Art & Science: Thoughts about RIE®

art-scienceOnce upon a time, long long ago, in a land not so far away–in a time before banishment–I was a member of a very well known discussion group on facebook that focuses on parenting according to RIE®, a relatively unknown and and simultaneously frequently misunderstood philosophy of respectful caregiving, popularized (such as it is) in the U.S. by Magda Gerber.  Magda brought the philosophy and principles to the U.S., having learned them from Emmi Pikler, a noted pediatrician in Hungary, Magda’s home country.  Magda died in 2007, but the organization she founded is alive and well in Los Angeles, and the principles she espoused are still being taught by certified RIE® Associates.  The Pikler Institute, the “ancestral home” of RIE®, is also still thriving in Hungary, run by Anna Tardos, daughter of its founder, Emmi Pikler.

(You will note that there is a little ® every time I write RIE–that’s because the name is trademarked, such that only people who are certified Associates are authorized to speak on behalf of the organization, teach classes or workshops under the name, or represent the “brand.”  Janet Lansbury is probably the most widely known Associate and proponent of RIE®; she has a huge following and has been at the forefront of spreading the word about Magda’s work through her blog, her podcasts, and her books.  If you haven’t read her work or listened to her podcasts, you should.  Really good stuff.)

I am not an Associate, I have never been an Associate, I do not play an Associate on television or on the internet.  I do not claim any authority whatsoever to speak about the philosophy, I do not speak for the organization, or anyone associated with the organizations.   I am not “authorized” to say what RIE® is or is not.  I can only speak, as a person, about what my experience has been, what I have learned, and the ways in which the work of Pikler and Gerber have inspired my own work for almost 40 years.  And I can address–for myself, not for RIE®–a couple of the biggest sticking points that I hear from people when we start to talk about this stuff.

I met Magda Gerber in the mid 1980’s, when I was the director of an infant-toddler child care center in the S.F. Bay Area, serving as a board member of the local affiliate of an organization of early educators, and heavily involved in helping to write the then-new infant toddler child care regulations for the state of California.   She came up from her home and work in Los Angeles to do a series of workshops–that’s where I first encountered her work.  I heard her talking about Respect (with a capital R).   Everything that she said resonated deeply with me–it reflected what I had always felt and believed, and it echoed all that I had been taught as an undergraduate studying Child Development.  I poured myself into all things RIE®.  It seemed, well, perfect.  And right.  And brilliant.  This pixie of a woman, with her white hair and her Hungarian accent, she had this figured out.  She “got it.”  I wanted that.

In those days, the only way to officially study RIE® further and to move toward becoming an Associate (I don’t think I even knew much about that, nor was anyone really talking about it as a certification at the time) was to study with Magda in Los Angeles (now there are other ways, though the great majority of RIE® Associates and work are still in Southern California.)  My life did not allow me to pick up and move to Los Angeles, so I accepted that that sort of intensive was not going to be possible.  Instead, I did everything I could to soak it in.  I went to multiple workshops–both in the SF Bay Area and in Los Angeles– some of them day long trainings.  I invited Magda to speak at and visit my infant toddler center, which she did–that was a great treat.  Whenever I saw notice of her speaking, I made sure to be there, to “soak it up” as best I could.  I subscribed to the organization’s newsletter, the RIE® bulletin, and pored over the RIE® Manual.  She had not yet written her books.  And most importantly, I carried what felt like the core, the essence of it–respect–with me in my work, and indeed, in every job and role I have held since that time.  My career moved on, I moved to other areas of the country. Los Angeles was never really in the cards, so I learned what I could and I talked and listened (a lot) with people who knew more about it than I.  When I had a child 16 years ago, I was able to see what it looks like as a parent.  I didn’t do it perfectly, “by the book.”  I don’t really know anyone who does.  Which brings me to the main thing I want to talk about.  What might it mean to “do RIE®” perfectly?

See.  That’s the thing.  Magda said it herself:

“It is easy to give advice, but if good advice would work, we would all be perfect. I do not expect you to be perfect. I do not expect you or any other parent to be superhuman. I just hope that the RIE principles will slowly become part of your awareness, your thinking and your actions, and that eventually, when they truly become a part of you, they will serve as your own inner guidelines… Those inner guidelines can gently remind you… to use a little more patience, empathy, and sensitivity next time”.

All these years later, I still think it (and she) is brilliant.  I still think it’s “gold.”  At the same time, I’m not dogmatic–my own experience of Magda was the antithesis of dogmatic.  I disagree with some things that Magda said (gasp) and some things that some of those who carry on her message say.  I think she was wrong about a few things (double gasp).  I wonder if her position might have changed a bit over time.  No one knows, and it’s folly to speculate.  I have disagreed with content–but never with spirit or intent. This thing that she said, that she hoped that the principles would become part of our awareness, our thinking, and our actions, and that they would remind us to use a little more patience, empathy, and sensitivity…this is it.  This is what I took from Magda and her work.  And it is what I carry with me in every interaction with parents, children, and teachers.

