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1979 RIE Conference Keynote Speech

Carol Pinto:

It is a pleasure now for me to introduce Magda Gerber. I first met Magda 10 years ago when my daughter participated in a pilot infant program that she innovated and directed at the Dubnoff school. That was a very unusual program at that time, since there were few infant programs at all, and also because it combined quote unquote normal children with children who were at risk.

Since then, she has become my teacher and friend, and I have watched her hold tenaciously to her philosophy in the face of many faddish approaches. She was Dr. Pikler’s associate in Hungary and has had over 20 years experience in the United States working with infants and families and in group care settings. She is also a child therapist. She is the co-founder and director of Resources for Infant Educarers, and she will speak today on the Loczy approach. Is it applicable to infants and families and group care settings in United States? 

Magda Gerber:

Thank you. Dr. Pikler has spoken about the Loczy approach. I’m going to speak about the RIE approach. I hope by now you know what RIE stands for. They are the initials for Resources for Infant Educarers. Basically, the RIE approach is an attempt to put what is applicable of the Loczy approach into practice here in the United States. I do not like to read but I’m going to, otherwise, I cannot keep myself within the time limit that I have.

We all know that there are many ways to raise infants. Throughout this conference, however, you will be exposed, as I said, to the RIE approach. It has been called the Pikler approach, the Gerber approach, the Forest approach, and the DIP approach. So that if you heard some of the others you will know it all means the name. DIP referring to the demonstration infant program in Palo Alto. Are we adding one other to the endless list of child-rearing practices? Yes, we do, because we believe that our philosophy is different. Our goal is an authentic human being and our actions are guided by respect.

It is easy to use big words such as ‘authentic’ or ‘respect.’ It is difficult to put them into practice, especially under the pressure of every day life. RIE has developed a methodology which allows you, whether you are a parent or a professional caring for infants, to become aware of infants needs and how to meet them. In the process, you will hopefully become aware of your own needs and of how to synchronize those two. This is the role of RIE, the goal of RIE training, and you will get a taste hopefully during this conference.

Before focusing on my topic, however, I want to invite you to an imaginary journey. Where will we go? A place, a time we all have been. A place, a time we do not remember. A place, a time that something that could be paradise or hell. A place, a time filled with folklore, other people’s memories, photographs, home movies, family mythologies. The place, the time is infancy.

Is infancy a virgin island or is it an over-invaded territory? Both. We all have been there, yet no one remembers it. We try to study it, but what we see reflects the view in the eye of the beholder. The investigator who studies this forgotten country does not speak or understand the language, or custom of the natives. He’s informed by other interpreters, the adults. What the investigator chooses to study, what he will see and understand, how he will interpret it will be influenced by his background. For example, ethological, psychologic, development, learning theory, etc., or his profession, parent, clinician, researcher, caregiver, etc.

The infant has endured being regarded and treated as a miniature adult, an empty vessel, a bundle of confusion, a responsive organism ignorant, competent, the helpless manipulated and the active manipulator. His needs were interpreted and explained. He or she needs to be tightly swaddled to prevent him from moving, kept naked to have skin contact, tied to a board to be straightened, carried on the mother’s belly to thrive on her heartbeat, propped in an infant seat to see more, put in a walker to move more, left in a crib not to be spoiled, stimulated from birth not to get bored.

Parents were told to breast-feed, bottle-feed, wean abruptly, wean gradually, start solids at birth, breastfeed for years, feed according to the clock, feed according to demand, to give a pacifier or pull out his thumb, not give the pacifier. Both, neither. To sleep with the infant in their bed, to let him sleep alone in his room. To toilet train in less than a day, to just wait and not train at all. To teach your baby and accelerate his learning, to let him unfold at his own pace. To stimulate him in a daycare center or nurture him at home.

And the infant, what does he or she say? She adjusts or he revolts. When he adjusts and keeps quiet, it is taken as proof that what we did was good for him. When she cries, the circle begins. We put her down or pick her up. We rock him or ignore him, feed him or play with him, put him in a bouncer or give him a new toy.

One sometimes wonders, the infant must be miraculously resilient, or is he? If we look around, not here, but in the adult population, we wonder if perhaps we pay a high price for adapting to such confused upbringing. Are we or have we ever been a child-oriented society? This is an appropriate question during the international year of the child.

