Just Tell Me You Understand – The Secret To Nurturing Self-Confident Babies

From the moment they are born, babies struggle to communicate physical and emotional needs. First they cry, and then they learn by our example to smile, coo, babble, eventually extend their arms to us, shake their heads, point, gesture, and finally speak words and phrases. Imagine the challenge it is for our babies to make us understand! 

Common sense tells us that the more actively we acknowledge our child’s efforts to communicate – whether or not we are successful at deciphering them — the more validated he or she will feel, and the more encouraged she will be to continue trying. Responding to our infant or toddler in this simple, often counter-intuitive way works wonders, for parent and child.

When we acknowledge our infant’s cries by taking a moment to say, “I hear you crying. I’m trying to figure out what you need,” even if we are at our wit’s end, it helps us to calm and center ourselves, making it easier to find clarity and possible solutions.

Acknowledgements help soothe our child, too.  Our baby is reassured that his efforts to communicate are working. For a toddler, his parent’s “no” is much more palatable when he knows his conflicting point-of-view has been heard. Above all, a child who is acknowledged has the satisfaction of knowing that his thoughts and feelings are well worth listening to and wholly accepted.

Infant expert Magda Gerber taught parents the vital importance of acknowledgements, and I was reminded of their value in a recent parent/toddler class…

A mom told her toddler that she needed a diaper change, and off they went to the changing table. Another toddler, Riley, observed this and asked her mother for a diaper change, too. Riley’s mom checked her diaper and told her she didn’t need a change. This seemed to frustrate Riley. Riley knew she didn’t need her diaper changed, but the acknowledgment that Riley wanted her diaper changed, for whatever reason (it looked like fun, it would be an opportunity to have mom’s attention and intimacy, whatever), might have given her the satisfaction she needed. With toddlers, it’s often less about our saying “yes” than it is about feeling understood and accepted.

As parents, it feels wrong to acknowledge a desire that we will have to deny, or to validate a feeling that seems unreasonable to us. Our instinct is to ignore, dismiss, or immediately counter it. We think that acknowledging our child’s inappropriate ‘want’ or feeling gives it more power. Saying, “You really wanted that candy bar, but I had to take it away,“ rather than, “No. That’s not good for you,” is counter-intuitive, and a major challenge for parents. Most of us need continual reminders.

But imagine how profoundly validating it would be to have acceptance and understanding from our parents, siblings, friends, or spouses of even our wildest, most inappropriate thoughts.  We don’t need to act on them. We just want to feel okay for having them.

Don’t let me jump off the balcony when I’m upset, but please understand that I feel like doing it. Don’t judge my sadness, or my anger. Acknowledge it, and help me find a safe way to express those feelings.

As the parent/toddler class was ending, 21-month-old Riley again asked her mother for a diaper change. Riley’s mom checked her diaper and saw that it was still dry. This time she acknowledged Riley’s wish, and it gave her an idea — maybe Riley wanted some intimate time with her mom. “You want your diaper changed, but your diaper is dry. Do you want to go to the car and have a snack together?” Riley brightened. Yes, she did.

Acknowledging feelings and desires encourages our babies to communicate, but more importantly, it inspires them to feel confident about who they are.  The good, the bad and the ugly we all have within us feels understood, and it’s all okay. With that kind of love our babies can go far, and are bound to love others just as generously.



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

  1. Well said, Janet. I am so uncomfortable with the common ignoring of infants I frequently observe. Encouraging parents to respond to their infants is an important message for our times.

  2. Great post – this skill is a little easier for me than some of the others – maybe because I talk so much anyway!

    1. You’re funny! For most of us this is hard to remember, but it really does work mini-miracles.

  3. One of the hardest things for me to hear from my toddler was that he wanted to hurt his little brother, and how he wanted him to just go away. We heard a lot of it at a time when we were trying to figure out how to keep him from actually hurting his brother. If I hadn’t read Siblings Without Rivalry, I would have shushed him and told him I knew it wasn’t true, but I swallowed that instinct and just listened to him and let him get it out. We moved through the period of hitting, and I can’t even remember the last time I heard him say it.

    It’s helped prepare me for what I’m sure will be many difficult things to hear. I would much rather he feel safe saying what he feels to me, knowing that I’m a shoulder to lean on, instead of feeling like he needs to act out on all those big feelings. Thanks for the great reminder!

  4. Beautiful. Thank you. This is exactly what I do with my daughter and I can’t even remember now if I read someone’s advice to do this and it resonated or whether it just came naturally to me (perhaps my mother did it for me, too??!). Lovely to see it written out so clearly, here.


  5. PS @Suchada: I love that book, too!

  6. Veronique says:


    I’ve read your blog for a few weeks now and it makes so much sense! I better understand my daughter who is 28 months. I’ve begun to set limits and I see that she feels better, she is calmer.
    Since she was born, I have read a lot and I already knew the need to acknowledge her demands and her feelings but I have a question. When I say no to her, she cries (which is normal) so I say to her that she feels angry or frustrated because she really wanted this thing. Instead of calming her, that makes her cries louder and she wants to hit me. In these moments, she doesn’t want that I talk to her or even that I look at her. The only thing I can do is stay away for her and waiting for her to return. I’d like to understand how she feels and why she acts like that. Could you please help me?
    PS: sorry for the spelling but I’m French…

    1. I am in the same situation, I would love your advice on that Janet 🙂 thank you for inspiring us to look for the best in us!

  7. Another beautifully thoughtful post. Thank you, Janet!

  8. Thank you– this was profound.
    A couple of questions– would there have been a problem with Riley’s mom changing her diaper just bc Riley wanted it changed? And also could you combine the two statements ehen your child is upset– you want the candy bar but I had to take if away bc it’s not good for you….
    Thank you!

    1. You’re so welcome, Lorka! Hmm…I guess there wouldn’t be problem with changing the diaper, but doing everything toddlers want us to do isn’t so healthy for them. Toddlers are learning our limits…and it is their job to push, so it can get confusing. If we fall into wanting to please our children all the time, we can run into serious behavior problems.

      Combining the statements sounds fine…but I would focus on the acknowledging part, because that is where you will connect with your child. The rest is a bit of a lecture…and usually something our children already know.

  9. Janet, what a lovely post with wonderful information. I find that this same kind of acknowledgement and reflection continues to matter and be important as children grow and it’s beautiful to see how having the foundation early on, means they are so receptive and trusting of limits when they are needed. I often find myself telling my children “I believe you” (because i do) when they voice frustration, anger, sadness and wow does it make a difference to how things unfold when they feel heard, acknowledged and accepted like that.

  10. Hi Janet! I have appreciated your advice so much, and have been putting into practice acknowledgement of my 2 year olds desires which is often quite helpful. My question is- what should I do when he continues to ask (sometimes ad nauseum..) For example: he wants to go outside, I reply I hear that you really want to go outside but it’s too cold and rainy- maybe we can read a book instead. He responds: “outside, outside, outside ” ands comes back to the subject repeatedly. It seems to make him more upset if I in turn repeat my acknowledgement and denial so I often just ignore it at this point, but I’m wondering if that’s really the most respectful response? Thank you for your time!

    1. Hi Shelly! I would not repeat your point of view, i.e, “It’s too cold and rainy,” etc. I would just accept him persisting “outside, outside,” stay calm, let it go. Every once in a while, I would acknowledge, “You’re still thinking about how much you want to go outside. You wanted that so much!” or maybe, “It’s hard when you want something and your mom says no.” Acknowledge with a genuinely accepting tone. Be unafraid and even welcoming of this conflict of interests.

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