Interview on an RIE Approach with Janet Lansbury

To learn how to practice gentle guidance principles with my daughter, I discovered all about Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) and the philosophies of Janet Lansbury. RIE is basically about trusting and respecting babies and infants as whole human beings and there are so many ways of doing so.

I’m happy to interview Janet, an RIE instructor for parents who shares all her experience in her blog. Janet’s posts, links, and community are a great source for parents to build and maintain a good connection and use positive discipline with our children.

So, let’s get to it!

Janet, can you describe a bit of RIE, and what your work with RIE is about?

Janet: RIE is a non-profit organization founded by infant specialist Magda Gerber in 1978 that is dedicated to infants, toddlers, and their caregivers. We provide education and support for parents and child care professionals.

The RIE approach is seeing infants and children as whole people – unique individuals – who are capable as well. In the RIE philosophy, infants are, where and when possible, treated with similar levels of respect as adults would be treated with. We adhere to the view that babies and infants have the capability to participate actively in a relationship with adults who are caring for them.

The late Magda Gerber was my mentor, and since 2004 I have been a certified RIE instructor. I love teaching Parent/Infant Guidance Classes. One of the key things we are teaching is observation, the best method for understanding babies and infants. By observing our babies and infants, we can better distinguish between our perceptions as adults and the reality of our baby’s. It’s endlessly fascinating and illuminating.

In February 2010, my blog was launched. It is the first (and hopefully not last!) active blog about the RIE philosophy. I’ve been inundated with questions from enthusiastic parents for whom RIE has opened up a whole new understanding of their babies and parenting…and I’m loving that!

How old was your daughter when you first approached the RIE parenting classes? What did you start to put into practice right then that changed your parenting?

Janet: I was a clueless, overwhelmed, and depressed new mother when I happened to read a quotation from Magda Gerber in an article about children and creativity and was intrigued (“Take the mobile off the bed, take care of their needs and leave them alone.”) Later in their lives, they will only benefit when they go to school and, hopefully, the school classes will not be so big. School size matters, you know!

My daughter was 3 ½ months old when I brought her to an RIE class. I had believed I needed to provide non-stop amusement and entertainment for her during her waking hours, to ‘stimulate’ her, which had been exhausting and crazy-making (for her, too, I imagine!).

In the class, I was asked to try placing her on her back on a blanket and just sit nearby. I was completely blown away when she was occupied with her own thoughts for almost 2 hours, perfectly content. (I write about this intro to RIE in Blue Sky Thinking.)

I immediately went home and began arranging our life around making lots of time each day for my baby to engage this way — “uninterrupted play”, as Magda Gerber called it. Watching my daughter gave me joy — made me excited about parenting! This was also addressed in a recent Twitter Festival, a so-called Twestival, by a large number of young and concerned parents.

I read in one of your posts that Magda Gerber didn’t believe in timeouts. What’s the most appropriate way to control a child’s behavior? Or how does the RIE approach handle children’s challenging behavior?

Janet: First, as parents, we must know in our hearts that we are in control, and our children need to feel that we are, too. We don’t break our child’s spirit by saying “no” and clarifying what he is or isn’t allowed to do.

Misbehavior is usually a child’s way of telling us he is tired, needs more attention, or more clarity. Children need to learn self-control, and they do that when we give them guidance kindly, patiently, and confidently and if we feel they, later on, should skip a class, we discuss that as well.

Timeout is a punishment that doesn’t teach a child correct behavior. All the child learns is “I did something bad.” Our children need to know what we expect. They need “time in”. They need teachers, not enforcers.

So RIE suggests keeping it simple, fair, and honest, and explaining the logical consequence for a child’s action, i.e., if you throw your food down I will put the food away and we will be finished with lunch. I don’t want you to throw the toy truck. If you can’t play with it safely, I will put it on the shelf. If you refuse to get dressed, we can’t go to the park today.

The key is to stay calm, confident, and feel on top of the situation. These very small people seem HUGE to us sometimes, especially if we give them too much power. We are the ones in charge, and our children need us to be.

How can they feel secure if we bend to their wishes to prevent them from crying, or if they can make us angry or upset so easily? (I detail this approach to discipline in my most popular post No Bad Kids – Toddler Discipline Without Shame)

How do you educate a parent in educating children? Can you talk a bit about your work along the parents?

Janet: One of the most brilliant things Magda Gerber taught me was to trust infants and toddlers to be self-learners. That was the lesson I gained in my first RIE class, and it is the basis of what I teach parents for the two years they attend our classes.

Babies will seek out exactly what they are ready to learn if we allow them to. They always do what they are capable of doing and ready to do. And this is a big relief for parents because it means we don’t have to teach. If we provide a physically safe, emotionally nurturing, and cognitively challenging environment, we can leave the rest up to our child.

We encourage parents to observe their babies in our class and at home. When we observe, we recognize and appreciate all our children are doing, rather than focusing on the next milestone and worrying that our child hasn’t achieved what so-and-so’s baby has. We also observe the furniture in the classroom to make sure our children’s health will not be at risk.

What’s the biggest difficulty parents have when starting to use the RIE approach?

Janet: It’s tough for all of us to change habits we’ve begun with our baby, but not nearly as difficult as we fear it will be. For example, parents learn in our classes (through observation) that placing an infant in a sitting position actually restricts movement and therefore interferes with the development of motor skills.

But as long as the parent is still holding on to the old way, it’s hard for the child to feel content in the back or tummy position. Once the parents take a leap of faith and commit to a change, or hold their child back, transitions are much easier than parents expect.

Can a parent be too late in adopting the RIE approach? If you don’t start while your child is an infant, can you still introduce the RIE approach?

Janet: No! And YES, absolutely! For example, look online for this post about encouraging independent play with an older toddler: Solo Engagement – Fostering Your Toddler’s Independent Play. Then if they go back to school, you can make things so much easier for them.

I’d only like to add that the comments on this post you mentioned are really worth reading, too. What simple advice you can give us about parenting?

Janet: It’s hard to resist answering this with some famous Magda Gerber mantras… “Pay attention.” “We all need someone who understands.” “Do less, observe more, enjoy most!”

Sounds like the best parenting advice for meThank you, Janet, for talking about your beautiful work with us here.