About 80 times a day, my toddler wants to do something that could potentially hurt or kill him. That means about 80 times a day I have to set a limit of some kind (“Hold hands with mama while we cross the street,” “I'm going to move this chair so you can't climb on the table and throw glass”), and 80 times a day he gets mad and throws a fit. After learning some things RIE moms do that every mom should try, I figured out how to stay much calmer in those moments, so they're over faster and my son (hopefully) learns that he can deal with disappointment and frustration.
RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers; say “wry”) is an approach to caring for children pioneered by Magda Gerber, who advocated for treating children like the whole, autonomous people they are from birth. It fits in well with a lot of peaceful, authoritative parenting styles, because RIE is about letting kids grow up whole, healthy, and well-adjusted by treating them with patience, empathy, and respect, rather than using shame, misdirection, manipulation, threats, coercion, or force to shape their behavior.
Most parents don't think our actions toward our kids fit that description, but because things like shaming and threatening kids for their behavior (“What is wrong with you?” “Quit whining before I give you something to cry about!”) is incredibly common, it often seems more normal and less destructive than it actually is. Especially for folks who are trying to overcome our own histories with toxic parenting, learning more about RIE and putting respectful parenting into practice can be a life-saver. We could all learn a lot from things RIE moms do, like:
They “Sportscast” What Goes On During Tense Moments
Instead of projecting their own feelings, doubts, or judgments onto kids when they're struggling to solve a problem or having big feelings, RIE moms “sportscast” them by narrating what's happening in neutral terms. Super useful for folks who are trying to overcome a bad hovering habit, or avoid shaming kids.
They Create “Yes” Spaces For Their Kids
Rather than just baby-proofing a space for their kids, RIE moms create “Yes spaces” that are not only safe, but accessible enough for kids to play independently, get things for themselves, and explore without adults telling them “No!” and “Stop!” all the time. It's great for their development, and a total sanity-saver for moms who are sick of hearing “Mom! Mom! MOM!” requests and entertaining their kids all the time.
They Have Developmentally Appropriate Expectations About Sharing
What we call “sharing” often means “give away the thing you're not done playing with to some other kid.” Most babies and toddlers aren't up for that, for a lot of totally legitimate reasons. (We wouldn't put up with that, either.) Also, what often looks like snatching and fussing to us is actually one of the ways very little kids learn to play with each other. RIE moms let babies and toddlers sort out their own issues with toys, and learn important social lessons in the process.
They Let Kids Resolve Their Own Conflicts
We're not always going to be around to solve our kids’ problems, so they have to practice doing it for themselves. RIE moms listen, give support, and keep a watchful eye to make sure no one gets hurt, but they don't swoop in and fix every situation for them.
They Respect Babies’ And Toddlers’ Bodies During Diaper Changes/Potty Training
Instead of referring to babies’ “Stinky!” diapers or interrupting them to yank on their underpants (often exclaiming “peeyoo!” or some other statement about how much the child smells), RIE moms don't make a fuss over full or soiled diapers. They let the child know what's going to happen before and during diaper changes and trips to the potty. Shaming kids over bodily functions isn't respectful, nor is interrupting them or touching/exposing them without warning or the opportunity to consent.
They Respect Boundaries And Consent More Generally From Birth Onward
They Let Kids Play Independently
RIE moms give even babies opportunities to play on their own. (And before anybody has a heart attack, please note that independent play doesn't mean “unsupervised” play.) Independent play builds confidence and self-respect (and teaches kids not to bug their parents all the time to entertain them).
They Take A Shame-Free Approach To Discipline
RIE moms don't shame their kids for having problems. After all, kids are people and like all people, they're imperfect. It's much easier to learn to do the right thing when you don't feel like you’re inherently bad just for being who you are.
Set Limits Without Bribes Or Threats
It is so tempting, especially with toddlers, to bribe or threaten so we can get them to cooperate with us without throwing a tantrum. But most of the time — especially with bribes — the real issue is us trying to dodge their feelings, not the fact that they'll have them. RIE moms recognize the need to get OK with our kids’ expressing negative feelings. They're human; it's only human to be disappointed and upset with what we're saying sometimes, even if the limit we've set is a fair one.
They're Honest With Kids During Tough Moments
Real talk: it sucks to deal with things like getting shots or experiencing death and loss. But lying to kids about things like that just makes their world scarier and less predictable for them, and teaches them they can't trust us when they inevitably find out the truth. RIE moms explain how whatever hard thing works (“Shots are an important part of staying healthy. It might hurt for a little bit,”) and empathize (“but I'm here to help you get through it.”) instead of trying to sugarcoat it.
They Stay Unruffled During Tantrums (Whenever Possible)
Our reactions determine a lot about whether or not our kids will repeat some of their toughest behaviors. If we freak out, that reaction can scare our kids or give them the sense that their outbursts have too much power, causing them to act out more so they can figure out where the boundaries are on their power.
According to RIE leaders like Janet Lansbury, staying “unruffled” in the face of challenging behavior, we convey that we're in control and let our kids know that we plan to keep whatever limits we've put in place.
They Help Kids Deal With Hard Feelings Instead Of Distracting Them
It's uncomfortable to be with people when they're upset or disappointed, especially when they're babies and toddlers and all they can do is scream. But habitually distracting them so they stop crying robs them of opportunities to learn how to actually deal with their feelings and see that they can move through them and come out OK on the other side. Instead, being available to cuddle or help, and talking them through it (“You dropped your ice cream, and now you upset and disappointed”) makes them feel supported, and gives them emotional language they can use to identify their feelings later.