Or, do we intentionally want to harm children? By no means. Everything is done under the name of love. The list will be endless to tell all cruelties, maltreatments, physical and emotional, that parents and other adults inflict upon children under the name of love. But besides the sinister examples, even such accepted signs as kissing, hugging may or may not convey to a child that he is loved. Ask yourself, what does your baby mean to you? A play thing you can play dollhouse with. A helpless creature that makes you feel omnipotent. A puppet you can make dance to your tune. A love object who gives you sensuous pleasure. A pet who wags his tail when you praise him. An extension of yourself who will fulfill your swarted goals in life.

Of course, there is all of these in all of us. One mother once asked, “Can too much love spoil a child?” Love, no. But many ways of demonstrating love, yes. We can spoil by over-protecting. Don’t do this. Be careful. Watch out. Don’t touch. Real care is to take the time and create a safe environment in which the infant can safely explore while the mother can relax.

We can spoil by controlling. Do this now, take this toy. Many prescribe baby stimulating projects advise us to do just that. Real care is using the time when we naturally spend with our babies to learn, to teach, and experience together that what is happening. We can spoil by constantly entertaining. That’s taking away their natural curiosity and capacity to entertain themselves. Boredom is not in a young child’s repertoire. In an adequate we can easily condition a child to be bored by over-indulging, doing things for him. Of course, this is faster and easier.

Real care is to allow the time, have the patience, and encourage even the youngest baby to do whatever he’s capable of doing by himself. Parents work too hard, try too hard, carry babies around, sleepless nights, buy expensive toys, learning cribs, teaching kits, teach, stimulate, follow, prescribe curricula. In this big effort, they forget what is most evident, that all those unglamorous every day routine experiences like feeding, dressing, diapering have the greatest effect on their baby.

I remember as a child I liked to watch the switchmen at the railroad. It was a small movement changed the trains destination by opening or closing tracks, so that the train will go to either Rome or Paris or its destination. How does this apply to child rearing? We have to first know where we want to go. Our goals, ideals. Only then can we plan how best to go there. In other words, what kind of an adult would we like our child to become?

RIE visualizes a human being who has some or many of the following characteristics. Realistic trust in himself and his environment. Perception of his inner needs and the ability to communicate them. The ability to make choices for himself, which includes knowing and accepting the consequences of his choices. Flexibility and a capacity to learn from past experiences. An ability to deal actively with the present, and plan for the future. Free access to his creative talents and resources. A person who is goal oriented and also can enjoy the process of problem solving, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, because the process is life itself.

Identification with these ideals imply that we have to critically examine child-rearing practices in order to determine which would facilitate and/or hinder the emergence of the desired characteristics in infancy. Trust develops when the primary carer allows the child to anticipate what is going to happen to him. They must relate their trust in the infant. They must trust the infant and then relate it, and trust him to be an initiator of activities. Infants do perceive their inner feelings and needs, and learn to communicate them. Carers, however, when not sensitively observing the infant, do not respond to his communications but rather their own interpretations of the infant’s needs.

I’ll give you an example. For instance, a mother who scolds. She may cover the crying infant without first trying to find out whether the infant is cold or warm. Making appropriate choices in life is a learning process lasting from birth to death. Few people realize at what an early age infants are capable to make proper choices if given the opportunity. The carer has to differentiate between situations according to whether the infant has a real choice or not.

If there is a real choice, for instance, do you want to be picked up now? And the child responds either negatively or disinterest, he should be left alone. If no choice is involved, the carer doesn’t ask but states the intended action. I’m going to pick you up now. It’s time to go. Then the child is picked up. Flexibility of the body and mind develops with repeated exploratory exercises of infants in free play.

Infants who are restricted by mechanical devices, as you already heard, such as infant seats, bouncers, walkers, swings, and so forth, all while encouraged to assume positions which they are not yet ready for are not moving freely. Propping up an infant into a sitting position before he can sit up or lie down by himself will not make him move better or become flexible or autonomous.

Infants do naturally have access to their own resources, unless we superimpose tasks which are beyond their capabilities. It is truly fascinating to observe infants solving their own problems with concentration, endurance, and good frustration tolerance. This happens if adults are available rather than intrusive, and if they learn to wait and see whether the child could work it out by himself before offering help.

A freely exploring child selects his own problems and is internally motivated to solve them in his own way, and continuously learning without experiencing failure. Though of course some individual modifications are necessary when we work with high risk or handicapped children. Providing learning experiences without failure is more important for them than it is for the average child. While emphasizing the infants needs for autonomy, one must keep in mind the utmost importance of the relationship that the infant develops with his primary carer.

