Respectful Parenting – It’s Weird, But It Works

It can be easy for me to forget that the way infant specialist Magda Gerber taught me to engage with babies isn’t the norm. This is especially true now that my own children are well past the infant/toddler years. The only parents of young ones I regularly spend time with are in my weekly parent-child classes, where we’re in our own little insulated parenting bubble.

But during a recent weekend trip for one of my son’s soccer tournaments, I had several reminders of the unusualness of my approach…

Weird parenting experience #1: The Baby Across the Room

I was sitting down for a postgame lunch in a coffee shop with my husband and son when I noticed the baby gazing at me from her highchair several feet away. She seemed around 10 or 11 months old. We locked eyes, and I smiled. She continued to hold my gaze, which is one of many reasons I’m appreciative of very young children. If you’re open and willing, they are not at all shy about connecting soul to soul with you.

Suddenly a hand was waving in front of the baby’s face. It belonged to a woman sitting next to her with her back to me. She must have thought the baby was staring off into space and was trying to get her attention. “Hey, we’re connecting over here!” I exclaimed good-naturedly. The woman, who appeared to be baby’s grandmother, briefly smiled my way and then continued engaging her grandbaby. She waved, clapped her hands, vocalized excitedly and made crackly noises for the baby with an empty potato chip bag.

Now before readers accuse me of being critical or judgmental of this lovely grandma, I assure you that I am neither. I consider her behavior harmless, well-intentioned and normal, which is my point: the incident made me realize how weird I’ve become. The grandma’s actions were all things I might have done — have done — in the past. I remember believing that the only way to connect with a baby was to work very, very hard at it. I thought I needed to attract interest by creating motion, making sound effects and speaking in a loud, animated, gushy voice. Before RIE, my instinct was to entertain my infant nonstop. I believed that was my job.

And I still don’t see anything wrong with these kind-hearted gestures except, perhaps, that they waste our precious parenting energy when genuine eye contact and a simple “hello” would suffice.

The baby in the restaurant once again confirmed this for me as my husband, son and I were leaving. We’d forgotten all about her by that point, but as I opened the restaurant door, I happened to glance back in her direction. I was stunned to see her looking at me from across the restaurant, at least 100 feet away, and my family and I were tickled by the opportunity to say a gentle goodbye.

Weird parenting experience #2: It’s Okay if Kids Don’t Share

The next day a friend, RIE-inspired mom and blogger Suchada Eickemeyer, who lives near the area we were visiting, brought her three children (ages 5, 3 and 1) to watch our son’s late morning game. Suchada had brought them to one of my son’s games previously, and I was again impressed by their attentiveness and cooperative behavior. But what really struck me was the exchange they had as we were leaving.

L, the oldest, was eating from a small bag of cookies, and his 3-year-old brother O wanted one, too. When he mentioned this to Suchada, she calmly replied, “you’ll need to ask L.” Apparently, O had already finished a bag of his own, but I didn’t know this, because Suchada hadn’t felt the need to remind him (“You ate all yours already”) as a “normal” parent might have. Nor did Suchada implore L to please share just one with his brother, which would imply that his mom thought he really should. Instead, she had complete faith in the boys to work this out, and so they did.

L said “no”, and while I held my breath in anticipation of a blow-up, remarkably, there was none. O seemed oddly accepting, and then after his mom assured him, “we have more at home,” he jovially exclaimed, “there’s more at home!”

Weird? I thought so.

Weird parenting experience #3: The Relaxing Lunch With Three Kids Under 6

The day got even weirder. There were a couple of hours until the next game and Suchada wanted to attend it with her children if they weren’t too tired. The little ones had been snacking, but Suchada and I wanted lunch, so she kindly invited me to join them.

I’m going to be honest. As much as I love children and wanted to spend more time with Suchada, the thought of sitting in a café with three kids under 6 did not sound pleasant.  While my son and husband generally stay on the fields and watch other teams’ games, I adore my alone time…and a quiet lunch by myself sounded really nice. But I also didn’t want to be rude, so I decided to go for it. Boy, was I surprised.

