At 18 months old, my easy-going twin daughters, Chloe and Claire, suddenly transformed into tyrant toddlers. They shouted no, cried over who got their diapers changed first and refused to eat the carefully crafted organic meals that their father and I lovingly prepared. I changed, too, right along with them, but not in a good way.
One afternoon, in particular, sticks in my mind. As soon as my girls had finished their snacks, I put them in the gated-off play area in the kitchen so that I could tackle the dishes. But Chloe and Claire immediately started to cry and sign “more.” I eyed the stack of dishes. They climbed like prisoners over the gate to get out of the safe play area, screaming at me. I snapped.
“I just gave you food,” I shouted. “What else do you want from me?” They stared at me, wide-eyed, and screamed even louder. I hated myself for yelling. I didn’t want to be the shouty mom, but here I was, screaming at my daughters for wanting another snack.
That night, I couldn’t sleep, so I Googled “RIE parenting.” A new-mom friend, who seemed impossibly zen with her toddler son, had mentioned that she practised RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers). This parenting philosophy has been around for decades but is spreading like wildfire now. RIE (pronounced “wry”) was founded as a non-profit organization in 1978 by infant specialist and educator Magda Gerber and paediatric neurologist Tom Forrest and now counts Penélope Cruz and Tobey Maguire among its loyal fans. The principle is simple: Trust that your infants and toddlers are capable of participating and playing without a lot of parental intervention. It sounded a little flaky, but my current parenting style—yelling and feeling guilty—clearly wasn’t working.
I had mealtime battles. I had constant panic attacks at the playground, afraid that they’d fall and hurt themselves. I was my kids’ referee when they fought over toys, pushed each other’s faces while nursing or smacked each other. I was exhausted, frazzled and ready to give anything a try.
Lesson #1: Keep calm
In the opening chapter of Janet Lansbury’s eye-opening book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, she writes that you need to “respond in the moment, calmly, like a CEO.” I decided to test this theory by bringing my girls outside to our backyard.
We have a section of gravel in our yard and my twins like to put rocks in their mouths, so I’ve always felt that a one-to-one ratio of supervision is required. Usually, I’ll yell “Don’t eat that!” and wrestle the rocks out of Chloe’s mouth while Claire gleefully grabs a handful of them. But this time, when Chloe stuck a handful of rocks in her mouth, instead of losing it I said, “I don’t want you to put rocks in your mouth,” and then fished them out.
The amazing thing is, as soon as I was calm, they lost interest in their weird rock-eating contest. Instead of chasing them around the yard, I let them play, only intervening if they hit each other or put rocks in their mouths. In the hour spent outside, I was surprised at how well they played without needing much involvement from me. I even sat down on our patio furniture and watched them play happily.
Lesson #2: Lower your expectations
When my daughters were born, they were in the NICU and had trouble gaining weight. Even though our paediatrician assured me that they were healthy, I constantly worried about them gaining weight and became extremely nervous if they didn’t eat all of their food. Ever since then, mealtimes have become a battleground between us.
At dinner that night, instead of cajoling Chloe and Claire to “eat one more bite” while pushing a spoonful of food into their mouths, I followed Lansbury’s advice about food fights. “Lower your expectations about mealtime,” she writes. “Since toddlers sense our feelings, wiping the slate clean and projecting confidence and calmness work best.” This time, I didn’t fret over each bite they didn’t take. I sat with them while they ate in their high chairs. I didn’t count bites. I didn’t hover with a spoon. I ate a snack of almonds while they munched. They ate, I cleaned them up and then they played. The drama disappeared.
Lesson #3: Trust your child
The biggest RIE test for me was the playground. Before RIE, I stuck to my daughters like glue, watching their every move and stressing out over every ledge they were near. I was convinced that they’d break an arm if I wasn’t right next to them. The next time we went to the playground, my husband and I stayed at the bottom of the play structures while they climbed and used the slides. It took me weeks to let go of my nervousness, but I observed something tremendous over time—something that Nervous Me never saw: how capable and confident my daughters are at the playground. I could see their wheels turning while they climbed a ladder. Without me acting as an annoying coach, I witnessed Chloe and Claire try new things each time we went.