An intimate trusting relationship is the prerequisite for healthy separation and individuation of the child. Only after he gets refueled during the unhurried times he spends with his carer will he be willing to let go of the carer and explore his environment. If our goal is an authentic individual, we should let him be authentic, an authentic infant. Meeting the needs of infants is not an easy task for the family, and it becomes increasingly more difficult in various types of infant centers.

Nowadays there is a great demand for curricula for infants in centers. Appropriate curriculum for infants should not be a special teaching plan added to his daily activities, and rather it should be built in in the infants every experiences. The types of programs offered, as well as curricula, should evolve as a joint effort between the carers and the infants. The roles are divided. The carer provides space, objects, and loving care. The infant explores the space, manipulates the objects, develops trust, and self-confidence.

The guidelines for any and all intervention must be based on observation, empathy, sensitivity, and respect for the infant. Again, if our goal is an authentic child, the guideline is to allow the child as many direct experiences and interactions with the world, with his world. Do not become the interpreter of the world or your child’s’ feeling. Do not manipulate children’s moods by stimulating them when they are tired and soothing them when they are aroused. There’s a German saying, “Live and let live.”

What makes parenting so difficult is that each parent sees the world in a certain way. Believes what is good and what is bad, and wants to transfer his or her beliefs, likes, dislikes, and tastes into their children. How many of you have heard “This is good for you,” “This is bad for you,” “Mother or father knows best.” This attitude, however, is not respecting the otherness, the uniqueness of our children.

The guiding spirit of Dr. Pikler’s and RIE’s philosophy in all human interactions is respect. In order to comprehend the application of such an abstract but so often used word, it is helpful to review the behaviors which are guided by respect. Regardless of age, the infant is never talked about in the third person. Not even when you go to your pediatrician. I’m so worried about him, he doesn’t sleep all night and he doesn’t want to eat. When adults need to discuss an infant, it should not be done in his presence. A dialogue between carer and infant begins at the earliest age as the carer observes and acknowledges the baby’s every response.

Infants are never forced, should never be forced to do anything. During feedings, for example, you could see it very well in the movie. The baby is shown the spoon containing the food and only when the infant indicates acceptance by opening his mouth is the food put into his mouth. The infant is allowed to anticipate every step of what is about to happen to him. He’s never picked up or put down without being told of the impending action. If asked to make a choice between actions, I already said the infants choice must be respected.

But respect should be used in other situations other than routine care also. This is what I like to refer to as selective intervention. Again, it’s based on sensitive observation. Knowing when and when not to interfere. When not to interfere is even more important and generally more difficult for all of us than indiscriminate intervention. The movie you are going to see will address itself to this topic.

Whenever possible, an educarer, a word I coined because I wanted to put these two very important concepts together that caring is educational, and education must have the element of care in it. The educarer trusts the infant to solve problems as they occur in his daily existence. When observing a seven month old trying to get a ball which is stuck, the carer may just wait or comment, hmm, it’s difficult to get that ball out, isn’t it? Compare this approach with giving the child the ball or physically helping him.

Take another situation. Two four month old children are playing with the same toy. A very usual situation. The educarer might reflect, Ann, you want that toy, and John you want it, too. Often the calm tone of the voice of such impartial reflection is enough for the children to solve the conflict in their own way. Compare this reflective non-directive attitude with one where the adult becomes the problem solver. Ann had it first. If you fight I will take the toy away. John take that other toy.

The role of the educarer is to facilitate the development of an active child who is challenged by problems, enjoys his autonomy, and trusts adults. Are educarers angels? This question comes often to me. Always patient, always understanding, the infants point-of-view. No. They just learn to become better organized, more economical with their time and energy and emotions. What makes parenting so demanding, so difficult, at times almost unbearable is the ongoingness of it.

RIE advocates a balance between togetherness and separateness. Infancy is the time when patterns of lifelong struggle between dependence and Independence, between holding on and letting go, between security and adventure are established. To foster both trust and autonomy, we focus on two areas of the infants life. Trust in human relationships and free exploration. One is the time the infant spends with the adult who cares for him. The other is the time the infant spends alone freely exploring.

These two areas are interdependent. There is another interdependence. If the infant receives undivided, unhurried, full attention while he’s being cared for, he will feel trust and security. If the mother enjoys those times, a father may too, she has to spend with the baby anyway, but also takes time to respond to her own needs, she will be chiefly available for the next time of mothering or fathering.

A great deal of time mothers, or fortunately fathers too, spend with babies in daily caregiving activities. If these are carried out as chores to be rushed through, the infants will react either by passively enduring it or by resisting, fussing, crying. The interaction results in unnecessary frustration.

