A Deep Dive into RIE Parenting
An audio interview with child psychologist Cara Goodwin.
Greetings, everyone! I’m excited today to be running my first full-length audio newsletter for free subscribers. This was an experiment, to see how I liked it (it was really fun, but a lot of work!) and to see how you like it (I welcome your feedback!).
Today’s topic is one I’ve been asked about many times: RIE parenting, the approach to parenting made famous by Janet Lansbury. Is there a good reason to think it’s a smart parenting strategy? Does it align with the science on child development? Recently, child psychologist Cara Goodwin — the woman behind the fabulous account Parenting Translator on Instagram who just started her own excellent Substack newsletter — dug into the science behind RIE, so I asked her to join me in a conversation about it. I learned a ton, and I think you will too.
In the spirit of getting this information out to as many people as possible, below is a transcript, too. (I know not everyone loves podcasts.) And please, consider becoming a paid subscriber. Putting out a science-based newsletter like this is a lot of work, and although I love it, I can’t do it without your support.
Melinda: Hi everybody. I'm so excited to be running my first full length audio newsletter. And especially with my guest today: I'm really, really excited to be talking with Cara Goodwin, who is a child psychologist and a mom of three, who specializes in child development. She's spent years researching child psychology and neuroscience, providing therapy.
She has a fantastic Instagram account that I have been following for a long time. Parentingtranslator, all one word. And essentially just doing the amazing important work of translating the science of child development and parenting research to a lay audience. And I love it. It's always so insightful.
She also just launched a Substack, which is Parentingtranslator.substack.com. I'm very excited to follow it. So I'm really excited to have Cara here today, to talk about something that I actually don't know much about, but I have been wondering about for years — which is the approach to parenting that is called — I guess it's pronounced — rye. R-I-E is how it's spelled.
And it stands for Resources for Infant Educarers. I just learned that today. But a lot of people refer to it as respectful parenting or as a subcategory of gentle parenting. And Janet Lansbury is the big name in this world of this kind of parenting approach.
So I have been wondering for a long time: Is there science behind this approach? Can we trust it and what is it really all about? Cara has been researching RIE and really has dug into the science. So I'm super excited to basically pick your brain, Cara, and learn from you and understand all about RIE. So thank you for being here.
Cara: I'm so happy to, yes.
Melinda: So, I guess first, I'm curious to hear a little bit more about you and how you came to start looking into the science behind parenting and the science behind child development and using research to answer parenting questions, because this is something obviously I do too, but I'd love to hear a little bit about your backstory.
Cara: So, I'm a child psychologist, so I spend a lot of time talking to parents about all the research and how to apply it in clinic. And then I became a mother myself and I'd be talking to my mom friends about the various research that I knew about from my training. And I realized that most parents don't know about this research.
And I was honestly very surprised and, I'm, you know, just reading all the research anyways, because I'm so interested in it and it's part of my job — and I just decided, during the pandemic, when we were all a little intellectually bored, to put it nicely, I just decided to start writing up summaries of the research that I was reading and putting it out there for my parent friends.
And I got a lot of positive feedback and people saying, “this is really interesting. I didn't know this.” And so I kind of grew my Instagram account just as a passion project. And kept getting some good feedback. And I decided to turn it into a nonprofit because I really believe that it's a huge problem that there's all this research out there and most parents don't know about it.
And, even if you did have the time and the training to read the research, it's behind a paywall. There are so many barriers to parents getting access to this research. That's what really motivates me. And so I've kept going with this Instagram, putting research out there. I have even delved into TikTok recently. That’s just a crazy world. And I started my newsletter on Substack. So I hope that that will help give parents more resources to know what the research says and might make the hardest job in the world a little bit easier.
Melinda: Well, I am very grateful for your work. It's so, so helpful. It's just so hard to, to kind of sift your way through the noise sometimes and all the conflicting information in parenting and like, what do you trust and what do you believe?
Cara: Yes. So hard.
Melinda: And with RIE parenting, this is something that I've been hearing about for years and what should I believe here? What does the science say about this? I've read a lot about gentle parenting recently. There were pieces in the New Yorker and the New York Times. Jess Grose wrote one. And Emily Oster just recently covered it. So there's a lot of talk about it, but I think that's been mostly about like gentle parenting and I'm curious: What exactly is the RIE component of gentle parenting? Can you just walk us through a little bit about maybe even the history of it? Where did it come from? Is it different from the broader gentle parenting?
