“There are three kinds of people who look at you this way…lovers, the insane, and babies.”
– Magda Gerber commenting on an infant’s gaze.
When it comes to our relationships with our children, it’s the quality of the connection we have that truly matters. Whether we’re responding to our baby’s cries, setting limits for our toddler, deciding whether we should trust or direct our child’s development, it is the strength of our bond that informs our choices and our child’s response.
Our relationship guides everything we do. Parenting will either be a puzzling, baffling struggle or logical, organic and (often) effortless. It’s all about understanding how to connect.
If I had known years ago that I could connect with even the youngest infants just by being myself, I’d have been a “baby person” back then. I wasn’t. In fact, I’m often amazed and amused that my life and work is now all about babies. Me? I can think of plenty of baby-adoring people I’ve met over the years that I would expect this from, but certainly not me.
For most of my life I was not particularly drawn to babies, and the feeling seemed mutual. I wasn’t the one toddlers toddled over to, and although I thought young children were cute and precious, garnering their attention and keeping them entertained seemed like a lot of work.
All of that changed when, through Magda Gerber, I learned that I didn’t need games and baby talk — I could connect with babies as my authentic self. In fact, this is what babies really want and need. And when we do this, we forever see babies in a remarkably different light. As Magda said, we see them “with new eyes.”
When we show babies that we are receptive to connecting with them in a real way, they will open their souls to us… and pour them into ours. The secret is simple:
Quietly behold the person.
Since I started doing this, I’ve had unforgettable encounters with babies, toddlers and children of all ages, both mine and those of others. Babies lock eyes with me across restaurants, in airplanes, while passing by in their carriers and strollers. Really. This is not my imagination or wishful thinking. In fact, it’s more akin to magical thinking. For a brief moment we see and understand each other at a very deep level. There is recognition and acknowledgement.
When you connect with babies in this real and respectful way you know without a smidgen of doubt that babies are all there, whole people, just waiting to be acknowledged as such. Babies appreciate you and even seek you out. The joy begins.
One of the moms in my new infant class shared with me that she had been struggling to understand her 4 month old son’s needs. She decided to try something that had been said the previous week at the RIE Class Orientation: “Just talk to him. Ask him what he needs. Engage him as a person.”
She described this as a “light bulb” that changed everything. Suddenly her boy is much calmer and more communicative. As she told me the story, her boy looked at me, eyes twinkling, and then I talked to him, too. It’s easy to see what a hugely social guy, what a charmer he is and how wise beyond his years (or months, rather!).
With toddlers especially, it’s best to allow them to initiate the connection by engaging with us first. They like autonomy. I’ll never forget one of the toddlers in my class peering at me through the crack behind an open door and saying “Hi!” We repeated this back and forth to each other several times, her eyes locked with mine. It was a simple, silly game that became profound. I felt our souls greeting each other… and I cried (but I don’t think the parents noticed).
The connection I have with this particular toddler includes jokes that one probably wouldn’t expect a 21 month old to understand. During snack time in class, she coughed after taking a sip of the water I had offered her and I replied, “Spicy water,” which she repeated and seemed to find hilarious. Then when she once tried to sneak her hands into the bucket of bananas herself (a favorite pastime of the children), I said, “Such an eager beaver!” Since then, her parents hear her repeating these remarks and laughing to herself, and she and I continue to chuckle about them, too…
Once you know how to connect with babies and begin to see through the crystal clear lens of respect, you can never go back. You’ll find it impossible to punish, abhorrent to manipulate, demeaning to trick or distract, disturbing to stifle babies just because their feelings are so hard to hear. You’ll be shocked and saddened by the way babies are often objectified, dehumanized, their perspectives disregarded. You can no longer pretend there isn’t a person there who wants to get your jokes and deserves your respect and acknowledgement. And not just when it’s convenient — always.
I share more about connecting authentically with babies in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting
I have been so priviledged to share in those “soul connecting” moments with my son. Just the other night while he was going to sleep, I sat next to him by his bed holding his hand and our eyes were just locked. There were no spoken words, but the feeling of connection between us spoke volumes. It was a beautiful moment that when I shared it with my husband later on, brought me to tears.
Your last few lines about being unable to go back, once one sees through the lens of respect, is so true. While I am relatively new to RIE and not so fluid in my practice of it, I am constantly looking at people’s interactions with my child and even more so, interactions with other children, so differently. There is a level of awareness there that I did not have previously. It’s like a form of radar. Things that people say that I never would have had a second thought about now stand out to me. It is really surprising how most people I come in contact with have such little regard for what and how they speak to children. And I am referring to people who are loving, good-hearted parents. People who are my friends and family. It can be a very awkward and uncomfortable experience.
