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How a Holocaust Survivor Started This Super-Trendy Parenting Philosophy

Little boy legs on playground

It’s possible you haven’t yet heard about RIE, the hottest new parenting trend, but trust us: You will.

RIE is an acronym for Resources for Infant Educarers (and, no, that’s not a typo). It’s a parenting philosophy that is recently gaining traction, thanks to endorsements from celebrities such as Tobey Macguire, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Hank Azaria. The parenting method has been featured in articles in Vanity Fair and the New York Post, as if you need further proof that RIE has “arrived,” a new parenting center that’s focused on the philosophy, The Nurtured Child, recently opened in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

RIE was officially founded in 1978 by early childhood educator Magda Gerber in— you guessed it! — California. As you might expect, much of its philosophy — including emphasizing one-on-one “quality time” with an infant — sounds like it would be right at home in an upscale, slightly woo-woo environment. But RIE’s origins actually go to a Jewish pediatrician in pre-World War II Europe, whose unique style helped her family survive the Holocaust and launch a parenting movement.

The RIE parenting method emphasizes communication, respect, and autonomy. One of its key principles is allowing children, even tiny infants, complete freedom of movement — which means no bouncy seats, swings, or high chairs. Forget swaddling, too. Instead, it’s about letting the littlest humans learn to self-soothe and discover their environment in an unmediated way.

RIE shares many similarities to Montessori education, whose motto is “help me to do it myself.” RIE educators suggest that parents suppress their natural urge to intervene in playground fights, so that children learn to work out issues on their own. (This aspect is probably the most controversial among parents).

Young children are encouraged to drink from small glasses, rather than bottles or sippy cups. They’re never propped into sitting positions, but once they develop their core sitting muscles, they are invited to sit at their own little tables (thus inspiring an entire genre of RIE children’s furniture).

RIE’s origins date to the 1930s, when Gerber (who was not Jewish nor related to the American baby food company), the wife of a Budapest textile factory owner, met Dr. Emmi Pikler, a pediatrician who pioneered a unique approach to caring for children.

Born Emilie Madeleine Reich, Pikler studied medicine in Vienna in the 1920s before moving with her husband and child to Budapest in 1932. There, Pikler was forced to open up her own private practice —because she was Jewish, she could not officially be hired by hospitals or institutions. Nonetheless, Pikler became a popular pediatrician to Budapest society. She developed such close relations with the families of the children she treated that some of them helped Pikler and her family survive the Holocaust, procuring them false papers and even hiding them.

When the war ended, city officials asked Pikler to become the director of a new orphanage for babies and toddlers in Budapest, and Gerber came to work with her there. Setting up shop in an empty mansion in the lush hillside just outside of the city, Pikler made sure that each room in the house had direct access to the garden, so that every child there would have ample opportunity to experience beauty. Children even napped outside.

Because rates of childhood illness and death within such institutions were dismally high, Pikler pioneered a new approach, which she called a “choreography” of therapeutic care, based on the idea of a respectful dialogue consisting of gestures, gentle speech, and conscious attention between child and caregiver. Caregivers told children they were going to pick them up before they moved them, learned to recognize pre-verbal signals as a sign of legitimate communication, rather than just noise, and encouraged caregivers not to entertain children, but simply to pay deep attention to them. The children at Pikler’s orphanage flourished. She and her staff raised many generations of children and became a European-wide training center for childcare.

In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, Gerber’s husband was suspected of being an American spy and imprisoned. The family fled Budapest and eventually found refuge in the United States. Gerber began working as an early childhood educator in Los Angeles, taking what she had learned from working with Pikler at the orphanage and applying it to modern American children. Her approach struck a chord with many parents weary of Dr. Spock, baby-wearing, and helicoptering.

Gerber became a word-of-mouth parenting guru in California. As her method slowly caught on, the “educarers” she trained went on to publish their own books and podcasts. In 2010, RIE teaching materials were incorporated into federally funded Early Head Start programs across the country. As for Pikler, who died in 1984, RIE-raised kids commemorate her in an especially fun way: by playing on the Pikler Triangle, an indoor wooden climber she designed.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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