Magda Gerber – Memories Of A Mentor

Magda Gerber dazzled me. Growing up in Los Angeles acting and modeling, I’d met plenty of celebrities in film, music and politics, but none gave me the thrill Magda Gerber did.

A petite “pixy”, as Laura Huxley describes her in the video “Seeing Infants With New Eyes”, Magda radiated big, bold and bright.  She was in her eighties when I met her and still sat cross-legged on a pillow on the floor during her Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) parent/infant classes, serving bananas and juice with great care and dignity… to babies. 

I once read that the people we think of as charismatic are those who listen to us intently – as if we alone exist.   Magda was an intent listener, but what mesmerized was her authenticity. She hadn’t an insincere bone in her body and saw beyond any pretense in others, too. She never smiled to please, only from within. She was the real deal — brilliant, eloquent and not one to back down from controversy. In fact, she seemed to delight in debate (and would usually have the final word).

I hung on Magda’s every syllable in her RIE I theory class and followed her around to her speaking engagements like a groupie.  She enlightened me, and for once in my life I knew without a doubt that I was in the right place at the right time, hearing exactly what I needed to hear. I didn’t know then what Magda’s lessons would mean for my life, or what I would do with them, but I was certain this was the education for me.

I imagined that this was the same conviction the talented actors whom I’d always envied had about their chosen profession — still riding ups and downs in their careers, but never doubting they were on track. Their shoes fit.  I seemed always to be squeezing into mine.

While I was working as Magda’s class assistant (the second level of RIE training), my father died suddenly and tragically. Shocked and grieving, I felt for weeks as if my world had cracked open, poured me out, and I was floating, transcending the earthly dimensions of time and space.

After class each week, Magda was there for me — my weekly therapist. She was the wise leader I deeply admired, and also the attentive grandmother I’d never had. Perceptive, non-judgmental, empathetic but never pitying, Magda cradled my broken heart with a gentleness that I will never forget.

I have never stopped being in awe of Magda, and I channel her often.  When I’m writing, asked a difficult question, or having a problem with my children, I try to imagine, “What would Magda say?”  And I’m grateful, beyond grateful for her guidance and wisdom, and more so every day. But what I treasure most are memories of Magda’s friendship, the times we spent just squeezing hands and giggling together, sharing a secret joke, so secret that half the time I didn’t even know what we were laughing about. Magda probably did.    Magda me cropped

Magda Gerber, RIE Founding Director, died at her home in Silverlake, California on April 27, 2007. She leaves behind a legacy of respect for infants which her students and colleagues will carry forth in her memory.

November 1st was Magda’s birthday. (She didn’t share her age.)

To learn more about Magda Gerber’s teachings, 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

My books: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame 



My posts, especially Magda Gerber’s Gift to Grown-Ups and 9 Parenting Words to Live By

Do you have a mentor? Did you know Magda Gerber? If so, please share your stories and memories.


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Sounds like a brilliant, fabulous, enchanting woman. Wish she was MY mom.

    1. Yes, Magda was special to many. So glad I got to know her.

  2. Janet- This is beautiful! The photo of you and Magda speaks a thousand words. Looking at it got me choked up. The relationship you shared is completely evident. Thank you for sharing Magda Gerber’s legacy with us. I love reading your blog. Every entry adds to my love for RIE. Your work is a blessing. Thank you.

    1. Nikki, WOW! Thank you so much for your kind words.

  3. avatar Bence Gerber says:

    Janet, thank you for expressing so beautifully, some of the reasons why I am the luckiest man in the world. Thank you even more for sharing my mother’s wisdom and ideas and keeping them alive. bence

    1. Thank you, Bence. Sharing your mother’s wisdom is my goal and my pleasure!

  4. I did not know Magda. And I’m not sure I have a mentor – yet. But I have an excellent prospect. Sadly, she lives awfully far away, though.

    1. Amber, far away is not so bad these days, I’ve noticed. What does she do?

  5. I really appreciate you sharing your experiences with Magda. What a wonderful opportunity you got experience! I wish I could have met her. I think the things she taught the world are invaluable!

  6. What an extraordinary woman she must have been. I have no doubt she would be honoured by your ackowledgements of her work, and your commitment to continuing it.

  7. What a great read for me this morning! Thank you for this space to say some memories I have of Magda.

    I was a young 20 year old just finishing the BA program at CalState Long Beach in child and family. I worked at Isabel Patterson CDC and loved the philosophy and skills taught for working with the verbal preschool human. I got chosen to train at RIE when the center was about to open their infant toddler program. I too didn’t know at the time, but that winter in 1984 with Magda and her team was life defining.

    I was a quiet student and Magda would often take me aside to ask how I felt about the philosophy. I think she thought I was contrary but I let her know I was just really “slow to warm up” to anything new. It seems I couldn’t even talk about what I was feeling and processing, but we still communicated via Magda’s skills.

    I remember tea being brewed and served and the smell of the tea in the small comfy space. I remember Magda’s husband coming to join our circle and Magda’s way with him. As we learned about the nonverbal human we got to see her physically work with her husband on redirecting him if he spoke out in non english, or how she got him to put more clothes. He was welcome to be with the group but she also modeled this unique limit setting that was different from anything I had ever seen before. It was RIE being used with the very old human.

    My ears were hearing the lessons of RIE for the youngest of humans but my eyes were fixed on Magda’s actions with her husband. I never got to see Magda work with infants live (only thru video) but I did get to see her magic and I couldn’t take my eyes off their interactions. I didn’t know then how important those lessons were going to be for me and my life’s work.

