What I Learned In Our At Home RIE Session (#RIE, #infancy, #education, #parenting, #philosophy)

Earlier this week we hosted a RIE-sponsored seminar, “Before Baby” at our home. The seminar organizer asked each of us to journal about our time together and what we took away from the lesson. In no particular order, here are some of the reflections I had.

Infancy is an active developmental stage for child and parent alike. Although not capable of verbal communication, the infant is rapidly assimilating to a brand new world and is not only deeply observant but deeply capable of interpreting its environment and sensory input and forming meaningful relationships with the world around it, including the people in it such as its parents. It is a huge mistake for parents and other adults to view the infant in this moment as helpless, unresponsive or otherwise dull or ignorant of these early experiences. The infant is in the process of becoming an interdependent adult and it is doing this difficult work all on its own– it is anything but helpless or ignorant, although it is dependent in various ways.

For the parents, this is a time of habit formation. In what ways will they learn to habituate their behavior toward their child? With what respect will they conduct themselves toward this new member of their family? And as what kind of model will they illustrate their values and beliefs to this watchful eye? It is also a time for meaningful connection to their child through the acts of caregiving and observation. Seemingly mundane tasks such as clothing, feeding, washing and changing the child can be just that, or they can be something more– the fundamental basis of the relationship that is now forming, to be treated with dignity, concern and attention. Will the parents learn to be fully present in their child’s life, even when their child can not share what that presentness means to them personally? Or will they convince themselves they can have a deep connection to another person without actually putting that work in?

Our organizer encouraged us to think about the phrase “Slow down!” Infancy doesn’t last forever, and in the course of the total relationship with one’s child (40, 50, maybe 60 or 70 years if one is lucky) it is a fleeting moment that is soon lost. Take it in, appreciate it, make the most of it. Slowing down also means learning to wait before intervening. Give the infant some credit for finding its own way in a difficult situation– it is learning basic problem-solving skills and techniques in this time which are fundamental to not only its intellectual functioning but also its self-esteem and identity. Don’t take that away from the infant by insisting on doing everything for it.

We watched a couple videos together, produced by the RIE foundation. One was a collection of distilled wisdom by Magda Gerber, the progenitor of the RIE approach. Another was a demonstration of infants at play, showing their interesting physical and intellectual capabilities that are so easily overlooked. The essence of each video was this– if we give infants respect in terms of what they are uniquely capable of at this moment in their lives, we might well be amazed. Balancing, climbing, walking, crawling, socializing, they’re really quite accomplished in their own way and seem to need less of our help (as adults) as we might like to think. It’s important that they have their own world in which they can move at their own pace and explore their own needs.

We briefly explored the RIE practice of “sportscasting”, narrating interactions with the infant. As Magda Gerber put it, people have no problem doing this with their dogs (“Oh, you’re very hungry, I am putting your food together and then I will feed you, please wait.”) but they shy away from this simple communication with their children lest they or others think they’re strange for talking to a being that can’t talk back. But infants are not deaf! They can and do listen and sportscasting not only teaches the parents to see their children as participants in caregiving and family life, but it also gives these little observers an opportunity to connect cause and effect and see predictability in their lives.

We also talked about the place of RIE in a larger parenting framework. Can you take what you want from RIE? Can you follow other parenting philosophies as well or is RIE it? RIE seems to be a valuable set of core ideas about relating to infants and children that is not only useful now and extensible later, but which is potentially valuable in relationships with grown adults and which doesn’t seem to come into direct conflict with other values or beliefs. If RIE is wrong, does that make its opposites right? Can we imagine a world where treating infants with disrespect is good for children and parents? What would the benefit be of that approach?

RIE may or may not be a hard sell when it comes to communicating about it with people who are unfamiliar with the principles. Rather than trying to argue or convince people it is right, it is best for RIE adherents to simply model the RIE behavior and let it speak for itself.

Review – The Secret Of Childhood (#education, #childhood, #Montessori, #philosophy)

The Secret of Childhood

by Maria Montessori, published 1936, 1982

If you’re looking for a “how-to” on the Montessori Method, this isn’t it. What this book is is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of Maria Montessori’s view of the child in society, based upon some of her historical experiences and study of related social research.

Although this book was published long ago, Montessori’s revelation appears to be, by and large, still a secret. Sadly, it is not just a cultural secret. Even in the West, and particularly the United States, where her ideas seem to have the strongest following, the parenting and educational mainstreams seem to have done little to absorb Montessori’s insights into both theory and practice. If Montessori was correct in her discovery, then it says something both appalling and demoralizing about the failure of society to integrate such important truths. So, what is this “secret”?

