The Parenting Practice That Matters Most

Respectful parenting differs from other approaches in several essential ways, and they all center on a pivotal and now (finally!) scientifically proven view of infants as aware, sentient, whole people. Guided by this revolutionary perception of babies as capable individuals, respectful parenting focuses on nurturing an intimate person-to-person relationship with our babies from birth.

In other words, respecting babies means we don’t wait years, months, or even days to invite them to actively participate in life and engage honestly with us. We assume our child’s receptors are active and access this channel immediately, using the same tool to build our parent-child relationship as we would to nurture all our other human relationships: communication. Real, authentic communication that is as receptive and responsive as it is directive and explanatory. More often than not, the results are astounding.

Experts and scientists agree that we should talk to our babies, but what they mostly advise is actually more like talking at babies: engaging them in one-sided games, singing songs, stimulating and performing while encouraging babies to coo, smile or laugh in response.

The most important stuff is left out – the meaningful dialogue, observation, and listening, the back and forth that makes our babies and toddlers feel understood, included, and valued. This is the language of bonding, calm words that help prepare them for the next “surprise” in their overwhelmingly novel environment; acknowledgments and shared observations that guide, validate, and empower them as they navigate their world.

These ideas define respectful parenting and often confound conventional thinkers. Babies can’t understand our words, so why bother explaining things to them? And they can’t talk, so how absurd is it to consider asking a baby a question?!  Well, no, they can’t understand or respond if they’ve never been asked real questions or exposed to words used in context. That would be impossible.

Janna shared an enlightening experience:

“I just had the most amazing experience with my 20 month old son. Being a working parent, weekends are more laid back than work mornings when we get up with clear purpose and momentum. The holidays mean a disruption in routine. Though I think I do a good job telling my son what is planned ahead in the day, this morning I learned  how crucial this communication is, that he is really listening and needs clear information.

It started off like a normal, relaxed Saturday, except we were going to a holiday function. Without really thinking about it, I told my son that we had to get ready to go. From that moment on he became clingy. I finally paused, confused, and asked him what was wrong. I asked if he was feeling sad (while wondering if this question even made sense to him, since we’d never discussed feelings.) He said, “Yah.” I asked why. He rested his head sweetly on my shoulder and said, “Mommy. Bye.” He said it a couple of times before it dawned on me that he thought I was leaving for work.

It’s not that he is sad on work/school days. Most days he hits the ground running at school and he actually pushes me toward the exit door. Today, though, he had gotten mixed messages from me and was confused about our day. Was it a work day or a play day? He didn’t have certainty.

When I realized what was bothering my son today, I sat with him and explained our day in detail. When he understood, his whole demeanor relaxed. Usually we talk about physical occurrences (what happened…oh, you fell…yah?…and hit your head there…yah?), but this is the first time we’ve had a two-way communication using words about feelings. I am amazed by the effectiveness of this simple practice of acknowledgement and communication. It feels earth shattering as a mother.

Thank you for teaching what you teach and giving such eloquent words to the natural instincts many mothers have but don’t always trust.”

When I asked Janna if I could post her story, she replied:

“I’d be glad for you to share. It was so shocking to ask him a question for which I wasn’t really sure he would have the capacity to comprehend verbally and to get a clear answer. It was so reaffirming that this approach works. I’m still just kind of shaking my head in wonder. Here’s to a New Year! Thanks again!”

Respectful communication changes everything, and it’s never too late to begin.

I share more about respectful parenting in my compilation: Elevating Child Care

I also recommend my mentor Magda Gerber‘s books: Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect and Your Self-Confident Baby

and Lisa Sunbury’s article, Entering into a Conversation with your Baby

(Photo by M&R Glasgow)

18 Comments

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

  1. avatar Lesley Earl says:

    My son was born late September and I talked to him all the time. I described sorting laundry and the washing machine how it worked …then when hanging it up out side I described the day and the geese flying overhead in great detail. So he began to babble he used all the syntax of language and would pause when he wanted a reply…it didnèt matter what I said back to him he would simply go on with his story… At 17 months of age out at a mall he walked into a plate glass window…as he staggered back and put his hand to his head he said(1st phrase ever) “jesus christ” blew me away that he would use it appropriately at 17 months age…I know I know I’m the one with the potty mough in our family…

  2. avatar Vicki Burgess says:

    That is a lovely story affirming communication with babies! Thank you for sharing.

