Caring for Yourself

I recently took my son to a birthday party for a young friend of ours. As usual each child was accompanied by their parent(s). When it was time, the children were served and encouraged to eat some lunch, and then the adults served themselves. The children finished quickly, and resumed playing with each other. I noticed my friends (who are very attentive to their child), were eating lunch and visiting with other adults. They really seemed to be enjoying themselves. Half way through the meal, their 3 1/2 year old approached the mother and asked her to go with him and play the game with the other children. Looking down at her plate, she tapped her fork on her salad, put it down, got up and left the table to accompany the child to the play area.

I stopped, started to say something, and realized she was gone. I was surprised at her reaction, and I realized how much RIE had really changed my life. Perhaps if I hadn’t heard and been encouraged so often by Magda to also take care of myself, I might have jumped up to please my child too. Instead I could hear myself saying, I’m eating right now, and you’ll have to wait until I am finished.”

When I work in a therapeutic setting with families, I come in contact with parents who have”sacrificed” a great deal for their child(ren). They sacrifice time, money, sometimes their relationship(s) for the sake of the child. So often I hear about how their child doesn’t “appreciate” all they have done for him/her. When I hear this a red flag goes up and I immediately explore with the parents what they are doing for themselves. Usually they have neglected themselves so much that their lives revolve around the children, and there is little left for themselves as a couple or an individual. Often they feel resentful and angry and it hinders the relationship with their child(ten). They are always waiting for the child to say “thank you”, and truly “appreciate” all they have done.

The first time I took my son to RIE, I was struck by the encouragement we got as parents to make sure we got our needs met. Magda would encourage us to respect ourselves, as we respected our child. Learning this has been difficult at times, since all around us our experience is that we “should” sacrifice for our child(ren)! But when we sacrifice what is the price? For the parent they may begin to feel unappreciated, resentful and overwhelmed. For the child they may never learn to respect their parent as a human being with needs; they may feel that they have to do everything for their parent(s) since the parent “gave them so much”, or they may feel such power in the family that they are overwhelmed with all the responsibility.

What RIE has helped me to do is “internalize” that my basic needs are important too. It’s OK to finish eating, it’s OK to take my shoes off, change my clothes, and go to the bathroom, before I change that diaper. The payoff for me is that I feel nurtured, and I can then give back to my child without resentment, or anger. My child learns to respect my needs and others, while learning to respect himself. No one has to be martyred and everyone wins.

Educaring® Volume X / Number 4 / Fall 1989/A Pocketful Of RIE®

Setting Toddler Limits & Parent Permissiveness between First and Second Child

Today I had the rare chance to spend the day alone with Naomi. The day flowed slowly at her almost two-year-old rhythm. She took an hour bath, with plenty of time to overcome her reluctance at each rinse; I watched as she sorted and resorted all her clothes, then tried to put her feet into her shirt sleeves. Together we walked up and down the main street in town, pausing long to watch the birds in the store window, and returning ritualistically to see them on the way home. She was the leader, I the follower. Yet I was able to say, “no, I don’t want to read anymore” when I’d read my quota at the bookstore, and Naomi scooted off the bench and climbed onto the rocking horse; and when we reached the car I was able to say “I want to go right now. You can climb up on the car seat or I can pick you up,” knowing that Naomi knew I meant what I said and that she would shortly comply in her way.

With my first child I was not able to shift rhythms, to move so easily from the child’s point of view to the adult’s. Like Alice in Wonderland, I tumbled into his world unprepared and tried to follow his lead. When I was with him I gave in totally to being with him, trying to facilitate what he wanted, as if I were a nurturing environment for him rather than a parent and person in my own right. Eating breakfast, getting dressed and ready to go in the morning could take hours—and did, regularly. When his “needs were met” (the words I so often used) I dressed quickly, furtively, leading one friend to say that I looked as though I didn’t take good care of myself—and I didn’t. I was there only for him, nurturing him at my own expense.

Yet there were also rewards for me in this style of mothering. I was a sensitive and patient observer and enjoyed entering into my child’s world. There was excitement for me in the fine tuning of waiting for him to make a choice, of finding a way in which a limit could be acceptable to him, usually after much patient waiting and many alternatives. My difficulties began when my son began to want to test his strength as a separate person in the months before his second birthday and I was not a strong enough parent for him to test himself against. Instead of listening to what he wanted, being clear about what were acceptable alternatives and staying good humoredly firm with some compromises now and then , I would bend myself out of shape trying to please him, to “make things ok for him.” He, of course, could not tolerate that amount of power, and the more I gave in the more outrageous his demands became. I became the adult kneeling at the feet of a tyrannical toddler. That phase of our mutual dependence ended not in a gentle letting-go, but in an explosion. We are still painfully relearning how to be together simply, how to take turns leading and following. Relearning is hard.

