Janet Lansbury’s Gospel of Less Anxious Parenting


This content can also be viewed on the website from which it originated.

In the nineteen-thirties in Budapest, a young mother struggled. “I was surprised at how difficult it was to be a parent. I was angry,” Magda Gerber later wrote. “I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what to do with babies and somehow in my upbringing someone forgot to tell me.” Then, one day, she watched in amazement as a pediatrician treated her four-year-old daughter. The doctor, a Viennese Jew named Emmi Pikler, did something unheard of: she listened to her patient. Gerber was amazed by Pikler’s insistence that her daughter could speak for herself – that even the youngest children could be engaged in astonishing feats of cooperation. “It made me feel like it was the answer to all my questions and doubts,” Gerber wrote. She devoted the rest of her life to learning from Pikler and spreading her ideas.

Pikler argued that babies, like seeds that grow into plants, need no instruction to develop as nature intended; they would learn to walk, talk, sleep, self-soothe and interact perfectly, if only we would get out of their way. The problem, she wrote in “Peaceful Babies—Satisfied Mothers,” is that “the child is seen as a toy or as a ‘doll’, rather than as a person.” Babies are silenced when they try to communicate, they are charged like morons, tickled when they are sad, pushed around like objects and stuffed into high chairs in positions their bodies are not ready to form. After becoming accustomed to this relentless, intrusive attention, a child begins to believe that she needs it. “She will become more and more fussy over time and cling to adults,” warned Pikler. The result is a child as desperate for attention as her parents are for peace.

In 1946, the city of Budapest enlisted Pikler to set up an orphanage for children who had lost their families in World War II. Pikler soon fired the nurses, who seemed unable to abandon their authoritarian focus on efficiency, and replaced them with young women from local villages, whom she trained to treat babies with “ceremonial slowness.” Over time, Pikler codified a philosophy built to show babies the same respect adults reflexively give each other. Magda Gerber emigrated in 1957 and settled in California, where she spread the message in the sunshine, with a program soberly called Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE.

One breezy recent morning, Janet Lansbury, a sixty-two-year-old protégé of Gerber, was leading a class in a Los Angeles backyard. Seven women and a few of their husbands sat next to a sandpit, trying not to give in to their toddlers’ whining demands. “Out!” a two year old named Jasmine moaned. “Daddy, out!” She was on the second step of a climbing structure she had assembled moments earlier.

Her mother and father looked on with concern. “You can see I’m a floater,” said the mother to general sympathy. Many of the adults struggled with the urge to parent like helicopters (circling their children, constantly supervising) or, worse, bulldozers (plowing every obstacle before their children could have a moment’s trouble ). Lansbury and Gerber encourage people to instead be a “stable base” that children leave and return to – an idea that many modern parents find very difficult to apply.

“My gut is to go to her,” Jasmine’s father said apologetically. “It’s quite a strange place.”

“Usually, if they can get there, they can get down from there,” Lansbury told him. She knelt next to Jasmine and said, “Do you feel like you want your daddy to help? He’s right there. He listens to you.” (This is a key element of the RIE approach: you acknowledge everything your child wants, even if you are do none of that.)

“I’m curious to see what she does,” Jasmine’s father said, with what sounded more like anxiety.

Jasmine said, “Owie.” Then she got off.

Lansbury feels a special affinity for toddlers. “There’s something I really get about them,” she says. “I guess I have my own personal reasons for arrested development.”Photo by Annie Tritt for The New Yorker

Her mother looked relieved. “Jazzy, can I have a kiss?”

“Uh, no,” Jasmine replied and waddled away.

Lansbury is a Californian’s Californian. She has blonde hair and blue eyes and was a model and actress in her youth. She practices Transcendental Meditation and jogs on the beach. She wears a necklace with a starfish on it. But she is not desirable with children. Strict boundaries, enforced with trust, are what make this possible they to relax, she advises. It is our ambivalence about rules that forces children to “explore” them. Children are fascinated by anything that upsets their dominants, so they will continue to act out as long as we continue to get upset. “They’re asking a question with this behavior,” Lansbury says. “‘May I do this? What about when you’re really tired?’ “

In the backyard, a mother told Lansbury that her two-year-old throws tantrums every time he says no, banging his head on the floor. Lansbury looked at the tiny culprit. “Sometimes you get down on the ground because you don’t like it when someone says no?” she asked. She turned to his mother and suggested putting a blanket under his head so he wouldn’t hurt himself. “He has the right to object,” she continued. “It’s so healthy for them!”

