No Way to Treat a Baby

I was visiting a RIE parenting class for the very first time, sitting in a corner of the room watching babies freely exploring, unaware that my perception of infants was about to be radically transformed.  One of the tiny scientists spotted my car keys on the floor next to me and began scooting towards them.  Oops! Quick as a flash I hid them in my pocket (the keys, not the baby).

After my disappearing act, the facilitator, Hari Grebler, gently offered, “You might have said, ‘I see you are interested in my keys, but I am going to put them away in my pocket now. These aren’t safe for you to play with.’”

Uh, really?

Hari had suggested a surprising way to intervene with a baby, and for the rest of the class I watched as she walked the walk (crawled the crawl and scooted the scoot). Every interaction she engaged in with these 5-9 month old children was honest, respectful, dignified, which in my view at that time seemed a little too precious, weird and over-the-top.

But it did seem that the infants responded to Hari’s words. If I hadn’t known better, I might have believed they actually understood.

After spending a couple of days digesting this oddly compelling experience, something clicked for me. Babies are real people, so why wouldn’t we treat them that way from the beginning?

The more I observed respectful interactions in subsequent RIE classes and then began practicing them with my three-month old infant, the more “right” this new way felt. Once I understood that babies are whole people ready to be treated with respect — that they in fact need and deserve this message from the time they are born — there was no turning back. Inspired by this vital new knowledge and awareness, I couldn’t help wishing the rest of the world would catch up. But I’m still waiting while most parents are doing the things I once did or might have done, like:

1. Making things disappear: which is a great way to teach babies that the world is even more mysterious and incomprehensible than they’d thought. Seriously, what’s the point of even trying to figure this stuff out?

2. Scooping babies up and swooping them away from unwanted activities: which makes babies feel powerless because life is something that happens to them. They learn that they may be interrupted at any time, so why bother getting involved in any learning activity? (And for babies, everything is a learning activity).

3. Slapping or “flicking” hands or wrists or spanking bottoms: which causes babies to fear, or at best lose trust in their parents, caregivers, and the universe as a whole, because when they are happily exploring as they should, they are suddenly interrupted by discomfort inflicted upon them by the people they need to trust most.

4. Talking to them caveman style or in third person, i.e., “Not for Susie, no hands”: which is confusing, demeaning and makes babies feel like we think they are mindless ninnies, because they’ve been listening to every word we’ve ever uttered and are well aware that we don’t talk to anyone else that way.

No hands? What do you think “no hands” means to a baby?  That even confuses me.

5. Calling out their names and then directing their attention to something else (distraction): which discourages awareness, attentiveness and an honest connection with us, teaches children nothing about rules, expectations or boundaries, their environment, or anything except that we are deceptive, far more powerful than they are (which they already knew) and that they should look where we want them to look.

6. Shouting NOOOOO: which is a great way to startle/disturb/excite babies so that they feel compelled to continuously repeat the unwanted action in order to continue this thrilling game or figure out what all the fuss is about.

And yet our best responses are so simple and logical that they will become second nature almost immediately. Let’s say our baby is approaching an unprotected electrical socket:

a. Stay calm – walk or stride rather than run and scream

b. Acknowledge matter-of-factly: “I see you are interested in the socket”

c. Give a boundary: “I’m going to cover it with my hand”

d. Give a brief, respectful explanation: “This isn’t safe for you to touch”

e. Wait patiently for your child to accept the boundary or lose interest while holding the boundary

 f.  If your child persists (most of the time if you are calm, she won’t), continue to acknowledge: “you really wanted to check that out, but it isn’t safe, so my hand covers it. You’re trying to move my hand, but I’m going to keep it here and keep you safe.”  If she cries, you might say, “You didn’t like that. Do you want me to pick you up?” Chances are she is tired or hungry along with wanting to be held.

When we employ these respectful practices our children will:

  • Learn our language and about their world
  • Be encouraged to continue being curious explorers and active, engaged learners.
  • Feel respected and connected to us.

