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RIE™…So, what is it?

Three little letters that changed my life. R.I.E.

So what do they stand for? What does it mean?

Is it a place? Something you do?

A philosophy? A method? A cult?

All of the sudden, the music is swelling and I can hear Julie Andrews jauntily suggesting that I simply “start at the very beginning” because, after all, it is “a very good place to start.”

When we read we begin with abc,

When we parent we begin with R.I.E.

R. I. E. The first three letters just happen to be…

While I’m certainly no Fräulein Maria, I’ll do my best.

So for starters, it’s pronounced  “rye” and it stands for:

RESOURCES FOR INFANT EDUCARERS

Yes, without a doubt, the name is strange.  And it begs lots of questions.

Questions like:

What kind of Resources?

Is it only for Infants?

What’s an Educarer?

And…

Could they possibly have come up with a more cumbersome and incomprehensible set of words to be known by?

“Oh yes, we’re taking Resources for Infant Educarer classes, they’re great. We’re now educaring our infant.”

Without a doubt, when Magda Gerber was trying to figure out what to call her fledgling organization, she thought about it long and hard. What she didn’t have to help her was a professional branding team. Let alone a budget. Or any business acumen. And it was the 1970’s. And she was Hungarian. So I cut her a ton of slack.

(Nonetheless, it kills my husband John that Magda didn’t capitalize on the fact that her last name just happened to be the same as one of the most recognizable and trusted brands in the baby industry. “She had everything going for!” he’s lamented more than once.)

What she did have, however, was a wealth of potentially life-altering information and an irrepressible need to share it. As she explained, “Parenting is a most difficult job for which you cannot really prepare yourself. Can we make it easier? My answer is, ‘Yes’!”

And because it is entirely thanks to Magda’s awkwardly-named organization that thirty years later my life as a mom has indeed been made easier—as in much, much easier—I cut her even more tons of slack.

So, allow me to break it down.

RESOURCES…

What kind of resources?

Well, mainly classes and literature.

RIE classes are not your traditional you-sit-and-listen-to-me-because-I’m-an-expert classes. No. Magda strongly believed that learning by modeling was by far the most effective way to learn. Her classes were uniquely developed so that adults would organically experience “aha” moments that would result in shifts in their thinking, prompting them to change their behavior accordingly. In fact, if you were a fly on the wall, you might wonder if anything was happening at all. (You can read about my first RIE class here.)

Re: literature.

Magda put together The RIE Manual in 1978 so that when RIE officially opened its doors to the public, a guide would exist that explained its main principles, as well as its historical background and scientific and philosophical underpinnings. (The Manual continues to be an invaluable resource and would benefit—greatly!—from an updated look that could bring the stark, dry looking document to life. )

Additionally, RIE puts out a quarterly newsletter for its members called Educaring (still in print—but not yet available digitally) featuring Q & A’s and stories of parents first hand experiences. In 1997, Magda wrote Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Natural Abilities from the Very Start with Allison Johnson and six years later published Dear Parent: Caring for Infants with Respect with Joan Weaver in 2003. These resources remain chock full of invaluable information and insights.

RESOURCES FOR…

So who are these resources for?

Well, parents for sure, because Magda never forgot how overwhelmed, ill-equipped and alone she felt after giving birth to her daughter Mayo: “I was amazed at how difficult it was to be a parent. I was angry. Why didn’t anyone prepare me for this?” She muddled her way through as best she could and four years later had another daughter, Daisy. She continued to do her best, which she soon realized wasn’t good enough.

When Mayo was six years old, she got sick and their family doctor was unavailable. Mayo suggested that her mom call her school friend Anna’s mom, Dr. Pikler, who was a pediatrician. Soon, Dr. Pikler was knocking on their door. Magda greeted her and started to explain Mayo’s condition when:

Dr. Pikler waved her hand indicating for me to be silent. Then she asked my little girl when her throat started feeling sore and how she felt now. My child answered so intelligently, so politely that I was surprised. The doctor then asked Mayo if she wanted to “look in her (the doctor’s) throat” and afterward she asked permission to look into Mayo’s throat. “Open your mouth wide,” she told my daughter, “and I won’t have to use the tongue depressor.”

The cooperation Dr. Pikler elicited was so striking that I decided to ask her to become our pediatrician. What struck a deeper chord was the realization that she related to children in a more honest, respectful manner than I’d ever seen.[i]

The woman who had so quickly made an indelible impression on Magda was no ordinary pediatrician. Dr. Pikler, back in the 1930′s, was on a mission to change the way parents cared for their babies. After years of visiting her young patients in their homes, she observed some disturbing trends. More and more parents were training and exercising their babies to get them to achieve developmental milestones as soon as possible, as if turning over by three months was critical to success later in life. Dr. Pikler also noticed that babies were rarely given time to explore on their own. Instead, they were constantly being fussed over, held, talked to, cuddled and passed around to family members. Her intuition told her that this was stifling the physical, emotional and cognitive development of the children and so began her years of meticulous research.

