What is RIE parenting?

The premise of Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) is simple: to educate parents and caregivers on creating a culture of authenticity and resourcefulness. At the heart of RIE is respect—responding to infants and children with the same respectfulness we try to use in our adult relationships. (Click here to review the RIE guidebook.) 

Proponents of RIE claim the practice encourages parents to foster capable, competent, respectful, problem-solving children, and it also suggests a retreat from overprotective parenting. An article in The Atlantic name-checks Baby Knows Best: Raising a Confident and Resourceful Child, the RIE Way as an example of parenting advice that refreshingly goes against the grain of what’s been termed “helicopter parenting,” which results in overprotected kids suffering from what psychologist Peter Gray calls a “play deficit” or a severe lack of unstructured playtime. Yet when RIE is in the news, it is oftentimes a target of controversy. Most accusations claim that RIE robs children of their childhood, forcing adult behaviors too soon. 

In recent years, RIE parenting has garnered a great deal of attention, perhaps due in part to its scores of high-profile Hollywood followers (a February 2014 Vanity Fair article called RIE a “trend” due to its celebrity following; among them, Tobey Maguire, Penelope Cruz, Helen Hunt, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Hank Azaria). 

Characterizing RIE as a recent fad is inaccurate, given that it was founded in 1978 by Magda Gerber, a Hungarian educator who worked closely with pediatrician Emmi Pikler and pediatric neurologist Tom Forrest. Gerber based RIE on her own parenting experience, and on the time she spent volunteering in a Hungarian orphanage, where she worked with Pikler; the whole point of RIE was to simply promote a better way to raise children around the world. RIE advocates often consider it a way of life, one that is promoted in Baby Knows Best, written by RIE Executive Director Deborah Carlisle Solomon and published December 2013.

Basic rules of RIE parenting 

The principles of RIE, all of which are explained far more thoroughly in Solomon’s book, are as follows: 

  • Respect the child. Treat an infant as you would an adult. 
  • Develop a child’s authenticity. An authentic sense of self allows children to feel confident, focused, and peaceful, leading to a lifetime of secure relationships. 
  • Trust in the child’s competence. Yes, the competence of the infant—the human being completely dependent upon you. Many parents may feel this is a sensible goal for older children, but RIE maintains it can begin in infancy. 
  • Engage in sensitive observation. An example? Taking a pause to observe before reacting or stepping in to intervene, whether it’s a toddler bickering or a baby crying. (Of course be aware of early signs of hunger for breastfed infants as crying is often one of the later signs of hunger).     
  • Involve the child. Even an infant can be a participant in diapering, bathing, dressing, and so on. For the very young, parents involve the child by “narrating,” or describing their actions while they are doing them (i.e. “now we are going to use the washcloth”). 
  • Create a safe, predictable environment. Make the rooms where you spend time with your children “safe spaces” where children can be unrestricted without being harmed. 
  • Provide consistency. Setting limits and sticking to them, a commonly prescribed parenting ideal. 
  • Offer uninterrupted play and free exploration. Babies should be free to do what they wish—preferably using common household items like boxes or pieces of cloth, rather than toys—while the adults sit back and watch, not hindering them (or engaging them for that matter). For older children, it means consciously avoiding directing, suggesting, or even participating in their play, lest you accidentally lead the child in a non-child-determined direction.

Pros and cons of RIE-style parenting 

Believers in RIE-style parenting say that the method yields long-lasting benefits—that the RIE principles you incorporate today become the foundation for a future, lifelong relationship of love and respect. Through RIE, which is based on the concept of “educaring” (“We should educate while we care and care while we educate,” Gerber once said), parents evolve too. Ultimately, according to Solomon, RIE offers a “path to an easier and more pleasurable life with your baby, one based on mutual trust and respect for each other.” 

There are obvious elements of RIE-style parenting that celebrate childhood. For example, RIE favors modest toys and free play with simple household objects over loud, battery-operated toys that perform only a single use. It encourages parents to slow down and enjoy and respect their toddler’s pace. It relinquishes the distractions of cell phones, television, and Internet in favor of one-on-one, uninterrupted time together. (This isn’t unique to RIE-style parenting, however. There is a lot of research highlighting the benefits of free play and limiting screen time and other tech distractions for children.) 

But, for many parents, it’s difficult to ignore some of RIE’s more controversial elements, some of which suggest that the parenting practice is not for everybody. Many critics and parents find the RIE guidelines too strict and not developmentally appropriate for their children, thus setting up unrealistic expectations. For example, not all toddlers are developmentally ready to understand or implement the kind of self-regulation required in conflict resolution and may require parental intervention. And while RIE’s emphasis on observation is laudable when it encourages children to discover their own reliance and independence, it can be an issue when it stops parents from responding to their instinct to provide immediate help and care for their children. For example, critics of RIE would suggest the “wait and see” approach to a crying child is detrimental, especially for babies, who require consistent care and immediate attention in order to develop trust and foster a bond with a parent and/or caregiver. 

Does RIE work? 

Critics of RIE argue that it does not always reflect current science. Although Gerber worked closely with Pikler, a pediatrician, and Forrest, a pediatric neurologist, they relied upon information available in the late 1970s. As our knowledge of children and infant development evolves, RIE seems to stay its course. 

However, Gerber was a parent herself, and so is Solomon, who raised her teenaged son the RIE way and says that there is more flexibility in the practice than one might think. 

“At RIE, we invite a baby to cooperate but we don’t require it,” says Solomon. “We adhere to the concept of readiness. We would respect these differences and of course, be responsive to each baby, accepting his readiness and not expecting him to do something he is unable to do. RIE gives parents practical tools for responsive, respectful caregiving. It also helps parents to look inside, to see when they are responding to their baby out of their own need rather than a true need of the baby.” 

Last updated October 17, 2020

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