When Liz Memel called me and asked if I would like to speak at the next RIE Conference. I was certain she had misdialed. I thought, “I don’t have a PHD in child development or decades of experience with RIE.” But when Liz Memel asks me to do something my answer is pretty much always “Yes.” After giving it some thought I realized what knowledge I did have that might prove interesting to you all. I could give you a view from the trenches. You see I am in it deep. Sometimes well over my head. I have three RIE children. My daughter, Kylie, is 6 ½ years old. Cole, my oldest son is 3 ½ and Rees, my baby boy, is 1. My husband David and I were fortunate enough to find RIE when Kylie was four months old and we have been striving to bring the teachings of Magda to life in our home ever since. I must confess that our home is not always the picture of RIE tranquility that you will find in the Parent-Infant classes on Melrose, but we do try.
As we have heard already today, a child’s mental health is not something that can be separated from the child as a whole. It is intertwined in a complex web of influences between the child’s physical, emotional and spiritual self. So to create a secure beginning for the mental health of our children is to create a secure beginning for the child as a whole. So does that mean we wrap our children in bubble wrap and hover about taking care of every challenge they face for them. As appealing as that sounds to a mother of a three year-old boy who loves to climb, RIE has taught me that the opposite is true. We need to allow our children to face challenges and make decisions on their own. To fail, succeed, try again or quit all with our love and support but without our intervention. Now, reading this in the book and understanding it is one thing but to believe it in your core is another and for me when I first started working RIE principals into my parenting I was really rather unsure. Was I doing the right thing? Did this stuff really work? The stories I am about to tell you was some of the “Ah-ha” moments that made me a believer that RIE is parenting gold.
We have a wonderful neighborhood full of kids. Oddly almost all boys and many a little older than Kylie. When she was 2 years old we had little playhouse in the back yard. It was about 4 feet tall and when the other little kids came to play, their favorite thing to do was to climb on top of the house and stand up and yell at the top of their lungs. I think they liked it so much because it was a thing that maybe other mothers wouldn’t let them do. But they loved it and Kylie desperately wanted to be up there with them. She would try to climb up and not be able to do it. She begged me for help. I felt several RIE principals came into play here. I wanted to let her solve her own problem as well as explore the limits of her physical abilities. I told her when her body was ready she would be able to climb up there. That was little comfort to her. And she kept trying and being frustrated that she was not able to do it.
This same scenario occurred over and over that summer. I always said the same thing, "When your body is ready you will be able to climb up there." Sometimes when she was playing all-alone in the backyard I would find her hanging off the playhouse trying to get that last little foothold that would boost her to the top. Then one day in the late Summer I was working in the garden, keeping half and eye on Kylie as she played around the little house. I looked up just in time to see her heft her body over the edge and scramble to her feet on top of the playhouse. She thrust her arms in the air and declared to the world "MY BODY DID IT!" She stood triumphant, with this amazing look of satisfaction on her face. She never looked to me for approval or praise. She was in her own little world, soaking in the contentment that only comes with knowing that you, and you alone, persisted and achieved a long sought-after goal. I felt that this was a significant step in building a self-confident person as well as giving me, the parent, the confidence that the RIE approach was definitely the way for us.
My son Cole had a similar test of will, determination and physical development.
You see, Cole loves the park. He has been going since he was a less than a year old. I sometimes take him during the week, but my husband takes the kids to the park almost every Saturday morning to give me a little break at home. (I know, isn't that great). Anyway, from a very early age Cole was all over the play structure. He loves to climb. He quickly mastered nearly every slide and climbing apparatus available even the one my husband dubbed "the tooth buster." It looks like curved monkey bars that go from the ground to a platform up above and Cole made quick work of them with no mishaps and retaining all of his teeth. Despite his own confidence and the fact that one of us was always near by many parents seemed compelled to "help" him. We would quickly step in with a polite, "Thank you but he is fine".
There was one thing on the play structure that Cole couldn't do -- the fireman's pole. It was this pole that stood about a foot and a half away from a platform that was about 7 feet off the ground. Cole would climb up to that high platform and make his way over to the pole and almost every week for a couple of years he made attempts at that pole. Sometimes he would just stand there and look at it. Sometimes he would reach for it with his arms. Sometimes he would lay down on his stomach and reach back with his legs. As he got older his attempts got bolder. Often times he would be dangling off of some part of the structure. We were always there, but for many of the parents at the park we were much too far away and far too cavalier about the mortal peril this small child was surely in. Dave especially bore the brunt of well meaning mothers who were convinced that he was simply oblivious of the duties of a parent at the park. Cole never once hurt himself in anyway on the fireman's poll. Gradually little by little he found his way down that poll. When he did there was no triumphant cheer he simply went down it again, and again and again. The difference between Kylie's house and his poll could simply be the difference in their personalities. Or maybe it was the fact that on the house the other kids had made it something of a quest and the poll was simply yet another (all be it more difficult) part of the structure for him to master. But in both cases the kids stretched the limits of their own bodies, but on their own terms. They showed persistence and determination to achieve something on their own. We simply had to have the confidence to listen to that RIE voice in our heads telling us to stay out of their way. It’s not as easy as it sounds but the end result is so worth it.
But of course, those are mostly physical challenges -- a child’s mental-emotional well being rests on much more than that.
