Parenting is hard. Really hard. The good news is that there are a seemingly infinite number of parenting methods and styles out there looking to provide stressed out moms and dads with helpful advice. But the bad news is it can sometimes be hard to figure out what’s actually going to work. Is RIE parenting for us? Should you co-sleep à la Attachment Parenting? Or is it better to leave your baby in her crib to cry it out?
When my twins were infants, I stumbled upon RIE parenting, and it sounded pretty intriguing. RIE, short for Resources for Infant Educaters, is a parenting philosophy (and Los Angeles-based non-profit organization) originally founded by infant-development expert Magda Gerber. RIE methods are generally based on the idea that infants and children should be treated like fully-formed people, and that caregivers should focus on respect, validation, and calm yet firm limit-setting. RIE followers are encouraged to keep from intervening too much or directing their child’s play (a RIE parent is definitely not a helicopter parent!), and baby talk is also a no-no. Although RIE isn’t technically new, it’s become pretty popular in recent years, with celeb parents like Tobey Maguire, Penelope Cruz, Felicity Huffman, and Hank Azaria singing its praises.
At first, when my kids were still tiny and barely even rolling over, incorporating RIE tactics was pretty easy. I don’t really like baby talk anyway, and, having spent many years in therapy, I’m big on feelings and empathy. But now that those babies are rambunctious, demanding toddlers? Being a chill, respectful RIE mama has become a challenge — so much so that it fell off my radar long ago (to be replaced by my current parenting philosophy: “just make it to the end of the day without losing your damn mind”).
But after finding myself struggling to deal with yet another twin tantrum meltdown, I wondered if perhaps I’d given up on RIE too soon. Were my little people revolting against me due to my lack of respect for them? Were they frustrated that I wasn’t confidently setting firm limits (truth be told, I don’t often feel confident in my parenting skills now that the terrible twos have arrived). While I was kind of skeptical that RIE held the answers to all my mom problems, I was also desperate enough to try pretty much anything, so I went full RIE for seven days, and was anxious to see what would happen.
The First Test
We started out our experiment by going to the park. The RIE approach encourages natural gross motor development — or, in the context of a 2 year old on the playground, not hovering behind them in case they fall. I’m generally not that paranoid when it comes to bumps and tumbles, so I knew this wouldn’t be too difficult a task for me, but according to RIE principles, I’d also have to figure out how to keep my mouth shut. Instead of hollering out, “be careful!” or, “get down from there!”, I’d need to remember to trust my children, to follow their lead, to let them figure it out. And instead of swooping in to save my precious babies from a potential fall? I’d need to guide them, giving them the option to save themselves.
It certainly helped my cause that my son is a great climber, but I’ll admit it was tougher than expected to just stand and watch him, pretending that I wasn’t having a mini heart attack. In my head, I could see him falling head-first, ending up with a black eye or stitches. But I held my tongue, determined to try to let him figure it out.
At one point, after climbing halfway up a particularly difficult piece of playground equipment, my son shouted, “help, Mama!” As much as I wanted to pick him up and place him safely on the ground, I tried my best to channel my inner RIE expert, asking myself, what would Janet Lansbury do?
“Hmm, it looks like you’d like some help,” I said, faking a calm, unruffled voice. “I wonder if it might help to bring your foot up?” He paused for a minute, and then slowly moved his foot onto the next rung. And with that newfound stability, he was able to make his way all the way up with surprising ease.
RIE: 1, Mom Paranoia: 0.
We’re All Adults Here … Kinda
Our next RIE-influenced challenge? Getting the kids to quit feeding the dog.
Our dog, Penny, is a much-loved family member (and particularly adored by our little people), but she also happens to be the perfect height for both toddler food stealing, and toddler food throwing. Up until now, we’ve dealt with this with the very un-RIE method of, uh, yelling at the dog. And while it’s worked in the short-term, we didn’t anticipate that we were also teaching the kids how to yell at the dog. “No, Penny!” my son would shout when she came near him while he was eating, or “Penny, go away!” Oops?
