Recently a friend and I took our children to a local park. After some time together she turned to me and said, “You know, what I really like about your kids is how secure they are. They are so centered, so capable of dealing with things as they happen. They relate to adults from such a grounded position.” Pleased, of course, with her comments, I immediately reviewed for myself how my children came to be this way. My first response was, “That’s exactly the kind of people I want them to be!” It is easy to understand how someone could perceive Erin’s sense of herself at three-and-a-half because she has so many more ways of interacting with others, verbally and non-verbally, but it delighted me that my friend could see it also in Benjamin who is just thirteen months. This exchange reinforced for me the soundness of the RIE philosophy.
In an infant’s first twelve months, we focus on the building of trust/security and work towards autonomy as one of our goals. For infants, trust is developed through the way we handle them, how we speak to them, our ability to pick up the infants’ cues and communicate our own, offering choices whenever possible, and providing a stable environment, including predictable routines.
Consistency is a key principle in all of these areas. A consistent primary carer is one who spends more time with the infant than anyone else and who not only meets the infant’s demanding, constant physical needs but who has the interest, ability and time to observe everything about the infant with the intention of getting to know him or her. It is only in this manner, and not so much through the reading of child development manuals, that a parent or carer can really become an expert on a particular infant. In most cases the mother is the primary carer in the early months, but the father, sibling, friend or other relative can also become an expert by spending as much time observing and interacting with the infant as possible. One caution here is that the quality of time spent is as important as the quantity. A parent who spends time in focused activity and observation several times a day will reap greater results than one who is around all the time but who is usually preoccupied with housework, personal projects, or the telephone. In addition, it is important to allow an infant to spend some time alone in order to become acquainted with the sounds, smells, and visions of nature, home, and family and develop a way of relating at his or her own pace and style. Awake or asleep, infants can be left in a crib or a larger fenced-in area indoors or out for quite some time before they need a change in activity. Safety, of course, from well-intentioned but curious siblings, family pets or other potential dangers must be considered.
Respect is the second key principle in the development of trust/security. Before the infant appears on the scene, he or she is a real person, with particular individual needs and ways of expressing them. From the infant’s birth it is our job to recognize these needs, weigh them with our own, and respond to them in a respectable manner. While we feel it is essential to talk directly to infants and young children in every stage of development, many people find this difficult to do in actual practice. Many parents become impatient and can’t wait for an infant’s response, be it to their own greeting, the introduction of a new toy, or the rhythm and sequence of the child’s large motor development. All too often I cringe as parents give their children directives such as, “Wave goodbye. (forcing the child’s hand to wave).” or “Say thank you, Mary.” From experience I can say that if we trust our children and ourselves and provide good models for them they will eventually blossom and learn social graces on their own. I see no reason to treat them as puppets, and prefer to await their authentic actions and responses.
Put-downs, a form of disrespect which I have recently learned is a common occurrence in elementary school classrooms, occur in the youngest children’s lives as well. Sometimes they are direct such as, “What do you need again? You’re always so whiny?”, or indirect, such as a parent who, in the presence of the child, talks about them in the third person as if they weren’t even there. As parents, we all have a right to get frustrated at times, but we can try to do so without offending our children or betraying their sense of trust/security. Recently one frustrated mother, desperate for advice, spoke for about five minutes about her toddler’s behavior of the past week. When she was done I asked if she realized that the whole time she was talking, her child, who was present, was listening and probably understanding most of what was being said about her. The mother, surprised and somewhat embarrassed, began to step back and look at her daughter in a new light as someone who could participate in our conversation and whose feelings needed to be considered and respected. In parent/toddler classes we often hear parents comparing their children with comments such as, “Your baby walked at nine months? I wish mine would start walking. He’s so slow.” When we insist on doing things for children who are capable of helping themselves or doing things to them which they are not prepared to anticipate, such as picking them up from behind with no forewarning, we are giving non-verbal messages that we do not trust them or respect their own abilities and feelings.
Respecting infants includes trusting them to solve their own problems whenever possible, intervening selectively, and providing a predictable environment. Infants who are treated in a respectful and consistent manner ultimately enjoy their autonomy, are challenged by problems, come to trust adults and develop a secure sense of self which will remain with them through adulthood.
Educaring® Volume III / Number 2 / Spring 1982 / A Pocketful of RIE