The Key To Nurturing Patience And Focus

Parents often ask me how to get their children to focus, but that’s not our job, nor is it necessary.  Our responsibility is to provide open-ended opportunities for kids to choose what they wish to focus on.  When children practice focusing of their own volition, beginning as babies, they eventually learn to tune in and stay “on task”, even when what they’re doing isn’t especially exciting to them.

In other words, uninterrupted time to play their way as infants instills the ability to focus as toddlers and beyond.

Indeed, “patient babies” might seem like an oxymoron. But when we provide babies abundant freedom in a safe place to “call the shots”, they demonstrate that they are extraordinarily patient, joyful explorers.

To illustrate this beautifully… Heeeere’s Kobe!

Trust your children’s choices from the beginning so that they can begin to follow their passions, hone their talents, become outstanding learners, love what they do.

Just yesterday, while my son sweated it out on the soccer field in 99 degree heat, another parent asked, “How does he have such an incredible work ethic?”

It’s simple… “He loves this. He’s in heaven” (and he’s always played his way).


(Kerry, thank you so much for allowing me to share Kobe’s tutorial!)


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

  1. We do outdoor time everyday, and I think Ender would play outside as long as I’d let him (or until he gets cold) but I do interrupt him more than I’d like. He wants everything in his mouth, and I’m never sure what is safe for him to have in his mouth. I let him gobble as much grass as he likes because I know it’s not toxic and I don’t think he can choke on it, but dandelion flowers seem like they could be choking hazards, and while I know the leaves are edible, I don’t know about the other parts. I let him mouth a pinecone because he wasn’t biting hard enough to break off bits, but the pediatrician said I shouldn’t let him eat leaves because they might have mold. He still enjoys himself outside, but I feel bad for having to hover and stop him doing something every 30 seconds.

    I DID enjoy watching him investigate a pile of bricks, which I would never have considered an appropriate object for a 10 month old. He explored the texture, the unique musical noise bricks make, probably a temperature diference from the air, he shifted them and was even able to lift one a few centimeters.

  2. This is beautiful. Thanks Kobe.

    Thank you Janet for your wonderful blog. I discovered you about 2 months ago when a friend forwarded on one of your posts. I am gaining many insights and much inspiration from reading your blog when I can.

    I am mummy to a delightful 15 month old boy and desperately wish to raise him to be an intrinsically referenced person who has an abundance of self esteem. What I am learning from you about the RIE approach resonates so nicely with me. I feel like I need guidance sometimes (and sometime often) so I’m very grateful for the information you are providing.

    I have tried to be the sort of parent who allows my son to learn at his own pace but I see now looking back over the past 15 months that I could have give him much much more space. I have started to give him a lot more room and stopped feeling like I need to provide activities all the time and he is now playing very well by himself, I haven’t timed it but I think at times for up to an hour without complaint.

    I could go on and on but for now… just thank you.

    Sami x

    1. Sami, you are so welcome. It’s a pleasure to pass this information along…
      This approach resonates deeply with me, too, and has been responsible for many, many magical moments, minutes, hours and days for me and my family. And there’s more good news… Inner-directed play provides the most wonderful foundation for life long learning. Enjoy!

  3. It really shake me to see this baby keep so many minutes on the same task. Seems he wanted to pull it, he moved his fingers perfectly, finally as all have to do…to the mouth!!!
    My second Grand Daughter, now ten months is very much into tiny things, this makes her use her point and thumb a lot,good for babies!
    My daughter use to let her play a lot on her tummy, but she didn t turn, now she crawls and stands,…she sits going backwards but doesn t want to turn. She seems perfectly ok to me. She will probably do it someday before College! Thanks for the video.

    1. Laura, I LOVE your attitude — the way you are enjoying what your granddaughter does rather than wishing for more. She’s a lucky girl to have you!

  4. Jessica Isles says:

    So lovely watching those adorable little hands! I so want my children to find what they love and feel that letting them choose their own activities is the best way to help them do this but…my 9 year old would play alot of video games unless I limited them. I don’t make him do activities I just limit this activitiy (and tv watching) otherwise he would not have time to explore what he does like doing. I know your wonderful site is mainly for little ones but I find that the advice applies as they get older too. What is your view on screens and stopping that activity?

    1. Jessica, I’m strongly in favor of limiting screens as you are doing and I think they should be avoided all together for the first few years. (I know this isn’t a popular view.) I feel certain that the screen-free, inner-directed play my children enjoyed is the reason all 3 are very focused learners, whether they are learning academics, practicing sports or creative pursuits.