First of all, it took us at least twenty minutes to find a place to eat, yet Suchada’s three strapped-in children waited patiently. I assume that is because they are used to having their feelings heard, accepted, understood.  In all that time, I think there was one brief groan, and that was acknowledged and understood as well.

We finally found a very casual Mediterranean café and had the most delightful and relaxing (yes, relaxing) lunch with Suchada’s amazingly mature, secure, well-behaved children. There were no tech devices at the table, and our enjoyment of each other seemed mutual. I was reminded of similar experiences with my own children, though it’s hard to compare, since mine are not nearly so close in age. Truly, I’m still pinching myself over the weird wonderfulness of that lunch!

Weird parenting experience #4: Puzzled Expressions

We arrived at the field early for my son’s second game and Suchada’s sons wanted to go the porto-potties, which were a great distance away. Suchada asked if she could leave her 1- year-old daughter with me. I was thrilled, especially after our time shared in the café. Suchada let S know what was happening, and S remained seated in her stroller next to my chair several feet from the field’s sideline. We hung out for a while, just “being” together, both of us comfortable. There was no need to engage. My son’s game hadn’t started yet. There were other teams playing on the field and plenty of spectators seated along the sideline in front of us.

Then I noticed S squirming, so I asked if she wanted to get out of her stroller and helped her unbuckle it. She climbed out, stood facing the field for a bit and then slowly toddled towards it. I followed her, and as she approached the sideline, I said to her, “That’s a little too close to the field. I’m going to pick you up now.” As I picked S up I noticed the line of faces turned toward me. Suddenly stepping outside of myself, I realized, “Yes, that was weird. Why not just swoop the baby up?”

Again, I’m not criticizing. When I first heard a parenting teacher speaking to babies in a polite, dignified manner, I found it very strange.  When I tried doing that myself with my baby, it felt weird for a long time. Now it seems weirdly normal.

And you’ll know you’re definitely a weird parent if, like me, you look forward to the day when “weird” is the new “normal”.


You’ll find the complete scoop in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting




(Photo by Stephanie Chapman on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I love all of your writings but it bothers me that you give so much credit to these behaviors being “weird” when in fact they are not and should be the norm.

  2. Janet, I can’t tell you how much I’m bursting with pride at what you noticed about my children. I, of course, have always thought they were wonderful and enjoyable, but to have someone else recognize that puts me over the moon. They enjoy your company as much as you enjoy theirs. Thank you for sharing these stories of our fun day. For me it felt “normal”, but I often forget how weird we’ve become 😉

    1. Suchada, you should be bursting with pride. You know you’ve worked hard, so please, take all of that in… I know every day doesn’t feel perfect, but you are on an exciting path and already reaping the rewards. You deserve them.

  3. I keep forgetting how “weird” it seems to treat children in a truly respectful manner. One of the instructors of a dayhome providers’ course at a local college stopped into my office to observe one of her field placement students in our toddler classroom, and what started out as a conversation about the challenges newcomers to Canada face when their own cultural biases clash with what is expected here ended on an awkward note where I’m pretty sure she just decided to let me have my weird opinions. Some of the parents whose children are enrolled in our centre think our philosophy and approach to child guidance, toileting, and any number of other things is totally “wackadoo”, too, I’m sure. Hopefully, the more of us there are who insist on treating the youngest humans as humans, the more “normal” it will seem.

  4. avatar Kim Packard says:

    I wish I could have found this before my first daughter was born. I have been struggling to implement positive and respectful parenting in our home for the last two years and it has been so hard. I know that most of my issues stem from how I was raised ( good, loving, well intentioned parents who only did the best they knew how) but two beautiful girls with strong personalities have made it challenging too. I understand the philosophies but struggle to implement. Any suggested resources for a mom of a 3.5 year old and 20 month old?

  5. Respectful parenting doesn’t sound at all weird to me! It sounds completely normal. Thanks for validating what we do here.

  6. After 18 months of being a parent i’m finally starting to get it! I’ve been reading rie books since pregnancy but now that he’s becoming his own little person, respect seems like the only logical way to 1) have him respect others 2) make a real difference in the world and 3) have a truly happy life together. Yay, its clicked!

