When I was about to become a mama, I (wrongly) assumed that “parenting” would come naturally to me. I would have laughed if you’d told me I would one day pick up a parenting book. Never in a million years.
But my daughter’s behavior sometimes bewildered me, and before I went looking for answers on Google, I decided to read a book on RIE parenting which came recommended by a great Youtube channel I highly recommend called The Mellow Mama.
The book, called Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect opened my eyes to techniques I had never heard of or considered because they were outside of the status quo, but they appealed to my no-fuss nature.
I found that I quite liked learning about different parenting techniques so that I could pick and choose which ones I wanted to practice—thus, part of the reason I started this blog: to organize all the information I was consuming and to make it available to as many mamas as possible.
Today I will be introducing you to RIE parenting (pronounced rye). I do not consider myself a “RIE parent,” but I have tried many of the ideas of this method to great success for both myself and my daughter.
So go grab your coffee and read about this respectful, gentle parenting approach.
The basics of RIE parenting
Origins of the RIE parenting approach
RIE is actually a nonprofit organization based out of Los Angeles. It was cofounded by Thomas Forrest and Magda Gerber in 1978.
Magda Gerber developed the RIE approach from her experience at the Pikler Institute, an orphanage in Hungary, in the 1930s. The institute was named for its founder, Emmi Pikler, a pediatrician.
Pikler began by raising her own daughter in her parenting philosophy, and then expanded to studying the infants of wealthy families in Budapest. Eventually she became the director of the orphanage, where she oversaw the development of many more children.
What was different about this institution? Dr. Pikler applied her method of natural, respectful, unobtrusive parenting to the orphans. Without their parents able to be present, Dr. Pikler wanted to observe what would happen if the babies were allowed to develop naturally on their own, but still while under the care and observation of Dr. Pikler and her colleagues. One of her colleagues was Magda Gerber, who synthesized Dr. Pikler’s ideas in a method she dubbed RIE.
Definition of the RIE parenting method
RIE stands for Resources for Infant Educarers. Yes, it’s a mouthful, so we usually just say “rye.”
While RIE is technically a membership organization that provides resources and training for parents and caretakers of children, we usually use this term when describing Magda Gerber’s parenting philosophy.
The overriding principle of RIE, as I have come to understand it, is respect for the infant. (R for respect makes this easier for me to remember!)
The respect is shown in two main ways:
We respect the child as a rational human being whose needs are valid, and
We respect the natural development of the child.
But what does all that mean, exactly? Let’s examine the basic principles.
Basic principles of the RIE parenting method
Magda Gerber also coined the words “Educarer” and “Educaring” to talk about her philosophy.
Here, I would like to insert a passage from her book, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect:
A parent’s role is to provide a secure and predictable environment. You do have to be sensitive to your infant’s changing needs; the infant has to feel your caring presence. But you don’t have to teach. You don’t have to buy more gadgets. You and your infant can just exist and enjoy each other as your relationship develops. […] It is difficult to believe that one can be a better parent by sitting and watching. Yet, our motto is, “Observe more, do less.”
Pgs xv-xvi (emphasis mine)
I love her simple, sensible approach!
But how can you apply the principles of RIE parenting in your daily interactions with your children?
How to use RIE parenting
As Magda said in the quote above, you don’t need to purchase anything special to use the RIE parenting approach. You don’t even need any expensive coaching. You just need to consciously apply the following basics.
Observe your child
I am starting to sound like a broken record here on MCS! The only way you can objectively get to know your child is through quiet observation.
I learn so much about C by simply watching her: how she moves, how she plays, what emotional states come up in any given situation. It gives me time to respond rather than react, because I have a better idea of what is going on in her head.
Isn’t that what we all want as parents—to truly understand our children, to have that deep connection? In fact, a deep connection is the most basic need of all of us, young and old. Your relationship with your child starts with your objective observation from birth.
Secure the environment
Magda Gerber believes in free play and unfettered exploration for children in their environment. She recommends completely “baby-proofing” your home, in order to give your infant the freedom to be able to move around without you having to shout “No!” 85 times a day, and without relying on restrictive devices such as baby carriers, playpens, or bouncers.
If you are unable or unwilling to baby-proof your entire house, I highly recommend baby-proofing at least one area, perhaps a room, or even two. We modified our living room slightly, and I completely baby-proofed C’s room.
The basic premise of a secure environment is to maximize the child’s natural development of motor skills. However, we felt a compromise was best in our family. I had more peace of mind (and didn’t have to say “no”) when C was in her playpen or observing me from her high chair. Just my two cents!
Involve your child
Magda Gerber believes in involving your child as much as possible in caregiving activities. This is achieved by respecting your child as an individual capable of one day caring for himself.
