3 RIE Parenting Basics

In this episode: Janet responds to a frequent reader request to introduce and summarize the RIE parenting approach. She begins in this podcast by discussing the first 3 basics she shared in her article “RIE Parenting Basics – 9 Ways To Put Respect Into Action” (janetlansbury.com/2013/12/rie-pare…ect-into-action/). She will eventually cover them all in future episodes of Unruffled.

Transcript of “3 RIE Parenting Basics”Janet Lansbury:

Hi. This is Janet Lansbury, and welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I’m going to be responding to several of you who have asked for a summary of the respectful parenting approach, also called the RIE approach, because this approach is definitely derived from Magda Gerber’s nonprofit organization R-I-E, RIE. And I thought that was a really good idea —  just something to share with a spouse or a friend or anyone who might want to know a little about this approach summed up. It is sort of hard to sum up, because it is a holistic approach that is not just about: Do these things. Do this, that, and the other and you’re doing this. It’s really about a way of perceiving our role, a way of perceiving children and babies.

With all that in mind, I’m going to share.

Before I begin, I just want to remind everyone that my books are available on Audible.com and also Amazon in paperback, and eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com. That’s Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

I’m going to be using my article “9 RIE Parenting Basics (Putting Respect Into Action)” as an outline for talking about this today, and in that article I write, “RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies.” Yes. It’s an awareness of our babies. It’s perceiving them as whole people right from the beginning, not after a certain period of time, not just when they’re walking and talking and it’s easier to see them as people, but actually realizing that it’s even more important that we take care to welcome these beings as whole people from the beginning and are able to engage with them in a person-to-person relationship, which we can only do if they’re a person. We’re going to understand that they have a perspective. They have their own unique perspective. They have their own individual way of seeing, of feeling, of engaging with their world. So we’re trying to take that into account as much as possible.

Now, the wonderful thing about the guidelines that RIE offers is that they are all about drawing us into that understanding that we really are dealing with a person here. So if we are kind of almost there, but we’re not quite getting it, just following these practices will draw us to that, because we are engaging with our baby as a separate person. By doing so, we will see: Oh, my gosh, this is a separate person. This is somebody with their own thoughts and their own feelings that are different than mine, and I really can’t make assumptions about this person. I want to get to know this person, and that becomes our role as parents, to really facilitate development rather than trying to direct it in some way.

The guidelines that I’m going to be talking about are, again, from my article, and these are not RIE’s principles. I’ll let you go to magdagerber.org or rie.org, R-I-E dot org, to read about Magda’s principles. These are my own interpretation, and they’re certainly based on Magda’s principles.

The first one: “We communicate authentically. We speak in our authentic voices, though a bit more slowly with babies and toddlers, but we use real words, and we talk about real things, especially things that directly pertain to our babies and that are happening now.” This encourages babies to build communication skills, because we ask them questions. “Are you ready for me to pick you up right now?” That lets them know that we’re opening the door to engaging with us. We want them to share their point of view, and we afford them plenty of time to respond, because we know that it takes some time to take in our words, and we always acknowledge their communication.

One of the criticisms that people have around this is, “Well, babies can’t understand those words.” Well, that’s true. If we don’t ever say the words, babies can’t understand them. Babies can only learn what they’ve been exposed to, but why wouldn’t we expose them to words that we want them to learn, rather than waiting? They learn these things much more quickly when they’re hearing them.

Why do we suggest speaking in our authentic voices when research shows that parentese is what babies respond to? Studies show that, well, sort of indicate that this is what babies want. More higher-pitched voices, exaggerated, and maybe using simpler baby forms of words. But the interesting thing about this research is, well, first of all, there’s never been research that has compared this parentese approach with an actual RIE parent approach, which involves a lot more language than most anyone would ever speak to a baby. We are talking about all these real things that are going on right now and letting our baby know what’s happening moment to moment with their bodies and what we’re doing with them, what we’re doing together, noticing what their attention is drawn to and commenting on that. So when a baby is staring at something and then we see that they’re gazing at something and then they turn to us and sort of look at us, and then we might say, “I was watching you. You were looking at that picture on the wall.”

All of this dialogue is so much more than what I would have spoken to a baby, and what I think most of us in this society do. So there’s never been a study that has compared that to the parentese approach. Another thing about parentese is, yes, it’s an attention-getter. When you’re hearing that sound, when someone’s talking in that very distinct, exaggerated manner, it’s going to get your attention, especially if you’re a baby and you’re so… all your senses are so much more alive, and you’re picking all these things up, you can easily get overstimulated. If somebody’s talking to you that way for a period of time, it can be too much.

For that reason, it makes sense that babies turn their heads when they hear that, in the studies. But that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way. The best way is the way that babies hear us talking to other people, in a normal voice. And then, suddenly, we’re talking to them. This is another reason I think babies like this, because when parents talk like that, babies know: They’re talking to me. This is the way they always talk to me, so this is exciting. I’m engaging, here I am.

But what isn’t measured there is what happens when a parent really engages in an authentic way, eye to eye:, “I see what you’re doing, and I’m interested in you, and I’m going to let you know when I’m doing things with you.” That is, I think, more engaging, certainly more humanizing, and will keep us reminded that we’re in a relationship, and will cause us to want to talk a lot more to our baby, because we are with a person. We’re not with somebody that we ignore a lot of the time until we want to talk to you, and then we do the parentese voice. So for me, I mean, obviously everybody doesn’t agree with this, but for me, this is preferable for all those reasons and that it’s not going to overstimulate babies. They’re still going to know we’re talking to them. They’re going to learn so much from it and from us, and they feel, and we feel, that respect. We feel that we are talking to a person, and that makes it easier to want to talk a lot.