The secret of childhood is that it is a period of time during which the child works, not to assimilate himself into society, but to assimilate himself into himself. We hear echoes of Max Stirner (1806-1856, Germany) in Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italy), for example, compare Stirner,

school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.

to Montessori,

Adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction… the adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded… An adult who acts this way… unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.

or to Montessori’s son, Mario, from the preface,

Man has discovered flight, he has discovered atomic energy, but he has failed to discover himself.

or to Margaret Stephenson, a Montessori instructor, from the foreword,

How can one learn through group play what it means to be a mother, father, space pilot, dog, when one does not yet know what it mean’s to be one’s self?

This psychic development of the child, a “universal” as Montessori puts it, into an individuated person, the man, unfolds along a predetermined path dictated by nature.

Childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made.

That is not to say that man’s childhood development is deterministic, but that there is a logic and a succession of predictable stages and events to it, much like a caterpillar becomes a cocoon and then a butterfly.

The place an animal will have in the universe can be seen at birth. We know that one animal will be peaceful since it is a lamb, that another will be fierce because it is a lion cub, that one insect will toil without ceasing since it is an ant, and that another will do nothing but sing in solitude since it is a locust. And just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species… A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.

And the implication of this fact is that the child, in his childhood, has special needs during this period of development which will allow this process of psychic development to occur without obstruction or injury, ranging from the suitability of his environment, to the tools and instruments he has at his use, to the way he is interacted with and communicated with by adults, who he sees as omnipotent, almost magical, beings of power and authority. (Isn’t it funny to stop for a moment and consider how sure of ourselves and the nature and limits of the adults around us we are, and how truly mysterious any of this was when we first made our way into the world as small children? Just ponder that for a moment if you’re having trouble grasping the significance of Montessori’s “secret”.)

What are some of these differences and needs between children and adults? The first is understanding the significance of work to each. For adults, work is a means to obtain a fixed and known goal, and the general idea is to work efficiently, that is, to get the highest yield in terms of outcome for the smallest amount of resources and energy expended. But for children, the purpose of work is to learn about the self– work is not performed to obtain an income, or to be fed, or to avoid a threat, but rather work is performed to experience the psychic benefit of knowing how to perform the work.

An adult walks to reach some external goal and he consequently heads straight for it… An infant, one the other hand, walks to perfect his own proper functions, and consequently his goal is something creative within himself.

In working, a child applies their intellect to the world, they come to understand their power and ability as a person to influence and change the world more to their liking, a fact that mature adults take for granted.

His hands under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world.

Because of this, a child may be seen to work “aimlessly”, or “inefficiently”, or “incompetently”, but this observation is made from the point of view of an adult which is not applicable to the child and their psychic purpose in working. Montessori relates how adults who are finished working are typically tired and in need of rest or recreational stimulation, whereas children who are finished working are exhilarated and self-satisfied at accomplishing whatever it was inside of their psyche that compelled them to perform their work.

Another need is the need for separate property. Children exist in a world created by adults, for the benefit of adults and adults can be capricious with their property and arrangements in ways that are befuddling and intimidating to children. Everything in the child’s world (for example, in the home) belongs to the adults– the furniture, which is sized for the adults; the dishware and glassware and silverware, which is sized for the adults; the books, the clothes, the walls, the art, even the pets!

[An adult is tempted to overvalue his material possessions when they’re being handled by a child, such as with a glass of water being carried by his child.] The adult who does this may even be very wealthy and intent upon increasing his fortunes many times over in order to make his son still more wealthy than himself. But for the moment he esteems a glass as something of greater value than the child’s activity and seeks to prevent its being broken [and so interferes needlessly with the child’s development in stopping him from his activity with the glass].

Montessori describes the adults as “kings”, who may of occasion grant the child a right to temporary use of the king’s property, but never the right to possess the property themselves.

An adult, however high or low he may be, is always a powerful being in comparison with a child.

The child can feel as if it lives only at the mercy and privilege of the king. The child is constantly being instructed and informed how to use something, what to touch and what not to touch, to keep away from this or to go be near that. The child needs some of its own things, in sizes and qualities specific to its uses, so that it may explore and understand and “work” in the world around itself without constantly being in conflict with the adults.

An adult is constantly interrupting the child and breaking into his environment. This powerful being directs the child’s life without ever consulting the child himself. And this lack of consideration makes the child think that his own activities are of no value.

A final need is for adults to appreciate the differences in perceptive faculties of children, who, as Montessori describes, pay attention to details not just different in magnitude, but in kind.

A child’s psychic personality is far different from our own, and it is different in kind and not simply degree.

Adults are accustomed to looking at the world and paying attention to details in a particular way based upon their individual goals, ambitions, professional outlook, educational level, etc. etc. But children often pay attention to details quite differently, and in ways that conflict with adult perceptions or treat them as non-sensical or unimportant.

Children an adults are in possession of two different mental outlooks… Adults frequently attempt to point out ordinary objects to three- or four-year-old children as if they had never seen anything before. But this must have the same effect on a child as one shouting at another whom he thinks to be deaf [who is not so].