Beautifully said, Nicole. Thank you!
I can relate 100%! Awkward, uncomfortable and, for me, very emotional. I really struggled to be around my own family during Christmas because of how the parents and grandparents were speaking to and treating the children. And like you said, it wasn’t that long ago that I probably wouldn’t even have noticed! But now I see it all so clearly and it brings up so many emotions.
Thank you for sharing!
YES, YES, YES. This IS the ultimate magic trick. This IS why children have always tuned in to me immediately. This IS why I can nearly always settle a crying baby in care, unless that baby is actually in pain. You express this so perfectly, Janet, and I endorse it 100%.
How many non-verbal children- BABIES- have I settled when the parent is departing by saying to them, “You’re sad because mummy is going away. You love your mummy, don’t you? And mummy loves you, but she has to go do her jobs now. She’ll come back as soon as she can. I’ll look after you till she comes back.”?? Scores of them. I get magical eye contact round about the second sentence. I get acceptance of mummy leaving within about two minutes.
IT WORKS, and you will never think and feel about children in exactly the same way again after you’ve tried it.
Aunt Annie, thank you for your corroboration! Yes, this is like a magic trick, but it’s not a trick at all… it’s just communicating with another person. It is simple and feels true and wonderful while we are doing it. I love your description… Thanks again!
A comment and a question. First off – I LOVE your posts and have so much appreciation for what you share with us. I find myself returning to some of your posts over and over again as a touchstone. This post was lovely – but the video gave me a question. What I felt like I saw in the video was a little girl who was repeating “spicy water” and “eager beaver” over and over again because she knew she had an audience and would get a reaction of laughter from you and others in the room. I recognize my perspective is limited here -so perhaps this isnt true. It doesn’t inherently bother me if this is so – but my sense from what I’ve read from Magda Gerber is that this kind of external validation or performing for an audience is something we – as parents – should be aware of (wary of) encouraging. Can you share a bit more about this video and help me reconcile this?
thanks again for all you do…
Dena, thank you for your kind words. I think you misunderstood the video. This little girl was not requested or coaxed to say those things… She brought them up. She was reminding me of our jokes. She definitely wasn’t performing for me or anyone else. This was an excerpt from a long video I took of a dad doing “snack” (which is something I usually do, but occasionally ask a parent to try doing). I realized later when I viewed this video that it included the little girl saying these words to me on camera and I repeated them back to her, but she said them first! I would never ask a child to perform for me.
Stunning. Thank you, this is just what I needed to read today after a particularly trying time with a four year old, two year old and newborn in the house. My baby is oh so wise and thougtful. My two year old so head strong and on a crusade to right the world of its wrongs. My four year old is senstive and kind and thinks of others before himself…. some days I get caught in the quagmire of day to day life, this has lifted me up and reminded me why I am here and why I have been given these three miraculous children to care for. Sincerely, thanks.
Yes, they are miraculous…each with their unique gifts…and challenges. Take care, Sarah! 🙂
I wish I could bring my baby to one of your classes! I’ve learned so much from your blog. In many cases, your advice has confirmed my instincts. I have a question about another topic: How, when (at what age) and why is it important for babies to spend time with other babies of similar age?
Thanks, Lainey! I wish you could come to my class, too. Babies benefit from spending time together from about 3 months and up, but it’s certainly isn’t necessary for them to do this… and they don’t need to interact in a large group. A one-on-one play date is ideal. Group socialization becomes more important after 3 or 4 years of age, but even then, children can learn a lot from spending time with just one other child.
Thank you Janet I love this post, I too wish I could come to your classes with my little boy.
Sami, you are so welcome…and me, too!
Looking forward to a very fragile connection…..my daughter, 30.5 wks pregnant is lying in the hospital, they hope to help her gestate there a few more days or weeks……this baby , and her parents will have a village of family ready, to connect, support and love……your post hit home this week.
Melinda, I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. What a lucky baby this will be! Enjoy! <3
This brought me to tears janet. Beautiful. I know why u make available your wealth of information free, when u could sell it. You are fighting a war against discrimination. Wow i am soooo joining you mama!
Yay, Sarah! As I mentioned to Aunt Annie on Facebook, when everyone sees children this way, I can happily retire from blogging.
Thank u aunt annie for those wonderful words to tell a child who is separating from their carer! I will be studying them to memorise! Beautiful.
