I was visiting a RIE parenting class for the very first time, sitting in a corner of the room watching babies freely exploring, unaware that my perception of infants was about to be radically transformed. One of the tiny scientists spotted my car keys on the floor next to me and began scooting towards them. Oops! Quick as a flash I hid them in my pocket (the keys, not the baby).
After my disappearing act, the facilitator, Hari Grebler, gently offered, “You might have said, ‘I see you are interested in my keys, but I am going to put them away in my pocket now. These aren’t safe for you to play with.’”
Hari had suggested a surprising way to intervene with a baby, and for the rest of the class I watched as she walked the walk (crawled the crawl and scooted the scoot). Every interaction she engaged in with these 5-9 month old children was honest, respectful, dignified, which in my view at that time seemed a little too precious, weird and over-the-top.
But it did seem that the infants responded to Hari’s words. If I hadn’t known better, I might have believed they actually understood.
After spending a couple of days digesting this oddly compelling experience, something clicked for me. Babies are real people, so why wouldn’t we treat them that way from the beginning?
The more I observed respectful interactions in subsequent RIE classes and then began practicing them with my three-month old infant, the more “right” this new way felt. Once I understood that babies are whole people ready to be treated with respect — that they in fact need and deserve this message from the time they are born — there was no turning back. Inspired by this vital new knowledge and awareness, I couldn’t help wishing the rest of the world would catch up. But I’m still waiting while most parents are doing the things I once did or might have done, like:
1. Making things disappear: which is a great way to teach babies that the world is even more mysterious and incomprehensible than they’d thought. Seriously, what’s the point of even trying to figure this stuff out?
2. Scooping babies up and swooping them away from unwanted activities: which makes babies feel powerless because life is something that happens to them. They learn that they may be interrupted at any time, so why bother getting involved in any learning activity? (And for babies, everything is a learning activity).
3. Slapping or “flicking” hands or wrists or spanking bottoms: which causes babies to fear, or at best lose trust in their parents, caregivers, and the universe as a whole, because when they are happily exploring as they should, they are suddenly interrupted by discomfort inflicted upon them by the people they need to trust most.
4. Talking to them caveman style or in third person, i.e., “Not for Susie, no hands”: which is confusing, demeaning and makes babies feel like we think they are mindless ninnies, because they’ve been listening to every word we’ve ever uttered and are well aware that we don’t talk to anyone else that way.
No hands? What do you think “no hands” means to a baby? That even confuses me.
5. Calling out their names and then directing their attention to something else (distraction): which discourages awareness, attentiveness and an honest connection with us, teaches children nothing about rules, expectations or boundaries, their environment, or anything except that we are deceptive, far more powerful than they are (which they already knew) and that they should look where we want them to look.
6. Shouting NOOOOO: which is a great way to startle/disturb/excite babies so that they feel compelled to continuously repeat the unwanted action in order to continue this thrilling game or figure out what all the fuss is about.
And yet our best responses are so simple and logical that they will become second nature almost immediately. Let’s say our baby is approaching an unprotected electrical socket:
a. Stay calm – walk or stride rather than run and scream
b. Acknowledge matter-of-factly: “I see you are interested in the socket”
c. Give a boundary: “I’m going to cover it with my hand”
d. Give a brief, respectful explanation: “This isn’t safe for you to touch”
e. Wait patiently for your child to accept the boundary or lose interest while holding the boundary
f. If your child persists (most of the time if you are calm, she won’t), continue to acknowledge: “you really wanted to check that out, but it isn’t safe, so my hand covers it. You’re trying to move my hand, but I’m going to keep it here and keep you safe.” If she cries, you might say, “You didn’t like that. Do you want me to pick you up?” Chances are she is tired or hungry along with wanting to be held.
When we employ these respectful practices our children will:
- Learn our language and about their world
- Be encouraged to continue being curious explorers and active, engaged learners.
- Feel respected and connected to us.
And we will discover how much easier, more effective, rewarding and liberating parenting is when we simply get real with our babies.
I offer a complete guide to respectful interventions with children in
(Photo by dadblunders on Flickr)