I was acutely aware that I had completely screwed this one up, but when I looked at it from a RIE perspective, I also saw how it could be fixed. By assuming that my twins were fully aware, capable human beings who weren’t throwing food because they were jerks or because they didn’t know any better, I could see that, actually, I just hadn’t given them a clear enough boundary. Since RIE tends to be big on communicating and letting kids know what to expect, I gave it a shot at lunch time.
“We’re going to have lunch now, but your food is not for throwing and it’s not to give to Penny. If you throw it, you are telling me you’re done, and I’ll take it away.” I was pretty certain this speech would achieve basically nothing, but I tried it anyway. We sat at the table and I waited for one of them to throw something to the dog, but surprisingly, it didn’t happen. In fact, when he saw the dog heading for the table, my son said, “no give it to Penny!”. Well, OK then!
A few minutes later, my daughter piped up and announced she was done eating. She’d barely touched her food, which bothered me. My mom brain started listing off all the reasons why I didn’t want her to leave the table — I’d taken the time to make something healthy; I don’t want her to think it’s OK to waste food; if she got up to go play, her brother would want to get up too and he was still eating nicely — but then I remembered the RIE perspective that food should never be a battleground. I can control what I serve them, and where we eat it (and what the rules at the table are, such as, uh, no feeding the dog), but being respectful of my children would mean letting them decide when they were finished. Trying to build healthy relationships with food is an important parenting goal of mine, so I put my gripes aside.
“OK. Thanks for letting me know you’re done,” I said, trying to hold in my own annoyance. “I’ll take your food away now.”
In the back of my mind, I was scolding myself. Why are you letting them run the show? They need to be disciplined! You are their mother!! But in my heart I think I knew that RIE had it right. I’d asked them to sit at the table and eat until they were finished, and I asked them not to throw their food or feed the dog — they’d done both of those things. As much as I wanted them to eat more of their lunch, forcing them to do so when they didn’t want to eat would be unfair (I know I’d be pretty pissed if someone tried to make me finish a meal I didn’t actually want). It began to dawn on me that maybe the value of RIE was not going to be found in always saying the right things or following the rules to the letter, but in thinking a little differently than I had before, and challenging some of the notions we have about what we should expect from our kids. Why is it so important to us that they eat what we tell them, anyway?
Would A Spoonful Of RIE Make The Medicine Go Down?
OK, so maybe the RIE approach worked on little things like park-hovering and food-throwing (things which, I’ll admit, weren’t exactly a huge problem for us to begin with), but could it help with the things that were never easy, the daily battle royales of life with toddlers? I figured it was time to truly put RIE to the test, and so I picked a doozy: giving my kid really bad tasting medicine.
My son has been taking antibiotics for a throat infection, and getting him to take it has been a two-person job: one of us holds him down while the other squirts a syringe into his mouth. Granted, this is not at all how I wanted to do it, but he needs to take it, and what kid voluntarily agrees to take their medicine? Not to mention that both the doctor and the pharmacist warned me that this stuff tastes really bad. So in all honesty, I don’t really blame him for losing his mind.
Since holding your kid down and forcing antibiotics down his throat is decidedly un-RIE, I decided to make my approach a little more respectful. I hadn’t found any specific advice relating to giving medication, so I tried to cobble together a strategy where I’d let him know that it was time for his medication, I’d agree to let him finish whatever he was doing (RIE experts advocate the view that, while a child’s play might look insignificant to us, it is actually incredibly important and meaningful to them, and expecting a child to just drop what they’re doing and listen to you is unfair), I would be calm, confident, and firm, and hopefully he’d comply.
“NO MAMA! NO MEDICINE!” he shouted and ran away to hide in the corner.
“Reid, it’s time. I’m going to help you. It might taste bad, but it’s only for a little bit, and then it will be over.”
“NOOOO MAAAAMMMAAAA,” he wailed, throwing himself onto the ground in full tantrum mode.
I remembered reading about the importance of validating feelings, and “sportscasting” — commenting on the child’s emotions without judging them for it. I tried it. “You don’t want to take your medicine,” I said, in my best this isn’t bothering me voice. “You are upset.”
