Janet Lansbury’s Gospel of Less Anxious Parenting

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.

One breezy recent morning, Janet Lansbury, a sixty-two-year-old protégée of Gerber’s, was leading a class in a back yard in Los Angeles. Seven women and a few of their husbands were sitting by a sandbox, trying not to cave in to their toddlers’ whined demands. “Out!” a pigtailed two-year-old named Jasmine moaned. “Daddy, out!” She was on the second rung of a climbing structure she’d mounted moments earlier.

Her mother and father looked on in concern. “You can tell I’m a hoverer,” the mom said, to general sympathy. Many of the adults were struggling against the urge to parent like helicopters (circling their children, incessantly surveilling) or, worse, bulldozers (plowing aside every obstacle before their kids can encounter a moment’s difficulty). Lansbury and Gerber urge people instead to be a “stable base” that children leave and return to—an idea that many modern parents find intensely difficult to apply.

“My gut is to go to her,” Jasmine’s father said apologetically. “It’s kind of a weird spot.”

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

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

Jasmine said, “Owie.” Then she clambered down.

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

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

“Uh, nope,” Jasmine replied, and waddled off.

Lansbury is a Californian’s Californian. She has blond 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 little necklace with a starfish on it. But she isn’t wishy-washy with children. Strict boundaries, enforced with confidence, are what enable them to relax, she counsels. It is our ambivalence about rules that compels children to “explore” them. Kids are fascinated by anything that unsettles their overlords, so they will keep acting out as long as we keep getting upset. “They’re asking a question with this behavior,” Lansbury says. “ ‘Am I allowed to do this? What about when you’re really tired?’ ”

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

Lansbury has ascended as a parenting guru by delivering slightly startling advice in a reassuring tone. “Try pretending 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. “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 infant is ‘bored,’ ‘bad-tempered,’ or ‘high-strung’ (as it is called) these tendencies always are the result of the behavior of the environment—or, to be more precise, of mistakes in upbringing.” The good news is that there are no bad kids. The bad news is that there are plenty of bad parents.

Until relatively recently, “parent” was a noun. Taking care of children was something that 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 were absorbing these skills from kin. The famous opening of Benjamin Spock’s “Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” speaks to the insecurity that was taking hold of American parents as early as 1946: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Evidently, we still don’t trust ourselves quite enough: Spock’s book has sold some fifty million copies and spawned a multibillion-dollar industry of books, classes, podcasts, Web sites, and social-media feeds, all teaching people how they ought to deal with their own offspring.

“The rise of parenting is a lot like what happened to food,” the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik writes. People used to raise kids the way they made 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 they have children. It’s not surprising, then, that going to school and working are today’s parents’ models for taking care of children.” We have goals to achieve. We study up.

Parents with the inclination—and the time—to contemplate their approach to child rearing have some stark decisions to make. For a generation, the reigning guru has been the 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 breast-feeding whenever they cry. Such a mother, Sears writes, “will feel complete only when she is with her baby.” She has become a kangaroo. Or, perhaps, a caricature of a liberal: no need is too trivial to necessitate her bosomy intervention.

This stands in contrast to the top-down, conservative style of parenting that tells children to cry it out and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Achievement is rewarded (“If you’re good, you can have 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 might be compared to a kind of weirdly loving libertarianism: children are expected to solve their own problems; parents are expected to affirm their kids’ feelings, even the ugly ones. “As completely counterintuitive as this is for most of us, it works,” Lansbury writes. “How can your child continue to fight when you won’t stop agreeing with her?”

Lansbury’s style is inclusive; her podcast’s tagline is “We can do this.” But, as much as we crave expert guidance, many of us still resent any intimation that what we’re doing with our kids is wrong. “Janet is the Martha Stewart of the millennials—she’s ubiquitous, 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 on the Home Garden Network all the time, read all her books. Then one day my mom slammed her book shut and said, ‘That’s 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 connect with her baby. RIE adherents believe that parents should deliver care with undivided attention, so that diapering, nursing, and bathing become times of relationship-building. Lansbury suggests performing diaper changes with exquisite slowness, describing every action, and seeking the child’s participation by asking questions like “Will you lift your legs now, so I can wipe you?”

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