Hi again, Janet. Another question prompted by comments above: What are the best way(s) to support language development in a baby? I’m assuming saying, “Can you say mama or dada?” would be like asking them to perform. My son is 8 months old. Is imitating his sounds back to him validating? I talk to him and ask him questions all the time, tell him about everything that’s going to happen that will involve him, and read to him lots. Is there anything else I should or should not do?
Great question, Lainey. Yes, “Can you say?” or “What is this called?” is quizzing children and asking them to perform. The rule of thumb: don’t ask questions you know the answer to.
Everything you are doing sounds good, but I would respond a little differently to your son’s communication. Remember that all of his sounds are actually real words that he’s trying to say. They aren’t gibberish. So, the respectful and encouraging response to his words is to try to find out what he’s saying. Often you can decipher this by paying attention to what he might be hearing, seeing, what’s been happening, etc. So, instead of imitating him, say something like, “I hear you telling me something… Are you talking about the cat running away? Yes, the cat was just sitting there and then she suddenly ran away.” Pause between each of these thoughts and observe your boy’s reaction. He will let you know if you are understanding him or not. Babies love it when their loved ones try to understand them… and they are very forgiving if we get it wrong. It’s all about our effort. 🙂
This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read!
Thank you Janet for this beautiful article. When Clayton was 1, I didn’t get him, always clingy and crying. I realized as I became more conscious, I wasn’t even looking at him. Returning home tired and worn, I looked right pass him. And the whole time, he was just wanting to ask for me to see him, to hold him. One day after a Non-violent Communication conference, I came home and looked at him… really looked at him, he ran to me, and in his eyes I could read, I miss you, mama, I missed you so much. I cried tears of joy and sadness, hugging him like I never hugged him before. From that day forward, I promised myself that I would continue to acknowledge him as a human being that wanted connection, not just a baby that needed me to care for him. Coincidentally, all his “behaviors” disappeared.
This gave me goosebumps, Min Yi Su. Thank you so much for sharing your story.
I love this post. It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to explain to someone else. I love the idea that parents can and should connect with their young children as people and not treat them as subjects.
And in response to a previous commenter who thought the girl in the video might be performing, I see it more as communication and interaction. My child does the same thing. I think when kids are respected as people, they are empowered to communicate and engage with others.
Thank you, Janet. Sometimes, are they also exploring and discovering all the different sounds their voices can make rather than trying to communicate something?
Yes! That is often the case when they are making sounds without looking towards you. Then you might say nothing…so as not to interrupt their train of thought.
Connecting to your child when they are a baby is one of the most crucial things you can do as a parent. I really wish more parents would take this advice . I actually raised my children this way and I would not raise them any other way. Thank You, Janet.
Thank you so much! I really find your blog so invaluable!
Awww, thank you for saying that, Lainey!
I’ve often called my mom The Toddler Whisperer because she does what you’ve described above. She just seems to “get” children, and they gravitate toward her. Once she was in a restaurant in China (on a trip with my aunt to pick up her newly adopted daughter) and a toddler came up to her, handed her a spicy fish ball, and started jabbering away. Mom reported she simply listened and smiled, making eye contact.
I believe that people in general crave genuine human contact, and they really need look no further than their children to find it. My toddlers are some of my absolute favorite people to talk with and be with. I’m working on my own whispering ways 🙂
Sounds great, Mama Mo! Thank you for sharing about your mom. I believe we can all be baby whisperers. It’s all about understanding that even newborns are “all there” and totally ready to engage on a person to person to level, but even deeper, because they are more open.
Since becoming a mother almost 9 months ago, I have found the hardest part to be advocating for my baby. Neighbors, friends and strangers approach her and touch her beautiful red hair or get up in her face. She often recoils and so I take over the conversation or step away from the intruder.
How would you deal with this, Janet? What would you say to get people to be respectful?
Yes, I struggle with this too with my 8 month old. What do you do without seeming rude?
Thank you for this email.
You know, since having a second, I have noticed I look in my 2.5yo’s eyes less. I know this, because when I do look in her eyes it seems strange. GOsh! I will try to be more ‘seeing her’. We have been having some hard times with aggressive behaviors towards the baby so no doubt related!! I will make a much more concerted effort!!!! Thanks so much for the reminder!
I also have the same question as Katharine above. I struggle with advocating for my 10 month old while not being rude to others. I’d love your advice. Thanks!
This is it exactly. It’s the key to connecting with everyone, babies to the very old. To acknowledge that any of us, at any age, is whole and present truly unlocks barriers to true understanding.
Janet – it’s so true that it’s a miracle to see a connection between us and sometimes a baby we don’t even know.
