You’re free to move about the cabin.
In was the summer of 2006 and the Saturday morning of our first RIE class. As it turned out, the RIE Center wasn’t quite what I’d been vaguely picturing. While certainly one could call it a “center”, it was simply a ground-level apartment in a charming, yet worse-for-wear 1920′s Spanish duplex that looked like the longtime tenants had just moved out but forgot their changing table.
Just as John and I were surveying the scene, the kitchen door swung open.
“Welcome,” said a soft-spoken woman with cropped gray hair. “I’m Sharon.”
“Hi there. I’m Jennifer and…”
“I’m John. Hello.”
“And this must be Jules. Hello Jules,” Sharon gently said. Then looking back at us she continued, “Why don’t you go ahead and take off your shoes. Then you can go out onto the deck and lay Jules on the center mat and take a seat along the railing.”
Soon, one by one—or rather, three by three—seven sets of parents and their babies joined us. Each time someone new walked in, we’d all smile and wave while thinking things like: Wow, how is she so thin already? Oh good, they’re older too. Hey that baby can already turn over! Once most of us had settled in, Sharon rather cryptically explained that the duplex was both the RIE Center and the home of it’s founder Magda Gerber and that Magda, who was very elderly now and not well, lived upstairs. How sick is she? I wondered. Will we ever get to meet her?
“Now that most of us are here, let’s start by introducing ourselves. Please tell us how you came to RIE and what your hopes are for your child,” Sharon said.
“Hi I’m Deborah and this is Zach. Umm, well I heard about RIE from my friend whose daughter who is now 13! She told me if there’s just one thing I do with our baby, it has to be RIE. So we’ve come to check it out. And as to my hopes for Zach, well, I just want him to be healthy and happy.”
After all the parents said roughly the same thing, Sharon said, “While certainly as a mother myself I can relate to wanting my child to be happy, unfortunately it’s just not possible to make someone else happy—even your own child. Babies, just like the rest of us, feel lots of different emotions all day long—frustration, joy, sadness…”
I knew she’d been driving at something and didn’t love that she was starting the class by highlighting our naiveté. New parents are a brittle enough lot as it is.
“…the best a parent can hope for,” Sharon continued “is to create a life for your child in which she feels safe, truly cared for and understood, and is allowed to explore and develop at her own pace. At the core of RIE is treating children with respect—as if your baby is an honored guest in your home, like a dignitary from a foreign land who is unfamiliar with you and your way of life.”
Like a dignitary? I wondered, unsure of what she meant.
“As I’m sure you’re already starting to realize, your children are very good at telling you if they’re hungry or tired, but if we are able to truly observe them, we can learn so much more. And so, we’ll begin each class with twenty minutes of quiet observation and then discuss what we’ve seen. We’ll start that now,” Sharon explained.
For twenty minutes we all did our best to sit quietly and watch the babies wriggle, grab a ring, drop a ring. Scrunch up their faces. Drool. Fuss. Suck their fingers. Tap the ground and twist about. But it wasn’t easy. Much to Sharon’s chagrin, our “best” included waves of whispering, giggling and picture taking. We couldn’t help ourselves.
“Would anyone like to talk about what they observed?” she finally asked. Huh? we all wondered. The silence was followed by more silence which was followed by yet more silence. Someone’s got to say something! What should I say? “Jules put a bowl in her mouth and then dropped it and then put it in her mouth again?” And if so, why?! Like everyone, I was at a loss.
“Well, we’ve run out of time,” Sharon announced looking up from her watch. “We’ll continue next week.”
There was definitely a prevailing feeling of That’s it?! We sit and watch the kids do nothing and then we try to talk about it? What is this RIE and how the hell are we supposed to learn it?
I think we’d all been expecting some kind of introduction like “Magda Gerber’s philosophy evolved from…It is so important because…Classes will be like this…”
While John and I both left skeptical, not five minutes after we got home did we start to realize how much we’d learned. It was actually the set-up of the class that was so instructive. Laying the children on the soft mat. The simple toys scattered about. The outdoors. The quiet and the focus on the babies. Watching Jules play so peacefully for so much of the ninety minutes of class was a revelation. And so instead of putting Jules into her electric swing or carrying her around all the time, we started laying her on a blanket on the ground—both inside and out in the backyard under the big tree. Jules was now free—free to wriggle, roll, reach and grab. And she was remarkably content doing it for really decent stretches of time.
Essentially that one class changed our whole life with Jules. And it was just a drop in the bucket.