Fortunately I have grown since my first child, and understand better what I learned in my internship with Magda Gerber. I have learned the hard way that the empathy that came so easily to me needed to be balanced by a clear, firm adult presence. Quality time emphasizes proceeding at the child’s rhythm without giving in to all of the child’s wants. With my second child I am unambivalently clear that I am the parent, and, while I give her quality time and try to respect her wishes, ultimately, I am in charge. I experience a sense of ease, relaxation and freedom in this relationship that I did not experience trying to be just a facilitator to my son. While I am still mostly “Mama” to my daughter, I sense that she is growing up respecting me as a person, too.

I entered parenthood eagerly, after years of teaching young children. How could I have gone so far wrong in knowing what it means to be a parent? In looking back, I sense that I identified with the child in me more than with the parent. That identification led me to interpret “letting children grow at their own speed” or “letting them move on to new experiences (e.g., weaning, separation, toilet training) when they’re ready” to mean that any adult intervention was probably harmful and that I should follow my child’s lead whenever possible, because he instinctively knew what was best. While identifying with a child is perfectly acceptable and recommended, merging totally or over-identification is not.

However, children need more than unqualified acceptance. They need more than their own reality reflected back to them. They need parents who appreciate children’s experience yet are not children, but adults, with adult needs and an adult point of view. We have all come to appreciate people who were important to us, but who were detached enough from us to facilitate our growth in a direction that we were unable to perceive. A mother who has decided to wean her child can, without making the mistake of setting her child on a rigid timetable, provide a cup, nurse her child at regular times, gradually eliminate nursings, and then, at what she feels is the appropriate time, say “We’re going to stop nursing now.” If she can initiate this kind of gradual, responsive weaning, she and her child will probably have less disappointment to cope with than if she, in effect, says, ‘You tell me when it’s time to stop nursing and how to stop.” Instead of assuming that in order to enter the child’s world we must remember that in the child’s world there is a place for us as adults—patient, impatient; sensitive, grouchy; often in charge.

As parents we can best enter the child’s world in observation and special moments where we can glimpse the child’s reality and appreciate it, but not attempt to stay. I feel some poignancy in realizing this, for I have experienced a deep tenderness in holding and rocking a child to sleep and remembering that trust and surrender, and I have felt an aching beauty in seeing the world through my child’s eyes. Yet I cannot give in to this over-identification, for to do so makes me a child again, and to be the most effective parent to my children I cannot be a child. I am sometimes sad that my children will never know me as the child that I was, that I cannot go down Alice’s rabbit hole again. I can, however, take special pleasure in following Naomi, for I know that I do so as part of a larger dance in which I also lead. 

By Diana Rothman

Diana was a RIE Associate and an Instructor in the Family Life Program at Cabrillo College in Santa Cruz, CA. At the time of the article, Diana was the mother of Does, age 5, and Naomi, age 2.

Educaring® Volume II / Number 2 / Spring 1981

Dear Magda:

From parents who have taken your Parent-Infant Guidance classes, I heard that you indeed respect the babies’ choices—that they are allowed, even encouraged, to do what they want to do. My question is: isn’t this too permissive? How will these infants ever learn discipline?

Dear Parent:

It seems to me that you have learned about one aspect of the RIE philosophy, without having been made aware of the whole picture. At RIE, we certainly believe in the benefits of discipline, for both parents and infants. The word discipline has different meanings, both according to the dictionary and in people’s minds. Parents often think of it as punishment, corporal or otherwise, or as a system of punishments and rewards. I see discipline as being a social contract, in which family (or community) members agree to accept and obey a particular set of rules. We need discipline just as we need traffic signs, and we have a mutual expectation that these red, yellow, and green lights will be observed in the same way by all members. Living within a system of generally accepted rules makes life easier for all of us. While rules vary among cultures and among families, I think most people would agree that a mutually acceptable system of rules is necessary for co-existence. This system can be determined within each family by clarifying the needs of its members and then developing a set of rules or guidelines which accommodates those needs as much as possible. After deciding on the rules, a parent must then introduce them to the child and reinforce them. The question is how? My guidelines for the ‘how’ are as follows:

1) Establish a few, simple, reasonable rules and make sure they are age-appropriate;

2) Expect these rules to be obeyed;

3) Be consistent but not rigid;

4) Give the child choices within a secure framework;

5) Remember that even children (especially children) need to be able to save face and avoid power struggles.