Cara: Yeah, I would say RIE is a genre of gentle parenting and it's probably the most clearly defined genre and maybe even the most popular because of the books that focus on this written by Janet Lansbury. And her podcasts are, you know, number one in the field. So I would say it's maybe the most popular version of gentle parenting and it is a little bit different from the general gentle parenting movement that I see on Instagram and social media and on mommy blogs.
But yeah, the history is really, really interesting. So there was a woman in Hungary named Magda Gerber who took her daughter to the pediatrician and noticed that the way the doctor, her pediatrician, was talking to her daughter was very respectful and she just really latched onto this idea.
And she developed this whole program called Resources for Infant Educarers, which is an unfortunate name, to put it nicely. But she, so she developed this program with a pediatrician in the United States.
And then Janet Lansbury, who is a common name that I think most parents know, she has an interesting history. She was a model actress living out in L.A. And when she had her own kids felt very lost and then she somehow stumbled upon Magda Gerber's work and was just fascinated by it and took one of her classes, became certified in this method and really spread it to the whole country. And she's translated it, like I do, in words that parents understand, and I think a lot of parents have latched onto it and find it's an approach that really speaks to them.
Melinda: Yeah. Okay. That's so interesting about Janet Lansbury's background. I kind of assumed she had a child development background or something, but she doesn't — she just found out about this and thought it was really interesting. And then just sort of self-taught herself this approach and translates it for other parents.
Melinda: Really, really interesting. So, if you were going give us, first, and we'll dig into some of the details, or some of the aspects that are maybe both supported by science and some that aren't… as a child development specialist yourself, what is your overall take on it?
Do you think that this generally is a good approach for parents to have? Or is it a good approach with some reservations? Or is it — I always felt like these gentle parenting approaches sound really great in theory, but then in practice, they're really hard. You have to have like endless patience. So I guess, too, is it practical? I guess if you just want to summarize your thoughts on it?
Cara: Yeah. So I think the big principles of RIE are beautiful. So it's focused on having like an authentic and respectful relationship with your child. Of course, we would all want that. It sounds wonderful.
And it involves really trusting your child and seeing them as a competent independent person. So I think all of that is great. The big picture is really great. Some of the details: So in practice, this would be involving your child in caregiving, giving them a safe, predictable environment, allowing time for uninterrupted play, being a calm and confident leader. Janet Lansbury talks about that a lot. Setting firm boundaries with empathy.
All of this is like so great. You know, all these general principles. I guess I worry about when it's presented as "this is the approach that you use for all children." And that “this is the only thing that works.”
We don't have any research at all on RIE, which is shocking given how popular it is. So when we don't have research on something, we don't know if it works. We don't know if it doesn't work, but we don't know if it works. And I worry that if it doesn't work for parents, that they'll feel like they're failing or there's something wrong with them or wrong with their child. We don't know if this will work for most children.
And we do have parenting programs out there that we do know work for most children. And they're slightly different. So I think it's good for parents to know that there are other tools in their toolbox they can use besides that. Even though I agree with the general principles.
Melinda: Okay. Yeah. It's really, really interesting that there's really no research on this approach as a whole. And I guess maybe that's why I don't know much about it, because in digging into the research that I did for my book, I was looking for what has actually been tested. And so RIE just never came up. And I remember people asking me, “why don't you cover this?” And I was like, “I think maybe there's no research, I don't know.” But thank you for actually looking because it is, as you say, such a popular approach and if there's really — if it's never really been put to the test as a whole parenting philosophy, that's very, very interesting.
As you say, it might not be something that works for all kids. And is there also like an element of if you don't do this, if you have a different approach, if you use consequences or time outs or the things that really aren't okay in RIE, that you might be harming your kids? Is there an implication that if you don't use this kind of parenting, that you might be putting your kid at risk or hurting your kid in some way?
Cara: Yeah, I think there is an implication that if you are using time out, for example, or you are using consequences, that this is not respecting your child. Whereas as a child psychologist, I would argue that part of having respect for your child is knowing what strategies work best for them and using them. I think it's a little bit more complicated than that. So yeah, I think there is some sort of undertone that if you are not using this approach that you are not respecting your child, that this is going to result in some sort of negative outcome as an adult.