And we will discover how much easier, more effective, rewarding and liberating parenting is when we simply get real with our babies.


 I offer a complete guide to respectful interventions with children in

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame



(Photo by dadblunders on Flickr)


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

  1. This is a most helpful article! Thank you. I appreciate the practical applications.

  2. Back on the wagon Janet!! Thank you, as always. You always explain things to me in a way that gets through!

  3. I agree that this theory seems the best way to approach a child. I practiced this method myself with my child from about 6 months till 1 year. Now at 14.5 months the method isn’t working. Using the electrical socket example in your article. I would walk towards the outlet. Cover it with my hand. Explain what the outlet is. Then explain why my hand is there. My daughter then tries to pry my hand of during these explanations. If the prying doesn’t work she then starts to bite. So then I go into explaining why we don’t bite.
    By that time she is now in a full of tantrum. Pulling my hair and if she had a toy close would have thrown it at me or beat me with it. Then when she realizes I’m not giving in results in her throwing herself on the floor and occasionally beating her head into it. I let her throw the tantrum for a minute. Then I will pick her up and soothe. During that time mom now gets kicked in addition to everything else.
    What am I doing wrong with this method? Should the negative reaction be occurring if I’m doing it correctly?

    1. Chris, at a glance, it sounds like you are expecting “explaining” to be enough. You must prevent your child from harming you, while totally accepting her negative reaction to your limits. Remember that you are capable of stopping your daughter…you are her leader. Don’t try to control, limit or time your daughter’s tantrums or pick her up when she is melting down. Rather than fighting your daughter’s feelings, accept them, while physically preventing her from hurting you. Ideally, your daughter has a safe YES place to play where she can be the free explorer she needs to be.

      1. I wonder if I am overthinking this?
        I am experiencing the same issues as Chris, and might I add, I am suuuper laid back and try to reserve my ‘nos’ for things like my 1 year old trying to push the computer tower over or pulling down the keyboard to step on it.
        I have many safe YES spaces for her, but our loft (Where I fold laundry) has a computer that we are unable to prevent her from touching. I tell her ‘no’ in a firm voice and she continues to do it. I prevent her from pulling it and she starts to pull my hands away, I hold her hands and she starts to cry(which is fine). I let her calm down, and guess what- *she goes right back to it*.

        What should I do? I don’t want to distract her with something else…but I need her to know that she can’t push buttons on the PC and play with power cords and the like.

        On some level too, I feel like I should be able to tell her ‘no’ and that she listens.

        Finally, she’s now taken to saying ‘no’ all the time, no doubt mirroring what I have been telling her.

        (Sorry for the hijack!)

        1. Danielle – I recommend letting go of this expectation, because it isn’t reasonable for a baby or toddler and it will only get you angry: “On some level too, I feel like I should be able to tell her ‘no’ and that she listens.” Testing these boundaries is what your little girl is supposed to be doing. If you don’t want to deal with this (and I wouldn’t), I would consider looking into blocking her ability to get to the computer. Or, I would leave her in a safe play space while you attend to the laundry.

          But if you don’t want to do either of those things, the way to approach this is dis-empowering it with a consistently boring, ho-hum response. The firm NO is a lot of fun to defy, even if the computer wasn’t at all interesting in itself. Firm NO’s are exciting to try to get around somehow…in hopes of reassurance that you will remain her calm leader. She might be thinking, “Okay, what is she going to do NOW? Where’s her limit?” So, I recommend a slow, casual move toward her and saying something like, “there’s that interesting computer, but it’s not safe, so I will put my hand here. If she tries to move your hands away, don’t let her, but don’t hold her hands, because that makes it all seem a little too important. “You’re having a tough time. You really want to touch the computer” (YAWN).

          It might even be better to try not doing anything. She knows this is a NO and if you don’t care, she will likely lose interest. But if this is seriously dangerous, I guess you’ll have to stop her. If you are calm, patient and truly boring while you block the computer with your hands, you will be able to outlast her interest.

