Q: I am mother to a sweet, spunky and sometimes sassy 2-year-old. I am a regular listener and reader of Janet Lansbury, and I try to follow the principles of RIE parenting. But my attempts at RIE parenting don't always work. For example, the common battle of putting on clothes, trying the potty or changing a diaper can become never-ending. I try to be a confident and empathetic leader. I empathize that changing may not be something she wants to do, I give her choices, and I make sure to build in enough time so we aren't rushed. And yet, sometimes she flatly refuses to put on her clothes, let me change her diaper, etc. It can end up taking ages for her to give in. In the real world, with actual timelines and where I need to get to work, etc., this makes life difficult. Any suggestions?
A: A 2-year-old who does not want to have her diaper changed? Normal! Before we go into what you want to do, we need to better define the approach you are using.
RIE is an acronym for “Resources for Infant Educarers.” Educarers is an umbrella term for people who study and practice the parenting theories of Magda Gerber and her “Educaring Approach.” Gerber, a Hungarian-born child educator, posited that babies are born wholly who they are. Parents are not to “baby talk”to them, nor are they supposed to tend to them with excessive attention, distract them with baby toys, or provide anything for them other than their natural environments, calm compassion and firm boundaries. The thinking is that children are born with everything they need to grow, and parents only complicate matters when we chronically cajole, dramatize and distract them from their feelings.
As for the diaper changing, a parent practicing RIE may calmly narrate each step: “First, I’m going to wipe your bottom,” “Next, we are going to put on some cream,” and, “Now I am putting on the diaper.” There would probably not be excessive sing-songy statements, nor would there be over-the-top facial expressions. The whole process would be compassionate, calm and matter-of-fact because, remember, the baby has everything it needs to process this event. The extra drama of singing and games isn’t necessary and could hinder the baby’s emotional growth.
Okay. Lovely — all of it.
And still, the 2-year-old is a 2-year-old. If you are a compassionate and kind parent, you will have a child who is beginning to become her own individual. Her emotions are strong: When life is good, she is joyful. When life doesn’t go her way, she is despondent. This is developmentally normal and appropriate. Your 2-year-old doesn’t want her diaper changed because she doesn’t want to stop what she’s doing. She doesn’t want to get dressed because she doesn’t have the maturity to care about your schedule. And why, at 2, would she be interested in using the potty? Her body is too distracted and too busy to want to sit on the potty.
You can use any theory you think of — attachment, RIE, 1-2-3 Magic, positive parenting, French parenting, helicopter or snowplow parenting, mindful parenting — it doesn’t matter. All parents will struggle, because children’s development is messy. It doesn’t matter how many books you read or how many parenting classes you attend or how many theories you attach yourself to, the reality always comes down to this: You cannot manipulate your child’s behavior to suit your parental desires — no matter how well intentioned and loving and educated you are! This can be a hard or an easy pill to swallow; I find it comforting to know that I am not solely responsible for every thought, emotion and behavior my child exhibits.
Am I suggesting that we parents throw our hands in the air and abandon learning about our children and how to better raise them? No, of course not. Science has yielded important discoveries that have helped us to stop spanking our children (turns out it is traumatizing to the brain), increase play as a better form of learning for young children (which is how it used to be), and better connect to children from infancy on up (check out how neonatal intensive care units have changed!). Understanding your 2-year-old is a worthy cause, and choosing a theory feels good, but there is no theory, book, expert or column that will take away your child’s willfulness — nor should you want that. The theory you have chosen is lovely (non-abusive and compassionate), but it is not there to completely subvert every problem. Any parenting theory worth its salt will make room for maturation and the big feelings and misbehaviors that come with it. Your child is not misbehaving, so look to your theory for compassion and boundaries when handling her.
Also, recognize when your empathy and talking are helping your conflicts and when your talking and “not rushing her” methods are creating more unnecessary drama. Often with our youngest, more talking leads to more frustration. Why? We are seeking to connect with them on a logical level, and that is not simply available to a 2-year-old.
And I know that RIE eschews distraction and silliness for the sake of skipping over big feelings, but some good ol’ distraction for a 2-year-old works. We are not looking to prevent tears and upset (that is not possible), but singing and giggling and silliness and magical thinking work in helping to move the toddler along. Cultures much older than ours have known this forever, so give it a try. You don’t have to hold the reins of your theory so tightly that it hurts your parenting life.
Listen to your intuition. If you find yourself tickling or playing a game or laughing and it is working, go with it. Will games stop working? Yup. Then you will do something different.
Parenting demands that you attend to a human who is changing right in front of you. You need to stay steady and consistent but always ready for the changing conditions. Let go (a little bit) of the theories and parent the child in front of you. Have confidence that you will know what to do when you need to, and that you will learn from your daughter and your mistakes.