  7. On your last story, I was wondering why you didn’t just ask her to move back on her own a lttle to be safer then choosing to tell her and pick her up? The article was great. Diana

    1. Thank you, Diana. Regarding picking the toddler up rather than asking her to move, she was moving forward across the sideline and it was busy and unsafe. It wasn’t the time or place to ask her to do this on her own, although I normally (or weirdly?) would have.

  8. As always Janet, a wonderful post! My only comment… My younger son especially is very, very passionate and can be incredibly explosive, even though we do indeed respect his thoughts, feelings, opinions… He is acknowledged and validated. He struggles considerably with waiting, handling “no” etc… even though we are very respectful. I do think some of what kids do is just their personality, and accepting that is key. Thoughts?

    1. Ok, I’m not a parent so right up front, this is just an idea, not at all saying I know the answer, but have your checked out the books Your Spirited Child, or, The Highly Sensitive Child? My parents were incredibly respecting and direct with me, to the point where felt very safe with them and equal, but I often had complete meltodwns and freakouts and tantrums. That happened because I was dealing with overstimulation combined with a strong personality and lack of means for processing my strong feelings (mom was also an HSP, but didn’t know how to help me or herself yet – we didn’t discover the books until I was an adult). I highly recommend these two books, which help place environment and situational supports in place to help children not get triggered into these states, and help them find ways to release them. Again, not an expect, but the books helped me (as an adult) so might be a direction to take?

      1. Darcy, thank you! Yes, he has some sensory issues as well as medical issues which I definitely think do contribute! You are right on track! I do think these issues complicate things. Sometimes I look around at other kids and feel like “wow… why can’t he wait 10 seconds without screaming at me?” It’s tough… I will check out those books! Thanks Deb

    2. Deb, thank you. Yes, there are certainly different temperaments and also periods when a particular child is more explosive, because he or she is experiencing stress, etc. I’m sure Suchada’s children, like most, have their share of meltdowns! I guess you could say that this post is about what IS possible, rather than what is ALWAYS possible.

      If you are acknowledging and understanding your son’s perpective (or at least trying to), and also accepting his emotions fully, without rushing him through them, you are definitely on-track. (Hearing the feelings is the biggest challenge for all of us.) In other words, his feelings about your “no” need to be entirely okay with you, so that you can hold the “no” confidently and calmly while he expresses his displeasure. He will develop more emotional regulation in time.

      1. Hi Janet, thank you so much for your input. Hearing and fully accepting the feelings is tough, especially when you are trying to get somewhere on time, get something done, etc… Not easy… but also very important. Thank you!

    3. Deb, I want to confirm what Janet said — that while this was a lovely afternoon for us, our life and my children aren’t always this peaceful. In this case they were on an outing they were all excited about and everyone they encountered that day happened to be extremely respectful and attentive to them. My middle child is going through a difficult time now (I’ve written about it on my blog), and most days we struggle. However, spending an afternoon with someone like Janet who is so tuned into children was incredibly calming for all of us. It helped us all see what was possible, and actually helped me tune in even more. If you have the opportunity, see if you can get together with other RIE moms in your area and ask for feedback if you feel comfortable. It’s helped me so much with my interactions with my kids.

  9. Funny, i’ve pretty much done this all my life…with children who were not my own…it only seemed natural to continue now that i *am* raising my own. thank you for sharing. 🙂

  10. SO I didn’t do exactly these things when raising my son as an infant and toddler but I feel like all of these things are natural responses to a child. Why would you rattle things and make loud noises? I did distract my child when he would engage with strangers because I was afraid of him pestering him. They wouldn’t be respectful to my son because they wouldn’t understand. I also spoiled him. I would carry him anytime he wanted it and anticipate his wants and needs. So when I acted respectful, other people just thought that was part of me spoiling him. It is actually harder to act this way now that my son is older because communication can be so convoluted.

  11. I love the fact that you call natural, respectful parenting ‘weird’.

    Your first story of connecting with a baby’s or toddler’s eyes without a word struck home. This is a favorite game of mine while out and about. It is amazing what truths can be exchanged with a sincere twinkle of the eye!