I’ve had a 9 month old newbie to daycare simply crawl into my lap. I now feel my granddaughter relax with me – she knows! xo
I draw a lot of inspiration from
Your posts everyday..
My baby girl is 3 months old and i have been trying to practice rie with her.. However the situations areteating my patience, first she rejected my milk, then she rejected bottle feed while awake and now she is becoming really panicky when she wants to sleep..
I feel helpless sometimes and juat dont know what to do.. I try talking to her a lot but it doesnt seem to work
I needed to read this today. I feel so disconnected from my almost 2 year old, I have a 6 week old and he doesn’t want me to hold or feed the baby quite often. It’s upsetting for me that I can’t give him the attention he wants. How can I connect with him again in the thick of having a newborn to look after too?
Fully accept and acknowledge his feelings, rather than trying to talk him out of them in some way. Most of us have the instinct to, however subtly, invalidate. In other words, when he says, “I don’t want you to hold the baby,” but you are going to hold the baby at that moment, just acknowledge, “Wow, yes, you really don’t like it when I hold the baby. I hear that!” Let him be upset. Welcome him to vent those feelings to you.
I too have noticed that I can connect with infants and toddlers in public places. Locking eyes with them. It’s amazing and fills me with wonderment. I am a recently retired preschool teacher and really miss the connections with children. But I am looking forward to a volunteer position in our local hospital and also the pending birth of my first grandchild. I love your blog and posts and have already given a copy of your book to the new expectant parents. Thanks so much Janet.
I had the pleasure of meeting one of daughter’s oldest friends recently. Her four-year-old hid behind his mother; I said hi and walked into the room, not wanting his mother to say “say hi”or “give Lynne a kiss”. I just stood near him talking with the other adults until a blanket appeared at my feet and said, “boo!” I jumped and cried out in fear, and he emerged laughing. We had about 5 more rounds of him scaring me badly and then we had breakfast. After breakfast we had a little talk about his cars, and then it was time to leave. He ran to me and hugged my knees. His mother said, “He never does that.”
Several years ago the same thing happened. We live far away and have few visits with our grandchildren. On one of those visits, my daughter held her two-year-old in her arms; he clearly didn’t remember me. I walked by without looking at him or saying anything, and sat down on the couch. He took his toys to the opposite end of the room and began playing with them. Slowly he moved closer until he picked up a book and a blanket, hoisted himself up on the couch and said, “Let’s get cozy and wead a book.”
Fortunately my daughter, Julie,who is a great fan of yours, did nothing to interfere.
She introduced me to you and now I’m a fan too. I frequently see her sharings of your counsel on her Facebook page and I have both of your books
Dear Lynne – You’ve made my day! Thank you so much for sharing your story and kind words with me. It means a lot. I am very much looking forward to being a grandma like you someday. You are so full of love.
You made my day as well. Julie pointed out to me that she knew I wished that I had been the kind of mom you are (when I told her your kind words about being a grandma like me). She was spot on. Her name is Julie Harbert. I knew that you and she were friends but wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to mention her name in the email. We practically live by your books — I think they are beautiful and have subscribed to your emails. If you come to NY again I will be there too.
Janet, I am a grandmother who has been reading your posts and books because my daughter recommended them to me. I have cared for her son, who is now 3 for several days every week since she returned to work as a professor of English. I am a college teacher as well, and with my background in education, have been practicing what you preach for many years. I had long talks with my daughter about realizing that her precious boy is an amazing person, with an individual identity, before he was even born. I just wanted to comment on how I believe our agreed upon ways of relating to him have given him the freedom to develop into such a wonderful, amazing child. I think that talking to him, and listening as well, have made him literate and thoughtful. Several times a day he asks me what a word I have used means. Usually it is a word I think he knows, but I always answer every question to the best of my ability. Then he uses the word several times in a sentence that day. When he was developing sounds, I talked with him about how the sounds we make form words that have meaning, and how the words are put into sentences, and how we can talk to each other. He basically learned to read at the same time he learned to talk, because he was so interested in the alphabet, that he would take my hand and direct me to his alphabet blocks, and ask me to put them into the right order. My daughter is so good with him, listening so well, acknowledging his feelings and hearing his thoughts, that she is a joy to watch with him. I know that your books have helped her keep a clear vision of what raising a child with respect can look like. Our relationship with my grandson and even his own amazing mind are growing as fast as he is, as a result.
Hi Cynthia! Wow, what a beautiful gift you and your grandson (and daughter) are to each other! Love hearing this!