Let me talk about each one of these guidelines. First of all, remember that discipline is not a set of rigidly enforced mandates, but a process in which the child learns to become a social being. Social learning, like any other form of learning, is dependent upon the child’s capacities. Don’t expect things of a child that are against the very nature of her current developmental stage. To expect a newborn not to cry, a very young baby not to put things in her mouth, or a toddler not to say no is unreasonable. Also, timing is an important factor. One can’t expect cooperation from a sleepy or hungry baby.

“Knowing when to give infants
freedom and when to introduce limits
is most important and is the
backbone of the RIE approach.”

The second guideline concerns expectations as well. In my practice I have seen that a child’s response to parental demands depends very much upon the parents’ own deep-down expectations. The way a demand is expressed triggers the child to do something or not to do it. If the parent doesn’t really believe in the validity of a particular rule, or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child won’t.

The third guideline calls for consistency. Predictability is habit-forming, and the formulation of habits makes it much easier to live with rules. There are some things we don’t need or want to re-examine every time we do them, such as brushing our teeth. It’s much more convenient for us if actions like these become second nature. Because very young children do not understand the reasons behind the rules they are expected to follow, it is better if these rules become simply a matter of course. For example, it is much easier to get a baby to go to sleep when the same schedule and routine precedes each night’s bedtime. This should continue until the child herself indicates the need for some sort of change. In addition, we all know how difficult it is to change habits once we have them. For this reason alone we should try to establish good habits from the very beginning. This is why I tell parents to start establishing patterns and routines right from the child’s birth. Through regularity of routines, babies eventually learn to anticipate that which is expected of them. This is the beginning of discipline.

The fourth guideline refers to choice within boundaries. Boundaries which are predictably and consistently reinforced provide security. In order to really develop inner discipline, children must be given the freedom to make choices. Knowing when to give infants freedom and when to introduce limits is most important and is the backbone of the RIE approach. We need to remember that limits function as traffic signals, keeping things flowing smoothly between family members. Within this framework are those things a child is expected to do (non-negotiable areas), what she is allowed to do (negotiable areas), what is tolerated (“I don’t really like that, but I can understand why you need to do it.”), and what is forbidden.

These are the parameters of discipline. Within these parameters are what 1 perceives as being inviolable areas of choice. Babies have an inborn capacity to make healthful choices about how they want to move and learn. They should be provided with safe, appropriately-sized rooms in which they can move and explore freely. Their use of objects and play materials should not be restricted, governed, or overly interfered with. Babies must have freedom of choice in the area of gross motor development and manipulation.

One can further enhance the child’s sense of himself as a decision-maker by allowing enough time to elapse after requesting something, so that the child can decide on his own whether or not to cooperate. This leads to the fifth guideline. If a child spends hours playing uninterruptedly, he will be much more willing to cooperate with the demands of his parent. If he doesn’t have to fight for autonomy, he can comfortably relinquish it once in a while. And we must understand that children need to be able to save face when they have not obeyed a rule. Children fight an inner struggle. One part of them wants to please, yet they also have to resist in order to test the limits of their power. 

“if the parent doesn’t really believe in the validity of a particular rule, or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child won’t.”

In a way, each one of us carries around that eternal two-year-old, who shouts “no” as he is offered an ice-cream cone, even while reaching for it. None of us really likes to be told what to do, even when it is good for us.

In our Parent-Infant Guidance classes we like to model how we teach and reinforce rules. We have a snack for the older babies at a special table around which the demonstrator and the babies sit. Children may choose between items to eat or drink, and may choose not to have a snack, but they may not take food, juice, or bottles away from the table. It is an incredible learning experience for all of us to see how even the youngest infants learn the rule and decide whether or not to obey it. After many repetitions of the rule they get the message and then have to test it over and over again. We’ve often seen a baby or toddler steal away from the table and then turn back to make sure that the demonstrator sees her, as though she were checking to see whether the rule would be enforced. This shows that the child understands that a rule exists.

It is natural for children to carry food away from the table. They can see no real reason not to. When a child ignores the rule, the demonstrator tries to show that she fully understands the child’s desire to do what he wants, and that he is not naughty or bad for having that desire. Therefore, she does not get angry with the child, but calmly and unemotionally repeats the rule.

