Baby Knows Best, a new book laying out the RIE philosophy by the program’s current director, Deborah Carlisle Solomon, comes at a time when Americans are souring on helicopter parenting—the constant overpraising, overindulging, and over-testing of kids, which many now think has created little more than a generation of “adultescents” living in parents’ basements. RIE doesn’t believe in praise—they don’t want to encourage kids to feel like performers. Instead they have one big rule (though there are many, many smaller ones): parents—or “educarers”—need to stop treating children like children.
The method was formulated in the 1940s by Magda Gerber, the charismatic wife of a Hungarian industrialist, who resettled in Los Angeles, where she taught seminars on child rearing on her deck in the hills, under a rubber tree. Over the years, RIE has been embraced by actors like Tobey Maguire, Penélope Cruz, Helen Hunt, Felicity Huffman, and William H. Macy, as well as fashion designer Minnie Mortimer and her husband, screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, and L.A. Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel, along with a great deal of new parents in Laurel Canyon and Los Feliz, and the staffs at such elite feeder pre-schools as Pacific Oaks. “RIE takes you back to basics. RIE makes us all better. Better parents. Better partners. Better people,” says Jamie Lee Curtis. Actor and Simpsons voice-over artist Hank Azaria has said, “I wanted some kind of a rule book that told me how to handle every situation with an infant. RIE is the closest thing that I have found to this holy grail.”
Here’s what goes on in the most orthodox forms of RIE. Parents are instructed to carry on long, adult conversations—no baby talk!—with their pre-verbal charges. “Take the telephone off the hook before you intend to feed, bathe, or diaper your baby,” Gerber wrote, “and tell your infant, ‘I’m going to take the phone off the hook so nobody will disturb us, because now I really want to be just with you.’ ” (Let’s leave aside the question of whether you are also secretly wondering whether Netflix has the new season of Scandal yet.)
After all this intimacy, you might want to throw the baby in a bouncer for a while and check that phone—but you’d be making a grave mistake for your baby’s future. Bouncers are discouraged on the principle that they are disrespectful to a baby’s true emotions, as the object is to make him zone out and stop annoying you. RIE is philosophically opposed to anything that disrespects a baby, including not only sippy cups and high chairs but also baby gyms, baby carriers like Björns, baby swaddles, and baby walkers, which Gerber, who had quite a way with words, called “a moving prison.”
What else is prohibited? How about toys? “Children don’t need toys,” says Solomon. “Almost all of the toys at RIE can be found in somebody’s cupboard.” No rattles either. According to Gerber, “Rattles are an adult idea: you pick up something, and it makes noise. Why does it make noise? Because some adult put something into something.” No mobiles. “Mobiles are intrusive—the infant has no choice. Who chose the mobile? An adult.” No pacifiers. “The pacifier is a plug,” Gerber once wrote. “It does stop a child from crying, but the question is, Does an infant have a right to cry?”
As we all know, all these gizmos for babies exist because we don’t want to hear them cry. But on that count with RIE, you’re out of luck, too—they let babies cry for as long as they want to, on the principle that you don’t want to condemn them to repressing their emotions for a lifetime. Nor do RIE parents manipulate a baby by rocking him to sleep, or tickle a child—where is the respect in that?—or interfere in kids’ fights (within reason). “As you can imagine, this opens RIE up to a lot of jokes and criticism: ‘Oh, I see you’re hitting Johnny. Yes, I see you’re now pushing Johnny in the pool. Now you’re watching Johnny drown,’” says producer Heidi Fugeman Lindelof, a RIE practitioner, along with her husband, Damon, co-creator of Lost.
But during a RIE snack time, recalls Annabelle Gurwitch, author of the essay collection I See You Made an Effort, a situation developed that wasn’t quite as amusing. A child, “naked except for his diaper and huge, like a baby Spartacus, started shoving huge tables at the babies on the floor. In fact, he was able to pick one up and hurl it towards the babies. All the mothers looked panicked, but no one said anything: we were supposed to never interfere. Finally, I stood up and said, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? This is dangerous.’ I picked my kid up and took him out of the circle, and all the other mothers followed. Attica! Attica!”
Barring the occasional riot, it seems that RIE works for a lot of parents. They have a point about the way we treat kids in this country today. The $ 16 billion toy industry and the $ 49 billion baby business, with night nurses, plastic junk, and sound machines hidden in stuffed rabbits, benefit from a cultural ideology that says it’s best to be fearful of a child’s true nature, or at least to regard it as a heap of pure irrationality. This corporate baby world hasn’t caught up to what many early-childhood-development researchers now think. They believe we should celebrate babies’ immaturity, their hyper-awareness, and their lack of control and inhibition—that’s what makes them imaginative creatures so quick to learn. “Children are the R&D department of the human species—the blue-sky guys, the brainstormers,” psychologist Alison Gopnik writes in The Philosophical Baby. “They think up a million new ideas, mostly useless, and we take the three or four good ones and make them real.”
It can be boring to hang out with kids, and we like it when they are otherwise occupied or zoned out, staring at the wall while swinging to and fro in a bouncer seat. It’s probably worth thinking about a higher level of engagement. “Good actors are always interested in observation, which is part of why I think RIE is appealing to them,” says Solomon. Observes The Office’s Oscar Nuñez of his 14-month-old, “My daughter doesn’t want normal toys now—if someone brings her something smashing and clanging with lights on, she just looks at it and moves on.”
And the kids at RIE really did eat carefully on the day I observed their class. “It’s hard for them to do it at first, but eventually they all get there,” says V.F. contributing editor Dee Dee Myers, who practiced RIE with her children. “The idea of raising kids who are competent from an early age makes a lot of sense.”