elevating child care

The Most Powerful Way to Love a Child

I’m a hugger. Perhaps overly so, if that’s possible. I was reminded of my demonstrative tendencies recently when my 14-year-old’s tribe of buddies arrived at our home, each expecting his customary warm embrace from me. It was only slightly awkward when two boys walked in that I didn’t know as well. We chuckled a little as I went ahead and hugged them anyway, and they seemed okay with it. You really couldn’t ask for a sweeter bunch of guys.

Offering hugs to greet, say goodbye, or express gratitude or affection will probably always be my go-to, but I’ve learned a far more profound way to connect with young children that I highly recommend. It’s simply seeing them — seeing into their hearts and souls through the lens of our unconditional acceptance. It’s especially powerful when kids are struggling or their behavior is defiant, aggressive, or otherwise disagreeable.

Connecting soul to soul with our children comes easily in the good times when we’re sharing a laugh or perhaps appreciating their latest triumph, when we might lock eyes and quietly acknowledge: “Wow, that was so hard for you, but you did it all yourself.” (That response tends to be much more encouraging than a static “Good job!” stamp of approval, because it feels more intimate and genuine.)

Far more challenging for us is to see our children when they need the reassurance of our connection most – when their feelings or behaviors aren’t so pretty and might even trigger emotional reactions in us. But it is in these uncomfortable, painful and, sometimes, shameful moments that I believe our children have the most acute need to feel seen and accepted. If they were able to articulate this wish, they might request:

Just for a moment see me…

With soft, receptive eyes

With openness, interest, and a desire to understand

With patience

In my frustration, aggression, rage, jealousy, failure, sadness, while you set and hold limits on my behavior

With trust that it’s okay for me to feel whatever I feel

With unconditional acceptance, love, and if at all possible, like

With a perspective so clear that it cuts through the haze of your anger, annoyance, sadness, pity, guilt, fear, resentment, or other concerns, because if I have to worry about you, I can’t share me…

Notice the curiosity in my limit-testing, the innocence in my defiance, the fear in my aggression.

Recognize that my impulses have gotten the better of me. I’ve lost self-control and need your help, guidance, protection.

Accept all these unpleasant sides of me that don’t make you proud, realizing that underneath all of them is fear that I’m bad and will lose you.

Will we always be able to be accepting and nonjudgmental? Of course not. We are not saints. These suggestions are not must or always, but rather an ideal to strive toward. Again, we won’t be perfect, but committing just a little to accepting rather than judging our children goes a long way in fostering emotional security and resilience. Seeing takes only a mindful moment, but it can make a lifetime of difference in nurturing parent-child relationships.

My own father could not have been kinder or more unconditionally loving. He always told me how beautiful and wonderful I was and gave me an abundance of kisses and hugs. However, for reasons of his own that I eventually came to understand (I’m certain he did the best he could), he never seemed to actually see me. I had the vague sense growing up that he didn’t really know me at all, and that he might even have difficulty distinguishing me from my three sisters. Objectively, I knew this couldn’t be the case, but I was left with the feeling that I was not really anyone to him – that we were adoring, affectionate strangers to each other. This may be why later in life I got caught up in seeking endless validation.

My experience with my father might also be at least part of the reason Magda Gerber’s parenting approach struck such a deep chord in me. Through Magda I learned the power of observation. I learned that to see clearly meant putting aside my personal hornet’s nest of feelings, concerns, and projections so that I could discover and connect with my child. In Blue Sky Thinking I describe seeing my three month old daughter for the very first time. In that moment, my feelings of failure as a new mother were overshadowed by hope. Seeing my daughter was an indescribably precious gift to both of us.

Children will sometimes express to us their need to feel seen by saying something like, “I’m going to hit Sally.” It gives them a great sense of relief and security when we can meet their gaze with acceptance and calmly respond, “Ah, thank you for letting me know you might feel like hitting Sally. I’ll always try to be there in time to keep both of you safe. Please let me know if you feel the urge so I can help.”

Or when they tell us they don’t like the baby and we make eye contact, nod, and acknowledge, “I hear that. Wow, that certainly makes a lot of sense. I always want you to tell me those things.” Our choice of words doesn’t really matter. Gently seeing does.

When parents request my help, whether in person, via message or during a phone consultation, their issues are often alleviated by simply making the effort to see their children a tiny bit more. It can be so easy to get stuck in setting limits, reiterating rules, explaining why our children shouldn’t do such-and-such, or why we need them to do this, that and the other. Seeing our child provides us with the perspective we need to be able to understand what drives their challenging behaviors, and the practice of seeing can actually prevent them from happening in the first place.

Hugs rock, but feeling seen is feeling loved.

I share more in my books, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

And here’s a recent podcast that touches on the power of seeing:

(Photo by Lance Shields on Flickr)

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19 Responses to “The Most Powerful Way to Love a Child”

  1. avatar Linnda says:

    Dear Janet,

    You have taught me a lot in this article and i cant thank you for you exist. I am a mom of 5 terrific kids and have been trapped into forming idealistic families, parents and children. I was wrong and i have a tinge of guilt creeping inside of me until i saw your website and read a lot about your principles and Magda’s.