  12. “[S]peaking in a loud, animated, gushy voice” is called “motherese” in linguistics. It’s been proven to attract and hold babies’ attention better than normal speech and contribute to their linguistic development because they quickly learn it’s directed at them specifically and they tune into it better. It’s not necessary to use motherese all the time, and of course you shouldn’t speak louder to babies, with their perfect hearing, but it’s not harmful and people shouldn’t be ashamed or worried to use it.

    1. Rose, I’m certainly not suggesting anyone should feel ashamed about mother-ese, but all that the studies show is that mother-ese makes a baby’s head turn, which isn’t surprising since it stands out from the regular speech babies hear around them. These studies were conducted with recorded voices, none of which belonged to the children’s actual mothers. My head would turn, too, if I heard someone speaking in such an unusual manner. These studies underestimate infant intelligence and awareness.

      1. avatar Michael Hogue says:

        In what context is motherease shown to be not harmful? Has anyone studied adult attention span in children who received motherease compared to children who didn’t? I believe that’s the whole point here.

        Motherease is a form of stimulating interaction. My opinion is that infants, as a natural part of living, receive more stimulation from the world-outside-the womb than they are able to process; that most parent-initiated stimulation is artificial and addictive, and that the result is children who look to external sources for pleasure even though most sensory inputs to the brain – visual, tactile, olfactory, etc… – activate the pleasure centers.

        Most adults don’t feel pleasure from these “natural” pleasureful stimulants because we have become addicted to more powerful stimulants, which actually results in a down-regulation feedback loop – meaning that the more pleasureful stimulation you receive, the more that is required to keep you satisfied. The same process takes place with seriuos drug addictions. It’s obviously better for individuals when they feel pleasure with “natural” stimulation. This means your brain is in a healthy state.

        1. Interesting, Michael. I certainly agree with: “… infants, as a natural part of living, receive more stimulation from the world-outside-the womb than they are able to process…”

          1. avatar Michael Hogue says:

            I realize the ideas I shared may be difficult to grasp without a proper neurophysiology lesson. The following readings might be helpful:
            • Principles of Neural Science by Kandel, Schwartz & Jessell, et al (2000). Chapters 21 through 32 discuss how bodily sensations are interpreted by the brain (very interesting).
            • The Human Brain: An Introduction to its Functional Anatomy by Psychologist John Nolte (2002). Chapter 23 discusses the inputs to the hypothalamus and its associated structures – which are largely inputs from smell, touch, and vision. Chapters 17 and 18 are also worth reading.
            • Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction by Clinical Psychologist Mark Chamberlain (2000). Chapter 7 contains an easy-to-understand explanation of the feedback loop I described earlier. Chapters 8 through 21 describe Dr. Chamberlain’s methods for treating serious addiction, which mainly focus on re-awakening our natural pleasure centers.

  13. avatar Ruth Mason says:

    Thank God, or the universe, for you, Janet. I’ve begun sharing your articles with my Pikler/RIE-based parent-infant class here in Jerusalem. You are helping so many. A giant thank you!

  14. Lovely lovely post as usual and well-written! I had the same experience this week with babies I love it!
    And I so agree parents waste precious parenting energy when genuine eye contact and a simple “hello” would suffice.

  15. avatar Kim Packard says:

    Thank you SO much for the link to that post. You are right that is my problem right now. I used to be on the other end of the spectrum having been raised by in an authoritarian style. I always knew I wanted to parent differently, in a positive respectful way but I didn’t know how. I dedicated a whole year to no yelling and trying to approach things in a more calm, unruffled and gentle manner and saw a huge change in myself for good. However it has become apparent this last year that I swung to far the other direction which has left me feeling powerless and and frustrated because I’ve worked so hard. Instead if getting angry or upset to deal with situations I now (unbeknownst to myself) have started to fear outburst because I feel completely inadequate to respond because I like the training. I will take a closer look at the resources at the end of the article. Thank you again!

  16. Dear ladies,

    Reading this last post that I stumbled upon accidentally I feel like a life line has been thrown to me. I am the mother of 4 beautiful gifts aged 5, 3 and twins of 15months. I constantly feel like someone is missing out on my attention, there is just not enough of me to go around. I have started to notice behavior changes ie my very placid 3 yr old is having tantrums and my 15mth old son who up to now settles in his cot without a problem has started playing up at bed time ( yes these could be developmental milestones like separation anxiety) my gut tells me it’s more than that.

