Uniquely Me – 6 Ways To Help Our Children Know (And Love) Themselves

I spend a lot of time in my head, and one of my favorite ponderings is nature vs. nurture.  How much does parenting matter?  We toil and we fret.  We read the latest round of confusing, conflicting studies and opinions.  We stimulate, teach, parent the way we were parented because it worked just fine, or do the radical opposite because it didn’t.  We hover, free-range, stress and (according to the New York Magazine article “All Joy And No Fun”) mess with our happiness.  And for what?

If we can believe the many “twins studies”, our child’s future is largely dictated by genetics, mapped at conception. So why not jump into the passenger seat and just enjoy the ride? Because most of us sense that we do have a role besides worrying, loading and unloading babies in car seats, and embarrassing them by the mere fact of our existence when they become teenagers.

My own experience leads me to believe parents have an enormous influence on our children, especially in the areas of self-confidence, security, sense of self. We are the ones who help our children to “feel comfortable in their own skin”, to stay inner-directed, intrinsically motivated. We encourage our babies to know themselves, to stay in tune with their genetic propensities, their talents and desires. We can’t change our children’s nature, but we do have the power to help them feel connected to who they are and feel satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with that person.

Here are some ways to encourage a baby’s secure and positive sense of self…

A place and time to nurture baby ideas.

Soon after our baby is born she is capable of making choices, initiating thoughts and activities of her own. If we give our infant uninterrupted time and unrestricted movement in a safe place, she can begin to “have a life” between sleep, feedings and diaper changes — a life that is hers – one that is not centered around, or dictated by her parents.

This taste of independence will develop into long periods of play that our child will use to learn about herself and her world. The ability to find comfort and joy playing independently is a gift that keeps on giving for her parents, too.

Receptive mode.  

We encourage our baby to be herself when we quietly observe and are responsive during her playtime, rather than directive. This sounds easier than it is. Resisting the urge to point our baby to an object she may not have noticed yet, or teach her how a particular toy works can be an interesting and rewarding challenge.

Infant specialist Magda Gerber guided parents to allow children to be the writer, director and lead actor when they play. Parents are best designated set designers, responsible for creating a baby’s play space, and then asked to take a seat on the floor in the front row. Relinquishing any parental agenda sends our baby a powerful message of trust and acceptance, “Whatever you choose to do when you play is interesting to me. It’s ‘enough’,” rather than, “Don’t do what you feel like doing, do this.”

Acknowledgements, rather than praise or rewards.  

Our babies aim to please us, and it is a challenge, albeit a worthy one, to protect their intrinsic motivation. It’s key to fostering a connection with self.  Sometimes it is as simple as acknowledging, “You did it,” when our child accomplishes a task while looking into our baby’s eyes with a proud smile and restraining our impulse to applaud, or give an automatic seal of approval “Good job!”

The goal is for our child to own his accomplishments (like learning to walk, completing a puzzle, reading, or using the toilet), rather than feeling pushed or bribed to do those things to please others.

We also want our child to continue to choose the activities he enjoys — and enjoy the activities he chooses — just for the sake of doing them. In his book, Punished By Rewards, Alfie Kohn advises against the use of rewards because they can teach children to stop enjoying a “process”. If a child is given a prize for the amount of books he finishes, it can make him distrust his love of reading. “Why am I being bribed to read? It must not be fun.”

Trusting our child to keep choosing.

As our child gets older, we encourage her sense of self when we remember to allow her to make choices whenever she can, especially when involving play and extracurricular activities. My husband and I have taken this approach to an extreme, and it’s worked wonderfully for our family. We wait until our children ask to try a specific sport, hobby or lesson, don’t push our preferences on them, and allow them to quit when they are done.  By waiting for an idea to come from our child we can be assured that the interest is hers, not ours, and can also trust that she is probably ready for whatever it is. Some parents would disagree with this approach, but our theory is that our children know themselves and therefore what they need to work on much better than we do. And we want to keep it that way.

Label-free siblings.

It’s common for parents to give labels, or stake out specific territories for children, especially if they have more than one child. Parents believe it encourages their children’s individuality when they identify Jenny as the soccer star, Robert as the trombone player, Molly as an ace at math, etc.  But these roles are limiting, and instead we should give our children the freedom of all options being open — they can all be soccer or trombone players, whether or not they have a special aptitude, or at least explore those things as they wish.

Accept all feelings.  