Take a look at the below caregiving activities. Instead of doing these TO your child, do them WITH him.
Diapering – Talk your baby through the whole process, even if you think he doesn’t understand. Trust me, he is listening and paying attention, and he will soon grasp the concepts involved. Use eye contact, smile, and maybe use this time for extra cuddles.
Feeding – Let your baby watch you prepare his food (I used to let C push the buttons on the microwave, and now I let her watch me as I wash and chop vegetables). Let your baby explore his food by touching it with his hands if he wants. Let him hold utensils. Explain what you are feeding to him and where it comes from.
Bathing – Take your time! Make bathing the relaxing experience it can be. Let your baby adjust to the water. Lead him through washing and drying all the parts of the body.
Dressing – You can involve your infant in his choice of clothing. Ask your baby to hold out this arm or that leg to dress. Dressing can also be a clue to upcoming activities: explain that you are putting on a coat and shoes, for example, before leaving the house for a walk.
When caring for a baby, the first main thing to do is simply to talk him through these activities. As your child grows, give him something to do for each activity that is appropriate for his development.
Your child will become an active participant rather than a passive one. Caregiving activities take on infinitely more meaning when you seek a connection with your child as you are performing them, and you are also setting the stage for his future self-sufficiency.
Trust your child
Trust is inherent to the RIE parenting method because of its natural basis for respect. Magda Gerber says:
We have basic trust in the infant to be an initiator, to be an explorer eager to learn what he is ready for. Because of this trust, we provide the infant with only enough help necessary to allow the child to enjoy mastery of her own actions.
Another way I like to practice trust is by assuming that C, now 2, will conduct herself in accordance with behaviors we as her parents have taught her are acceptable, rather than the opposite. If I went about life always poised to “catch” her in the act of misbehaving, instead of simply trusting that her moral compass would point her in the right direction, I would be doing both of us a disservice.
RIE is certainly compatible with conscious parenting, which, simply put, is the practice of using awareness to raise and teach your children the skills and morals they need to flourish. In this way, using RIE is a type of conscious parenting.
French parenting is not a “method” per se, but it is a sociocultural phenomenon, such as other countries or regions are likely to have their own parenting preferences.
A lot of “French” wisdom feels like common sense. I’ve gotten letters from readers describing the overlaps between French parenting and Montessori, or the teachings of a Hungarian-born woman named Magda Gerber.
Of course, she is referring to RIE parenting! I completely agree that some of these parenting techniques seem like common sense… and certainly before you become a parent. When you are faced with a situation with your child, sometimes you revert to, well, nonsensical tactics.
I liked reading about RIE directly from Magda Gerber because it allowed me to make sense of certain situations wherein I could allow myself to apply my own common sense instead of the status quo, which unfortunately doesn’t always follow common sense. Why not? That’s a blog post for another day.
A respectful vision for parenting today
I have given you a very broad overview of what RIE parenting entails. I am looking forward to going more in detail for future posts!
The main thing to remember is to bring more RESPECT into your interactions with your children. If it helps you to think of Aretha Franklin, then by all means, hum away!
Respect that your children will naturally develop all the tools they need for their environment without you having to “do” anything. You don’t have to distract or coddle them, but simply observe them and guide them.
I hope I have given you a sense of how free and uncomplicated this method is. I want to leave you with one more quote that I feel really touches the heart of RIE parenting:
Pikler babies are brought up under natural conditions. They each develop without interference at his or her own rate. No one worries about the date of the “milestones.” No one places them in a sitting position before they are ready to sit up by themselves. No one tries to teach them to stand or walk. No rattles or other objects are put in their hand. Not even a pacifier is put in the mouth. Are they abandoned? Neglected? Ignored? By no means. Their daily lives provide plenty of natural stimulation to keep them interested. Well-selected objects are available to the infants to climb on, to look at, to touch and manipulate. And there is ample space—space in which to move freely and explore. But the infant makes the choices of how to move and how to play. At Loczy the babies have freedom to “do their own thing” in a carefully structured environment. […] Dr. Pikler believed (and it has been reinforced by research) that infants […] derive security from permanency, constancy and anticipation: time to sleep, time to eat, time to be outside, to explore inside.
For further reading, I would recommend you check out these posts:
Do you see similarities with other parenting approaches? Do you see any cons to this method? If the RIE parenting approach resonates with you, please let me know in the comments below what you are drawn to in particular!
Jessica is an American expat living the dream in Normandy. She is wife to a French hubby and mama to a Franco-American daughter, born in 2018, and one whippet. Passionate about all stages of writing, this Francophile created her blog in 2020 to help others navigate motherhood with a focus on conscious parenting and bilingual parenting. Bonne lecture !
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