Of course, we understand parents who get irritated after their toddlers play with the television set after being told “no” several times. But it becomes easier to handle once one realizes that the child’s behavior stems from a natural inclination and not from a desire to drive the parent crazy.

So, as you can see, dear parent, the RIE approach to discipline is not permissive, but understanding. Children, like adults, need rules and guidelines. I conceptualize discipline as being a system based on and facilitative of mutual respect among family members. We could easily exchange the word ‘discipline’ for the word ‘educaring’—they are both a combination of learning and nurturance. The goal is inner or self-discipline, self confidence, and joy in the act of cooperation.

Note: for more ideas on discipline, please read pages 103-106 in the manual, Resources for Infant Educarers, edited by Magda Gerber.


Educaring® Volume III, Number 3, Summer 1982

Dear Magda,

I work in an infant day care center and my daughter Alicia, 13 months old, is also at the center. We have a boy, 19 months, who bites. He is the terror of the children, the staff and the parents. We’ve tried everything. We had a special meeting to figure out how to handle Rick. Some of the advice has been to bite him back, tie a cloth over his mouth, put him into time out, or tell his mother not to bring him until he stops biting. I do not feel comfortable with any of these solutions. Why does he bite? How can we help Rick?

Dear Parent,

Biters are the problems of many families and real trouble in group settings. The problem usually begins when the peacefully-nursing mother first gets bitten by her suckling infant. A loud “ouch” and withdrawal of the breast lets the baby know that she does not like to be bitten. Infants first bite because biting comes naturally, because their gums are itchy, and their teeth are coming in. When they get a strong reaction it is interesting to try to elicit it over and over again. It is fun. Like mouthing, biting is instinctual. Erik Erikson describes it as the oral-aggressive phase of infancy. Because it is instinctual, adults respond to it with more anger, anxiety and vengeance than to other aggressive acts. Outbursts like “I’ll bite you back so you’ll feel how it hurts,” or “Don’t you bite ever again!” are common. The absurdity of the demand “Don’t you bite ever again!” was terrifyingly illustrated by a little autistic child who indeed stopped biting altogether and changed his normal eating habits into swallowing only pureed food.

Of course, our reactions and remediation would be different depending on the age of the child, the frequency of the biting, the situation in which it occurs and the basic well-being and mood of the child—whether the child seems reasonably happy, or irritable much of the time. While in early infancy biting is rather exploratory, toddlers bite when frustrated, angry, or tired. Young children want what they want right away with no delay. This is the very nature of childhood. Waiting can be too upsetting. Sometimes frustration builds up over a period of time. Young children may become irritable because their basic needs are not met properly. Too much stimulation or poor timing may interfere with the biological rhythm, preventing them from sleeping when sleepy or eating when hungry. Parents may have difficulty coordinating their activities and providing a predictable environment for the baby. If a child shows other signs of frustration, I would look at his daily life to discover the source of his overall maladjustment and change it. If I have to deal with a chronic biter who intimidates other children, I must use sensitive but strong strategy. Not only are the other children scared of the biter, the biter is even more scared of his potential power to harm. Both “victim” and “aggressor” need to feel that the adult is in charge and can protect them.

I will describe how I handled our notorious two year-old biter. His mother was desperate. She said that as soon as the children saw her son, Andy, on the playground, they ran away from him. Andy and four other children in his group came once a week for two hours to our infant program. When I first saw Andy bite, I told him calmly but firmly, “I will not let you bite any child or big person. If you feel like biting, here are things (teething rings, rubber or plastic objects, etc.) you can bite.” From then on I watched him very closely in order to predict what would trigger his aggressiveness and prevent him from doing it. When I sensed he was getting out of control, I would hold him firmly but not punitively, telling him that I would not let him bite, and he needed to learn to trust me. He eventually relaxed and I let go of him. At times Andy was playfully chewing on a plastic donut, part of a stacking toy. Once Andy got upset and started to run across the room to find his “biting ring.” Lo and behold, another child inadvertently crossed his way. This was too much for Andy and he bit her. I said to Andy, “I saw you wanted to get your ring but it was too far and Tammy got in your way. How about tying your ring on your neck* so you will have it right there when you need it?” Andy was so proud of his own biting ring that all the other children asked to have one tied around their necks, too. This lasted for a little while and was the end of any biting in that group.

*Magda describes making the biting ring available at that time. Today we have clips that allow us to attach a biting ring to the pants or shirt and this would provide a safer biting solution.

Biting_Dear Magda/Dear Parent 

Educaring® Volume II / Number 2 / Spring 1981