Many people subscribe to the RIE theory of raising children espoused most famously by Magda Gerber, currently popularized by individuals like Janet Lansbury. Standing for “Resources for Infant Educarers”, RIE is a philosophy that focuses on respect of a child as an independent person that we must observe in order to gain our own awareness of them. I don’t know enough about the entire theory to do a huge overview and I imagine the amount of time it would take to truly get this level of knowledge is (a) far more than I have and (b) isn’t where I want to spend my time. However, what I do know is likely the same as any parent who decides to go looking into it without immersing oneself completely so, arguably, it speaks to how an average person would interpret RIE given the articles freely available. Luckily, there are some good summaries from Janet Lansbury on the philosophies and rationale behind some of the techniques that have allowed me to gain this insight into RIE to allow for a bit of a discussion on it here.
In many ways there are good overlaps with evolutionary and attachment parenting such as respect for the child and looking to your child for cues and clues as to what s/he is trying to communicate. Like any type of respectful parenting, if you are being responsive to your child, you are noticing what they are telling you, not what you are forcing onto them. In fact, if I were to base my view of RIE on this summary by Janet Lansbury alone, I’d think it was spot-on.
However, despite these overlaps and the summaries sounding so perfect, individual articles about RIE, or components of RIE, often leaves many parents with mixed feelings (I know because I’ve been contacted by many of them). These elements can often seem conflicting with the values of someone who focuses on the evolutionary or biological underpinnings of infant behaviour. Although previously people attributed too little to infants and children, arguably RIE attributes too much, or perhaps attributes capacities in the wrong areas. Here are the four main things that I feel may interfere with full support for RIE as a philosophy for parenting.
Based solely on observation
I believe this has to be #1 because it is one of the primary problems that is part of so many parenting “experts”. Many of the principles seems to be developed just as the typical baby experts did: By only noting external, observable behaviour. The problem? Well, we know now that what we observe is only part of the story and in infancy and childhood may not reflect the inner workings as well as we’d like to think. When we think of this problem with respect to other “baby trainers”, it has led to the failure to understand the baby relationship to crying and distress, self-soothing, and the false belief that a baby who isn’t crying is soothed or calm or even happy.
Although the observations in RIE seem to be “better” in that they are more attuned to the child and the parent-child dyad instead of just the parent (many experts are so focused on making mom and dad happier, they base everything on that goal and the false assumption that crying must be stopped at all costs and that is not the case here), without a biological underpinning, there’s really just observation and we must take that with a grain of salt. Interestingly, while some advocates of RIE believe Jean Liedloff’s views were the central point for Attachment Parenting and thus were also observational, they have ignored the extensive research into attachment theory from Drs. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.
Ignoring the importance of touch in favour of the mind
There is a quote from Magda Gerber on this that epitomizes my own confusion with the RIE view and it’s as follows:
“What is the value of being held or touched if it’s only the skin that is in contact? What about your minds connecting, or to become more philosophical, your souls?”
I feel frustrated at this quote, I must admit. I imagine Dr. Konrad Lorenz, who studied the skin and importance of touch, eyes wide at this as it ignores the evolutionary reason touch is so important. I imagine Dr. Tiffany Field, the current preeminent researcher on touch, shaking her head in disbelief at the ignorance this quote displays about touch. I imagine Dr. Nils Bergman, the major proponent of kangaroo care, picking up his jaw from the floor after hearing this. And me? I want to scream because too many people actually believe that touch is unimportant when nothing could be further from the truth yet this seems to be the way touch is interpreted by many parents reading up on RIE.
What is the value of touch if it’s only the skin that is in contact? Well, for starters the mere act of touch helps regulate baby’s physiology – including heart rate, stress response, temperature, etc. Touch alone can calm a crying baby without so much as a word from the caregiver. Touch alone can transmit every possible emotion we may feel and remains one of the most important ways in which we actually communicate emotional information. Touch can save the lives of babies as we have found over and over again in NICU settings. Touch also serves as one of the main foundations from which we build our attachment with caregivers.
So… what is the value? I’d say a lot more than anything the mind alone can do.
Belief of Independence from Birth
Generally speaking, RIE views infants as being independent being from birth and they are to be treated with the respect that comes with a mind ready to engage. Although I don’t debate that babies’ minds are far more developed than we give them credit for, this has two major implications: (1) Lack of belief in and respect for the fourth trimester which is actually a biological and evolutionary element of infancy (again, ignoring science for observation) and (2) potential for people to ignore child under the impression that they desire or even need independence. Although some in the RIE crowd seems to paint those who use attachment theory as a basis of care as being too clingy with the potential to inhibit a child’s development, I fear problems for those who don’t give value to the interdependence that exist between child and caregiver.
The issue of the fourth trimester should be, quite frankly, moot. Babies are born too early for their development relative to other mammals and we know this from looking at the developmental stage a human infant is at once out of the womb relative to other animals. At the very least, other mammals are born with the capacity to move independently, something human babies lack. Now, we have very good evolutionary reasons for this: Our brains grew and in order to fit the head out of the birth canal, we had to accept a fourth trimester outside of the womb. In support of this, we see how beneficial a womb-like environment is for babies in the first months of life (typically six to nine; or the age at which they start independent movement).
The second issue about forced independence and the failure to give value to the interdependence is a bit trickier. 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. 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. When parents believe their baby wants to be left alone, despite a wealth of research suggesting otherwise, parents can take that to mean they can and should spend less time with their babies, a problem when the average baby receives so little touch it borders on criminal.
A Belief in “Supported Crying” or That Babies Cry for No Reason
This is a hard one because obviously I agree with supported crying as well! I believe that all babies should be supported when crying – so long as they allow it and don’t push away (in which case give them their space, but remain close and remind them you are there when they are ready). However, RIE seems to talk a fair bit about this idea that babies just cry from stress and don’t need to be actively soothed, just comforted, or this is simply how it’s coming across and interpreted by others even if it’s not what is meant.
Here’s the problem: This idea presupposes that babies will cry for no reason, that there’s no communication happening, and therefore you don’t need to look for the cause of the crying. On that, I call bullshit. Again though this may be more an issue of interpretation than a real problem, but interpretation is key when promoting a technique or series of techniques. I have had several parents come to me confused over this very issue as written up by the RIE crowd; they wonder if they are doing a disservice to their child by actually being responsive to the cries and trying to help them stop crying. The distinction is that the idea of “end crying by all means necessary” is clearly wrong and flawed and there will be times when supported crying is all you can offer and it is incredibly valuable to the infant in terms of the stress response; however, if you assume all crying is just releasing stress or that a baby needs to figure it out on his/her own, then you’re failing as a parent. We can’t fix everything, but we can make sure we do what we can, and that includes trying to find the causes of discomfort.
All in all, RIE is actually a very good place to come to parenting from (despite my problems outlined above). The emphasis on respect for the baby/toddler/child is something that is so often lacking in today’s society and I hope this doesn’t seem like I’m out to tear it all down. I think, as mentioned, some of the problems are with interpretation and the fact that some of what is said in RIE can be misconstrued by parents looking for an easier way out. However, I do wish there was a greater acknowledgement of attachment theory, history, biology, and the evolution of the infant-caregiver dyad in the RIE mix and I believe it is for these reasons that many people have mixed feelings about the program as a whole.
I’d love to hear from anyone actively involved in RIE for your take on what I have written and if you feel I’ve done it a disservice, please elaborate. I’m always open to learning more and as said, am basing this off the more popular writings about it that are widely available today.