Dr. Pikler observed that if a child was “helped,” their drive to experiment would diminish and along with it the joy inherent in making a discovery. Physically speaking, she observed that the movement of a child whose development had been rushed was less secure, more clumsy and stiff-looking. She also discovered that babies who were overly-fussed over would come to need a heightened level of attention and lose the ability to play on their own. From these core observations, Dr. Pikler’s philosophy of raising babies grew. At the time Dr. Pikler had met Magda, she was deep into her ground-breaking research of gross motor development, was guiding the parents of her newborn patients in her parenting philosophy, had begun lecturing around the country and was working on her first book pointedly titled “What Can Your Baby do Already?” (Later editions would be published with the more gentle title Peaceful Babies—Contented Mothers. Excerpts can be read here.) In Dr. Pikler, Magda found a true mentor.

Several years later, when Magda would give birth to her son Bence in1943, under the guidance of Dr. Pikler she had the opportunity to raise him as a “Pikler baby” from the start—that is to say with an unprecedented amount of calm, confidence, and sensitivity. This was particularly helpful seeing that it was 1943 and World War II was raging. Despite the chaos in their lives, Bence grew up in a bubble of peace.

Okay, so, Magda wanted to give others the gift of peaceful parenting that Dr. Pikler had given her. Then why not call her organization Resources for New Parents?

Well, because Magda wanted the organization to serve anyone and everyone who cared for young babies.

It was the seventies and feminism in the United States (where Magda had been living since 1959) had brought women to the workforce in droves. As a result, day care centers were popping up everywhere. Unfortunately, they were entirely unregulated, which meant that those in charge were overburdened and the babies weren’t getting the space, attention and care they needed. Seeing the conditions for the first time Magda was horrified, “I condemn you, the United States for how you treat your babies…” Magda knew that she, perhaps more than anyone in the country, could be of help.

Why?

Because when Bence was about three years old, as often as possible, Magda began working alongside Dr. Pikler at Lóczy—which under her direction would become arguably the most successful orphanage in the world for children up to three years old.  When Dr. Pikler became the Director of Lóczy (later renamed the Pikler Institute) at the end of World War II, she radically changed every single aspect of how it was run.

First, she fired the entire staff. Dr. Pikler knew that asking people who were stuck in their ways (the nurses were more concerned about the sheet-changing schedule than the children’s emotional well-being) to try something new was too big a hurdle. In their stead, Dr. Pikler hired women from the countryside who had a love of children and were open to Pikler’s very specific instructions of how to care for them—everything from how they talked to the children, responded to their cries and bathed them.

Every decision Dr. Pikler made in restructuring life at Lóczy was the result of her research on the development of infants and was geared to provide the likely traumatized children with the greatest sense of security and confidence—a tall order when their parents have abruptly left their lives.

Not surprisingly, the failure-to-thrive rate for children raised in group homes is heart-breakingly high. But at Lóczy, the children flourished. Because of this, visitors came from (and continue to come from) all over the world to observe Pikler’s unique methods in person. Two French authorities on infants, Dr. Miriam David, a child psychiatrist and Génevieve Appell, a psychologist described life at Lóczy in their report:

“From the first step into the house one is fascinated by the looks of the children: flourishing babies, with tanned complexions, harmonious proportions and movements, involved for the most part of the day in various activities, in good contact with adults, without being too depending on them. The groups are peaceful. Among the children there are astounding few conflicts, although interactions begin as early as 4-5 months.”[ii]

Decades later, the World Health Organization would laud the Pikler Institute as a model of quality childcare. It was this invaluable education that Magda brought with her to the United States, an education that would ultimately lead her some twenty years later to found RIE.

That’s my long-winded way of explaining that while Magda certainly wanted to help new parents, she also set out to reach nannies and those who work in day-care centers, orphanages, pediatric hospitals, and centers for developmentally-challenged children.

Then why didn’t Magda call her organization Resources for People who Care for Infants—aside from the fact that the acronym R.P.C.I. doesn’t quite roll off the tongue? (And RIE does! So you gotta at least give her that.)

Well, because Magda wanted to squeeze the philosophical underpinnings of her Piker-based approach into the name of her organization.

Hold onto your hats.

RESOURCES FOR INFANT EDUCARERS

“Resources for” we can all understand. But “Infant Educarers”? Well…not so much.

Before I tackle “educarers,” allow me to clarify “infant.” When I hear “infant,” I think “newborn.” I don’t think “baby” and I certainly don’t think “toddler.” But scientifically speaking the infancy period is from four months through the second year of life.

Who knew?