Melinda: Yeah. Okay. That always concerns me — anything that's shaming parents. I mean, we have so much pressure on us right now as it is. Anything that makes us feel worse about our choices and, and sometimes our reactions… I mean, of course all of us make mistakes or yell at our kids sometimes when we don't want to. But the implication that like this is going to like screw up your kid…
Cara: Yes. And I worry — in particular, I think some of the suggestions for caring for infants seem impossible to me. So, she recommends no pacifiers, no baby wearing, and putting your infant on their back to play and leaving them be. And no swaddling, that's the other one. And I just can't imagine. I mean, I've had three infants at this point. I just can't imagine. And knowing also about the physiology of an infant and how they kind of need. somebody regulating for them in those early months — I just don't know if I see that approach as realistic or even what's best for an infant.
Melinda: Yeah. Wow. Okay. So I didn't know any of this, about the infant stuff. Okay. Let's unpack this a little bit. Why can't you hold your kid in a carrier or swaddle them? Do you know what the rationale is?
Cara: A big tenet of RIE is allowing for unobstructed free movement. And any sort of movement like that, or any sort of restriction of their movement, is getting in the way of your child's development, is what this approach argues.
And another thing that really bothers me about the infant caring suggestions is she's also against tummy time. Which — we have decades of research showing that tummy time is not only important for motor development, but it's also associated with all these benefits for cognitive development — basically every aspect of a child's development. So it's very important. And the argument against tummy time is you should never put your baby in a position that they can't get to on their own. But I would argue that a newborn can't get into any position on their own. If you place them down on their back, they couldn't get on their back on their own. So it doesn't totally add up to me.
And what I worry is it sets parents up right away for something that's just so unrealistic. And I don't know any parent… she says you should validate your infant when they're upset and that's wonderful, but I don't know any parent knowing how much a baby would cry without any of those kinds of tools that we have as an early parent. I don't know any parent that could really tolerate that. I mean, they're amazing if I do know any. I know I couldn't. So I don't know. I think there's some parts of this that are just so aspirational that I worry that it sets parents up for failure.
Melinda: That is such a good way to put it. It's so aspirational and impractical. Is there any research suggesting that restricting a baby's movement through swaddling or putting them in a carrier — that that is associated with a reduction in developmental progress?
Cara: No. There's no research. There's research showing many, many benefits of baby wearing. That's one of the things that I feel very, very strongly about promoting, because the skin touching is just, we know, so important for brain development.
There is some research, very limited, showing that devices like walkers, if a baby is put in them for a significant amount of time, may delay motor development. But not any research showing that holding your baby or carrying them in a baby carrier or swaddling is associated with delays in motor development.
And we know from so much research how beneficial tummy time is. So it's just — whenever I see something that goes against a lot of high quality research, I'm kind of like, oh, you shouldn't say that.
Melinda: Yeah, absolutely. Not only is it going against what we know from research is good, but they're claiming there's some negative effect of doing it too, like that restraining their movement is somehow bad for them, when there is literally no research on that. That is really a stretch.
Cara: Yes. And the other thing that really bothers me is the RIE approach is very anti-parentese, which is the annoying voice we all use when we speak to a baby or a dog. You know, like, "Hi baby, how are you?" It's higher pitched, it's exaggerated vowels, it's drawn out slower. Parentese is used across cultures, across history. This is something that parents just very naturally do with babies. And there's so much research showing that babies pay more attention to it, that it improves their language development.
And it really is the way that parentese is used, with the exaggerated tone and the elongating and the slowness that is associated with language development. So there's so much research on how beneficial it is. And the RIE approach suggests that you should talk to your child as you would an adult, which is great in some ways, because then you're using a lot of language which — I think some people don't really speak that much to babies, and that's not great for their language development either. But it's important to remember that a baby is not an adult, that we know that their brains are different.
And this goes for toddlers too, you know? I wouldn't speak to my toddlers in the same way I spoke to my husband because of language development and because there's some things that work for my toddler's developmental level that do not work for my husband's developmental level.
I use a lot of silliness and that helps and they love it, and I think the RIE approach would say that's not being respectful. I think silliness is an incredible tool for parents to have in their toolbox. There's nothing wrong with that. And it can only help make your job a little bit easier.
