Yesterday’s 21st Annual RIE Conference proved a stimulating day of presentations by keynote speaker Sir Richard Bowlby, RIE Associates, and parents who have benefitted from RIE’s Educaring approach to child care, including a political scientist / foreign policy expert (Nina Hachigian) and a neuroscientist (Dr. Antonio Rangel). It was an exhilarating event, and I was once again invigorated by RIE’s hopeful message. But I was also left with more evidence of a disappointing truth — the Emmi Pikler / Magda Gerber approach to infants, their perception of babies as interesting people worthy of our respect is still the rare exception in the field of infant care. Will the world ever open its eyes to honor the infant as a person?
Sir Richard Bowlby lectured on Attachment Theory, which was founded by his father, psychoanalyst John Bowlby, and presents a view of infant care supported by the RIE principles. Clinical psychologist and RIE Associate Johanna Herwitz attested to the similarities in a subsequent lecture comparing the two theories. But Bowlby’s vision of the parent/ infant relationship is in some ways different to RIE’s, which led to a brief, spirited debate.
Bowlby spoke passionately about the importance of infants forming bonds with secondary attachment figures when entering child care. He presented video examples of 12 month-old infants in the famous “strange situation” experiment invented by John Bowlby’s student/colleague Mary Ainsworth to observe the quality of attachment between mother and child. (The child is playing in an unfamiliar room with his mother when a female ‘stranger’ enters and sits near him. The mother then leaves the room for several seconds and returns. The infant’s reactions both while the mother’s away and when she returns demonstrate the quality of their bond.)
Bowlby shared another especially dramatic video of an infant, first relaxed and engaged in the company of his mother, and then left in the arms of a pretty young caregiver who was a stranger to the baby. The baby doesn’t cry, but his body language and the chillingly vacant look in his eyes give the appearance that he is ‘shutting down’, disassociating.
The message was clear: parents must not only form responsive, healthy attachments with their babies, but also take great care to comfortably transition a baby into the care of another. Bowlby shared his deep dismay that young children are left in this “terror state” for hours in daycare, or even days if they are in a situation like hospitalization where parental visitation is limited.
Differences in Bowlby’s view of infants were revealed when he discussed the “father’s role in healthy attachment”, which is to provide “excitement and exploration”. He provided a video example: a father tickling a child, then prancing around while carrying an infant in a bread basket, and finally pushing the infant down a slide which sent her rolling and falling. The father seemed to be having a jolly time, but…this is infant exploration?
When RIE Associate Elizabeth Memel asked Bowlby why a father stimulating a baby into an excited state was considered part of forming secure attachment, Bowlby replied, “Because it feels good.” I imagined Magda Gerber asking, “To whom?”
It is so easy to cross the line from stimulation that satisfies babies into domination, and so easy to overlook the simple and delightful things babies do on their own.
Yes, it is difficult to know how to connect with a young baby at first. But if we open our minds, take a leap of faith, find trust and a bit of patience, we discover the joy of engaging with infants in a more receptive, responsive way. We can join with our babies on more equal terms by allowing them to initiate play with us, letting them lead rather than follow. It brings a quieter, but no less potent form of joy, and it empowers our infants to be active participants in our relationship, a relationship that will be the model for the intimate bonds they have in the future. The is where the RIE Approach often seems unique, and why RIE babies (and parents) are so fortunate.
Imagine you are not only provided with food, warmth, rest, cuddles and comfort by your attachment figures, but that you are also observed with interest, even pride as you discover your body and explore your world in your own way and time. You don’t have to perform or smile. You are engaging in and of yourself. You don’t have to be tickled or otherwise provoked to laughter for daddy or mommy to find ecstasy in your company. And when you do laugh, it is rich, full and genuine. But you don’t have to do anything. You are enough. Just being near you and watching what you might choose to do fills your parents with pleasure and gratitude. Just imagine the level of self-confidence this instills, the comfort with every aspect of self.
“Laughter should come from the soul and be a sign of happiness, contentment and joy.” –Magda Gerber