    The nonverbal human comes in all different forms and the RIE philosophy has been my foundation. I am so glad I was so young and so quiet then to take all that in~I was in my infant stage of learning about humans and Magda came right down to my level.

    I wished I got to do all the RIE trainings but Magda did come to Santa Cruz and I did get to visit with her. The Magda on tour was much different than in that tiny cozy center at RIE. She had people surrounding her with protection and access to her was difficult. She was our Superstar and we would wait for that magic moment to join with her. I’m not sure she remembered me as I had changed and no longer in the same place of learning.

    I morphed with my new skills and new position in the world. I was no longer quiet and still inside, I was so busy and autonomous and so seeming sure of myself and what I knew about the human (clearly only in my toddlerhood).

    Now at 50 I source Magda more than ever. I have a nonverbal autistic son and I can only hope my way with him is as magical as Magda modeled for me. I have a fight inside that defends and teaches and insists on respect for all humans.

    I went into medically fragile infant fostercare and got to be that mini Magda in spirit to heal that insulted child. My job was to grow a baby they told me, but really it was teach new humans to bond (ok attach~those two words I change up like creep and crawl). Some children I had for a very long time and we were a closely bonded pair. The RIE/Pikler skills are wonderful tools knowing a child will transition to a new primary caregiver via reunification or adoption.

    I adopted all I could and now mother 3 special needs humans and transitioned out of fostering. Sometimes I need a Tshirt that says “Sorry Magda” as I cannot live up to all that is RIE. Getting the brain injured human to learn is different and I often wish Magda were here to help me again. I too seem to be able to channel her and quiet down to understand what I am not seeing at first glance.

  8. I LOVE the picture of you and Magda. It exudes the love you had. I always felt your passionate devotion to Magda’s message in your classes.

  9. Janet, thank you for generously sharing a gift with the world that was meant especially for you.

    1. Oh, Vicki, thank you for such a beautiful comment. Feeling teary… and so grateful for fellow educators like you. I deeply appreciate your support!

  10. It’s amazing reading stories about Magda. Or Mama as I was lucky to call her. My stepmother is her daughter Daisy, one of Bence’s sisters. Hi Bence! lol I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with her as I would have liked to but I treasured every moment. She made it fun to do things I hated just because she was part of it. I am so glad her legacy lives on in folks like you. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for this heartfelt birthday message for Magda Gerber. Because of you I have come to appreciate her deep understanding of children and what is best for them to develop.

    As you say, the highest level of leadership and humanism is empathy and respect. This, in turn, makes for an avid listener and observer. These are such worthy traits. You were very fortunate to have been in the presence of such a gracious person

    I want to learn more and more about RIE as a result of finding you and Magda Gerber.

  12. She was my mentor too. I had the privilege of her coming to my last center, the Irvine CDC, for some private training, and I took RIE I with her at her home/the RIE center in Pasadena with other staff from ICDC. I have also attended several workshops and conferences led by her–even took a group of CDC teachers to Pasadena in 1998 to see her. One of us, ended up staying and doing an internship there. Magda has influenced my view of infant/toddler care, and respectful relationships in general, more than any other person. Thank you Madga. Happy birthday. I love you.

  13. I never had the pleasure of meeting Magda Gerber, nor had I even heard about her. That was until i began following the writings of Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury Gerber. And through them, I was introduced to Magda Gerber, her wisdom, and RIE.

    Thank you, Janet and Lisa for allowing me a window into the RIE approach and it has cemented my belief that infants and toddlers are capable of so much, and are deserving of our respect and our understanding that these precious children will develop, mature, and grow, in their own time, at their own pace, with our support, encouragement, and through a deep connection with us.

    My apologies, if I sound all over the place. As some of you may know, I suffer from ADHD and sometimes writing even a short note can sound very scattered and if I do sound that way, my apologies.

    1. Dear Veronica, you don’t seem scattered at all! It is such a pleasure to finally “meet” the person behind one of my favorite pages, “I Am A Human Being Too”! Your support and kind words are a gift, and I know Lisa would agree. Thank you for all you do!

  14. This post helps me understand why it is when I read your writing, as well as Magda’s, I have this sense the information is like a spiritual teaching from beyond- you channel her wisdom. The writing is simple, but the message profound. Thank you to both of you for your gifts of teachings to us mothers (and fathers).

    1. Awww, Lisa, thank you for your lovely message! <3

  15. Janet, your words are heartfelt and extremely touching. Magda sounds like truly one of a kind and a wonderful mentor. Your love for her comes across clearly, I’m sure she’d be deeply honoured. I love the shoe analogy- I’m squeezing into mine at the moment but working on a finding a pair with a better fit!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Abigail! Keep an open mind and heart and I’m sure the “shoes” and you will find each other!

  16. avatar Kat Beaulieu says:

    Thank you Janet for sharing such an intimate experience. I have been following your blog for sometime now ~ I studied a bit of Magda’s work when taking my ECE degree. What you write about RIE resonates with me a great deal. I have worked with preschool age in the past and it’s just this year that I started working with Toddler’s ~ 20 months to 21/2 years. Your blog has helped me immensely. So thank you again ~ thank you for your wisdom and continuing Magda Gerber’s work.

  17. avatar Christine Ellsworth says:

    I wonder , are you was the girl that Magda Gerber was so proud to say she was ” mentoring ” while I was at a seminar in Colorado In 1991. The young pretty women had straight hair ( thinking brown) , about to her shoulders , small in stature and drove a small van. After the seminar I and my co workers from Florida were invited to go to dinner . So many years ago and I still remember Magda made me me feel important as she spoke! Her conversation was ingaging and fun. If felt like she enjoyed being one of the girls!

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