I worry about the general approach of giving babies the same respect as adults. Babies, toddlers, young children all deserve respect. I can't say that enough. But they are not cognitively at the same level as an adult. And I think respecting them is recognizing that, and speaking at a level that they can understand in a way that is engaging to them.
Melinda: Yeah. That is so odd to me that talking to them in this parentese is considered disrespectful in some way. That kind of blows my mind a little bit. One thing I talk about so much in my newsletter is how different children's brains are from adult brains and how different parts of the brain take so long to develop. We should be communicating with them in developmentally appropriate ways.
I feel like that term, developmentally appropriate, is something I use a lot because it is something I hear from child psychologists all the time. We need to be communicating with them on a level that they can understand and connect with. This is what parentese does. It's the infant version of that.
That really seems to go against so much, not just like the direct research on parentese, but the whole philosophy of like child development. It really seems to go against that.
Cara: I agree.
Melinda: It's strange to me. I'm going back to — I just can't help it go back to the origins of this. And you said, so this the woman Magda —
Cara: Magda Gerber. Yes.
Melinda: Gerber. She had heard her pediatrician speak in this way, but did she have a background herself in child development?
Cara: She did have a master's in early childhood education. So she had some. And she did develop it with a pediatrician. But still, I would argue it's one person's opinion, which is not an evidence-based parenting program. And it, it may work. I would assume it has to work for some kids. Otherwise, these books would not sell in this way. But it worries me that parents feel like it should work or it's the only approach that they can use.
Melinda: Yeah. Right. Absolutely. It's a very limited toolbox that they're giving you. And with older kids, I mean, you mentioned that RIE does advocate for setting boundaries for kids and obviously we know that's really important, but — tell me if I'm getting this wrong — they really don't like consequences, punishments, time outs, anything that’s punitive in any way?
I've talked in my newsletter about the fact that punishments aren't always an effective approach, either. And there's different ways to have consequences — natural consequences and other kinds of logical consequences – that can be more effective, but does RIE really frown at any kind of consequence? And if so, like how do they recommend establishing and maintaining boundaries, if there's no way to follow through? What's their approach to discipline, I guess, is what I'm asking?
Cara: I think it's important with all of these gentle parenting movements to remember that there are consequences even if you do nothing for your child's behavior. If your child snatches a toy from their brother and you as the parent stand there and do nothing, they just got a positive consequence of getting access to the toy, so it's like that's rewarded the behavior.
If your child hits you and you get down on their level and are validating their feelings, you're giving them the positive consequence of your attention. I'm not saying you shouldn't validate your child's feelings — that's very important — but parents have to understand that there are consequences no matter what we do. So I think as a parent, it's all about like shaping the consequences in a way that teaches the values that we want to teach. And there's nothing wrong with that.
I think RIE, what they recommend with any sort of disruptive behavior is getting down on your child's level, being present with them in their big feelings, validating their feelings. And if your child hits you or hits their brother, you would say, “I can't let you hit.” And you would physically stop them, which is a consequence. You're limiting their movement. So it is a negative consequence. So whether they want to call it that or not, it is. I think that all behaviors have consequences.
RIE does oppose time out or any sort of unrelated consequences, like privilege removal, like “you've lost your iPad for the rest of the day.” And the research shows that some children don't need consequences. With some children, you could fully do positive gentle parenting, and it's great. And their behavior improves and it works. But there are a subset of children that research has found that when you only use the positive aspects of these parenting programs, that their behavior doesn't improve and in some cases even gets worse.
So it is okay if you feel like you do need to use consequences. Obviously if they're related to the behavior, that's even better. Because then it helps your child link it up and learn kind of what you're wanting them to learn. But there's nothing wrong with time out done in a calm and respectful way.
It gives parents and children a chance to calm down, which — I think it's unrealistic to expect parents to be present with their child's big emotions, especially when they're kicking them and hitting them or just hurt their sibling. it's just unrealistic to be calm throughout that entire time. And if you're present with your child and you're not calm, you're not helping anybody. It's better for you to walk away. It's better for you to say, “Okay, please go to time out” and you take the time to calm down when they're in time out, than trying to be present with them when you're internally losing your cool or externally losing your cool. If you are not genuinely calm, like you're not helping anybody. And what worries me about the RIE approach — they even suggest that if your child says, "leave me alone," to still stay with them. And I would argue that that's not respecting the child and their individual needs.