          1. Hey there, thanks for the reply Janet.

            Baby is now 17 months old, and I laugh at what I wrote here 🙂 You really were right. For one thing, my baby really wanted to play with laundry, and when she couldnt play with that, she would meander over to the pc. Honestly, how hard is it to let a 12 month old play with a towel and some t shirts while I fold the rest o the laundry.

            She is actually my laundry helper now. She takes every piece of clothing out of the washer and hands it to me, and every piece from the dryer and into the basket. I give her a couple pieces to play with, while I fold (out of her reach, her dive bombing into folded piles gets old!)

            But I still have my cray cray mommy moments that I am working on, just wanted to let you know though that it was just a phase, and I am literally looking back and laughing.

    2. Jeanette Wright says:

      What about baby proofing it? Use a cover that isn’t you?? I never understood not baby prodding a house-it saves a LOT of this problem and allows for safe exploring.

  4. I agree with all of it except the caveman-speak (although “no hands” doesn’t make sense, whatever you say should be able to make sense!). I think caveman-speak can be useful and not at all demeaning because while YES, they are a mini-person, they still don’t have the comprehension of an adult. It’s not demeaning to speak in a way they are more likely to understand. Just like slowing down your speech to talk to someone who is learning your language isn’t demeaning.

    What I do is say whatever I’m trying to say (“Don’t touch that, that’s not yours”) THEN say it in “caveman” (“That’s not for Ari, not yours”).

    1. Anne, I agree with slowing down and I appreciate the reminder (probably should have mentioned that in this post). But I can’t agree about the caveman-speak. In the 18 years I have worked with parents and infants (AND in my experiences with 3 children, all of whom have been advanced in their language development) I have found that babies DO understand our language and I see no reason to speak to babies differently than we would to any other person…especially if one of our goals is for them to learn our language. Caveman talk reflects an underestimation of our children’s abilities.

      1. I had a funny experience once.. my sister and I went out for brunch when my son was six weeks old – just quite new. We popped his car seat in a chair next to us, so he was at eye level with us. As we were catching up, we would constantly involve him in our conversation (much in the same way as if he were much, much older), saying, Maxi, this food is so delicious, can you see those beautiful flowers and little birds that are sitting nearby? Not thinking much of it. As we were about to leave, two older women sitting close to us pulled me aside and said how wonderful it is to hear us talking to my son like that – that one was a paediatric nurse, the other a preschool teacher – and that many people underestimate and ignore the power of language especially at such an early age. I’ve talked to my son like that ever since he was in my belly, just like I would with a best friend. Fast forward a few months, (and we have this time stamped), he started speaking at 5 months old – which I thought was quite unusual for babies – but I now think is partially due to this very unlimited verbal interaction. He did and he does understand, and now at 3.5 he says things like, Mummy this aeroplane needs a pilot seat and behind it two identical parachutes! 🙂

  5. I’m on board with most of this, but what about motherese? Yes, I talk to my son like a whole person when I’m doing caregiving activities, but sometimes we just play. I like, and he seems to really enjoy, when we play and I use some baby-talk (like, holding him up in the air and saying, “who’s a super baby?”, for example). And honestly, I don’t think I could stop; it would feel so inauthentic. I assume that motherese is ok during play, but it’s not something I’ve seen you address before.

    1. Lauren, I think you should do what feels good to you and enjoy your son.

  6. I really love this. Many RIE practices have grown on me in this way, too, and I’m always delighted that after modeling them for my husband, I see him beginning to interact with our daughter in the same way!

  7. Hi Janet – Thank you for all the wisdom you provide on this blog! It has been absolutely invaluable to me. I’m so glad I found it while pregnant. I do have a question though. My son is now almost 11 mo old and diaper changes have become a bit of a battle. I have always talked to him, explaining simply what I am doing through the changes, but now that he is mobil, he wants to flip over, crawl, and grab at things and if I hold him flat on his back so that I can finish changing him (talking calmly all the while) he screams as if I am torturing him. My main issue with all of this is that it feels unsafe. I acknowledge his feelins and sometimes I grab a toy and hold it in my mouth (ridiculous I know) which he then looks at and giggles. Obviously this is “distracting” and not within the RIE principles but I’m not sure exactly how to proceed. How would you approach this?