An adult may wish to draw a child’s attention to the beach and the ocean, but the child is fascinated by a tiny bug crawling across the sand. Adults are often quick to pass judgment on the child in these moments, as if they are “wrong” for not being interested in what the adult wants them to be interested in, or even questioning their intelligence or development when they seem incapable of taking such an interest. But as with work, observation serves a different purpose for the child than for the adult– it is not to satisfy his desire for recreation, or to attend to a productive goal, but to stimulate his psyche according to these innate, natural needs of his development.

Here are some other interesting quotes I collected:

  • The child is a universal… There is, in reality, only the child of all times, of all races, heir to tradition, hander-on of history, crucible of culture, pathway to peace.
  • The absorption of culture, of customs, of ideas, ideals, of sentiments, feelings, emotions, religion, take place during the period of the absorbent mind, in the child from zero to six.
  • We should try to understand that there is an intelligible reason behind a child’s activities. He does nothing without some reason, some motive… A child does not simply run, jump and handle things without purpose and thus create havoc about the house… Knowledge always precedes movement. When a child wishes to do something, he knows beforehand what it is. [A very Misesian idea!]
  • An adult’s avarice, which makes him jealously defend whatever he owns, is concealed under “the duty of properly educating one’s child.” [What Stirner would refer to as a “spook”, or a mental hobgoblin an adult uses to frighten his own psyche and thus prevent himself for taking ownership over his actions.]
  • When a child moves slowly, an adult feels compelled to intervene by substituting his own activity for that of the child. But in acting thus an adult, instead of assisting a child in his psychic needs, substitutes himself in all the actions which the child would like to carry out by himself.
  • What an adult tells a child remains engraved on his mind as if it had been cut in marble.
  • When a child is disobedient or has a tantrum an adult should always call to mind the conflict and try to interpret it as a defense of some unknown vital activity necessary for the child’s development.
  • Toys furnish a child with an environment that has no particular goal and, as a consequence, they cannot provide it with any real mental concentration but only illusions.
  • Before anyone can assume a responsibility, he must be convinced that he is the master of his own actions and have confidence in himself.

I enjoyed reading this book, it stimulated MY psyche and made an impression upon me in terms of how much more there is to think and know about this subject than what I possess currently. I also enjoyed the archaicness of it, Montessori writes like a civilized person of years gone by, speaking articulately and frankly about the world around her without apology and with much conviction and passion for her subject, something which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in our world of sterile, clinical academics reluctant to take a position on anything of import. But it was not always an easy read and it was fairly repetitious. I will likely come back to the book at some point to re-read certain passages that I found hard to appreciate without an experience of raising a child myself. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend this as an “essential” title for someone looking to up their parenting game unless I already knew they were more philosophical in their approach.

3/5

 

Review – Your Self-Confident Baby (#parenting, #RIE, #infancy, #children, #respect)

Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities

by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998

I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.

The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:

  • Major premise; your baby comes built in with the tools it needs to learn and navigate its environment, and will create its own learning problems and discover its own solutions when given freedom to explore the world at its own pace
  • Minor premise; good parenting is less about what you put in early on and more about what you don’t, especially with regards to worry, anxiety and active interventionism

This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:

  • American parenting; your baby may be capable of great and wonderful things (which you implicitly choose for it), but like a Calvinist, you will only know for sure if you actively work to develop these talents and capabilities in your child. Failing to do so means risking that your child will turn out to be not one of the Elect, but a poor loser, or worse, quite average and content
  • Asian parenting; babies are stupid and a constant and confusing source of pride and worry for their parents, and if they are not condescended constantly almost from the moment they are born, they risk becoming ingrates, drug users, or worse, free thinkers, rather than guided automatons with eternal respect for their revered elders

American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?

So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.

But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.

Gerber offers these basic principles:

  • basic trust in the child to be an initiator, an explorer and a self-learner
  • an environment for the child that is physically safe, cognitively challenging, and emotionally nurturing
  • time for uninterrupted play
  • freedom to explore and interact with other infants
  • involvement of the child in all care-giving activities to allow them to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient
  • sensitive observation of the child to understand their needs
  • consistency and clearly defined limits and expectations to develop discipline

Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.

Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.

According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?

Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.

This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!

Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:

  • As parents, our role in our baby’s development is primarily trust
  • Our relationship will be forever embedded in our child’s psyche as her model of love and the ideal she’ll seek for future intimate bonds
  • The secret to connecting is to meet children where they are
  • Grieving people want and need to be heard, not fixed
  • A nice bedtime habit to start with your child is to recapture the day… You can also mention what will happen tomorrow. This connects the past, present and future and gives her life a connected flow
  • Since our lifespan is getting longer, why not slow down?
  • We don’t think twice about interrupting infants and toddlers, mostly because we don’t think to value what they are doing
  • Babies are dependent, not helpless
  • “Readiness is when they [the baby] do it.” “When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it himself.”
  • Instead of teaching words, use them
  • “Don’t ask children a question you know the answer to”
  • Purposefully inflicting pain on a child can not be done with love

4/5