Lansbury ascended as a parenting guru by delivering slightly baffling advice in a reassuring tone. “Try to pretend that everything you say to your child, every decision you make, is absolutely perfect, for one day,” she suggests in an episode of her podcast, “Unruffled,” which has nearly a million listeners a month. has. “Trust your child” is a frequent refrain. The title of her most recent book is “No Bad Kids”. Emmi Pikler put things less soothingly: “If an otherwise healthy baby is ‘bored’, ‘bad mood’ or ‘high-strung’ (as they are called), these tendencies are always the result of the behavior of the environment—or , to to be more precise, of mistakes in education.” The good news is that there are no bad children, the bad news is that there are a lot of bad parents.

Until relatively recently, “parent” was a noun. Taking care of children was something you learned from your extended family. But by the second half of the twentieth century, as more Americans moved to cities and had smaller families, fewer people picked up these skills from family members. The famous opening of Benjamin Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” speaks of the uncertainty that already took hold among American parents in 1946: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you know.” Apparently, we still don’t trust ourselves enough: Spock’s book has sold some fifty million copies and spawned a multibillion-dollar industry of books, classes, podcasts, websites, and social media feeds, all of which teach people how to handle own offspring.

“The rise of parenting is a lot like what happened with food,” writes developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik. People raised children the way they raised kugel or meatballs: in accordance with the traditions of their culture, picking and choosing from the slight variations they observed among their cousins, grandmothers, aunts and uncles. “What was once a matter of experience has become a matter of expertise,” Gopnik continues. The trend, she argues, has been exacerbated by Americans having children later in life: “Most middle-class parents spend years taking classes and pursuing careers before having children. It is therefore not surprising that going to school and working are today’s parents’ models for caring for children.” We have goals to achieve. We study up.

Parents with the inclination – and the time – to consider their approach to child-rearing have some tough decisions to make. For a generation, the reigning guru has been pediatrician William Sears, an advocate of “attachment parenting.” Mothers who follow his advice will find themselves sleeping with their babies in their beds, wearing them in a sling or a carrier as much as possible, and breastfeeding whenever they cry. Such a mother, writes Sears, “will only feel complete when she is with her baby.” She became a kangaroo. Or perhaps a caricature of a liberal: no need is too small to necessitate her bosom-like intervention.

This contrasts with the top-down, conservative style of parenting that tells kids to cry it out and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Achievement is rewarded (“If you’re good, you can get ice cream”), hierarchy is unquestioned (“Because I said so”), and personal responsibility is enforced with the threat of consequences (“I’ll give you something to cry about “). RIE can be compared to a kind of strange loving libertarianism: children are expected to solve their own problems; Parents are expected to validate their children’s feelings, even the ugly ones. “As completely counterintuitive as it is to most of us, it works,” Lansbury writes. “How can your child keep fighting if you won’t stop agreeing with her?”

Lansbury’s style is inclusive; her podcast’s tagline is “We Can Do It.” But as much as we crave expert guidance, many of us still resent any indication that what we’re doing with our children is wrong. “Janet is the Martha Stewart of the millennials—she’s omnipresent, I can’t get away from her,” Tori Barnes, a thirty-four-year-old mother of three in a Denver suburb, told me. “When I was in middle school, my mom loved Martha—watched her all the time on the Home Garden Network, read all her books. Then one day my mom slammed her book down and said, ‘This is it. Martha Stewart just told me to go pick dandelions and make dandelion wine. I don’t have time for this shit.’ Barnes had her dandelion wine moment when she heard Lansbury describe diaper changes as an opportunity to bond with her baby. RIE fans believe that parents should provide care with undivided attention, so that diapering, nursing, and bathing become relationship-building times. Lansbury suggests performing diaper changes with exquisite slowness, describing each action and seeking the child’s participation by asking questions such as “Will you lift your legs now so I can wipe you?”

Related Posts