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What Is RIE Parenting, Exactly?

From celebrity endorsements to an infamous Vanity Fair article, you may have heard bits and pieces about the RIE method. Here, Dr. Nanika Coor shares a more comprehensive run-down of this respectful parenting approach—from where it started and what it is, to the pros, cons and how to tell if it's right for your family.

Written By
Dr. Nanika Coor
Illustration
Ola Niepsuj

The most common parenting problem I encounter in my practice is the conflict that occurs when parents are rushing to get a child ready in the morning. Imagine that it’s time to get your 14-month-old dressed for the day, and they resist at every turn. Running away, hiding, throwing, and squirming you as you wrestle their socks on. They laugh hysterically at your growing anger and finally you snap. You slam a hard toy to the ground yelling about how difficult they’re being, resulting in an intense toddler meltdown. In the end you feel frustrated, overwhelmed, helpless and guilty.  When parent clients wonder how to skillfully respond in these situations, I tell them about the RIE® approach to parenting.

Developed by infant development specialist and parent/caregiver educator Magda Gerber in 1978, RIE® (pronounced “wry”) stands for Resources for Infant Educarers - a set of principles and practices guiding parents and professional caregivers in the education and care of infants and young toddlers. RIE® is a way of seeing, relating to and being with children that prioritizes parental acceptance, empathy, patience and sensitivity. Parents are invited to relax, slow down, observe and admire who their child already is rather than try to mold the infant into something else. Providing tools that help parents experience more confidence in the parent-child relationship, the foundational principle of RIE® is respect for the infant as a unique and competent human being. As such, the RIE® parent demonstrates respect in every interaction with the infant.

RIE® takes the stance that most baby-related devices are unnecessary at best, and at worst, can hinder the development of qualities most parents want for their kids like competency, confidence, persistence, curiosity, self-initiation, and focus. RIE® helps parents begin to let go of the idea that they must constantly be in ‘teaching’ mode or their infant will not develop motor skills quickly enough or well enough. Instead, parents learn to live and let live with a child who is permitted to move their bodies and experience their feelings in their own time and in their own way. By practicing the RIE® approach, parents learn to better recognize and meet both their infant’s needs and their own needs as well.

Want to start using RIE®? Here are some ideas to get you started.

Infuse respect into your interactions with your baby.

A good place to start is with simply slowing down and waiting. Adult brains process and use information much faster than baby brains are capable of doing. When adults rush babies and toddlers through transitions, directives and caregiving activities, the baby can become overwhelmed and behave in challenging ways. This sometimes results in parents behaving in challenging ways too. Try counting to 10 in your head before expecting a child to comply with your request. Allow yourself the time to go more slowly during diaper changes, baths and feeding times. Enlist the infant’s help, let them know that you plan to do something with their body before you do it, wait a beat for them to process that it is about to happen, and only then proceed. This might sound like: “I’m going to fasten your diaper now, will you bring your legs up? Thanks. Okay all done. I’m going to pick you up now...Ready…? Here we go!”

Trust that your baby is competent

Trust that when your baby is ready to learn something new they will self-initiate to learn it. You provide an enriching, just-stimulating-enough environment and your baby will discover and explore their own capabilities. Help your baby only enough for them to enjoy the experience of their own mastery. Try not to rush to intervene when you notice them struggling, give them the opportunity to figure it out on their own unless they seem unduly distressed.  Trust that your baby will meet motor development milestones because they are driven to, not because of tummy time, or propping them up to sit or putting them in a walker or “walking” them up and down the stairs. Try as much as possible to allow for free movement, and unless it is a caregiving activity or a matter of safety, avoid putting infants in positions that they are unable to get into or out of on their own.

Get to know the unique characteristics and interests of your baby

Close observation of your baby helps you understand what needs the baby is communicating to you through their behaviors. As a sensitive observer, you’ll notice how much your baby is learning and enjoying all the time and realize how little you need to actively teach or entertain them. When your child is playing on their own, take some time to just sit and watch them without interrupting what they are doing. What is the baby drawn to? How do they make their own fun? How do they like to move their bodies? What do they choose to do on their own when no adult is suggesting they look here or there or play with something like this or like that?