    I just simply want to thank you for i have something to push me to be “seeing” and “accepting” and struggling to become a better parent each moment of my life.

    • avatar janet says:

      You are so welcome, Linnda, and thank you for sharing! It sounds to me like you are doing an excellent job (5 terrific kids… Wow!). I also love that you recognize that this is a lifelong learning process, which means we get to leave the past in the past and keep moving forward, learning and growing and realizing new things about ourselves and our children. The beauty in this perception is that we have the incentive to stay intellectually engaged (there’s seldom a dull moment!). I wish you continued joy in your journey!

  2. avatar Rhiannon says:

    Very true. I guess that might be why i’ve always had a problem with statements like “you’re my son/daughter, of course i love you” because whilst it might make perfect sense from the parents point of view, from the childs it might leave you with a bit of a hollow feeling. But what about me as a person? Would you love/like me if we werent related? What does this relationship mean if regardless of either our behaviors we still say we love each other because thats what we should do? It made me annoyed as a child because “im your mother” felt more like a burden, an agreement in an emotional contract that i was never asked whether i wanted to sign. I think “Im your mother so i am RESPONSIBLE for you, but i love you because i know you” would have sat with me better! I wasnt the easiest child to rear, i can see now, but i wish my mother had been able to see me more for who i was rather than just seeing all the crazy behaviors.

    • avatar janet says:

      Thank you for sharing all these insights, Rhiannon. You are very perceptive.

  3. avatar Amber says:

    What a wonderful reminder! Thank you, Janet. I am so thankful you share your wisdom with us.

    I have a question about being present during caretaking activities. My almost three year old is still in diapers. After he is wiped on the changing table he likes to have time to touch himself. I’m completely comfortable with that and of course allow him. However, I’m not quite sure what to do (just stand there? Look away?), and how long to allow him to do it (especially if we don’t have anywhere we need to be). Your thoughts?

    • avatar janet says:

      Thanks, Amber!

      Hmmm… I don’t see it as your responsibility to make that time for him in the middle of a diaper change. Could he explore in the bathtub instead? I wouldn’t rush him through, but I would calmly acknowledge something like, “That penis is very interesting, isn’t it?” while you move forward with changing his diaper. “Okay, now here’s a fresh diaper…” If he complains, then let him know (with eye contact) that you see he’s disappointed, but he’ll have lots of time to explore his body in his bath (or, if there’s another time… then, too).

      • avatar Amber says:

        Thanks for your response, Janet! I think I get confused about where responsibility lies sometimes. Thanks for clearing that up for me and for the great advice.

  4. avatar Maman says:

    I just printed the “Just for a moment see me” section and have it posted on my fridge. Thank you for this reminder today on how, I believe, we all want to be loved and seen.

  5. avatar Emilia says:

    Janet, I feel that this post touches the very essence of your parenting approach. This one is a true jewel in my collection of parenting wisdom. Wow!

  6. avatar Emilia says:

    It inspired me to open my eyes and be the safe abode for my children when they feel disconected.

  7. avatar Laarni says:

    I certainly needed this reminder today. I somehow can feel that my son does not really think that he makes me happy cos I only say it when things are good. He acts maturely more than I do as I am struggling with some “homesickness” issues. I’ve always believed in Magda Gerber’s methods but I still find it hard to find the right words to say when my limits are being pushed or when he is showing me his accomplishments.

    For example, when he is showing me his drawing and I just couldn’t figure what he drew, I always find myself asking, “What is this that you drew?” But then I feel like it’s making him feel that I don’t understand what he drew.

    And today, he told me that he said the word “Fuck” at school. He just turned 4. I replied, “Oh no but you can’t use that word.”
    I don’t know how else to say it. But after reading this article, do you think it would be okay to say “I wonder why you said it, but thanks for letting me know.” ?

  8. avatar Heather Razzak says:

    Dear Janet,

    Every time I read your books, articles or listen to your podcasts I feel so emotional and yet at the same time so excited to try a new learner skill or just to simply observe my children. I have a 1 and 3 year old at home, and find most days very challenging, but this article like all your others inspires me and gives me hope that I am doing the right thing with my kids. Thank you for all your guidance and support!

    Sincerely,

    Heather

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Heather! You are so welcome. “Excited to try” and “inspires and gives me hope” are the best response I could ever ask for. Thank you for being so encouraging and supportive!

  9. avatar Jeff Mullins says:

    This was such a wonderful article! I truly resonate with the way you are bringing voice to the voiceless. Young children really need advocating for, especially when it comes to their behavior and interpreting that hidden message. Thank you for articulating their need so well. I am certainly sharing this one!

  10. Great article helpful tips.

  11. avatar Sapana V says:

    Hugging says a lot that words can’t and kids love the affection you show them. Great article.

  12. avatar Dana says:

    Hi. First timer on here. My son, 3.3, is highly verbal. He is a joy. A hand full and the love of my life.
    When he struggles, or frudtrated, he throws things around the home, often at us(parents). I come down to his level, try to reason with him. But two seconds later he does the same. I try to keep my cool. I try not to get angry. But I can’t always keep it together…
    What do I do? How to curb this behavior? Please give me your thoughts. Thank you.

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