It will be difficult for this post to not become a rant on a miserable article I read last night (more of an editorial) on good ol’ Mommyish.com. I love Mommyish. I freelance for them, and I deeply appreciate their willingness to give parents the space to express some difficult experiences and realizations that many of us keep hidden out of shame or lack of information. I think carving space for these dialogues is critical for our community and is in large part why I continue to write for them.
But this article was So. Darn.Wrong.
As in, it was not FACTUAL. Beyond that point, it hit home for me because it criticized the approach to infant care that I ascribe to, known as RIE, which is short for Resources in Infant Educaring. Some of you might be rolling your eyes right now (“why can’t people just parent?” you might whine, “why do they need a ‘philosophy’??”–because it is flippin’ 2014 and we like to actually USE the information we work so hard to research and uncover, MK cupcake? If you found a cure for a pervasive disease, wouldn’t you use it? I digress…). Specifically, RIE is a tool for parents, and compliments my Attachment Parenting (AP) approach to responding to my baby ‘s cues and cries. See, RIE is about believing that babies can learn things. Practical things that help them and help their caregivers. Like, for example, how to soothe oneself to sleep. Not small potatoes here. So many parents turn to external thingies to help facilitate sleeping for babies. Thingies that buzz, swing, gyrate at fourteen different speeds, play music, prop ipads, prop TVs, prop bottles… it isn’t really necessary for most babies, and I would argue they deeply hinder their growth and development. Sure, I will bet they will WORK for many families. But they won’t work forever. This is why teaching is so important. By teaching here, I am not suggesting that an infant can sit in a classroom, or even that they are some passive recipient of an adult agenda. What I am saying is an infant can figure things out for themselves–they can learn on their own, with support from caring adults. They are way smarter than many theorists and even our own mothers, aunties and grannies might have us believe. We sorta-kinda know this when we talk about second language acquisition, right? About how young children’s minds are like sponges? Sure. We can generally agree that first as well as second (or third, etc.) language acquisition is one thing that can more easily be learned in the earliest years than later in life. Anyone who has ever heard a radio ad for Rosetta Stone knows this.
So this then begs the question…what else can babies and toddlers learn? I mean, if they can handle learning even ONE language (that’s a lot of work!) or learn how to regulate their breathing, cry when they need to communicate a need or connect with a caregiver…babies can learn how to sleep. As an Attachment Parent, I deeply believe that this is not accomplished through any “cry it out” methods in infanthood. I do believe, however, that there is a fine line which only a (connected, responsive) primary caregiver really knows, where letting a baby or a toddler cry as they settle themselves to sleep is just fine. I sure wouldn’t ask anyone other than myself or my husband to determine where that line is for my own brood, particularly in the first year, but that is my own preference, one many of my friends and certainly some family…think is nuts. But I know my own baby, and the proof is in the puddin’–I have a relaxed, happy kid. I think this is in large part to the balance of RIE and AP that he has received in his first year, both from his amazing school and from ZBF.
So before I get further down the AP meets RIE-ramble path, I’d like to take a moment to shred the Mommyish article’s claims regarding RIE to itty bitty pieces. Ahem.
1. “RIE is “philosophically opposed to anything that disrespects the baby.” What does this mean exactly? I’ll tell you—no sippy cups, no highchairs, no baby gyms, no baby carriers, and no baby walkers (also called “moving prisons”).”
Sippy cups have nothing to do with RIE. My son’s school (which is a RIE school) encourages them as part of a normal process of transitioning from infant to toddler rooms. As my son is smack in the middle of this transition, he uses a sippy cup every day. No big thang. Totally irrelevent.
Highchairs? True, they don’t use them. I use one at home because it helps my son eat with the other members of ZBF and I think that is valuable at home. Why no high chair at school? Because children who do not need to be bottle-fed can sit in small chairs, with freedom of movement just fine. NOT one of these beastly things either, just a small, legit chair that allows kiddo’s feet to touch the floor when he or she is ready to do something else. Is freedom of movement so radical? I think it has a lot to do with ratio of caregivers to children. When the facility has a high ratio of caregivers to kiddos, it is not a big deal if Keesha says she is all set with her Goldfish and milk and heads over to the crawling structure to play.
It is when the facility has too few adults to children that these, “stay where you are” contraptions are most used. Baby carriers are not used, because well, they are a safety concern. Suppose the caregiver falls?? Baby gyms and walkers are restrictive, and they do not allow the child to learn how to move properly. Think about it…what are baby’s supposed to learn as they become toddlers? First and foremost, they are learning trust, we know that, but second they are learning to use this crazy little body they have! Sticking them in thingies does not support this goal. In another post I am happy to discuss how I manage to get anything done in the house with a baby who is not in a thingie.