    They’ve chosen me, I’ve chosen them , please refer some books that I can read or any other info so that we can all get the most out of this journey and do I can be the best mother to them. Thanks Deirdre

    1. Hi Dierdre! I recommend all the books posted on the right toolbar here on my site. I also have a new book in the works… a collection of my articles about discipline, setting limits, tantrums, etc.

  17. avatar Wendy Shelton says:

    Reapectful caregiving makes perfect sense. No weirdness about it. When I see it, it touches me deeply. 🙂

  18. Janet, I love reading your articles and I try my best to respectfully parent my daughter (1y 10mo). However where it breaks down for me it is when we need to hurry. I have to be at work at a certain time and then since our commute takes an hour on public transportation, we have to get home without too much dawdling so that I can make dinner and put her to bed at a reasonable hour. So when she would rather walk than ride in the stroller, or go in a different direction than the one we’re going into, or doesn’t want to get off the train–I often have to just swoop her up and force her to comply kicking and screaming. I always explain why we need to do something and tell her ahead of time what the next thing is that we’re doing, but sometimes she just wants to do her own thing no matter what and I don’t have time for that. We’ve been taking the same route and have the same routine since she was a baby, so she so it’s not like there are any surprises. She just wants to do her own thing sometimes. I would like to honor her interests and wishes, but there just isn’t time for that in some cases. Do you have any advice?

  19. Yes! I do get judgey vibes from being “weird” Especially from the in-laws. They treated us to lunch, my 3 yr old ordered chocolate milk. As he is served the milk my one yr old screamed and pulled on him (obviously asking for his milk), grandpa IMMEDIATELY tells my boy he must share his milk with his sister. I felt bad contradicting but I am focusing much more lately on really trying to see from my son’s perspective. I said, “This is Jayden’s milk, It’s his choice… Jayden, Jasmine would like some of your milk, will you give her some?” He said, “No.” I said, “okay.” And whoo-weee the grandparents gave me a look!! Jasmine fussed, but I explained that it was his milk. And she got over it.
    My favorite part? After a few minutes, when it was no longer a hot topic, he offered his sister a drink. I had to hold my tongue from saying, “See?!!? See???? My kid is not a selfish brat! Now go take your judgey looks somewhere else.”

  20. Regarding “weird” item #1, I have watched my own mother absolutely bombarding my daughter from infancy with random strings of loud sounds in an attempt to connect with her. My mother adores her granddaughter and will do anything for her, but even I get overwhelmed by the crazy energy and almost inane attempts at “communication” and stimulation that lack any real connection. As my daughter has become older (she is now 3), she loves her nana – but she also will ask for space when all of the babble and exaggerated sounds (which still continue to this day) become too much. I’m guessing my own sense of overwhelm stems from my own babyhood of being talked at instead of talked with. This has definitely had a life-long impact on me. Reading your work has helped me understand this about my past and has helped me modify my behavior with my own child.

  21. I love this! I realized I was a weird parent when I met two of my Mom friends (one with a year old and one with a 4 and 16 month) and my two year old daughter sat still, ate her food, didn’t throw any on the floor, my phone remained in my bag (let’s just also mention how the screens between the other three kids seemed to create a lot more work for my friends than I seemed to be doing sans screen time ), she said please and thank you(it’s not RIE but my husband is British and this was really important to him) to the waitress and helped me clean her chair and table area before we left. I love my friends and they are good moms, I’m not judging them but they both seemed uncomfortable and annoyed at a most of the things their kids did, and didn’t seem to be having a nice time.

    Thank you Janet for your resources and encouragement ! It’s made ALL the difference in my parenting journey. I’m about to have a second baby in 6 weeks and people keep saying am I sure I want two and get ready for chaos (well meaning I am sure but still) i know I will have the skills to acknowledge my daughters emotions about the baby in a calm and respectful way.

    1. Aww, this is all wonderful, Linda, and reminds me of experiences I had with my own children. Imagine how it feels to a child to be enjoyed! And to make her parents proud. Thanks so much for sharing with me.

  22. avatar Rachel Goette says:

    What a beautiful article. Thank you for the guidance and inspiration.

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