Janet Lansbury’s Gospel of Less Anxious Parenting

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In the nineteen-thirties in Budapest, a young mother struggled. “I was amazed at how difficult it was to be a parent. I was angry,” Magda Gerber wrote later. “I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what to do with babies and somehow in my education someone had forgotten to tell me.” Then, one day, she watched in astonishment 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 dazzled by Pikler’s insistence that her daughter could speak for herself—that even the youngest children could be enlisted in stunning feats of coöperation. “It made me feel that this was the answer to all my questions and doubts,” Gerber wrote. She devoted the rest of her life to learning from Pikler and disseminating her ideas.

Pikler argued that babies, like seeds growing into plants, did not need any teaching to develop as nature intended; they would learn to walk, speak, sleep, self-soothe, and interact perfectly if only we would get out of their way. The problem, she wrote in “Peaceful Babies—Contented Mothers,” is that “the child is seen as a toy or as a ‘doll,’ rather than a human being.” Babies are shushed when they try to communicate, clucked at like morons, tickled when they are sad, passed around like objects, and crammed into high chairs in positions their bodies aren’t ready to form. After becoming accustomed to this relentless, invasive attention, a child starts believing that she requires it. “She will, in time, become increasingly whiney and cling to adults,” Pikler cautioned. The result is a kid as desperate for attention as her parents are desperate for peace.

In 1946, the city of Budapest enlisted Pikler to set up an orphanage for children who’d lost their families to the Second World War. Pikler soon fired the nurses, who seemed unable to relinquish their authoritarian focus on efficiency, and replaced them with young women from local villages, whom she trained to treat infants with “ceremonious slowness.” Over time, Pikler codified a philosophy, built around showing babies the same respect that adults reflexively grant one another. Magda Gerber emigrated in 1957, settling in California, where she spread the message in the sunshine, with a program soberly named Resources for Infant Educarers, or RIE.



Lansbury has advice for parents fretting over how to raise their kids: do less. Illustration by Linda Merad



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