It is a parent’s job to give a child loving, but firm boundaries and limit inappropriate behaviors, but not the feelings which cause those behaviors. Since our emotions are our core, parents must be careful not to punish, judge or even correct the emotions that cause misbehavior. If a child’s darkest, most unreasonable feelings are acceptable to us, he doesn’t have to detach from, deny or bury those parts of himself and can retain his healthy self-image.

Many of us can relate to a feeling of disconnect with self and a struggle to regain intrinsic motivation. As parents we have the opportunity to offer our child a different experience. When we nurture our baby’s individuality by allowing her to stay in touch with her true self, she can grow up feeling comfortable and proud of the person that she is, more able to trust her instincts, accept her feelings and those of others. Surely, this is one fundamental key to happiness.

“I yam what I yam and tha’s all what I am.”  -Popeye


I share more suggestions for raising self-confident, happy kids in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


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

  1. So true what you write about struggling to reconnect with my real self. As a parent though, it’s not easy to separate my LO’s behavior from his feelings. I do the best I can. I yam what I yam. Haha. Thanks and please keep on blogging!

  2. I really like the idea of letting your kids choose their own extracurricular activities.

    1. It can save a lot of wasted time and money, too!

    2. MomoftheyearNOT says:

      I’ll never forget the day we were going to soccer. My son was flat out refusing and I did everything and anything to coax him into thinking he’d have a great time. Things escalated… it got ugly. So when I stamped my foot and yelled, “You are going to soccer and you’re going to have FUN!” I thought… just what exactly am I doing here??? Never ever did soccer again. And we’re all much happier 🙂

  3. My favorite is accepting all feelings. I was made to feel badly for getting angry at things–like that was indicative of a terrible person. Boy does that kind of thing stick with me. I tell my son all the time, “It’s okay to be ____” (mad, sad, frustrated, etc.). I can’t have him feeling badly about being a normal human being. Now, how he deals with his emotions (hits when he’s angry), is something I work on with him.

  4. Hi Janet! Thanks for writing another stellar article.

    I have a question about your approach to “Trusting our child to keep choosing”. While we do this with our son, I wonder how he would know about all of the possibilities that he has without bringing them to him to his awareness. For example; our son is four years old and we recently went on airplane trip. On the flight back home I offered the potty to him before we boarded but he didn’t need to go. On the flight he went in his pants. I took him to the bathroom on board to clean him up. He looked around and said, “Oh mommy this is a BATHROOM on the AIRPLANE?” “Yes, it is, honey”. He replied,”Oh I didn’t know or I would have come in here”. I though the knew that there was one he could ask for because on the flight in, I told him to tell me if he needed it. On the flight home I didn’t, I thought he KNEW. I tell this story because it means that even though we as parents may believe that the child has been exposed to the possibility of an opportunity it doesn’t mean that they have an awareness of it.

    While we allow our son to lead, we think that we must also lead him with out pushing. I’d love to hear how you know if your child is not choosing something because they aren’t into it, or because they are not aware of it’s potential impact in their lives. Thanks!

    1. Hi Juliette! Thanks for your kind words… By all means, let him know there’s a bathroom on board! Also, have a small potty available for the child at home before he’s ready to toilet learn…but then let go of the results, timing, etc.

      I think you might have misunderstood what I meant by “trusting our child to keep choosing”. I meant choosing lessons, sports, hobbies, etc. And this doesn’t mean we don’t mention that there’s an art camp he could go to, for example, but for many parents I have known over the years, “exposing” the child means signing the child up and coaxing him at least a bit. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with that, but for me it isn’t as pure an approach. We have such a great influence over our children. And our relationship can easily become one in which we have the ideas and our child follows along…and the child then isn’t exploring his ideas. Again, I’m not judging this, but I believe that the child-initiated way works much better for all the reasons I mention in the post.

      Thanks for asking!

      1. Thanks for the clarification, Janet! Makes more sense now. Yes, for a while before he was “trained” (I like the term potty learning) we had a two potty’s in the house and one to place atop the toilet seat that he could use whenever he wanted. He’d often sit on them fully clothed. We’d offer for him to use the potty but we never really potty “trained”- no forceful sitting. Just lots of questions, “Do you need to use the potty”? And he loved to pee on Cheerios in the water so that helped LOL. We didn’t use “rewards” for potty learning well other than cheering and clapping 🙂

        Well, again thanks for all that you do!