2. “Children don’t need toys,” says Solomon. “Almost all of the toys at RIE can be found in somebody’s cupboard.” No rattles either. According to Gerber, “Rattles are an adult idea: you pick up something, and it makes noise. Why does it make noise? Because some adult put something into something.”
If this is the RIE credo, then I’m totally screwed. My house is full of this crap, and it’s the only way I can get through the day with my eight month old baby. I love spending time with my baby (and toddler), but I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with throwing a sippy cup in his hand and tossing him into the baby gym for a few minutes—so he can work on his fitness, and I can get some dishes done.
I think the best way to respond to this experience is to simply share how I do the same thing. We all have dishes to do, so it is a perfectly legit concern to need your hands to get stuff done. Understood. Here is how the scenario plays out for me using the RIE philosophy: I baby-gated my kitchen. I have baby-proofed the majority of the cupboards (well, ZPB did, but you get the idea), except for three drawers which contain (gasp!) recyclables, tupperware, wooden spoons and other objects the kid can chew on, throw across the room and or bang against the wall with little to no damage done. I keep stuff off the floor that would be problematic for him, like the catfood and water dish and the only modification I make to the room is to sit the trash-can on top of a chair and put the recycling bin outside the back door (clean recycled items = good, old soup cans with gunk in them = VILE). I let him in. He plays. I wash. Oh, you say, that is when he is old enough to walk or crawl around, right? What about babies, HUH??? That is what a baby carrier is for. Though RIE does not favor them, as an AP, I do, largely because I am not “throwing my kid” in anything; I am talking to him, describing what I am doing, humming, kissing his head while silently scrubbing…something. He is watching what I am doing and is fascinated by it. Never knew scrubbing a pot could be so mesmerizing, I’ll tell ya. But it is FINE. Oh, and that business about a child being in a thingie and ‘working on their fitness?’ I wouldn’t be so sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that letting my son free-roam is going to be better ‘excercise’ that sticking him in some contraption where his movement is restricted and his stimulus is determined by what buttons he can press. Yawn. I mean, does that sound like fun to YOU?
You know what else is great about my modified RIE approach? IT IS CHEAP. No bouncy thingie, no plastic crap all over my floor that I have to find storage for, no hundreds of dollars trying to overstimulate my kid into silence so I can feel some peace. I trust him to play. I trust him to be fine and learn on his own, with me, his mama, right nearby. Has he whacked his head on the table, or toddled into a chair? Yup. Depending on the severity of the bump, he either takes a moment to cry for a split second before moving on to another activity, or I come over and quietly pick him up and prop him in my lap for a moment. He is still a baby after all, no need to be all, “buck up, kiddo–you’re eight months–that means you’re a man now!” He is fine. This is where the respect and trust of the baby come into play. My point with this lengthy dishwashing description is this: it doesn’t have to be complicated for the learning to happen when you use the RIE approach.
3.In the RIE Facebook group, parents are getting their panties in a knot about child-rearing issues I have never given a second thought to. One woman wants to revamp her two-year-old’s daycare structure into an “alternative playspace” and “natural playscape” that is RIE-friendly.
As I read through these RIE parenting posts, I am exhausted. I am definitely an over-thinker and a worrier as a parent, but something about RIE seems over-worked to me. Why does parenting have to be this hard, and why is there so much pressure on the parent?
My final response to this article, is in regards to something I hinted at in the beginning of this post…the critique of the “overthinking parent”. Let me explain something here, and let me be crystal clear: I believe that knowledge is power. I believe in education and lifelong learning and in the premise that we can all be great parents no matter what. This is ultimately about values. I value reading. I value talking to people who are experts in their fields, like my best friend who is a physical therapist and has lots to say about how your hips won’t develop properly in an exersaucer or a walker. Or my colleague who is a midwife and can speak at length about the chemicals produced by our bodies during bonding time with our kids…if we can carve out and prioritize that time in the first place instead of simply worrying about it and not making the choice itself. Here are some pictures of a ‘natural playscape’–wouldn’t you want your kid to play here?!
Parenting is hard. I’ll agree to that. I think there are things that can make it easier: time, space, willingness to draw boundaries with our kids, our families and friends and in the commitments we insist we ‘have to do’. I realize also that I speak from a place of economic privilege here, because as a stay at home mother, I have a lot of freedom which I might not have if ZPB were unable to provide a solid income for us all, or if he were simply not there as might be the case with a single parent. I was raised by a single parent. But I would challenge the author of this article, and all the folks who agreed with her in the comments, to perhaps be a bit more critical of their apparent collective approach to early parenting. She is absolutely right: is doesn’t have to be SO hard.