The truth about RIE parenting

Reportedly fans of RIE parenting: Penelope Cruz and husband Javier Bardem.
Reportedly fans of RIE parenting: Penelope Cruz and husband Javier Bardem. Photo: AFP

Parenting is such a divisive topic it’s a wonder it hasn’t been added to sex, politics and religion as a dinner party taboo.

As such, the backlash against Deborah Carlisle Solomon’s new book Baby Knows Best, which introduces a no-frills approach to parenting, was to be expected. But the obvious misreading and blatant misreporting about the book was another thing entirely.

Baby Knows Best is based on the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE — pronounced ‘wry’), parenting philosophy. While it’s being reported as the latest parenting fad in Hollywood, embraced by the likes of Tobey Maguire, Penélope Cruz, Helen Hunt, Felicity Huffman, and William H. Macy, RIE parenting is over 35 years old.

RIE for the modern age: <i>Baby Knows Best</i> was released last year.
RIE for the modern age: Baby Knows Best was released last year. 

It was founded in 1978 by early childhood educator Magda Gerber, who advocated respect between a parent and child and said adults should allow their children to solve problems without interference.

Most of RIE is uncontroversial. But from the reporting you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a cross between Amish and negligence.

‘Experts warn it could do more harm than good,’ reports the Daily Mail, which admittedly is not known for its balanced reporting.

And Vanity Fair catalogues a draconian list of modern-day conveniences that are prohibited. ‘RIE is philosophically opposed to anything that disrespects a baby, including not only sippy cups and high chairs but also baby gyms, baby carriers like Björns, baby swaddles, and baby walkers...What else is prohibited? How about toys?’

If you’re more interested in considering some alternate parenting strategies rather than hating on other parents’choices, here is an overview of what RIE parenting actually advocates — without the scandal.

1. Talk to your baby

RIE recommends informing your baby about what you are going to do before you do it, such as ‘I’m going to pick you up now’ and ‘I’m going to the kitchen and will be right back’.

This doesn’t mean that lullabies and gooing and gagaing are out. Rather, it means that children will be less anxious if they are told what is going to happen to them before it happens. It will also help with their language development. 

2. Let your baby cry

‘When your baby cries…wait,’ writes Carlisle Solomon.

This isn't laziness or neglect. Instead, it allows you to observe and work out the cause of the distress, and it gives your baby the opportunity to learn how to self-soothe and the freedom to express their emotions.

‘Don’t distract your baby from her feelings by bouncing her on your knee or singing a cheery song,’ writes Carlisle Solomon. ‘Trying to jolly your baby out of crying will only make her feel disconnected and out of tune with you. Imagine if you were upset and your trusted other responded with a big grin, spoke in a singsongy voice, and tried to humor you out of it.’

3. Dummies

RIE is not anti-dummies as has been reported. Instead, Carlisle Solomon cautions against forcing a dummy into a child’s mouth if it clearly doesn’t want it.

‘If you choose to offer a pacifier, it’s very important that as soon as you see your baby push the pacifier out of her mouth when it’s offered, you put it away.’

4. Caring routines

Rather than seeing routines such as nappy changing, bathing and feeding as labourious tasks to be rushed through, try to slow down and use them as a caring opportunity to communicate and bond.

‘[T]his helps the baby feel secure because he learns to anticipate what will happen next and can participate when he is able.’

5. Baby-led feeding

According to RIE parenting, part of respecting your child is also respecting their appetite.

‘Babies should never be coaxed, cajoled, or forced to eat. They should eat however much they want, and not one bite more!’ writes Carlisle Solomon.

‘To help baby learn to eat when he’s hungry and stop eating when he’s satiated, we need to observe closely so that we’re attuned to his cues. Then we need to honor what the baby communicates to us.’

6. Prioritise your baby’s sleep schedule

RIE considers adequate sleep to be essential for a happy, healthy baby and a calm family. This means establishing a sleep routine and prioritising it — even when granny drops in and wants a cuddle.

The principle of allowing babies to cry so they learn to self-sooth also applies to sleeping — within reason.

‘Of course, if your baby’s crying is ramping up and she’s sounding distressed, then by all means, go into her room to reassure her. It’s best to go to her before she’s so over-wrought that she needs a lot of help to calm.’

7. Limiting intervention

Rather than rushing in to solve our children’s problems we should allow them the opportunity to find their own solutions and to discover and cope with the fact that life involves struggle, disappointment and compromise.

‘When an adult routinely steps in to solve every little, or big problem, a baby can quickly learn to look for help rather than attempt to find a solution for himself, and giving up and relying on an adult for every little thing becomes a habit,’writes Carlisle Solomon.

‘Not only is a child robbed of a sense of self-satisfaction and accomplishment, but his sense of confidence and self-reliance can begin to erode as well.’

8. Toys

This is one of the most misreported aspects of RIE. The philosophy is not anti-toys, but instead recommends simple toys such as a cotton napkin, plastic hair rollers, colanders, pot holders, plastic nesting cups, or an empty plastic bottle.

According to this philosophy, the more passive the toy, the more active the child needs to be to play with it.

9. Praise 

RIE is not against praising children as has been reported. But instead of telling your child they are as talented as Rembrandt every time they pick up a crayon, Carlisle Solomon recommends praising kids for doing difficult social or process things like waiting, sharing or persistence.

In other instances, parents should ‘reflect what we see instead of praising.’ For example: ‘You got those rings apart’ or‘You put the nesting cups together.’

As with any parenting philosophy, it’s unlikely that every recommendation fits every family and every child. But amongst the other parenting trends from Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parenting, RIE seems pretty tame.

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of Thirty-Something and the Clock is Ticking: What happens when you can no longer ignore the baby