Whether or not you feel the the infant/toddler parenting philosophy known as RIE (Resources for Infant Educaring)® is a good fit for you, there are small but powerful lessons to be learned by those who do take on this sometimes challenging but deeply rewarding work. Perhaps the most life-changing of all is the ever-increasing data, anecdotal though it may be, about how much we say that infants–even very young infants–and toddlers really understand. For me, this is never highlighted more clearly than when it the converse is witnessed, usually quite by accident.
This afternoon, I was in Walgreens. It was about 3 in the afternoon. There was a woman behind me in line with a child who was probably about 2 1/2. The child was clearly “fussy” (since I only saw them at the register, I have no way of knowing whether the fussing was brought on by fatigue (that’s a rough time of day for toddlers), wanting to buy something and being told no, hunger, or something else entirely.) It doesn’t really matter. The child was whining and grunting, sort of on the edge of screaming, but not quite there. The mother was trying to hold the child (I didn’t see if the child had asked to be picked up, or if it was an effort to keep her from running away, or something else), and was repeating “Shush” many times. It seemed to have no effect whatsoever. The behavior and squirming continued. “Shush”. It wasn’t harsh. And it wasn’t sweet. It wasn’t quiet or shouted. It was just matter of fact. “Shush”. It was the only thing that was said. The mother looked stressed. The whining and grunting continued. I smiled sympathetically at the mom, as I usually do in such situations. It’s hard to be a parent, especially in a store in the late afternoon.
Of course, I can make no assumptions and form no conclusions about what happened, about what usually happens, or about whether a different tactic would have worked differently. But I can wonder. And I did. And do.
Having watched RIE in practice for so many children for so many years, my mind just goes straight to reflection and what Magda Gerber called “sportscasting” when I see a parent-child interaction that looks stressful for either or both of them.
Again, I can’t know. It might not have made any difference. But I still wonder. I wonder whether it would have made any difference in the squirming, whining, and grunting if the mom had reflected back, in a calm voice, what the child was experiencing (along with a limit, if applicable) things like “It’s hard when you want something and you can’t have it,” “You want to run around the store, but I can’t let you do that because it’s not safe,” or “You’re hungry. We will be going home as soon as we buy this, and you can have something to eat,”, or even, just very simply, “I see that you’re upset,” or “I hear you.”
It is hard, in moments like these, to forget that I have watched hundreds upon hundreds of interactions of this sort over the years, and I have witnessed, over and over again, children’s markedly different reactions when they are recognized and validated for what they are expressing. I have seen children stop the negative behavior almost instantaneously upon someone reflecting back their emotion, saying, in essence, “I see you, I hear you.”. Isn’t that we all want?
It works. It really works. It works with one month old infants (yes, really). It works with children who are getting increasingly agitated in restaurants, impatient to get their food. We try so many things. We say “your food will be here in a few minutes,” and of course our intention is to be reassuring. Have you tried it? When you are in a restaurant with a young child, who is getting increasingly fussy, really needing something to eat (and even toys or distractions aren’t working) , have you tried looking directly at them, and in a calm and empathic way, saying “It’s hard to wait”? I have tried and watched parents try everything under the sun in such a stressful situation, when we really want the food to come NOW. And I have never seen anything work like “It’s hard to wait.” (Incidentally, saying it out loud also validates and calms our OWN frustration about the food not coming yet.)
Of course, RIE doesn’t hold the monopoly on this sort of strategy. Thomas Gordon teaches parents to use Active Listening. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich teach us to “reflect back” what children are feeling (if you haven’t read their book, you should!) They all work similarly. Some of us find some of the wording of traditional active listening a little awkward…but to be fair, doing this at all feels awkward when you first start. But it gets better! As for me, I have found the “sportscasting” method very easy to follow and effective for more than 30 years now. Recently, I was sitting in a restaurant with a child who was getting more and more agitated while waiting for food to arrive. The whining began, and I could envision an escalation. I looked over and with an empathic expression said “it’s hard to wait”. She looked up at me. Instantaneously, I could visibly see her shoulders drop and relax. Slowly and now quietly–and with a markedly different affect, more sad than agitated–she said “Yeah.” And then she went back to quietly playing.
I have watched this type of scenario play out more times than I can possibly count. I have watched infants who are only one or two months old similarly relax, listen, make eye contact, and calm down when things are explained or reflected back to them. I have watched it work just as well with older children. Just yesterday morning, my 14 year old was storming, shouting, through the house, upset that the new hair product she had tried did not “de-frizz” her hair in the way that she wanted, one of those vanity things about adolescence that makes me, well, a little bit crazy. I wanted to say, I REALLY wanted to say “It looks fine” (predictable answer? “NO! It doesn’t!”) I really wanted to say “What does it matter?” (predictable answer? “AAUUGGH!”). I wanted to say “Get back in the shower, then, and use the other product.” (predictable response? “I’M NOT GOING TO DO THAT, I DON”T HAVE TIME!”) I gathered all my available resources (believe you me), and said “Trying a new product can be so frustrating.” Response? “Yeah.”
When people say, often by way of criticism or mocking, that RIE believes that we should treat babies like little adults, this is what they means. It doesn’t mean you should discuss the stock market or the unrest in Russia with them. It doesn’t mean that you should engage them in philosophical discussion. It doesn’t mean you should give them complete equal voice or negotiating power in decision making.
It means, simply, that adults are full and complete people, and babies and children are full and complete people. And as such, we all want the same thing. To be seen.
Try it sometime. Sometimes it feels awkward at first. Don’t let it get to you. Try it. If it doesn’t work the first time, try it again. Let us know how it works.