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Original RIE Manual


Close your eyes and mentally clarify how you feel about discipline. Open your eyes and write down your own definition of it. You may be surprised, as I was, after reading this dictionary definition of discipline: “Training that develops self-control, character.”

If one would think of what is to be accomplished, what is to be achieved by discipline, there would be an entirely different feeling for what it is. With discipline, you must have a certain goal in mind. Basically, most parents are afraid of disciplining their children because they are afraid of the power struggle. They are afraid of overpowering the child, afraid they will destroy the child’s free will and personality. This is a terribly erroneous attitude. A positive goal to strive for when disciplining would be to work at wanting to have children we not only love, but in whose company we love being. Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect. Sometimes it is very difficult and even painful to discipline. It is easier to say, “Yes, okay, have your own way.” But then what has been accomplished?

Confusion over discipline arises when you lose sight of what is important and what isn’t. I will refer to discipline as the Red, Yellow, and Green Light. I’ll explain. The Red Light is when the baby crawls on the floor right over to a big, sharp knife. Watching this, you don’t stop to ponder about the effect grabbing the knife away will have on the child’s psyche, you just cleanly reach and pick up the knife or the child. With the Red Light there are no guilt-weighing, ambivalent thoughts. You just do what you must do immediately.

With the Yellow Light, the situation can be negotiated. For example, the child wants you to be with him at the moment you want to do something else. Should you sacrifice your moment for the child’s demands, or is that not realistic just then? Again, we go back to knowing what is important at the time; not just for the child, but for you, too. It helps to be strongly attuned to your own inner rhythm—to know what your needs are, and to convey this to your family so they learn to respect your needs, too. When you give yourself the same respect you give your children, that teaches the children respect for you also. Sacrificing your own needs for the child’s only creates inward anger within both of you. If it is important that you finish reading the newspaper before you play with your little person, then clearly convey that message. Let the child know what it is you want to do for yourself and what you expect the child to do, so that playing quietly while you read can later grow into hours of secure separateness; both of you doing something independent of the other and still feeling good about your relationship.

The Green Light is when you want what the child wants. You give the child a few choices of something to do and you are ready to do any of them. We all need many green lights in life to be able to accept the reds and yellows, too.

It is not always easy for parents to say “No.” A parent’s ambivalence, guilt feelings, and areas of confusion in his or her role will be picked up and used amazingly fast by children. They seem to have a sixth sense for it. Any ambivalence from a parent will produce a nagging response. Know what it is that is important, both for you and for the child. If you are not clear, the child’s nagging will persist, which will make you, the parent, even angrier. This in turn highlights the conflict that exists already, leading to an unhappy situation combining anger, guilt, and fear.

When parents feel guilty because of anger at the child, the anger-guilt becomes a distorted, dishonest message. When you “please-whine” at your children and promise them something, anything, if they’ll only listen to you, you are unconsciously creating guilt in them. When the parent becomes pleading, sticky-kind and guilt-sweet, this creates guilt in the child and eventually fear. Guilt because the child’s anger is being whined away by the parent, making the child feel too powerful. The child is forced to internalize aggression that should be externalized and dealt with openly by the parent. It also creates fear that the parent is not really in control and is not being honest. The child knows when the reaction doesn’t fit the situation. Be clear. Be honest.

I prefer giving acknowledgments, rather than rewards. Do not promise a reward for behavior that you can expect of your children—let them know how good you feel about them. Just seeing the beaming smile of admiration on his parent’s face is reward enough. The commonly used “good girl,” “good boy,” often becomes mechanical and is subtly demeaning. It implies a child’s value as a person is contingent on his behavior. It can create a conflict for the child. He may think he is “bad” if he acts differently than what he has just been praised “good.” They don’t need big hooplas, just a strong acknowledgment on your part that they did a good job.

Children need expectations. They need to know where they stand in all kinds of life situations. They need to know the rules. Discipline is an integral part of this rooted, secure feeling. From birth on, the parent sets the life-space for the child. An ambivalent parent will make things more difficult. Know your role as a parent. You must have certain goals and principles for your children.

One misconception most parents share is that children must be happy all the time. That is an unrealistic expectation because there are instinctual desires we all have but can’t obtain at that moment, or maybe ever. Life is a combination of pain and pleasure. Young children cry when they can’t have what they want. Parents so identify with the child and the tears that they can’t bear not giving them their heart’s desire. But it is not the best thing to try to keep your children happy all the time. That is not the way life is. Many goals involve pain to get there. That is the human condition. When children find this out too late in life, after being sheltered and buffered unrealistically, they will find things difficult and frightening to cope with. There is no way overindulged children are going to be happy, because they seldom get direct, honest responses from their parents. These parents are basically negligent. Children are begging for discipline and for structure. A child has a difficult time growing up with ambivalent parents. When you say “No,” really mean it. Let your face and posture reflect “No” as well.

Once the external disciplinary lessons are learned, the child begins to internalize – to learn the lessons on his own, and even realize that some things that are desired are not always good for us or for others. Structure, expectations, predictability – all add to responsibly raising and loving our children. The freedom we all feel deep within ourselves comes once we understand where we stand in the scheme of things.

The RIE Manual for Parents and Professionals Part I: Practical Suggestions for Parents
Copyright © 1979 Magda Gerber

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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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