, apologizing if necessary, then carrying on like a good parent.
Don’t blink. This may be a sub-category of consistency. Obviously, boundaries are important, but for a lot of us, they are difficult to establish and defend. Some parents decide early on that they have a strong-willed child, and they give up. That is the worst excuse imaginable for throwing in the good-parent towel. As long as a toddler thinks there’s a chink in your armor, she will hammer on that weakness until it gives. And every time we give up, it’s a signal that we are not in control, which strengthens that resistance muscle and makes us feel like bad parents. On the other hand, if we can remain calm and (somewhat) loving while receiving the business end of a nuclear tantrum, it will inevitably pass – sometimes quite suddenly – and it is likely to be less intense and considerably shorter the next time. Good parents have had this experience.
My octogenarian guru once said to me, “When you get to be my age, if you have any regrets, I promise you that one of them will not be that you spent too much time with your kids.” I feel the same way about parenting with RIE principles – no regrets. As a student/practitioner for over two decades, I’ve had some experience and picked up ample anecdotal information. I also know a lot of former RIE kids – now confident, secure, accomplished young adults – and many more parents who adhered as best they could to Magda and Janet’s advice. I have never heard anyone, parent or child, lament this path that he or she took.
Janet’s constant focus is to present RIE in the clearest, most accessible terms possible and foster positive, helpful dialogue. The goal is that all parents can experience the adventure in more intimate, satisfying, and enjoyable ways. Even really bad parents.
To learn more about RIE parenting, check out these resources:
Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber
The RIE Manual
Pikler Bulletin #14 by Dr. Emmi Pikler
Janet’s books: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (both available on Audio)
Janet’s posts, especially RIE Parenting Basics – 9 Ways to Put Respect Into Action, Magda Gerber’s Gift to Grown-Ups and 9 Parenting Words to Live By
(Photo by Patricia Mellin on Flickr)