And yet, parents–especially parents of young children–want to know what to DO.  I suppose it’s human nature.  We’re stymied, we’re frustrated, we want to do the right thing, we want to do things that will enable us to say that we are “respectful” caregivers.  And so we ask–again, and again–“Is this RIE®?” “What is the RIE® way to do this?”  Or when we think we have it, we stop asking, and we start proclaiming:  “That’s not RIE®.”

The problem–and there is a problem here–is that, in my experience and to my understanding, RIE® is not a list of things to do and not do.  It’s not a “method.”  It’s not a “parenting style.”  It’s not even a “approach.”  It’s a way of seeing babies and toddlers.  It’s like a filter–almost like colored glasses or a picture frame–through which you see very young children as competent, individual, full human beings, deserving of the same level of respect, consent, listening, attention, consideration, and autonomy as we would give to any other person of any age.   The decisions about “what to do” and “what not to do” follow naturally from that perspective.

Did the infant consent to be held by that person or did we just hand them over?  Would we want to be just “handed over” to someone that we don’t know without being asked?  Would we do that to someone else?  “Here.  This person is going to hug you now.”  Would you do that?  Hopefully not.  Would you like it if it happened to you?  Probably not. That’s your clue that it’s not respectful.  If it would not be respectful to do to you, or to your friend, or to your 90 year old mother, then it is not respectful to do to a baby.

Yes.  It’s radical.  Yes.  Infants can indicate consent.  Yes, respect demands consent.  Yes, it sounds extreme.  No more extreme than respect for any other person.

Now apply that to every other situation.  As my friend says, Bang Done.

Of course, I’m being simplistic.  There’s a lot more to it than that.  The whole “natural motor development” guideline, in which children are not put into or helped to get into physical positions or postures that they cannot get into independently.   That one gets dicey.  Doesn’t everyone hold a baby’s hands so they can walk at some point?  (I did.)  Maybe.  Doing that doesn’t make you a bad parent.  You’re not supposed to feel like you failed if you held your child’s hands and walked them.  All you’re supposed to do is think about it.  Really.  That’s it.  Think about it.  Would you want that?  Maybe you would.  Maybe you are healing from a broken leg and you’d love to have someone put their arm around you and help you to walk.  Fair enough.  So then it feels okay to you.  And then you think some more, and you realize it’s not quite the same thing, because you actually have already mastered the motor skill, and the support that you’re getting is because of an injury, something that is out of the realm of ordinary, an aberration.  So as an exception, when physical help is needed to help you do something you can already do…that’s okay?  Maybe.  Does it feel okay to you?  A baby who can’t yet walk–or, as you frequently see, a baby who is nowhere near being able to walk, sometimes they can’t even stand yet–being basically suspended by hands over them as their feet sort of plod or drag or even sort of flail in a relatively uncoordinated fashion that makes it clear that the idea of bearing weight is foreign–that seems somehow different.  That child is in the midst of a natural developmental progression.  They will learn to walk.  And right now, they are doing what they are supposed to be doing at whatever stage they are along the road that will eventually lead to walking.  So maybe it’s because you enjoy it, it makes all the relatives smile, people take pictures.  Fair enough.  Still think about it.  That’s a decision you make–just be clear that it’s for you, not for the baby.  And then ask yourself if you would like someone to help you walk when you have that aforementioned broken leg because they think it’s funny or cute how you walk with help–not to help YOU, but because it makes THEM happy, so they lift you up and walk you around while everyone smiles and laughs and takes pictures.  What do you think now? Still respectful?

It’s not about the doing.  It’s about the understanding and the considering.  It’s more important to think about it than it is to do or or not do it.

And then there is the other big question.  It’s inevitable.  “Where’s the research?”  How do you know this is the right thing, if it’s not proven by research?  If you are an academic or a scientist of any sort, the question is even more specific:  “Where’s the peer reviewed research?”  Because once again, we want to do what the best thing is for our children, and that best thing should be what is proven to be the best thing. Right?

I remember when I was in that RIE® group, way back when, a long long time ago in a land not so far away.  And people would ask that question.  Because they wanted to know. The answers were sometimes harsh, sometimes not so harsh, but they generally implied a relatively defensive sentiment, namely “We don’t care about research.  This isn’t about research. That’s the wrong way to think about it.”

Now way back then in that land not so far away, I thought that was outrageous.  I’m a big fan of research.  And peer-reviewed research at that.  It means a lot to me.  It doesn’t mean everything to me–an important distinction, to be sure–but I don’t like it when it is dismissed out of hand, as if it is intellectual indulgence.  Or maybe I was just angry in general when I was in that land.  That’s definitely possible.

So, anyhoo, I was naturally a bit surprised (not to mention humbled) when, in the group that I now run, someone asked that question, and inside my head, I said “This isn’t about research. It’s not relevant”  Ack.  Now I’m stuck.  Because it’s a valid question, and it’s not a valid question at the same time.

Let me explain.

