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Dear Magda

Discipline is Learning and Nurturing Combined 

Dear Magda,

From parents who have taken your Parent-Infant Guidance classes, I’ve heard that you indeed respect the babies’ choices—that they are allowed, even encouraged, to do what they want to do. My question is, isn’t this too permissive? How will these infants ever learn discipline?

Dear Parent:

It seems to me that you have learned about one aspect of the R.I.E. philosophy, without having been made aware of the whole picture. At R.I.E., we certainly believe in the benefits of discipline, for both parents and infants. The word discipline has different meanings, both according to the dictionary and in people’s minds. Parents often think of it as punishment, corporal or otherwise, or as a system of punishments and rewards. I see discipline as being a social contract, in which family (or community) members agree to accept and obey a particular set of rules. We need discipline just as we need traffic signs, and we have a mutual expectation that these red, yellow, and green lights will be observed in the same way by all members. Living within a system of generally accepted rules makes life easier for all of us. While rules vary among cultures and among families, I think most people would agree that a mutually acceptable system of rules is necessary for co-existence. This system can be determined within each family by clarifying the needs of its members and then developing a set of rules or guidelines which accommodates those needs as much as possible. After deciding on the rules, a parent must then introduce them to the child and reinforce them. The question is how? My guidelines for the ‘how’ are as follows:

1) Establish a few, simple, reasonable rules and make sure they are age-appropriate.

2) Expect these rules to be obeyed.

3) Be consistent but not rigid.

4) Give the child choices within a secure framework.

5) Remember that even children (especially children) need to be able to save face and avoid power struggles.

Let me talk about each one of these guidelines. First of all, remember that discipline is not a set of rigidly enforced mandates, but a process in which the child learns to become a social being. Social learning, like any other form of learning, is dependent upon the child’s capacities. Don’t expect things of a child that are against the very nature of their current developmental stage. To expect a newborn not to cry a very young baby not to put things in her mouth, or a toddler not to say no is unreasonable. Also, timing is an important factor. One can’t expect cooperation from a sleepy or hungry baby. Knowing when to give infants freedom and when to introduce limits is most important and is the backbone of the R.I.E. approach.

The second guideline concerns expectations as well. In my practice, I have seen that a child’s response to parental demands depends very much upon the parents’ own deep-down expectations. The way a demand is expressed triggers the child to do something or not to do it. If the parent doesn’t really believe in the validity of a particular rule or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child won’t.

The third guideline calls for consistency. Predictability is habit-forming, and the formulation of habits makes it much easier to live with rules. There are some things we don’t need or want to re-examine every time we do them, such as brushing our teeth. It’s much more convenient for us if actions like these become second nature. Because very young children do not understand the reasons behind the rules they are expected to follow, it is better if these rules become simply a matter of course. For example, it is much easier to get a baby to go to sleep when the same schedule and routine precedes each night’s bedtime. This should continue until the child herself indicates the need for some sort of change. In addition, we all know how difficult it is to change habits once we have them. For this reason alone we should try to establish good habits from the very beginning. This is why I tell parents to start establishing patterns and routines right from the child’s birth. Through regularity of routines, babies eventually learn to anticipate that which is expected of them. This is the beginning of discipline.

The fourth guideline refers to choice within boundaries. Boundaries which are predictably and consistently reinforced provide security. In order to really develop inner discipline, children must be given the freedom to make choices. Knowing when to give infants freedom and when to introduce limits is most important and is the backbone of the R.I.E. approach. We need to remember that limits function as traffic signals, keeping things flowing smoothly between family members. Within this framework are those things a child is expected to do (non-negotiable areas), what she is allowed to do (negotiable areas), what is tolerated (“I don’t really like that, but I can understand why you need to do it.”), and what is forbidden.

These are the parameters of discipline. Within these parameters are what I perceive as being inviolable areas of choice. Babies have an inborn capacity to make healthful choices about how they want to move and learn. They should be provided with safe, appropriately-sized rooms in which they can move and explore freely. Their use of objects and play materials should not be restricted, governed, or overly interfered with. Babies must have freedom of choice in the area of gross motor development and manipulation (play).

One can further enhance the child’s sense of himself as a decision-maker by allowing enough time to elapse after requesting something so that the child can decide on his own whether or not to cooperate. This leads to the fifth guideline. If a child spends hours playing uninterruptedly, he will be much more willing to cooperate with the demands of his parent. If he doesn’t have to fight for autonomy, he can comfortably relinquish it once in a while. And we must understand that children need to be able to save face when they have not obeyed a rule. Children fight an inner – “If the parent doesn’t really believe in the validity of a particular rule, or is afraid that the child will not obey, chances are the child won’t.” – struggle. One part of them wants to please, yet they also have to resist in order to test the limits of their power. In a way, each one of us carries around that eternal two-year-old, who shouts ‘no’ as he is offered an ice cream cone, even while reaching for it. None of us really likes to be told what to do, even when it is good for us.

In our Parent-Infant Guidance classes, we like to model how we teach and reinforce rules. We have a snack for the older babies at a special table around which the demonstrator and the babies sit. Children may choose between items to eat or drink and may choose not to have a snack, but they may not take food, juice, or bottles away from the table. It is an incredible learning experience for all of us to see how even the youngest infants learn the rule and decide whether or not to obey it. After many repetitions of the rule, they get the message and then have to test it over and over again. We’ve often seen a baby or toddler steal away from the table and then turn back to make sure that the demonstrator sees her, as though she were checking to see whether the rule would be enforced. This shows that the child understands that a rule exists.

It is natural for children to carry food away from the table. They can see no real reason not to. When a child ignores the rule, the demonstrator tries to show that she fully understands the child’s desire to do what he wants and that he is not naughty or bad for having that desire. Therefore, she does not get angry with the child, but calmly and unemotionally repeats the rule.

Of course, we understand parents who get irritated after their toddlers play with the television set after being told ‘no’ several times. But it becomes easier to handle once one realizes that the child’s behavior stems from a natural inclination and not from a desire to drive the parent crazy.

So, as you can see, dear parent, the R.I.E. approach to discipline is not permissive, but understanding. Children, like adults, need rules and guidelines. I conceptualize discipline as being a system based on and facilitative of mutual respect among family members. We could easily exchange the word ‘discipline’ for the word ‘educaring’—they are both a combination of learning and nurturance. The goal is inner or self-discipline, self-confidence, and joy in the act of cooperation.  





Copyright © 2022 Magda Gerber Legacy 

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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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