I felt a little silly doing this. I imagined him thinking, uh, yeah, mom, obviously! But I was desperate to make something that at least looked like RIE work. “It’s OK to be upset, but it is time to take your medicine now.” He only cried harder, trying to throw things and hit me and screaming, “I want Daddy!” I knew I was supposed to be patient, understanding, a confident leader, but after about five minutes of listening to him scream, I gave up and stuck the syringe in his mouth while he cried. “I’m sorry Reid, but this is not negotiable,” I told him, feeling guilty but knowing, at least, that I got it in him.
I’m sure an RIE expert would have handled this much differently, and I don’t doubt that there are many instances where RIE methods would have prevented this battle. But I also know that I just wanted to him to take his medication already. You win some, you lose some?
The Final Test
My final big RIE test occurred with nursery school drop-off. No matter how much my husband and I try to make school sound super fun (and to be fair, it really is super fun), every morning, the twins cry and cling to me when I leave them. Surely a little RIE wisdom could help me here?
After listening to Janet Lansbury’s podcast, “How To Say Goodbye To Your Child At School,” it became pretty clear what I’d been doing wrong. I’d been trying so hard to keep my children from being upset about my leaving, when the RIE approach says that it’s entirely understandable and acceptable for kids to be upset. And what’s more, trying to hype up the experience in hopes that they’ll magically be fine with being left on their own usually just ends up reinforcing their own fears. Instead of trying to avoid the tears or ignore the worries, Janet’s recommendation is that parents should remain confident in the knowledge that they’ve made the right choice sending their children to school, and not to be intimidated by their children’s natural, totally normal, feelings. By letting them be sad (but then also being confident in your ability to leave, knowing they’ll be OK) RIE experts believe we let our children know both that they don’t have to worry, and that all of their feelings are acceptable.
In the car on the way to school the next morning, I calmly told the twins what they could expect from drop-off: we’d go inside, hang up their backpacks and change their shoes, and then Mama would leave them to play and come back when school is over. They still shed a few tears when the time came for me to say goodbye, but within a few minutes, they had shaken it off and found something else to occupy their curiosity. It was the easiest drop-off we’d had so far.
When I returned at the end of the school day to pick them up, my daughter ran up to me with a big smile on her face. “Mama! You came back! Just like you said!”
We piled into the car after leaving the school, and chatted about their day. I was dying to test the RIE waters, so I asked them if they both wanted to go back to school tomorrow. “Yes! And you’ll leave and then come back, right?”
Who knew that all I had to do to ease their separation anxiety was tell them that I’d be coming back? All this time, I’d thought they were somehow still too small to understand the idea, that it would be best to distract them or to tell them how great school would be and how they had nothing to worry about. But I guess, in their 2-year-old minds, they really did have something to worry about, and it wasn’t helping to have their fears dismissed completely by mom. This was one strategy I was definitely going to be using more.
Did RIE Work?
Before this experiment, I’d more or less decided that, while RIE was a pretty cool idea for infants, it probably wasn’t going to be all that helpful now that my kids were older and starting to be really challenging. I worried about adhering to a style that discouraged discipline, because what if that meant that my kids would turn into brats? And while I liked the idea of a parenting style based on respect, I wasn’t entirely sure twin 2 year olds would understand what I was expecting from them and respond accordingly.
RIE isn’t meant to be a magic solution to parenting woes, though, and it’s not even meant to keep children from testing or acting out. It’s just a way of encouraging parents to be more aware of the way they act and lead their children, remembering all the while that they’re people with their own needs. Trying to incorporate an RIE approach showed me that, most of the time, I just needed to be clearer about my expectations, setting firm boundaries that gave them some options while still allowing me to be in control. I didn’t need to be meaner or louder, I just needed to be confident.
I’ll never be the perfect RIE parent, and even during these past seven days I know I made a lot of mistakes. But there were also many eye-opening moments, and more opportunities to remind myself that all of these challenging moments are just the reality of having 2 year olds. I won’t be an RIE expert anytime soon, but I definitely think I’ll incorporate a little more RIE into my toolbox of parenting strategies.
And on days when those strategies fail, I’ll reach for my other favorite tool: the wine bottle opener.
Images Courtesy of Alana Romain (4), Giphy (1)