    1. Hi Sarah – thanks for your supportive words! Regarding the diaper battle, I suggest adjusting your expectations. There is no reason in the world an 11 month old would want to lie placidly while you change his diaper, nor should he, in my opinion. Be flexible. Try changing him on all fours or, if your changing table is against a wall, you might even allow him to pull up to standing (if he can do that independently). You also might consider changing him on the floor. Here’s a post with lots more details:

  8. I have a question about number 5 on the list. I call out my adult friends’ names all the time to get their attention and show them something I find interesting or talk to them about something I want to share. How is this disrespectful? Could you explain this concept a little more?

    1. Sabrina, sorry number 5 wasn’t clear for you. This is about intentionally distracting children when they are doing something we don’t want them to do, rather than honestly addressing the issue. I doubt you would do this with your friends. 😉 Distraction is a common practice advised by many experts that reflects the commonly held belief that babies can’t understand an honest, respectful boundary.

  9. Thanks…this so takes me back about 28 years ago. My son was six weeks and I had taken him grocery shopping. He was in a carrier, but where he could see. As we walked the store I told him where we were, what we were seeing, ect. At the apples I told him red, green and yellow apples. A lady watching said, “I can’t stand another minute of this, your kid is a freaking baby, do you honestly think you need to talk to him so much and start teaching him NOW?” and I said yes, yes I do… Son was an early talker and early reader…go figure.

    1. YES! Brilliant story, Cheryl. Thanks so much for sharing.

  10. Lizzy Spohr Russinko says:

    I have a question about dealing with stairs. We live in a tiny row home with a set of narrow, twisty stairs. Our daughter (almost one) has been walking since she was 8 1/2 months old, and is overall a very confidently mobile child. We put a gate at the top of the stairs because there just isn’t enough space to allow her to roam freely without worrying that she’ll fall and hurt herself badly. We did not put a gate at the bottom of the stairs (yet?) because it is our only staircase and I want her to have access to the bottom of the stairs to practice climbing, supervised of course. However, at various points during the day she goes to the stairs and tries to climb them, and it is not always at a time when I can drop everything and supervise her desire to climb. She puts one foot on and looks back at me. Once I notice another foot will go up. I keep the staircase light off and tell her that she can only climb them when the light is on and when she is with mommy or daddy. Needless to say, she doesn’t always find that to be the best answer, haha. Sometimes she gets up 2 stairs and I pick her up and put her back to the bottom, which she doesn’t like, and I don’t like doing. My husband tells her, “no”, which I’m also not a fan of. So what should we do? Put up a gate so we don’t have to say no and take her off the stairs sometimes? Or keep it ungated and keep explaining to her when she is and is not allowed to go on the stairs? Or another solution entirely? I am grateful for any advice you are able to provide!

    1. Lizzy, I prefer: “Put up a gate so we don’t have to say no and take her off the stairs sometimes?” Your daughter is strictly doing her job by exploring her environment, so I would encourage her in this healthy pursuit by removing dangerous elements from her play area. This will be easier and less stressful for you, too. Perhaps you can offer her safe step-climber of some kind, like THIS (Turn this “boat” over and it becomes wonderful baby steps to practice and play on.)

  11. Lizzy, try teaching her how to go back down them, backwards. You know, like on her tummy, feet first, and the scary disappears. I’ve taught ALL four of my kiddos how to navigate the stairs as soon as they could crawl and in 8 years, not one has fallen down them and they use them ALL THE TIME from crawling age onward. 😉

  12. Ruth Mason says:

    Jaent, you did it again. I LOVE your writing. Thanks for this wonderful article.

  13. Hi Janet, I’m from Canada and currently the version of your book “No Bad Kids” available on is that of the Kindle edition. Do you know if there are plans to release it in paperback form for Canadian readers?

