“A parent once asked me what I would do with a child who has drawn on the wall,
and whether I should punish him I answered, ‘I would punish the parents.’”
— MAGDA GERBER —
About five years ago, when our first child was only six months old, John and I were out to dinner with our friends Barry and Nicole, parents to two young kids whom we hadn’t seen since we’d become parents ourselves. Inevitably, they asked us how it was all going.
“Jules is amazing….[blah blah blah],” John started, “and we’ve been taking these RIE classes…”
“Where they leave ‘No’ at the door!’” Barry interjected sarcastically—obviously not a fan of RIE himself. Or at least what he’d heard about it. Likely he thought something like, I mean what kind of crackpot philosophy is going to recommend that parents never say “No”? Without “no” we’d be screwed. Surrounded by insufferable Veruca Salts! Little hands would be cut by knives! Houses would burn down!
“Actually, Barry, I think that you’re both right and not quite right,” I didn’t say because I was still so new to RIE that I’d never thought to think about it as anti-no and I was caught off guard so I couldn’t respond like I can now. “While RIE isn’t about never saying ‘no’,” I didn’t continue, “I guess you could say that Magda thought it should be, as you said, ‘left at the door’…or more accurately, ‘at the gate of your kid’s playroom.’ It’s more like there’s a time for ‘no’ and that time is significantly less often than most are used to.”
I mean, imagine if you will, leaving the warmth, security and safety of your mom’s womb and coming to in a whole new kind of place. Where there was once darkness, now there is light. Where there was once nothing other than amniotic fluid, now there’s everything under the sun. Over time, your eyes slowly adjust and you find all of these new things so fascinating that you can’t help but want explore them with everything you’ve got. Your hands. Your mouth. Your feet. And then, you hear it. Again. That funny sound: “No.”
Sometimes so sing songy: “No, nooo, no-oh!”
Sometimes with so much panic: “Honey! No!”
Sometimes with admonishment: “No, Mommy said no!”
Whatever does it mean? And exactly what am I supposed to do when they say it to me? It always seems to precede some triumph I’m on the verge of having. It’s like, there I am inching my way across the living room, patiently determined to do whatever I have to do to get that white long snake-looking thing in my mouth and then just a nano second before I finally grab it, not only does she say it, but then I’m instantly air-vac’ed. It’s the ol’ whisk me away in a panic routine again. Couldn’t she have shown up earlier, like when I was half way across the room? I mean why does it always have to be so dramatic? And then, of course, I cry. Who wouldn’t? And of course they tell me how “okay” it all is. It’s the same thing over and over again. Damn those grown ups! I know they mean well, but there’s got to be a better way!
If parents finds themselves constantly telling their baby “no” they probably don’t realize that not only could the set up in their home benefit from some adjustment, but it’s likely that they think their kid is more capable than she is. There’s a lot that goes into a child responding (or not responding) to a “no.”
First a baby has to understand exactly what it is that you are no’ing. Is it the way she’s sitting? The poop she happens to be making? The long thing she’s touching? Or the fact that it’s about to go into her mouth?
Certainly saying “no” and then taking the object out of her hands, gives her the message. At that moment. But, depending on her age, don’t expect her to remember that those kinds of things are things she’s not supposed to touch. At first, it’s not so easy for a baby to differentiate a cord plugged into a wall from the string of a pull toy. And don’t think that when your child’s brain does finally develop to the point where she can remember she’s not supposed to touch the long white snake-like things plugged into the wall, that she is capable of the self-control necessary not to touch it.
Lots of steps to learn and master. And all dependent on the cooperation of brain development. If you’re not quite sure approximately when all of this growth is supposed to take place, it really is best to err on the side of underestimating your kid’s cognitive abilities. After all, there is a range of when this development is supposed to take place and of course parents can’t know where their kid falls in that spectrum. I mean you wouldn’t expect someone with no legs, to be able to walk.
And so in order to not unfairly set your baby up to fail and to not drive either your baby or yourself crazy, it would be incredibly helpful to simply limit the off-limit items. Not only won’t your baby think he’s constantly doing something wrong—which is a decidedly anxiety-provoking and shameful state to be in for virtually no reason—but you won’t have to be a resentful, hyper vigilant child monitor who can’t get anything done. This means creating what I call a “RIE room”—Magda’s brilliantly simple idea that not only enables a child to live free of the constant threat of “no” but also serves to give parents a break.
“I recommend safe-proofing one room, or part of a room completely. The room should so completely be safe-proofed that if you were locked out of the house for hours, you would feel confident that your child would not be in danger.”
With a RIE room, a parent would no longer have to waste their time thinking things like, It’ll only take me ten seconds to put the laundry in the dryer and I know he can’t crawl all the way into the bathroom by then. Okay…go! which is to say that a child’s explorations don’t have to be continually interrupted in the name of safety. And yet another benefit of the set up is that “no” gets to retain it’s power. If a parent or nanny says it too often, inevitably a kid will simply start to tune it out. And then where will you and your boy-who-cried-wolf self be when your toddler has dashed away and is just about to step into the street? The same street that a car is barreling down?
So that’s it!
Just make a room, or cordon off part of one with virtually nothing in it—save for some “appropriately challenging” stuff for your baby to explore with. Nothing fancy. Just some stuff that rolls and shakes and jingles and stacks. Perhaps some tupperware and tops to jars of baby food and some balls and you can add in a little platform for her to climb up on when the time is right. And there, in the safety of that space dedicated to your baby, she can play with what she wants, for as long as she wants in whatever way she wants, without you no’ing her into oblivion. Without the threat of being pulled away at any given second.
THIS WAY A KID IS NOT CONTINUALLY
AT RISK OF DOING SOMETHING WRONG, INSTEAD
HE’S ALWAYS DOING SOMETHING RIGHT.
Just thinking about the kind of difference that would make in how a child not only experiences the world, but how she’d feel about herself, makes me well up.
I’d shared this essential RIE tenet with Allison, a new mom friend who was having a hard time getting anything done in her life because she was spending all of her time following her daughter Lori as she crawled around their house, making sure she was safe. I couldn’t have been happier when I received this e-mail:
things are going great with lori. we’ve now managed to give her one totally safe room, and then to make the rest of the house almost completely safe, so she really has the run of the place. it makes such a difference for all of us. she’s happy and i am not chasing her around all the time.
What does Magda say?
People have asked me why I believe so strongly in safe-proofing, and why children can’t just learn not to touch things. They do learn this gradually, as they develop judgment. But at a certain age, they cannot learn. We, as parents, have to be aware of what their minds can understand and learn, and at what age. Danger isn’t part of a young child’s thinking…When you safe-proof one room one hundred percent, you are being respectful of your child and of yourself. In this way, you can both relax….
A parent once asked me what I would do with a child who has drawn on the wall, and whether I should punish him I answered, “I would punish the parents.” A child young enough to want to draw on walls needs supervision. If he’s playing in his safe-proofed room, remove the crayons. Setting and enforcing appropriate limits help avoid the use of punishment.