  3. I am so happy to read your story! I had to leave a comment to share the DIR/Floortime model with you, created by Dr. Stanley Greenspan. The foundation of this relationship based model is child led learning…and the critical component is the parent relationship and how to go about fostering regualtion, engagement and two way communication with your child (with or without developmental delays) while climbing the developmental ladder. As a mom and educator, the DIR model is especially meaningful in today’s busy society as a child’s social emotional development is key to their lifelong academic success. I just had to share because you’re story made me smile and I hoped to return that smile with this wonderful resource. Keep asking those questions and supporting and elaborating 🙂

  4. Yes! Respectful communication IS the parenting practice that matters most—it encompasses everything about proper childcare.

    P.S. I noticed you have Teacher Tom on your ‘sites of interest’—another Yes!

  5. “communication. Real, authentic communication that is as receptive and responsive as it is directive and explanatory.”
    great sentence. Love your stuff. Spot on

  6. avatar Sophia Christen says:

    May I just suggest that you change the picture ? I was going to repost this article but for me, the picture shows a chid with really cold hands. Wouldn’t a respectful parent make sure that his child’s hands do not get this red ?

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Sophia, but I don’t think I’ll be changing the picture. I’m sorry it bothers you.

  7. My 14 month old is communicating with me in a certain way and I wondered if you had any advice how I should respond? We have a stove on a hearth and my rule is she isn’t to touch any of the fire equipment on the hearth (scuttle, poker etc.) she recently started standing by the fire and touching first the scuttle, then the basket next to the hearth (which she’s allowed to touch). She looks at me and says “no” as she touches each item, so the exchange goes like this:

    Her, touching basket: no.

    Me: yes. That’s fine, you can touch that.

    her, touching scuttle: no.

    Me: no, I won’t let you touch that (I move her hand away). She then cries/gets frustrated (momentarily) and we do the whole thing again and again, over and over.

    I assume she’s trying to work out the logic of what must seem an arbitrary rule (she never, ever tries to touch the hot fire) but wondered if you had any advice on how I should manage the situation or if I’m doing anything wrong?

    Thank you so much!

    1. My sense is that she totally knows the rule, but is interested in testing your responses. So, I would be very “chill” about the whole thing and simply acknowledge her communication, rather than reiterating the rules. “I see you are saying ‘no’ about the basket. Are you asking me if touching that is safe?” If she seems to indicate that, yes, she is asking, then I would simply say, “yes, it is.” If she touches something unsafe and says “no”, I would say something like, “You’re showing me you know that’s not safe to touch.” If she continues to touch it, gently place your hand between her and the item. “I won’t let you touch that. It can get hot.” But have a very chill, matter-of-fact, lalala attitude.

      1. Thank you so much! I have both your books and really like them

  8. I totally believe in this! From the moment my LO could grasp things, every time we took something from him, I would ask him for it and then say “thank you!” when I took it. I also would ask him to let go please instead of wrenching anything out of his hand. He happily gives things to us now, but if I ever just take something away without asking or thanking–huge tears. I loved being able to communicate and see a response at 4 months old when he released what I asked (like my hair).

    1. Yes! And it makes so much sense, doesn’t it? Thank you for sharing, Adrienne

  9. first time moms should read this! A great hand for them.

  10. Great post. A Parent-child relationship is perfect for the proper development of children. Known centers like Williamsburg Northside Day Care and others are timely conducting sessions with parents. This is a clear and improved approach to benefit the children.

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