What I also didn’t know was how staggeringly important this infancy period is in terms of brain development and the impact it has on the rest of one’s life. Sue Gephardt, a psychotherapist who strives to make the latest neuroscience accessible to the layperson explains the significance of care in the early years in her article entitled How Affection Shapes the Brain:

If we find ourselves cared for by people who love us, and who are highly sensitive to our unique personalities, the pleasure of those relationships will help to trigger the development of the “social brain.” In the simplest terms, the pre-frontal cortex (and in particular its orbitofrontal area) plays a major role in managing our emotional lives: it picks up on social cues, the non-verbal messages that other people transmit, it enables us to empathize, as well as playing an important part in restraining our primitive emotional impulses.…

Surprising as it may seem, we are not born with these capacities: this part of the brain develops almost entirely post-natally. Nor is it just a matter of waiting for your baby to develop an orbitofrontal cortex so it can begin to relate well to others. There is nothing automatic about it.

Instead, the kind of brain that each baby develops is the brain that comes out of his or her experiences with other people…Early experiences whether negative or positive, heavily influence brain development and either enhance or undermine the innate ability of children to gain a healthy foundation for lifelong thinking, learning and social interaction.

When I read that, I was struck by how much it echoed what Magda had written decades earlier:

If you treat your child respectfully from birth, he may have a better chance of gaining confidence and developing good judgment. This plants the seeds of lifelong security.

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.

Of course, it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s all shades of gray. And it’s not all nurture. It’s a biological dance between nature and nurture. But as the nurturer, no doubt a parent would like to do the best job possible. And unfortunately, it is during this critical infancy period when parents are mainly winging it, relying on their “parenting instincts” and some trial-and-error to see them through. Even more unfortunate, what people often think of as “maternal instincts” are not some biologically imbedded information that kicks in the moment your newborn emerges from your hooha (or from your partner’s hooha, or from your surrogate’s hooha, or adoptive parent’s hooha, or the moment your child somehow make her way into your arms).  If only! Rather what people think of as “instincts” can be more accurately described as “impulses.” And what created these impulses? THE WAY YOU WERE CARED FOR BY YOUR PARENTS!

So…if your parents knocked it out of the park—if they were very “highly” sensitive to you, and made sure you felt heard, understood, and loved for who you are and set super consistent boundaries—then good for you and your kids! But for most of us, no matter how much our parents adored us, likely they were limited in “the best they could” by what had been done to them which was perhaps combined with their stab at  the latest parenting trend. Because without some serious and often plodding focus on making changes, we’re doomed to repeat what’s been done to us. (That’s why people who were abused as children often become abusers themselves, even though the last thing they want to do is inflict the pain on their children that was inflicted upon them.)

And so it was during this critical infancy period that Magda knew she could be of incalculable help to both parents and others who cared for babies. How? By helping them override and ultimately rewire their impulses. This is where her concept of educaring comes in.

RESOURCES FOR INFANT EDUCARERS

Educare. Educaring. Educarer. Funny words—at best.

Like I said earlier, even though I love RIE, I would never tell anyone that I’ve become an infant educarer, or that we’re educaring our children. Which is unfortunate, because when I finally realized what Magda had meant to convey when she ever so boldly coined the word educarer,  (about three years of RIE classes later!) I thought, “She’s a genius. But a genius sans a branding advisor.”

What Magda wanted was for all parents to realize that everything we do—how we hold our baby, pick her up, put her down, respond to her cries, talk to her, talk to others while in her presence, plan her days, feed her—creates the child’s understanding of her own value, the world, and her place in it.

You see being an “educarer” means…

(Drum roll please.)

“…one who educates children in a caring manner….The way you care for your baby is how she experiences your love.” — Magda Gerber

In other words:

Your care is their education.

Are you going to care for your child in a way that makes her feel truly seen, heard, understood and loved for who she is? Yes, even though she is only seven-days, seven-weeks or seven-months old. Because that is what’s necessary to get their orbitofronatal cortex growing as robustly as possible. You can’t go back and regrow it. (Later, you can try to rewire it by working a twelve-step program, or going to therapy, journaling and a spiritual path (and ideally some combination therein) but few are truly up for this hard, plodding, painful work.) Ideally, you want to get it as right as possible for your kid the first time around.

RIE makes that possible.

Put yet another way, but my one of my RIE teachers, the truly brilliant Elizabeth Memel:

Homo sapiens are born human, but not humane. Magda believed that the way to create humane humans was to treat them humanely.

Here on this site, in many, many different ways, I’m going to explore HOW exactly it is that RIE has helped me “educare” my children. To that end, I have put together my own list of 24 RIE-inspired tenets for raising your child respectfully. I hope people will find them helpful. I know I would have loved to have had something like this when my children were born.

So…RIE. It’s an organization. It’s a philosophy. It’s a state of mind. But the truth is, I mainly use RIE as an adjective as in:

“That’s not very RIE!”

So is it a cult?

Obviously.


[i] Gerber, Magda Your Self-Confident Baby, p?

[ii] Gerber, Magda, The RIE Manual, pa 56-57. Resources for Infant Educarers, Los Angeles, 1979.