Part of the nighttime ritual in our house is that one of us, my husband or I, reads to Cole and one of us reads to Kylie. Cole’s books are shorter and more age-appropriate for him. So whomever is reading for Cole will sometimes ask the one reading for Kylie if it is OK for Cole to have another book or if Kylie's book is at a good stopping point. It took me by surprise one night when, as David and I were having this discussion, Cole pipes in with. "It's OK with me if we have another book," with complete confidence that his opinion was to be equally considered in this decision. I was so proud of his confidence and so ashamed of my rudeness and appalled that I was discussing this decision right in front of him and not including him at all. It was very disrespectful of me. Despite my failure in this situation to involve Cole in this decision, I believe that his confidence to speak up for himself can be traced back to asking him if he wanted a blue or a red bib in RIE class when he was 1, or from the fact that we have talked to him just like we would talk to anyone else since he was born, or maybe he felt compelled to add his opinion because we do try to make him a partner during other times when “take care of him.” I believe that those things have built a foundation that gave him the confidence to speak up for himself and I hope he will continue to do so long into the future. Since that time him declaring "It's OK with me" or "It's not OK with me" has found it's way into many discussions I am always proud of him for inserting his opinion -- even when, in truth, it isn't much of a factor in whether or not we will itemize our taxes.
Now I’ve told you several stories about how RIE has helped build confidence and security in my children but the world is often a little more challenging than the local playground structure. It has been difficult for me to except that I can not be there all the time to support my kids and that things are going to happen at school or out in the world that may not make them feel secure. My great hope is that all of these RIE-influenced experiences have developed enough skills to enable them to cope well with adversities on their own.
The other day Kylie, who is 6 and in first grade, wrote this letter while at school and put it in her backpack for me to read when she got home.
You will have to excuse me. This might not be the exact wording of my daughter’s letter. After reading it I decided to save it and thought I put it in a safe place, but my one year-old got a hold of it and tore about a third of it off and tried to eat it. But here is what I could piece back together.
“To my dear Mommy. You are the best mommy. I got cranky at school this afternoon. So don’t worry about me if you see my face look cranky and I might want some snuggle mommy time when I get home.”
I am pleased that she found a way to express herself and the difficulty she was having but still function within the parameters of her school day. This was not something the teacher told her to do, it was what she felt she needed to cope. Knowing she can do that for herself has helped me cope with my fear that I will not always be there.
What about when we can't make things secure and our children simply must face trauma. Three days before my son Rees's first birthday he had open-heart double-bypass surgery. We did everything we could think of to support Rees through this event, but the cold hard fact was that it was going to be awful and there was nothing we could do about it. We tried many different times and different ways to explain to Rees and Cole and Kylie exactly what was going to happen. We brought his favorite blanket to the hospital and we stayed at his side every waking moment. But still he did not understand what had happened to him, where he was and why he hurt so much. I was almost frantic with this desperate need to protect him after surgery. You see he had just started to walk before the surgery and I plagued by the idea that he would try to walk and fall and really badly injure his chest. Without thinking about it, I was prepared to abandon all my RIE teachings. I actually considered getting one of those horrible, awful exer-saucers that they put the kids in and they sit in and roll around. That’s how desperate I was. But it never came to that, mostly because we got some really very RIE advice from the doctors. They said, “Don’t worry too much. If it hurts he won’t do it.” It seemed almost too simple – and yet familiar, in a way. So I didn’t carry him 24 hours a day like I was considering and we never did purchase that exer-saucer and three days after his surgery he was walking around and playing. He physically recovered with such amazing speed and fearless zeal I was constantly amazed. Emotionally however, he seemed to really need a lot of mommy snuggle himself. And no one else would do. We felt it was important to listen to him and respect his needs, so I made myself available to him as much as I possibly could.
Three weeks passed and we thought we had sailed through this trying episode with ease. Then Kylie’s teacher began sending home notes that Kylie was complaining of various ailments almost every day at school and that she was a little unfocused and easily distracted. When she was home she was becoming more whiny and prone to outbursts of emotion. Meanwhile Cole started calling me in to see every picture he colored or block tower her built and was asking me if I liked them. He seemed to be desperately seeking my approval, which he had never done before. On top of all of that Rees’ sleep was now very messed up and he was waking several times a night no longer because of the pain but more for comfort. It seemed that all at once everyone really needed Mommy snuggle time. There is only one Mommy and there are only so many hours in the day, but it was clear that I needed to make better use of those hours. The solution was “wants nothing time” I needed to spend time with each of my children individually not asking anything of them and not having any other demands placed on me. This was difficult to work in to my life when I had a million things I had to do. But when I had some alone time with each of the kids. You could see the transformation. We are almost 8 weeks post surgery now and things are more “normal” (I use that term loosely with my family). But they all still need this “wants nothing time” and in truth it was a good reminder to me that even without having faced some horrific event I need to give them that special kind of time.
This last thing I want to say about RIE really doesn’t have much to do with supporting my children’s good mental health, but it sure does support mine. One of the very best things RIE has done for me is give my husband and I a united parenting approach. David was not sold on RIE at the beginning. I think he wrote it off as one of my crazy things. Until I got sick when Kylie was very small and he had to take her to Parent infant class. He was quickly convinced and is now in many ways much more naturally RIE than I am. The great thing about this is that I have complete confidence in him with our children. He may not do things exactly how I would do them, but I know whatever he does is going to come from a place of respect and love for our kids. And when we face a challenge that we simply do not know how to deal with we sit down and ask each other “What would be the RIE way to handle this.” We don’t have all the right answers and we will make mistakes, but I have confidence that with RIE we are parenting with honesty, respect, trust and love.