Moving on, the second guideline that I share in my article: “We invite babies to actively participate in caregiving activities like diapering, bathing, meals, and bedtime rituals, and give them our full attention during these activities. This inclusion and focused attention nurtures our parent-child relationship, providing children the sense of security they need to be able to separate and engage in self-directed play.” This is an important point because there’s so much wonderful talk about play, and I write a lot and share a lot about self-directed play, and independent play, and how this is creative, how it’s therapeutic for children. It serves all these wonderful purposes for them, and it’s the best way for them to spend the majority of their day. But what I don’t always mention along with that is, what is the framework for that? The framework that works for that is that these babies need to be filled up with our… children of any age, actually, need to be filled up with our relationship, filled with our attention and nurturing, and have that in place before they’re able to do something without us, or follow their own direction and not be needing from us.

This wonderful framework that Magda offered, Magda Gerber offered, is using these activities that are geared towards intimacy, changing diapers, feeding, bathing, helping you get to bed, helping you get a lovely sleep. These are natural times to give full attention, and important times to do that, because we want babies to be aware of when people are touching their bodies, and what’s going on with them, and these, anyway, are natural moments to be fully engaged and connected, and to invite babies to do what they can do, which, in the beginning, is starting to understand, as we say, “Here’s the washcloth. I’m going to put this on your back, and yes, it’s warm. I put warm water on it, and I’m wiping your back with it,” so they’re able to first participate by being included verbally in what’s going on.

Then we gradually draw them in to helping, “Can you lift your bottom a little while I slide this diaper under? That looks like you almost did that a little bit. Okay, I’m going to lift you a tiny bit more, and I’m going to put this under there.” Going through all the steps with them, inviting them to participate. This builds self-confidence in both of us, actually. It bonds us, and it makes it possible for babies to separate from us so we can go do something during the day. We can go to the bathroom, we can go in the kitchen, and they can be playing, doing activities of their own.

A lot of people will criticize, “Well, how is it possible to pay attention to your baby when you’re breastfeeding, and you have to do this so many times a day, and sometimes it feels like it’s almost nonstop.” Well, we do our best, but I believe it’s important to try, because a baby that’s only getting half of our attention is never really filled up with it. So it’s not just about the food in those times together. It’s about nurturing you with our relationship, nurturing you mind to mind, heart to heart. That’s what really fills babies up. So maybe they don’t even need to breastfeed as often, because they have really connected with this while they’re doing it.

We’re not always going to be perfect in the beginning, especially with feedings, but I think it’s important to understand that that’s a priority and to really work towards that. If you have lots of children, it’s not always going to work out, but I would still let that older child know, “I know you want to be with me. This is my time with your sister right now, and after this, I will be able to be with you again.” Setting aside that time is a priority. It teaches both children something about our comfort with giving you attention, and giving you all of my attention, and even if that doesn’t please the other one in the moment, that’s okay. It’s really important. I care about our relationship.

One more, number three here: “We encourage uninterrupted self-directed play by offering even the youngest infants free play opportunities, sensitively observing, so as not to needlessly interrupt, and trusting that our child’s play choices are enough. Perfect, actually.”

A play choice for an infant is the direction they’re looking in, and instead of interrupting that, “Oh, hi, sweetie,” which we might want to do, “I want to see you right now…” Not that we’re never going to do that, but really understanding that, Hey, she’s doing something right now. He’s doing something that important to him in that moment. If he was looking for me, he’d be doing that. Young infants can really do this. They’re not just out in la-la land. They’re really present, and they know that they need us, and if they want us, they’re very good at letting us know.

That’s how it begins, being sensitive in our observation of our child. Again, it goes back to honoring their point of view, seeing that they have a perspective, and that what they care about matters, and when we do this, we really do see a person there. But sometimes, it could start out by, Okay, we’re going to try to respect this person, and then we actually notice at some point, Wow, she’s doing surprising things. I really do see that this is a person now. It might go that way, and that’s fine.

That’s the beauty of these guidelines. They almost force us into respect and really understanding that that person is there, and that’s where the joy in parenting comes, honestly. The joy of this, I mean, the reason most of us are doing this is because most of us had children because we want to have a relationship with somebody. We want to have a wonderful relationship to enrich our life all the way through, and that only happens when we know that’s another person. What the RIE guidelines do is, they help us to get there right away, or at least sooner.

I hope that helps. Obviously, I wasn’t able to give a complete summary, see, I told you it was hard! But you can always take a look at my article, “9 RIE Parenting Basics,” and I’ll be revisiting and covering the rest of these guidelines in future podcasts. Tune in, and in the meantime, you might want to check out some of my other podcasts. They’re on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher, and again, both of my books are available on audio at Audible.com, and in paperback at Amazon, and eBook at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and apple.com. I also recommend Magda Gerber’s books,Your Self–Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Highly recommended, particularly for what I’m talking about in this podcast.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.


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

  1. Great article, very helpful but what does ‘RIE’ stand for?

    1. Thanks, Carly! It stands for Resources for Infant Educarers, the non-profit organization Magda Gerber founded in 1972.

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