Our Parenting Approach
I really never thought I would be a parent. When I did get pregnant (and not accidentally!) I spent months putting together the perfect birth plan and getting myself ready for a natural delivery – I was determined to avoid a C-section. I was lucky and things did go according to plan and while my labor was long (36 hours from start to finish; 13 hours of hard work and 3 hours of pushing) it was medically uncomplicated and both Carys and I came out of it in great shape.
The birth was so unlike anything I’d ever done before that I put all that time and effort into mental and physical preparation because I wanted to be as sure as I could that things would go well. I didn’t really read all that much about parenting philosophies or styles – I figured I had 18 years to work on that part!
We bumbled along for the first few months; we swaddled (seemed to help a lot), bounced (it stopped her crying, but now I wonder if it’s just because she was disoriented?), swung (the swinging, lights, and music would derail a screaming fit – it was like magic!), propped, and stood her up. Evenings were hard, and sometimes the only way we could get her to stop crying would be to Happiest Baby on the Block her.
When Carys was about four months old, our friends Shawna and John came for a visit from out of town with their 18 month-old son, Jack. At one point Jack went running down the hallway toward our bedroom door, which was open. Shawna called after him “Please don’t go in there, Jack; that room is private. You can come into the nursery or go back to the living room.” Jack stopped on the threshold of our bedroom, peeked in, and then turned around and ran back to the living room.
“How did you do that?” I asked, incredulous.
They told me to read Magda Gerber’s Your Self-Confident Baby, and it was like I’d found my parenting home. I’d already been thinking about discipline, and how to have kids who don’t rule the roost while also not being The Parent Who Always Says No.
Gerber’s theory, known as Resources for Infant Educarers (or RIE) – views the child as a competent person worthy of respect, not as a helpless thing for whom everything must be done. We started a little late, but I’ve heard of families who have used RIE from birth and who always tell the child “I’m going to pick you up” before doing so, and at three months old the child stiffens her neck when she hears those words, in preparation for being picked up. Over time we got rid of the rocker and the bouncer, and started offering Carys simple toys and letting her play on a blanket – including in a hotel in Vancouver, on the floor of a car rental office during an interminable wait, and on the floor of an airport.
Sometimes I mourn the loss of those early days when I despaired at my ability to calm her; I remember telling someone that Carys wouldn’t ‘let me’ cook dinner because when I left her on the blanket in the living room she would start to cry. But I read somewhere that ‘when we learn better, we do better’ – those early days are gone and the best I can do is move forward with the intent to develop and nurture the respectful relationship I want to have with her moving forward. Now I know that it’s not about her ‘letting me’ do something; it’s about me meeting her needs to the best of my ability but also helping her to meet her own needs, as well as having my needs, and meeting those to the best of my ability as well.
One of the things I love most about RIE is that it allows for respect for me as a person, and not just as a mother.
The idea of a relationship based in respect really spoke to me, and it has become the cornerstone of my relationship with Carys. Some of the ways we put it into practice are:
- We don’t say things to her that we wouldn’t say to an adult.
- We explain what we’re going to do before we do it. (“You’re not feeling well and I’m worried you’re too hot. I’m going to put this thermometer in your ear to check your temperature. You’ll hear a beep, but it won’t hurt. Here; I’ll put it in my ear first to show you.”
- We offer two acceptable options. (“We need to change your diaper now. Would you like to walk to your room or would you like me to carry you?”)
- We say “I don’t want you to…” or “I won’t let you…” to undesirable behavior. We add a “because” if it’s appropriate.
- We try to minimize the number of times we have to ask her not to do something by mostly-childproofing our home and completely childproofing her bedroom, which is what’s known as a ‘Yes Space’ – somewhere we never have to say ‘no’ to her. The idea is that I could get locked out of the house for an hour and if she was in her Yes Space she would likely be upset when I got back but would be completely unharmed. She spends several periods per day engaged in independent play in her Yes Space.
- We don’t try to entertain her: instead we balance time together where we’re focused on her with time apart when she plays by herself.
- We don’t try to stop her from crying. If she hurts herself, we ask her if she wants a hug before giving one. We don’t attempt to distract her or tell her to ‘cheer up;’ we let her feel whatever she’s feeling and move on when she’s ready.
- We don’t ‘help’ her any more than she needs, or warn her many times to ‘be careful.’ She is now extremely agile and very aware of her body and how she can use it.
- We don’t force her to share with other kids, or to apologize when a ‘wrong’ has occurred (or force other kids to apologize to her). We model these actions and trust that she will do them genuinely when she is ready.
- We’ve learned that rewards and punishment are essentially the opposite ends of the same continuum; one that tries to coerce children into what the parents want them to do. Instead we use our relationship to guide Carys’ behavior, and we try to never say “Good Job.”
To be sure, there are areas where RIE didn’t sit well with me and we chose a different path. Some of these instances included:
- Baby-led weaning
- Using a high chair for some meals rather than a low table and stools (which we use for finger food meals and snacks)
- Baby sign language
But in general our approach is to use RIE unless we see a good reason not to. I’m so proud of our relationship with Carys and the girl she’s becoming.
If you’re interested in learning more about our parenting philosophy, I suggest the following books/websites:
- Your Self-Confident Baby; Magda Gerber
- Unconditional Parenting; Alfie Kohn
- Punished by Rewards; Alfie Kohn (which expands on the Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job” article)
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk; Faber & Mazlish
- The Whole-Brain Child; Daniel J. Seigel
- Your Child’s Growing Mind; Jane Healy