When Janet Lansbury’s eldest child was three months old, she had no idea what to do with her all day.
“I knew the basic things, but I didn’t know what the rest of her day should look like,” the parent educator and author tells Global News.
Shortly after, the Los Angles-based mom was introduced to Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) and their method of parenting, or RIE parenting. A philosophy first introduced by RIE founder Magda Gerber in the U.S. in the ’70s, Huffpost reports, it focuses on becoming observant of your child’s behaviour and essentially giving them respect to be themselves.
Lansbury says it even dates back into the ’40s with Gerber’s mentor Emmi Pikler.
“Pikler was known for having a very thriving practice and her ideas were based on natural development and perceiving a child as a person from the time they are born and trusting that person to develop at their own rate.”
Now, there are some misconceptions into RIE parenting and it is also difficult to capture exactly what this parenting style should look like. Lansbury, who has been using this method for 25 years, says the biggest misconception is when people state RIE parenting is treating babies like adults.
“What we say is babies and newborns deserve the respect we give adults — of course, we can’t possibly treat them like adults, they are not going to understand,” she says. “We treat them like an infant.”
This could mean speaking to your child in an adult tone (and not baby-talk) or not using high-chairs (the RIE theory suggests child-sized furniture instead).
After Lansbury first started using the RIE method, she says she was able to “see” her child for the very first time. She recalls once observing her for two hours.
“She had her own thoughts, her own self was there, and it was just me and her… it was the first time I saw she was a whole person on her own.”
Breaking down RIE: toys
In 2014, Vanity Fair wrote an in-depth feature on the parenting alternative, adding that RIE followers didn’t use sippy cups, baby carriers, walkers and bouncers. There was also a focus on toys.
“Rattles are an adult idea: you pick up something, and it makes noise. Why does it make noise? Because some adult put something into something,” Gerber wrote. “The pacifier is a plug… it does stop a child from crying, but the question is, ‘Does an infant have a right to cry?'”
Lansbury says while RIE doesn’t believe in banning all toys, she says some are better for a child’s development than others. For example, simple things you can find in your kitchen like a stainless steel bowl or cup is a lot more effective in teaching a child how to react to noise, while a toy that simply tells them to push a button isn’t doing anything.
RIE even has its own toy guide, and adds, “Infant toys should be simple and baby-activated instead of battery-activated.”
Criticisms of the method
While Lansbury says the parenting method has made some parents seem “outlandish,” others like Tracy Cassels of Evolutionary Parent don’t fully agree with the idea of giving a child “forced independence” since birth.
“I will be honest that this issue seems to be one of interpretation as I don’t believe anyone who truly follows RIE believes in things like letting kids cry it out or ignoring their needs,” she wrote on her site.
“The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discussion surrounding how parents can properly read the signals sent by their children and many parents want to have independent babies. Telling them that their child is actually yearning for less contact and attention is not the message we should send.”
Others like Dr. Laura Markham even had a healthy debate with Lansbury in 2011, adding that some of Gerber’s methods and views may not be applicable for parenting in the age of technology. She also didn’t agree with her views on leaving a child to cry by themselves.
“Gerber says that if a baby’s needs have been taken care of, she should be allowed to express her feelings through crying. I agree completely. But she thinks the baby should be left alone to do that crying, which I think is barbaric. Babies don’t want to be left alone to cry, and we know that because it sends their body into a stage of emergency, with their cortisol levels through the roof. Of course, babies are allowed to have and express their feelings as Gerber says, but they need us with them or they get the message that they are all alone with those big feelings.”
And while it isn’t a parenting style for everyone, and frankly one that someone can master in a short period of time, Lansbury says the biggest takeaway from RIE is learning how to not interrupt your child — something she argues any parent can do.
“This is based on thousands of hours of observing children naturally and what we’ve noticed is that they have a long attention span.”
She says if a child is laying down and you’re trying to entertain them with a toy, they often wander off in another direction. Instead of bringing them back to whatever you have in your hand, let them wander off.
“When we interrupt them, we are teaching them not to focus deeply on something.”