The thing about research is that, unless you are doing qualitative work, you have to be measuring an outcome.   You do this, and see if that results.  There are definitely some things about parenting and  the infant and toddler years that fit into that paradigm.  All that we know about brain growth in the first three years of life, and the way in which”experience grows the brain” is incredibly useful, as it reminds us of the importance of stimulation and responsiveness.   We can measure that, because we can do brain scans and we can witness growing sophistication of cognitive development and compare it with children who have not received that stimulation.   Everything that we know about attachment–which is a lot–tells us that attachment, which creates a model that influences our relationships throughout life, is largely established in the first twelve months of life, and is quite stable after that time (i.e. it doesn’t easily change at three or six or twelve); and we know that secure attachment arises from responsiveness, so that guides our lives with our infants in the first year of life.  All that we know about the progression of motor control, which is biologically programmed (rolling to scooting to crawling to standing to walking), and the tremendous range in its timing helps us to be confident that motor development will progress, whether we intervene and “help” or whether we sit back and let the child take the lead.  There are so many things that can be easily researched and so much powerful research that can guide our choices, if we so choose.

But that’s where it gets tricky.  If we were to measure the “effectiveness” of RIE® to see whether it really results in the outcomes it aims for, we would have to start with just that question:  What are the outcomes it aims for?  What is the end goal of raising a child using RIE® philosophy?  Like I said, this is where it gets tricky.   The goal of RIE is children and adults who are authentically themselves–people who know themselves and their own minds and capabilities and limits and boundaries and who respect all of those things in others.   The principles say it this way:

Our goal:  An authentic child. 

An authentic child is one who feels secure, autonomous, and competent.

When we help a child to feel secure, feel appreciated, feel that “somebody is deeply, truly interested in me,” by the way we just look, the way we just listen, we influence that child’s whole personality, the way that child sees life.


Measuring whether someone is authentically themselves is not really a methodology that works within current research models, especially ones headed for peer reviewed publications.  It begins to drift over into something more esoteric, perhaps more metaphysical, something likely observable, but reliant on intuition and largely dependent on the observer’s knowledge of and relationship to the subject.  This is not the sort of thing that lends itself to a “study”.  However–and this is important–as parents, we know.  We know when our children are being their full selves, their authentic selves.  We  know when they are guarded, or overly anxious, or risk averse, or confident.  We know whether they venture out, make friends, show initiative, have intrinsic motivation.  We know if they feel like they can do anything, if they take chances, if they show empathy and respect for others.   These are things that are hard to measure–but when you observe and know and love a child for years, you know.   It’s not a great research model, but then parenting is an art, not a science, and art doesn’t lend itself very well to systematic research either.  Parenting is about love, and responsiveness, and connection, and empathy, and self-control, and letting go.  These are not particularly good research topics, any of them.
So, we have to go on what we can see and what we know.  We know that in Hungary, where this philosophy began, hundreds of children (ah!  I smell a sample size!) grew up in the Loczy orphanage with caregivers using these principles.  We know that those children were then adopted by families.  And we know that, around Budapest, it was always said that “the Pikler children could be picked out in the playgrounds of Budapest because of their exceptional poise and confidence.”  And we know that those of us–the many of us now–who have also practiced RIE® as parents (myself included) would say exactly the same thing about how our children, many of them now grown, are perceived.  They stand out, people recognize something different in them. Confidence, maturity, independence (and interdependence), empathy, respect, self-control, and often physical agility and comfort in their bodies.   This is anecdotal data, often not persuasive to those who revere traditional research models.   We who have done this for years know that children respond to respect better than they respond to anything else. It’s hard to measure.  But we know.  If you’ve tried it, you know, too.   Respect is more powerful than love.  It’s not quantifiable, but it’s true.  As Magda Gerber reminded us:

“Many awful things have been done in the name of love, but nothing awful can be done in the name of respect.”

At its heart, for me, RIE® is about respect and trust.  Trust in ourselves to know our children deeply, so we can “hear” their communications, long before they can talk. Trust in our children to follow their own path at their own speed and in their own way.  Respect for the uniqueness of every child, enough respect not to interfere with their own process and development–they don’t need our help with that, just our full presence.So, when people want to know where the peer reviewed research is that says that natural gross motor development–not putting children in positions they cannot get into independently, maximum freedom of movement at all possible times, respecting that motor development proceeds at an individual pace that will lead to milestones on their own timetables, not ours or the ones in the books or assessments, that tummy time is unnecessary–is “the best thing to do”, all I can say is…there is none.  Or maybe there is.  It doesn’t really matter.  I’m not concerned with whether this philosophy that I embrace is “the best.”  There are many very good and loving ways to raise and regard children.  One does not have to be “better” than others.  It’s not a race, it’s a choice.

This loving and respecting and observing is an art.  Agile, confident children who know their own limits, who take risks but not unreasonable risks, and who move in the world with certainty and confidence, children who are joys to be around. This is what I want.  This is what I see people getting through these methods.  This is what I have gotten from using it.

The only way you will know is by taking a leap into trust and then observing.  Step back.  Wait.  Learn who they are. Watch them grow into their authentic selves–people separate from us.  If anything, parenting is about letting go, about opening ourselves to all that our children are, about embracing that we have both everything and nothing to do with it.

It’s an art.  You’re watching a masterpiece take shape.  Sit back and serve as a witness to its creation.

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