So there’s some contradictory stuff in there that I think it's important for parents to learn that being present with your child for their big emotions and validating their feelings, all of that is great and supported by research. But it's not always going to work like that in the real world.
Melinda: Yeah. That's a really good point. I really appreciate Claire Lerner's work. She just wrote a book, Why Is My Child in Charge? [check out my Q&A with her!] I love how she marries yes, validating emotions is important, but also, you can say, “I need to take a mommy moment” or “I need a little space,” or “This is really loud for my ears,” and you can have both of these things and work them together and be respectful and yet also communicate to your child what you need and respect what they need and all these things.
Cara: Yes. I think that's teaching children that other humans have needs too, because in no other relationship in their life is somebody going to be calmly there validating their feelings. Any of us who are married can attest to that.
It's kind of setting unrealistic expectations for relationships. And it's important to know that other people, even your parents, have needs and they have emotional needs. And sometimes they need a moment.
Melinda: Yes, yes. Right. And there is research on inductive discipline where parents will tie the effects of their kids' choices on other people, like, “Here's how it's affecting me or somebody else in the family.” And there's good research showing that that can be very, very effective for teaching kids to be compassionate and think of others, think of themselves as part of a bigger whole.
And that's interesting that RIE, they don't advocate for that in some way. Yeah. Huh. That's really, that's really interesting. I mean, I have struggled with the balance between, and sorry if this is going off on a little bit of a tangent, but like, it's good to make sure kids understand that their actions have consequences on others and they can affect others, but without also making them feel like they're responsible for everyone's happiness. There's like a balance in there you have to strike that is a little tricky.
Melinda: And I imagine — I could see how, possibly, part of the issue that RIE has with that — maybe it makes kids feel some kind of shame or something that is unhealthy. But there's got to be a happy medium, like a middle ground you could find there.
Cara: Yes. I think like acknowledging what's realistic for parents and especially if you have multiple kids and you have other stressors in your life, I think it's really hard to always be as calm and confident as Janet Lansbury is on her podcast.
Melinda: Right? Right. Yeah. I'm certainly not always calm.
Cara: No, me neither.
Melinda: I wish I were, but I'm not. Are there other aspects of RIE that you would want to call out either for maybe being not well supported by research or that you think are really great that you haven't mentioned?
Cara: Like I said, I think the general principles are wonderful. And I think it all gives us something to aspire to in terms of this authentic, respectful relationship with our child.
But I think it's just so important for parents to know that if it doesn't work for you personally, or it doesn't work for your child, or it doesn't work for your family, that's okay. And then you can seek out other tools.
I get the sense that all these parenting approaches, it's kind of becoming like religion. You feel like you have to choose one and you must stick to all the core tenets of that religion. But I tend to, as a parent, personally, just kind of take from all these different approaches. I'm usually going off the research because that's something I feel strongly about, but I take something from attachment parenting and something from gentle parenting and something from old school parenting, for lack of a better term. And you know, it's not a religion. You don't have to convert and believe in every aspect of it. You can kind of take what works for you.
And if it doesn't work, it doesn't mean you failed. It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you or your child. It just means that there's a different tool out there that you could try.
Melinda: I could not agree more. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And I really appreciate your comparison there to religion. Because I agree. I think it does almost feel like a religion for some parents and it doesn't have to. I also pull things from different things that I find really compelling from the research or that just work really well with my kids. And, and I use different things with my two different kids. Because they're different.
Cara: So true.
Melinda: That's the other thing: You know your child. You know yourself, you know your child. My partner uses sometimes different strategies than I do and then that's okay. So I really appreciate that message.
I have just learned so much. I really appreciate you walking us through this and explaining both the philosophy of RIE and then why it, overall, has a lot of great foundations in it, but at the same time might not be something that will work for everyone and/or may not be the most effective in some ways, because it doesn't align with the research. So thank you for unpacking this for us.
Cara: So happy to. So happy to. Thank you.
Melinda: And I just want to make sure I say again, or maybe you should say, how everyone can find you if they want to subscribe to your newsletter or follow you on Instagram. Can you just share how can we find you?
Melinda: Awesome. Well, thank you, Cara. This has been fantastic. And thank you for being my inaugural full length newsletter guest!
Cara: Happy to.
Melinda: This was super fun, actually. I'm going to do more of these. Thank you.
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