American Moms are Not Female Dogs
Disclaimer: I strongly believe that the author of the New York Magazine article, ‘Sit. Stay. Good Mom!,’ inadvertently mischaracterizes the philosophies of the Resources for Infant Educarers foundation as well as its founder, Magda Gerber. If you’d like information about RIE, please visit Educarers.
In another blanket generalization (à la The Wall Street Journal’s ‘Superior’ essays), American parents were slammed in a New York Magazine article this week, accused of being over-involved, overly lenient, and raising “the most indulged young people in the history of the world,” (Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker ). Besides the obvious absurdity of painting an entire nation as diverse as the United States with a single broad and clumsily wielded brush, this article was also deeply demeaning right from the start with its title, Sit. Stay. Good Mom! American mothers are not female dogs, and that a widely read and respected magazine would publish such a thinly veiled reference to that characterization is insulting and unacceptable.
Beyond the title, though, there are disturbing issues within the article itself. Using Magda Gerber’s organization, Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) as a springboard, the author decries American parenting as “helicopter parenting” and indicates that taking classes in “underparenting” or “hands-off parenting” is needed as “corrective therapy.”
The author then goes on to share her experience in an RIE class of watching in amazement as her small daughter waited her turn for snack time. She then ruminates about how freely her daughter plays with her food and moves around during mealtime at home and marvels about the miracle she’s beholding in the RIE setting. First, people’s behavior tends to reflect their environment and most will act differently in a public setting than in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Second, if the author wants to make mealtime manners a priority in her family, that is her choice. Other parents who choose to create an atmosphere of free exploration at mealtimes aren’t necessarily being indulgent. They may be intentionally allowing their child to take ownership of their body’s needs, consciously choosing to make mealtimes a learning sensory experience, or they may simply be a family that enjoys eating in a more relaxed, nonrestrictive environment.
The author goes on to share her discomfort at not stepping in to help her baby resolve a dispute over a toy, “RIE calls for letting kids resolve their own disputes (barring physical violence). ‘If every time adults jump in and bring in their version of what is right, the children learn either to depend on them or defy them,’” she quotes. While there is nothing wrong with taking a ‘wait and see’ approach to situations such as these, there is also nothing wrong with parents sharing “their version of what is right” if “their version” is a societal norm or a personal or cultural choice they choose to teach their child. Parents teaching and guiding their children is not helicopter parenting. It is parenting.
Next the author gives RIE’s take on responding to injuries, “RIE advises parents to give their kids a moment to recover on their own before swooping in with kisses and cuddles. It also discourages parents from saying ‘You’re okay’ or distracting children from their pain—my preferred technique is to grab a shiny toy and jiggle it in front of her—lest they learn that experiencing emotions is a bad thing.” Again, there is nothing wrong with taking a momentary pause to see if kisses and cuddles are warranted, but there is also nothing wrong with responding quickly to your child if you perceive a need. Assuring your little one that you are there when they need you, reassuring them that they are alright, and helping them cope with their pain, whether by distraction or kissing a boo-boo or putting on a magical band-aid, won’t teach them their emotions are bad. It will teach them that they aren’t alone in the world to cope with their emotions.
Then the author shares how she learned in the class that she shouldn’t “let my daughter use me as a jungle gym, even though she really, really wants to.” She talks about RIE’s discipline philosophy, “Set reasonable, consistent rules and stick to them even if they’re unpopular with those expected to abide by them.” Agreed! If the author chooses that as a boundary for her family, then setting and consistently and gently reinforcing that boundary is a healthy step for her and her child. (There’s that idea of parents teaching and guiding again!) But then she shares, “’It is not the best thing to try to keep your children happy all the time,’ writes Gerber. ‘That is not the way life is.’” True, life isn’t that way. And parents can’t always keep their children happy. Carseats alone make that impossible! But that doesn’t mean that parents can’t or shouldn’t try to make their children happy as much as possible within the boundaries they have chosen for their family. And I don’t believe that is what Magda Gerber intended to convey. The pursuit of happiness is an American ideal, not to mention a constitutionally guaranteed right, and parents actively helping their children to seek that ideal is a positive model for their children to follow on their own when they reach adulthood.
Finally, the author relates her attempt to rescue her baby who is “sitting precariously atop” a stair-climbing toy and having difficulty climbing down. “An RIE associate cuts me off when I reflexively move to intervene.” First, I have to say that, although I’m only 5’1” and barely top 100 lbs, I allow no one to stand between me and my child if I think my child needs me. I would rescue my child if I deemed it necessary, period. (As mentioned, though, I believe the choice of words here may mischaracterize not only this particular RIE associate’s action, which may have been more of a friendly suggestion rather than a “cut off,” but also the RIE philosophy itself.) Second, yes, encouraging children to try, letting them take risks, and allowing them the freedom to challenge themselves are all excellent ideas. But those objectives are not exclusive of a ready hand, an encouraging word, or even a rescue if a parent deems it necessary. Autonomy notwithstanding, we live in a relational world, and growing up with the assurance that we aren’t alone to face the challenges life throws at us is a healthy foundation from which to set forth and conquer our life’s goals.
It is important to emphasize here that, although I don't teach RIE principles in my parenting workshops or follow them with my own children per se, I have a deep respect for Magda Gerber and the resources her foundation, RIE, offers parents. I believe this author took quotes out of context and chose syntax that incorrectly portrayed RIE as pushing parents aside in favor of children’s autonomy and independence and devaluing the parent/child relationship. I believe the tenets that RIE espouses of listening to our children and respecting their amazing capabilities are good and vital to healthy parent/child relationships. But I also believe that relationship comes first, and autonomy and independence spring forth from a strong and vibrant parent/child connection.
Perhaps, if American parenting has to be defined at all, it should be defined simply as freedom~freedom of choice, freedom of expression, freedom of individuality. If we stop pitting parents and nations against each other with negative comparisons, perhaps we will also have the freedom to learn from each other and grow as individuals, families, and global friends.
L.R.Knost~Parenting and Children's Book Author