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Parenting a toddler? Simply step back and watch, study recommends

By Melody Tan 2 min read
Thursday, October 15, 2020

Parents reported significantly lower stress levels, with more confidence and a better understanding of their children’s capabilities.

Your toddler is playing with a toy and can't seem to work it out. What would you do?

“As parents we tend to go and ‘save’ our children when they start to struggle with something, instead of letting them try to resolve their own challenges. But if the children aren’t looking for help, perhaps they can be left to do their own thing and work it out themselves,” says Mandy Richardson.

Mandy is a PhD student at Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences who recently conducted the world’s first data-driven study of parenting classes based on the Respectful Approach intervention. She says the Respectful Approach helps to establish good patterns in early years so children learn to build confidence in their abilities and to deal with conflict in emotionally intelligent ways. 

Even better, at the end of the classes, parents reported significantly lower stress levels, with more confidence and a better understanding of their children’s capabilities.

What is RIE parenting?

The Respectful Approach is modelled on Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) parenting, which guides parents to treat young children as capable and independent humans who can flourish if given safe space and freedom from too much adult direction.

RIE parenting is based on the philosophies of Magda Gerber, a Hungarian early childhood educator who migrated to the United States in the 1950s after Hungary became a Communist country. 

"We have basic trust in the infant to be an initiator, to be an explorer eager to learn what he is ready for. Because of this trust, we provide the infant with only enough help necessary to allow the child to enjoy mastery of her own actions," the RIE website states.

This approach is particularly prominent during the first three years of a child's life. "Our method, guided by respect for the infant’s competence, is observation. We observe carefully to understand the infant’s communications and their needs. During care activities (nappy change, feeding, bathing, dressing, etc), we encourage even the tiniest infant to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient of the activities. Parents create opportunities for interaction, cooperation, intimacy and mutual enjoyment by being wholeheartedly with the infant during the time they spend together anyway. 'Refueled' by such unhurried, pleasurable caring experiences, infants are ready to explore their environment with only minimal intervention by adults."

In Mandy's study, where she used the Respectful Approach, which is based on RIE parenting, she invited parents to take part in a class for infants or toddlers over six weeks where they observed their children in uninterrupted play in a room with age appropriate toys.

The infants and toddlers were free to investigate their environment and interact with other children while parents sat in the room and watched with a facilitator. After an observation period, each class introduced and discussed a topic related to the Respectful Approach.

The benefits of RIE parenting

Mandy says the RIE parenting style is ultimately about building a trusting, lasting bond with positive communication between parents and children. There is less focus on checklists and achieving milestones, with acknowledgement that each child is different.

Mandy explains the Respectful Approach helps to establish good patterns in early years so children learn to build confidence in their abilities and to deal with conflict in emotionally intelligent ways.

“Traditionally early behavioural interventions have predominantly focused on modifying undesirable child behaviours,” Mandy says. “By building good communication and a close parent-child bond, we can potentially prevent problems occurring in the long term.”

At the end of her research, Mandy says "participants in the study reported worrying less about performance pressure after attending the classes, which let them refocus on their relationship with their children”.

Mandy has expanded her study to track parents and children over three years to determine whether the decline in parental stress levels has a lasting impact and investigate long-term outcomes in child development.

Melody Tan is project manager of the Mums At The Table multimedia initiative. She lives in Sydney with her husband and their preschooler son.