The Parenting Magic Word (10 Ways To Use It)

Magda Gerber extolled the power of a single word that is fundamental to her child care philosophy. This word reflects a core belief in our babies’ natural abilities, respects their unique developmental timetable, fulfills their need to experience mastery, be a creative problem solver and to express feelings (even those that are hard for us to witness). The word is a simple, practical tool for understanding babies, providing love, attention and trust for humans of all ages.

The word is wait. And here’s how it works…

1. Wait for development of an infant or toddler’s motor skills, toilet learning, language and other preschool learning skills. Notice children’s satisfaction, comfort and self-pride when they are able to show you what they are ready to do, rather than the other way around. As Magda Gerber often said, “readiness is when they do it.” Ready babies do it better (Hmmm… a bumper sticker?), and they own their achievement completely, relish it, and build self-confidence to last a lifetime.

2. Wait before interrupting and give babies the opportunity to continue what they are doing, learn more about what interests them, develop longer attention spans and become independent self-learners. When we wait while a newborn gazes at the ceiling and allow him or her to continue their train of thought, they are encouraged not only to keep thinking, but to keep trusting their instincts. Refraining from interrupting whenever possible gives our children the message that we value their chosen activities (and therefore them).

3. Wait for problem solving and allow a child the resilience-building struggle and frustration that usually precedes accomplishment. Wait to see first what a child is capable of doing on his or her own.

When a baby is struggling to roll from back to tummy, try comforting with gentle words of encouragement before intervening and interrupting their process. Then if frustration mounts, pick them up and give them a break rather than turning them over and ‘fixing’ them. This encourages our babies to try, try again and eventually succeed, rather than believe themselves incapable and expect others to do it for them. This holds true for the development of motor skills, struggles with toys, puzzles and equipment, even self-soothing abilities like finding their thumb rather than giving them a pacifier.

(For more examples of the value of waiting for children to solve problems, please read A Jar Not Opened and A The Powerful Gift of “I Did It”.)

4. Wait for discovery rather than showing a child her new toy and how it works. When you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself. –Jean Piaget

5. Wait and observe to see what the child is really doing before jumping to conclusions. A baby reaching towards a toy might be satisfied to be stretching his or her arm and fingers, not expecting to accomplish a task. A toddler looking through a sliding glass door might be practicing standing or enjoying the view and not necessarily eager to go outside.

6. Wait for conflict resolution and give babies the opportunity to solve problems with their peers, which they usually do quite readily if we can remain calm and patient. And what may look like conflict to an adult is often just “playing together” through an infant or toddler’s eyes.

7. Wait for readiness before introducing new activities and children can be active participants, embrace experiences more eagerly and confidently, comprehend and learn far more. It’s hard to wait to share our own exciting childhood experiences (like shows, theme parks or dance classes) with our children, but sooner is almost never better, and our patience always pays off. (I explain this in much more detail in Toddler Readiness – The Beauty of Waiting and Please Don’t Take The Babies.)

8.  Wait for a better understanding of what babies need when they cry. When we follow the impulse most of us have to quell our children’s tears as quickly as possible, we can end up projecting and assuming needs rather than truly understanding what our child is communicating. This is the basis of my argument in Attachment Parenting Debate – For Crying Out Loud and the realization shared by a parent in A Toddler’s Need To Cry (One Parent’s Lesson).

9. Wait for feelings to be expressed so that our children can fully process them. Our child’s cries can stir up our own deeply suppressed emotions; make us impatient, annoyed, uneasy, and even angry or fearful. But children need our non-judgmental acceptance of their feelings and our encouragement to allow them to run their course.

10. Wait for ideas from children before offering suggestions of our own. This encourages them to be patient thinkers and brainstormers. Countless times I’ve experienced the miracle of waiting before giving my brilliant two cents while children play, or providing play ideas when children seem bored. Biting my tongue for a few minutes, maybe saying some encouraging words to a toddler like, “It’s hard to know what to do sometimes, but you are creative, I know you’ll think of something” is usually all that it takes for the child to come up with an idea. And it’s bound to be more imaginative, interesting and appropriate than anything I could have thought of. Best of all, the child receives spectacular affirmations: 1) I am a creative thinker and problem solver; 2) I can bear discomfort, struggle and frustration; 3) Boredom is just the time and space between ideas… (And sometimes, the wellspring of genius.)

Instincts may tell us that waiting is uncaring, unhelpful and confidence-shaking — until the results are proven to us. Sitting back patiently and observing often feels counterintuitive, so even if we know and appreciate the magic that can happen when we “wait”, it usually involves a conscious effort. But it’s worth it.

Do you find it challenging to wait? Do you have a magic word of your own? No need to wait to share your thoughts…

(I share more in my book: 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. Thanks Janet for another beautiful and life-changing post. Ever since getting to know RIE through your books and posts, I’ve tried hard to implement your ideas.
    I often struggle to wait long enough in the everyday stressful moments. But one that came rather easy to me was waiting for my daughter to be able to express gratitude and to truly feel sorry. It just never seemed right for me to demand those things from a baby/toddler who doesn’t even understand the concept yet or comes from a totally different point of view. So I chose to do it for her whenever socially required and just model.
    My daughter started saying thank you copying like everything else. Now that she’s almost four it’s just built into her language use (both in German and Italian) but she also makes a point of thanking for something specifically whenever she feels it’s appropriate.
    When she apologizes I can hear how sorry she feels. The first time she said sorry, it was days after the event, so it struck me how long she had reflected about it. I loved that it was her who chose the time to apologize and was so thankful for having waited and trusted in that moment.
    Thank you so much for giving me the tools to help her become emotionally competent.
    And by the way we live in southern Italy where the parenting we see around us is the exact opposite of what RIE advocates. So seeing my trust in her rewarded is ever more special. 🙂
    And I’ll say it again, your books in Italian could change the future of this country. Not kidding.

  2. Waiting and watching my child is a wonderful feeling. Just now my four-year-old started unloading a stacking game into an old, squashy armchair notorious for swallowing items of all sizes, and I felt the urge to caution him against playing with loose pieces on it, but I waited. After discovering the chair’s instability as a building surface, he quickly moved his activity to the hardwood floor. Confidence-building experience for him and I have one more positive feeling to help me through rough moments.

  3. Hi Janet. I’ve just discovered your site, and all of the parenting advice you give (including this post) is so spot on and helpful. Waiting is absolutely critical when raising children. You suggest waiting when babies cry. This is particularly important at night. If parents just wait 30 seconds (which feels like an eternity, but it isn’t) before picking kids up at night, many times the babies will go back to sleep. It helps them develop normal sleep cycles. I look forward to reading more from you!

  4. I love this post and the magic word. I really feel like that’s why children are attracted to grandparents, because in their presence, they get the time to develop, explore, and do for themselves. Older adults have raised children and are usually more relaxed and patient when around young children.

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