We believe that these most consistently repeated experiences … Guess how many times a baby is being diapered throughout infancy? We made all kinds of calculations with the help of a computer. It’s about every 7000 times. It may be six or eight, but that’s the average. Can anybody doubt that that must have an accumulative effect on the baby? They indeed laid down the basic patterns for relationship with his mother or carer and his attitude for future learning. Therefore, let’s not forget that the goal is not only a dry and clean baby, but let’s not forget all the learning possibilities within the process.

I have devised many times a kind of dialogue to illustrate what interchange can take place during diapering. I will try to read it to you. The educarer greets the child. You seen to have a good time playing with your giraffe. Then shows and tells what she’s going to do. I want to pick you up. It’s time to diaper you. The infant pays attention. The educarer waits for the infants reaction. You’re not quite ready, so I’ll wait a little. After one or two minutes, you seem to be ready. The infant responds to the initiations of the carer either positively or negatively.

The educarer asks for cooperation or follows the child’s need. Remember in the movie when the child threw his little booties down and the carer said, “You wanted to throw that down. There’s no need to fight.” The educarer would say first we have to remove your overalls. You pull a little here, and the infant cooperates and participates. We all know that things we participate in are interesting things for us. The educarer encourages mastery. You helped with this. Touches the foot, now, pull out the other. The infant achieves mastery, becomes playful, teasing, doing the opposite of what was asked.

You remember the scene in the movie? That showed it very beautifully. I like to emphasize that, because there is a certain time when many parents have said, “You know, I did it all the time the way you said and my baby was so nice and responsive, and now suddenly no way. I ask for a hand, he gives me his foot,” and I feel that means you did a marvelous job, because only a child who feels safe and secure will dare to tease. Fearful children don’t tease. They may reolt but they don’t tease.

I think that at Loczy the staff is very proud that these children who live in a institute are teasers. They do feel secure and the to tease. The end of the dialogue is that the baby enjoys what is happening to him and so does the mother. 

I am a little afraid that I will be very repetitious on this theme, because I always feel it is so important and maybe I am hammering it too much. But we still do believe that it is this full undivided, unhurried attention during all these activities, whether it’s feeding, bathing, diapering, the infant will be ready, will make the infant ready and willing to then stay by himself and explore his environment on his own. Or if he’s in a group setting, of course, with other children. This balance is so necessary for both infant and mother. It does give them time for real togetherness, real attachment, and also time to pursue their own interests.

Just think how much this is in contrast to the generally prevailing attitude that an infant needs 100% of the mother’s time all the time. Can it be done? He needs to be nurtured, stimulated, and also taught specific skill. These are unrealistic demands and usually result in nagging babies, guilty mothers, and feelings of unfulfillment for both. The rhythmic pattern, again, of togetherness and separateness we propose allows for anticipation and predictability for both parents. “Now I will have time to read my newspapers”, knows the parent from past experience.

Besides having a pleasurable time together, a great amount of learning takes place in those few minutes. They pay attention to each other, they anticipate each other. These are most important ingredients of learning. The influence of these refueling times have a far reaching effect which goes way beyond the actual time spent together. They saturate infant and the carer with feelings of security, of being loved, respected, and understood.

Earlier in this presentation, I have painted a rather grim picture of certain demonstrations of love. What is love? It’s a feeling, an emotional state that artists, writers, philosophers, poets have tried to define. Marcel Proust says, “Love is space and time measured by the heart.” I paraphrase that. It is you, because what is space and time? It is the here and now. It is what you give in space and time. What kind of love then is nurturing, allowing for growth? It is the combination of love, care, respect. To care is to put love in action. The way we care for our babies is then the way they experience our love.

From this esoteric issue I want to come down to earth again, and I wasn’t quite sure whether I answered the question of my title. What of the Loczy model is applicable in the United States? I would think that everything that’s universal, that we believe is good for children, wherever they live, wherever they are. I also would like to warn you. Our guidelines may seem deceivingly simple. Some of you may even believe that you have been following them all along anyway, but I have learned from my own experience that the more you understand them in depth the more you will find out how seldom they are truly followed.

We hope, however, that by the end of these two days with the help of other speakers, the panel discussion, the movies, our booklets, and whatever we have available, you will have a grasp of the RIE philosophy. Thank you.

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Black and white ink drawing of an infant laying supine and reaching towards an adult hand which is reaching back to the infant

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