  5. Hi Janet,
    First of all, I just wanted to say I thought of you and this post, and the blog today, when my son spent an HOUR playing with a small metal tea kettle on the deck, the kind made for one serving of tea. He used that tea kettle in so many ways. He opened it and listened to its insides and then experimented with making noise into it. He explored each and every facet of it thoroughly. He experimented with different ways to open it and close it, put different objects in it and took them out. He watched his own reflection in it and then watched himself playing with it while he was reflected in the window. He banged it, rolled it, and talked to it. For an hour while I surfed the net and watched him through the window and my husband and I laughed in pleasure at his very serious play with the kettle… because make no mistake, it was some serious investigation going on!

    His attention span is absolutely amazing now. He is 14 MOs old now and I am so happy with his progress.

    Another thing we are getting a lot of recently is commentary on “how much he understands”, how independent he is, and how well he and his little playmate play together.

    My best friend has become a convert to RIE now, and I would love for you to see our same-aged boys playing together after a year of RIE playdates. They pass each other toys and babble and create little projects together. They play tag with each other. They have a lovely time together with minimal conflict. I am so very pleased watching them play. And people comment, “I’ve never that before.” So much for babies only being capable of parallel play. 😉

    I feel like shouting, sometimes, when I see others intruding on a child’s autonomy that there is a better way (of course I don’t– and it’s not in judgment but just because I feel so passionately about the positive benefits of undistrupted play) I want to show… step back and let that baby be! I love to see the back end of my toddler as he’s crawling confidentally away from me, through the playground (despite being almost blind– surgery is soon– next week!) because he trusts his body and he trusts himself and myself, as well. I do not worry about him falling or hurting himself because he is absolutely assured in his physical body, despite his limitations. Despite the fact he has no depth perception at all! Amazing!

    Thank you for giving us all this wonderful resource! I know I am a better parent and my child a more rounded child because of what I have learned here.

    I have one question I have been meaning to ask: Do you have any tips on how to talk a child through surgery? I am nervous. I bought a picture book (Curious George Goes to the Hospital) and I tell a story about using the pictures, but altered for his age and condition. We talk about how his eyes are and how they will feel better after his surgery and that he will be able to see much, much better. But I don’t know what else to do. I know that they will have to do things to him and he will fight them tooth and nail because, of course, he is so used to his bodily autonomy being respected and he is so fiercely autonomous. I do not want the surgery and recovery to traumatize him. Can you help me, especially with the language I can use in the hospital, when they have to do necessarily difficult things to him? Thanks if you have any tips for me!


    1. Hi Sophia! And thank you for this wonderful and inspiring report! I may want to share your play experience for a future post… Would that be all right?

      I know what you mean by feeling “like shouting”. That is the benevolent “can of worms” that is opened up when you gain this new perspective. As one parent described it, “You can never go back.”

      Your son sounds amazing! I’ve actually contacted a RIE mom I know whose son had an operation as a baby and I’m hoping she’ll be in touch with me soon to share her experience with you. In the meantime, I would recommend giving your son as much autonomy as possible by preparing him and inviting him to do anything and everything that he might do for himself. Just be honest. You may be surprised that your son takes this better than you have imagined he will, because he is used to doing things with you, rather than having things done to him. Do all you can to allow him to actively participate.

      Please keep me posted, Sophia! I will be thinking of you and your boy.


  6. Thank you so much, Janet!

    I wrote out some statements to practice saying and put them in the bathroom so I could practice saying them, so I do not dissolve into a blubbering mess. I am trying to keep the statements short and simple.

    For example:

    “We are holding your arms down to give you a medication. I see you are upset. We are keeping you safe.”

    “I see you are confused. You are in a hospital and had an operation on your eyes. You feel different. The feelings will pass soon. I am right here and I am not leaving.”

    “I can’t let you touch your eyes. They are sore.”

    “The nurse is taking you to the operating room now. It is hard to say goodbye. I am with you even when you can’t see me. I will be here when you come back.”

    I hope they sedate him before they take him from me, because he will not let go of me to go with strangers without being pried out of my arms. This is just the worst case scenario to me. (Him being pried out of my arms). I tried to call the hospital and ask for more information but they just told me policy is based on what is happening that day and to talk to the nurses. Ideally, I would like him sedated before we say goodbye. If he is awake, I am not sure how to frame that goodbye.