  5. This really is another stellar article, Janet. I have found I have gained much healing myself with my issues as an adult by practicing these things with my son, almost like a do-over. In this sense, he’s taught me much much more that I’ve taught him (but perhaps not as much as he’s already taught himself :-))

    1. Helene, I’ve had a similar experience. Such a privilege to be on this journey 🙂

  6. As always Janet, love your articles! Wonderful stuff! We follow many of the things you state an have found them to work very well with our son. I do get very frustrated though, when we are not in our home, and when others work with him, such as therapists, teachers, and other adults. The predominant way to work with children is with tons of praise, rewards (such as “good job” and lots of clapping)… also they direct everything he is doing very specifically which he is not used to and really doesn’t like at all…so he seems very uncooperative. To be honest, I have found him to be very cooperative at home, and now and then he displays independence in ways I see as very typical and healthy.
    Also, now that he is almost 3, he is expected to do better in group settings where for instance, the group is making a “craft” a specific way, whereas, he is used to free art play. Doesn’t go so well! My thoughts are to simply wait to put him into groups settings for things like crafts and projects such as these and let him roam at the playground and with play groups who utilize free play… but he is doing therapies, so does end up with adults who use methods I wouldn’t use on a regular basis. Just wondered what your thoughts would be on these things!

  7. Parenting clearly matters, but I believe it varries to what degree, depending on the child. Since genetics do play a significant role, some children will be impacted more than others, which is one reason that it is important to know your child. We know which actions or inactions can lead to negative consequences before we know what personality our child will develop. Thus, research in the first few years of life is especially important. I do advocate for connected parenting throughout a child’s life, but I believe it is of the utmost important in those most formative years.

  8. Elad Velikson says:

    My PhD also relies on this subject but from another aspect: parenthood at risk instead of youth at risk. I show that the basic structure of connection between parents and children cant be without respecting each other as human beeings. Nevertheless, genetics play a significant role, which every care worker should think about. Also, we wont ignore the invironment consequences that can caouse a risk action by the children. These two parameters should be taken also into theraphy acount.

    1. Thank you, Ruth! I’m honored that you like it.

  9. Hi Janet! Loved this post. Thank you! What do you think of the environment- house rules? We are living in Denmark and I find it is very hard to find an RIE approach..at the daycare, among parents. What would you do?

  10. This is a great article and so helpful. I have a question. My niece is really great at doing things her way. She’s 5, she’s confident and never afraid to ask for something. When she doesn’t get her way, or gets frustrated, excited, she is screaming very loudly. Even normal talking is like yelling. It’s very loud. Any suggestions how you let them feel all the feelings but also direct them to use a talking voice, etc? Or is it fine to always yell/speak loudly and it is what it is? Also, No matter what, she’s always going to be the squeaky wheel that gets the oil if that makes sense. If she fights with my son, even if she starts it by hitting, everyone is always going to think it’s the other kid because she’s the loudest and yells or cries? I need help!

  11. what do you do if a toddler has become accustomed to “rewards” and now demands ipad time every time he was helpful? Does the book you reference describe solutions once someone blindly walked down this path already?

    1. Every time my son asks to watch a show; I return it with “why don’t you go get a book and let’s read together!”

      Now both my boys are book readers!

      I guess it’s still a reward…but it’s good for both of us.

  12. Antonella says:

    Hello! I’m from Argentina. Is there any way to buy your books in spanish lenguage? Thanks a lot!!

    1. Ruth Mason says:

      Hi Antonella, I don’t know if Janet’s wonderful books are available in Spanish but one of the RIE books has been translated — look in the RIE web site. Also I believe there are some writings in Spanish by Pikler people. Try google.

  13. Ruth Mason says:

    I see I’ve read this before, but it felt new! What you write is wonderful
    And I do agree with all of it. But after raising my three pretty much in line w these ideas, (but maybe with an over emphasis on trying to build their self esteem and sense of security,) I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’ve read about children being more affected by their parent׳s own self esteem is true. Curious about your thoughts.

  14. This really resonated with me:

    If a child is given a prize for the amount of books he finishes, it can make him distrust his love of reading. “Why am I being bribed to read? It must not be fun.”

    I was a voracious reader as a child and my 9 year old says it’s, “not her thing”. I realized that I’m always trying to get her to read but she rarely sees me enjoying an actual book since I read so much on my computer or my phone. It’s time to get back to the basics and being an example but also allowing for her to enjoy, or not enjoy, her own activities!

  15. NorthStarMama says:

    Love this article! I find accepting the emotions but not necessarily the behavior caused by the emotions to be a place I struggle. Anger was “a sin” in my home growing up and so whenever I was angry as a child I felt “bad “. I still do feel that somewhere. I’m determined that won’t be my children’s reality but I often find myself getting upset over their anger especially when it turns to hitting each other for example or biting. So much to learn!

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