Why is RIE so effective?
I spoke with RIE parenting expert Janet Lansbury about why this style of parenting works. (When I told my mom friends I was interviewing Lansbury, there was a collective gasp. “She’s a celeb in our world,” they said.) “In RIE, parents have a better understanding of their role and what they need to control and what they need to let go of,” she told me. “They understand that it’s positive for children to feel a whole spectrum of feelings. Once they accept where they are, it’s a relief for parents. Instead of trying to control things, you and your children are experts in learning together.”
Some advice that Lansbury shared with me hit home. “We want to micromanage, but when we trust that our children are capable, our children feel more confident,” she says. “As parents, you’re the secure base, and this allows your children to be free to explore.” Before RIE, I was the micromanaging, nagging boss who barked orders and yelled when I wasn’t being heard. No wonder my twins weren’t listening to me.
What I’ve noticed since starting RIE parenting
Instead of doing everything for my twins, they participate in changing their diapers, getting dressed and cleaning up. During meal prep, instead of me doing everything, we work together to strip kale from its stems or make pizza together and they pour on the sauce. I’m not fazed by their double tantrums or anger anymore. I take deep breaths when I’m feeling challenged. I’m more specific with directions. Rather than say “Let’s clean up” in their playroom, I’ll say “I’d like you to put your books in the pink basket.” Now when they fight, I let them resolve it and only intervene if they try to physically hurt each other.
I’m not perfect at RIE. The reality is, I’m human. I get frustrated. I said, “You can’t do this!” to Claire when she was trying to buckle the straps on her high chair. But even the seemingly unflappable Lansbury has her moments. When I asked her about making mistakes as an RIE parent, she says, “I continue to be a work in progress and my children are adults. I’m still challenged to let my children feel their feelings. Allow yourself to be human and make mistakes. We all do.”
Recently, I was away from my daughters for four nights on a work trip. It was the longest we had ever been apart. I knew Chloe and Claire would have some big emotions about me being gone. RIE prepared me to ride out their storms. Two days after I returned home, Chloe had an epic temper tantrum. My husband and I sat with her while she kicked, screamed and cried. When Claire said to me, “No more mama—dada!” during a diaper change, I calmly said, “It sounds like you want your dad. He’s not here right now. I’d like to finish changing your diaper.” Before RIE, Chloe’s tantrum and Claire’s insistence on her dad might have hurt my feelings, but now I realize that all feelings are valid, including ones I might not like.
The best part of RIE is that I enjoy time with my daughters more than I did before. It’s not that my twins don’t have tantrums anymore or don’t say “no” to my suggestions; it’s just that I don’t lose my mind every second of the day, and that has made all the difference. I’ve seen my daughters’ confidence grow as they learn to put on their pants, help feed the dog and tackle new playground equipment. They love trying new things and aren’t timid about food. Right now, as they approach their second birthday, everything is “no” and “mine,” but instead of screaming and becoming a big ball of stress, I am calmer and happier and, as a result, my daughters are, too.
How to use RIE in everyday situations
Situation: Your child has a tantrum.
What to say using RIE: “I see that you’re really feeling a lot. I’m here for you when you’re ready.”
Situation: You’re frustrated with your child screaming at you.
What to say using RIE: Nothing. See the screaming as an appropriate way for your child to express her valid feelings, not a personal attack. Stick it out, nod and let her wave of emotion pass over you. Be the anchor, and don’t get carried away by her anger. It’s not about teaching your child how to control her emotions; it’s about teaching her how to allow emotions to pass and let them go. It’s about teaching your child how to react appropriately with her behaviour.
Situation: Your child puts something in her mouth that isn’t safe.
What to say using RIE: “I don’t want you to put that in your mouth. It’s not for eating.” If the behaviour continues, say “You’re still putting that in your mouth, so I’m taking it away.
Situation: Your child hits, bites or kicks you.
What to say using RIE: First, physically block your child’s hand or foot to prevent her from hitting you. Then tell her “I see you want to hit me, but I won’t let you because that hurts me.”
Situation: Your child does something you requested.
What to say using RIE: “That’s really kind of you to be so gentle with the dog.” Validate the effort.