Why are children who have been exposed to classes modeled on the theories of Magda Gerber and Dr. Emmi Pikler so mercifully unspoiled?

RIE Children

Why are children who have been exposed to classes modeled on the theories of Magda Gerber and Dr. Emmi Pikler so mercifully unspoiled?

“It is not the best thing to try to keep your children happy all the time,” wrote Magda Gerber, founder of RIE. “That is not the way life is.”

The impossible and anxious-making combination of trying to keep their children happy all the time and at the top of their class/most popular/ most likely to succeed drives the “jet-powered turbo attack model” over-parenting described by Elizabeth Kolbert in her recent New Yorker compendium book review, “Spoiled Rotten.”

Each book Kolbert reviews faults American parents for mistakes that have created an over-indulged, sadly dependent, and terrifyingly bratty current generation of children. Each mistake is something that Magda Gerber showed adherents of her approach to childcare and development how to avoid. Take a few of her salient points:

1.Kolbert describes the work of two anthropologists who are amazed at the maturity of a 6-year old Matsigenka girl, gladly undertaking household chores without prompting from an adult, much less the kind of agonized begging heard from parents today. “How did parents in different cultures train young people to assume adult responsibilities?” the anthropologists asked, and why are we failing so miserably to do so in America today Kolbert adds, citing an LA child who refused to tie his own shoelaces.

The approach that I learned about while attending parent-infant classes modeled on the theories of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler fosters independence and responsibility from the earliest days of infancy, and encourages cooperation and collaboration in self-care from the start. Parents who follow this approach trust their children to respond to requests for help with diaper-changing and dressing, even if those responses are minute at first. Establishing that self-care and home care are collaborations between parent and baby lays the foundation for the cheerful assumption of larger and more difficult tasks as a child’s abilities grow. Dressing, bathing, brushing teeth become second nature, because children whose parents believe in the theories propounded by Dr. Pikler and by Magda Gerber are never given the chance to become dependent on an all-powerful adult to do those things for him. From the start, she learns that she plays a role in these tasks as well.

The approach to household chores is similar. In a class based on the theories of Magda Gerber, the facilitator models cleaning up after play time consistently, at the same time and in the same way, during each class, and without exhorting children to join in. Quite soon, most children will want to join this interesting activity and many will be angling to be the most helpful, “Me! Me! I want roll up the mat and carry it!” But “want” is the key word here. Cleaning up is not presented as a chore which adults will reward a child for executing. It’s a task the children assume voluntarily, and their happiness in participating comes from pleasing themselves, not from pleasing the adult.

2. . Another writer Kolbert cites, psychologist Madeline Levine, talks about today’s parents’ “exhausting cycle of constantly monitoring their [children’s] work and performance, which in turn makes children feel less competent and confident, so that they need even more oversight.”

A central tenet of the theories of Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler is that parents observe their babies in order to understand their needs. Parents’ realization that their children need much less than they may have thought is a corollary to the understanding brought about by observation. Watching an infant of 5 months figuring out the best method for rolling over gives a parent newfound respect for her baby’s determination and strength. Instead of helping a toddler as he tries to dislodge a toy wedged between two large heavy objects, observing him figure it out himself shows a parent how competent children really are. Recognizing this, parents who have attended parent-infant classes based on the philosophy of Magda Gerber treat their children as competent beings, allowing them to solve their own developmentally appropriate problems.

3. Kolbert quotes Pamela Druckerman, the author who moved to Paris and converted to the French method of laissez-faire child-rearing, on frustration: “French parents don’t worry that they’re going to damage their kids by frustrating them,” she writes. “To the contrary, they think their kids will be damaged if they can’t cope with frustration.”

My first parent-infant class showed me that RIE would be an education in coping with frustration, for my child and for me. Waiting and self-restraint are RIE mantras. Wait before picking up a child who has fallen, he might not be as upset by it as you were. Restrain yourself from helping a child grasp a toy that has rolled out of reach. And keep waiting. Your patience will be rewarded by the sight of your child exercising even greater patience and determination to reach the toy, provided she’s well-rested and well-fed of course. Frustration builds character and teaches persistence. In that first RIE class, I watched my not-yet-crawling 5-month old roll, creep, and virtually hurl herself toward a tantalizing green frog toy. Just as she got it within hand’s grasp, her 5 ½ month-old classmate sitting nearby calmly reached out a hand and picked up the frog. To my shock my daughter, having spent 15 minutes trying to reach her goal, was unfazed by its disappearance, and seemed just as delighted to watch someone else chew on “her” frog. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all could cope with frustration so well?

4. Last point: Kolbert cites the work of Sally Koslow who argues in her parenting book that over-indulged children grow up to expect parents to continue to take care of them, well into adulthood. “The best way for a lot of us to show our love,” she suggests, “would be to learn to un-mother and un-father.”

The recent New York Magazine piece, is subtitled, “Learning to Underparent.” Written by one of the mothers in my classes, the piece explains how the class exposed her to a “hands-off parenting” philosophy that provided her with the antidote to over-parenting.