Introduced to the teachings of infant specialist Magda Gerber as an overwhelmed new mom, I found an alternative way of parenting that gave me the clarity and inspiration I desperately needed (a story I’ve shared in detail in other posts). I eagerly devoured every recommendation of Magda’s RIE approach, which included many aspects I’d been doing “wrong” (like carrying my infant in an upright position). It was a struggle at first to accept what my fragile, new parent ego perceived as criticism.
Soon I realized that practicing each specific bit of advice exactly and exhaustively was not the point. What was crucial was to understand the specifics and how, like pieces in a puzzle, each served to inform the whole and helped to illustrate more completely the heart of the approach. In other words, in my urgent quest to become the perfect mom, it took some time to understand that RIE is not meant to be a set of restrictive rules to be followed dogmatically. Rather, it is an adaptive, holistic way of perceiving, trusting, and demonstrating respect for our children from birth that provides us support, clarity, more joy and success in our journey.
In this guest post, illustrator Elizabeth Blue Currier shares some of her own journey and how her perceptions of RIE parenting have evolved:
I consider myself fortunate in that I have always had a clear sense of the type of parent I wanted to be. My mother Alexandra Curtis Boyer is an Associate and teacher of the RIE method and raised my little sister using the principles. By the time I was ready for my first child, I’d read the books, watched the videos, and spent countless hours discussing respectful parenting practices with family, friends, and like-minded caregivers on social media. Still, like many, I felt oddly unprepared when I actually became a mother.
As my baby progressed through his developmental stages, it always seemed that I would just manage to get a handle on things, gain confidence, and then — without fail — my baby would change, and I’d feel back to square one. Luckily, I was well supported and found that by perusing the books or chatting with my mom, I would eventually have an a-ha moment and regain my confidence so I could show the strength and sure-footedness that I believe our children need from us.
Like many parents, however, I often felt like I was being taught from the outside and wondered if I relied too much on an intellectual, text book approach to my parenting. Yes, the tenets of RIE do come naturally to me, and they make complete sense, but on more than one occasion I felt myself questioning: “Is this RIE?” As an active member of several online parenting groups, I know that many parents often feel the same way, that they are somewhat imprisoned by what they interpret as “rules.” My mom and I have a running joke where we sing (to the tune of Whitney Houston’s It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay): “It’s not RIE, but it’s okay. I’m gonna do it anyway”… This helps us keep things light and in perspective.
Recently, I went through something with my two year old son (‘C’) that was an incredibly powerful realization for me. I am a work-at-home mom, and after scraping together time here and there for two years, I had a personal need to commit more of the day towards my work and career. We decided to search out a home-based childcare for two mornings a week so that I could have eight hours a week to pursue my own projects and work. I won’t go into detail about how we settled on a childcare that was a good fit for our family (we followed suggestions outlined in 1,2,3 The Toddler Years). Suffice to say, it was a difficult process, because I was determined to find a place that at least approximated RIE principles. I ended up feeling that I’d settled for ‘close enough’, a decision that filled me with doubt. Rationally, I knew that it was a safe and nurturing place, so we committed to our decision and faced the difficult work of transition.
It was hard on us all and involved tears and pleading arms. And this is where things changed for me, because I really had to believe I was doing the right thing, for C and for myself. With the loving support of my mother, I was able to see that C’s “not liking it there,” or not wanting to be away from me, was typical and healthy. After all, this was certainly a dramatic change in his world. But because I had been committed to close observation and communication with my child, I also knew instinctually that I could trust him to cope with the transition and ultimately grow from it.
I’m not saying that all my fears were allayed or that my heart didn’t ache during goodbyes. But it became easier every time. During the first week, C would bring up the childcare and weep freely. He would say he did not want to go. Obviously, I paid close attention to this. I would stop whatever I was doing and get close to him and talk to him, making sure not to imply my own feelings or wishes in the questions I asked. I let him release whatever feelings came up so he was assured of my love and trust in him. Through these honest, open moments with C, I began to clearly sense that it wasn’t so much his time at the daycare that upset him, but rather the process of dropping off.
Toward the end of the weekend after his first two mornings at the new childcare, C asked if he was going to his childcare. I told him yes and which day. He gave a little laugh. At the next drop off, we hugged for a long time and took our time getting him settled. I showed him a spot he could sit while I walked off. He whispered, “Bye-bye” and waved from his spot while I left. Later, when I returned to pick him up, I have never seen his face light up like that to see me. I asked him how it was, and he replied cheerfully, “Good!” We walked home chatting about the day and, yes, talking about how we did that goodbye even thought it was hard.
Here’s the thing: this process, this incredible journey we went through together was about me letting go of some control and applying the nitty gritty of RIE parenting, the concepts that facilitate connection, communication, healing, and empowerment. It was also about me acknowledging that I needed to take care of myself. Above all, I had to trust, both myself and my child. So, instead of measuring the childcare facility against my admittedly lofty standards as if it should be another version of home, I was able to let go of the ideal and feel comfortable in my observations and instinct that the environment was safe and nurturing.
Janet expresses it well: “The point of Magda’s approach is to provide the foundation that will best serve our children as they enter the larger world, so that we can continue to let go and trust them in an age-appropriate manner. It isn’t about creating the perfect bubble for them to remain in as they grow.”
Children’s needs change, and our needs change, too. What can be consistent is the whole-family practice of respectful parenting principles: meeting our children and each other exactly where we are at that moment and stopping to listen, acknowledge, and understand. Most importantly, we can nurture our trust in our children’s ability to handle not just day-to-day things like being involved in their own self-care or accomplishing new physical tasks, but bigger picture events like getting to know new environments.
I have spent the first two years of my son’s life watching him grow, observing who he is now, and loving him for that. I’ve been able to change as a person, and certainly as a mother, as we find what works for us as a family. By embracing this philosophy as a fluid practice instead of an inviolate set of rules, parenting now feels incredibly natural as my child grows well beyond the toddler years.
Elizabeth Blue Currier is a freelance illustrator and writer. Her work is inspired by children, parenthood, and the emotional awareness that the RIE approach fosters. She shares a sampling of her work on her website: http://elizabethblueillustrations.com
To learn more about Magda Gerber‘s approach, I recommend her books: Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby, and my compilation: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
I also recommend these websites:
Illustrations are by Elizabeth Blue Currier (with a little help on the title sketch from her son C). Thank you so much, Elizabeth!