Invite your baby to be an active participant in caregiving activities

Use the many caregiving tasks you do in a day (diapering, feeding, bathing, dressing, etc) as opportunities for deep connection that fill your baby’s emotional cup. Proceed slowly and respectfully through these activities, giving the baby 100% of your attention.  Ask the baby to help - can they lift their legs? Hold the wipes or the cream? Decide which foot gets a sock first? When you’ve ‘filled their cup’ in this way, they are ready to explore their world on their own again, allowing parents to have a bit of time to recharge.

Create a “Yes Space” in your home

Prioritize the creation of a safe and predictable but also challenging environment in your home where your child is free to safely explore without being repeatedly thwarted by hearing your “No!” This leaves you free to step out of limit-setting mode and peacefully observe them at play or take a brief parenting break. So that babies can exercise their inborn need to move, as they get older, try to make available to the baby places to crawl over/under/on top of things and pull, crawl or practice stepping up and down stairs.

Build in regular uninterrupted free play and exploration time

Encourage independent play right from the start. Allow even the youngest babies some time on their own, lying on their back, with something interesting to look at nearby like a soft toy, birds in the sky or shadows of trees on a sunlit wall. Let your baby know that you’ll be back in a couple of minutes and leave them to it for 2-5 minutes (this is great for bathroom breaks), and extend the time as they get older. When playing with your child, let them lead the play. Resist the urge to teach them new skills or direct them to use toys the ‘right’ way during their play. Instead, delight in what they are already doing!

Clearly define and communicate your expectations

When it comes to discipline for babies and very young children, make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate. A 9-month-old who whacks grandma on the face with a block in a moment of overwhelm doesn’t have the brain development to understand that that hurts grandma’s body or that hitting is socially unacceptable. It is therefore inappropriate to punish a baby for hitting. It is appropriate however, if you see a hit coming, to block the baby from making contact and saying firmly and clearly, “I won’t let you hit. Hitting hurts.” Use the fewest and simplest words you can. Allow your infant or toddler to express all of their feelings about your limits and boundaries for as long and as strong as they need to without dismissing, distracting, stopping or punishing the child. Take the stance that all feelings are okay, but not all behaviors.

Some pros and cons of becoming a RIE® parent

The Cons

RIE® parenting can feel much easier than traditional parenting because it fosters the kind of deep relational connection that motivates children to cooperate, cutting down on family conflict. On the other hand, internalizing the principles and practices requires self-reflection, intentionality, and mindfulness. This is not an auto-pilot parenting style, and might require some parents to develop more robust self-regulation skills. Parents who were raised in a more authoritarian, “power-over” environment may find RIE®’s “power-with” reliance on collaboration quite challenging. Partners or family members unfamiliar with RIE® may not agree with control- and coercion-free parenting. RIE® parents may have to develop a thick skin that can handle the defensiveness that can arise in other adults who perceive your parenting style as a negative judgement about theirs.

The Pros

Trust is far less work than fear, and a connected relationship will feel better to both parent and child than a conflictual one. Additionally, a trusting parent experiences and projects less anxiety and more confidence than a fearful one. The warmth and compassion that you show to your infant comes back to you in authentic ways, because you are teaching them, through the modeling of attuned and empathetic caregiving, what it looks and feels like to be warm and compassionate toward you. A commitment to the sensitive observation of your child means you don’t have to wait until a child starts talking to get to know them as a person. The autonomy and independent play skills you are fostering means you are not tasked with entertaining your baby. Using RIE® practices in your parenting is also mutually beneficial in that everyone’s needs matter - the parent’s as well as the baby’s. Where boundaries and limits are concerned, RIE® takes neither an overly permissive nor overly harsh view, but strikes a balance between allowing an infant to have a great deal of freedom and setting clear, firm expectations so that a child begins to learn the rules of conduct in your family.

Is RIE® right for your family?

Ultimately, there is no child who cannot benefit from being treated with the same respect and consideration you would give to another adult. However, few of us were raised this way or have a frame of reference for a relationship where a child’s social-emotional needs are as much of a priority as their physical, biological, and educational needs. Still, if you are a parent who wants to parent in a different way than you were parented, and you are open to trying something different, RIE® is a great place to start. If you want to increase your confidence as a parent, understand how to better connect with your child, set firmer boundaries and increase cooperation in your child, or learn to better respect your own needs, the principles and practices RIE® are a potential way forward.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a Brooklyn, New York based clinical psychologist, respectful parenting consultant, and mindful parenting activist helping cycle-breaking parents who don't want their childhood history to become their parenting destiny.

Learn more about her work at BrooklynParentTherapy.com.