    I am trying to think of ways to frame the experience so that I am narrating it as neutrally as possible and validating his feelings. I do not believe that “he won’t remember a thing” as many people think of babies and toddlers. I began to remember things very early and his receptive language skills are advanced for his age. Even if he forms no conscious memory, he will have an emotional memory and it feels like an enormous responsibility to figure out how to narrate it honestly, and neutrally. I am trying to avoid statements like, “Be a big boy now.” “It only hurts a little.” “Oh, it’s not so bad…” And other garbage like that. I want to be very clear that his feelings are okay, whatever they are, and not make promises I can’t keep.

    I KNOW he is going to fight the nurses. He fights our own family physician tooth and nail when the poor guy puts a stethoscope on him… and he’s known him since birth (was birthed by him, indeed!), and sees him regularly. Since we do not use distraction with him– ever– he does not respond when well-meaning people try to distract him. Instead, distractions seem to amplify his distress because I imagine he cannot understand why we are not just listening to him as we normally do. When we set a limit or do something to him he dislikes, we do it as kindly, and neutrally as possible, but we don’t bribe or distract. And so he does not accept bribes or distraction. Apparently, from what I know of myself as a child, I was the same. And my father used to hold his breath until he fainted. My son bangs his head on the floor when he is upset. We are not a family of small feelings. Temperamentally, he is like me.

    He is an easy child in so many ways, particularly because he is receptive, and curious, so as long as I am very consistent and fair in limits, he usually can spend nearly a whole day without correction, and the only time we really have issues are with diaper changes. I have used your strategy to involve him in the diaper changes by letting him hold the various items we need, passing me wipes, and standing at times, and that has helped make them much more positive. I acknowledge his feelings when he is frustrated/upset and I also calmly deflect his blows when he hits or kicks me with a simple, “I can’t let you do that.” (BEST LINE EVER!) But, other than that, his autonomy is rarely challenged. Our whole house is a YES space and he knows where the NO spaces are, and they never change, and once he has been corrected firmly a number of times about an item or an activity, I find he lets it go.

    I am also afraid I am going to break down and start crying. My husband is phobic of needles, so we decided he would go and have a coffee pre-op, because only one of us can accompany the baby anyway, and I have had a lot of medical procedures, so needles and so on do not upset me.

    What upsets me the most is that, judging by other parent’s reports, this hospital will probably not allow me in recovery and they will only allow me to stay until it is time for him to be brought down to the OR. It is not very baby friendly, but it is all we have. I have little control over the time we spend separated or how he is treated or spoken to.

    When I first wrote out the list of statements to practice saying (I should call myself “The Intentional Parent” because I am methodical like that), I broke down sobbing reading them aloud to my husband.

    I read your most recent post with interest, because I am afraid that I will break down and cry, and so I am wondering if I need to come up with something for that? I hope I do not.

    The surgery is on Thursday morning and we must travel hours away for it, so are leaving Wednesday. If there is anything your friend can add, that would be great.

    I am really excited that he will be able to see, if the surgery goes well. I imagine his gross motor skills are going to explode, as is a common consequence. This is exciting.

    I will keep in mind to use the tools about having him do what he can do to help. That is a good idea for in the hospital. When we were at the doctor last, he held one of the peices of equipment. He likes to feel included.

    I wish everyone practiced RIE. When people, in public, ask me about my son (especially now that we go to the parks), and why he is the way he is, I try to explain it, but the only people who have ever heard about Gerber are the people from the Child Development Center. Most people live in a world of pop-parenting, and everyone is busy distracting toddlers from their feelings with bribery and media and punishment. My parenting style is so different, and he is quite different too, so I assume the hospital staff will not understand him.

    I can’t wait until this is over!

    Thank you so much for your response. I thought maybe you had missed my question because I do tend to go on! (Post here as evidence!) But I really do appreciate your support and again, I am so glad I found your blog, and so is my husband and my close friend. It’s a bit of oasis of common sense, really.

    With warm feelings,

    1. Hi Sophia,

      I love the way you articulate the RIE approach. You understand it so deeply! Everything will be all right with your son… He is in such good hands with you! But here is something I just posted on my blog that includes Nadine’s long response to your questions… I couldn’t agree more with her suggestions. I will email this to you as well.

      Take good care, and please let me know how this goes! I’ll be thinking of you and your boy on Thursday.

      With warmest regards,

  7. Joseph Chong says:

    What if a child indulged himself in playing video games but not anything else?

    1. That’s not focus. The games are doing the focus-grabbing, not our child.

  8. Hello Janet. I am a mother of nine month old boy, my son keeps throwing toys and he only crawls around the house . He has learned sitting and has met all milestones but how do I make him sit still and focus on learning things. I am worried, what if, he only roams and doesn’t learn to focus

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