    1. Hi Cailin! Yes, the paperback should be released in Canada any day now (on Amazon). Thank you for wanting the book and I’m sorry for the delay!

      1. Not a problem Janet. Thanks for your timely reply! I look forward then to my upcoming purchase of this book. I have Elevating Childcare, and it’s such a great read. I know this one will surely be just as insightful 🙂

  14. I fully agree with the sentiment and I agree 100% with Hari. I am curious though, when you say if you hadn’t known better you would have thought the babies understood her, is it irony? Do you really believe they don’t understand? Thank you.

    1. Maggie – I know now that babies do understand, but at that time was unsure.

  15. While this article is well put and great in many ways, i must say i disagree with the “flicking/spanking” portion. My father and mother raised me with the idea : spare the rod spoil the child. I feared the spanking not my parents when i had done something wrong. I believe its safe to spank a child if the cause is in accordance with the need too. Im sorry, but my child hits me, i warn them only once and walk away. But if its done constantly and they wont listen no matter what i say, they get a swat on the bum. In this world they will meet someone who wont be so patient, they need to learn that hitting and or other violent acts towards others will get them painful consequences in return.

    Not all children require the spanking method but in my experience, it works far better in the long run than just using words. Yes babies and tots are people, but respect is EARNED not given. Children need to know this as well. I trust my parents and respect them. I am glad they did spank me when i did things wrong that warrented that punishment…

    But the rest of the article is good advice.

    1. How can hitting a child be a good way to teach them that hitting is wrong?

    2. I agree. I teach my girls that actions have consequences. Though, at first I started only spanking, then I realized that spanking doesn’t always work for my eldest (I don’t feel my youngest is old enough to understand, almost but not quite). We started getting frustrated, so I got Dare to Discipline by Dr. Dobson. That really helped me to form a better discipline routine for my girls. When she gets in trouble, she sits in time out for two minutes (one min per year of age), if after she has sat through her time out and has thoroughly understood what she did wrong and that I love her, she goes and does it again, she gets a spanking and a timeout.
      If that doesn’t work or she goes into “tantrum mode” she gets a spanking and goes to her room. If she’s being greedy with a toy after being warned to share, we take it away.
      Spanking sounds harsh, but it really isn’t. It cuts down on disrespectful behavior for sure and I know that my girls will be better for it.

      1. Wow, that is a lot of spanking. I was spanked like that as a child; I remember very little happiness but remember the fear and pain vividly. I know there were good times because I see pictures and such, but it is the violence that sticks out in my mind and unfortunately, that is all I remember.

      2. My mom used Dare to Discipline with me. Like Willow, all I remember now is how much she hurt me.

        Hitting children breaks the trust that should be there between parent and child. From the parent’s perspective, nothing seems to have changed. My mom swears up and down that I trusted her just fine, but I’m the only one who remembers being *hit*. She only remembers doing the hitting.

        Children are smaller than we are, and more vulnerable. There is no reason to hit them. Science tells us hitting doesn’t work. If you think a lack of spanking has led to the degradation of society, then you can look up the statistics. Something like 81% of the population still spanks their children. They’re actually starting to theorize that *spanking* is the problem, not the lack of spanking.

        Please reconsider using Dare to Discipline, which is nothing more than a child abuse manual similar to the Pearls To Train Up a Child. We *know* now that spanking does more harm than good.

    3. Madeleine says:

      You are saying „…they need to learn that hitting and or other violent acts towards others will get them painful consequences in return“….
      So what kind of painful consequences are you getting for hitting a helpless person??!

  16. Hi Janet,

    Thanks for this article, although I have a few questions. I try to practice gentle parenting with my 11 month daughter in that currently she is into everything (things that she can have and things that she can’t).

    Before I knew about gentle parenting and prior to being pregnant, I may have responded “NO” a lot of the time, but I have learnt that instead of constantly telling her NO, at this age, I should distract.

    Now, in this article you are saying distracting isn’t a good idea either. So what do I do?

    Let me give you some examples:

    1) She wants to play with the TV cables. I have tucked them away but she constantly goes to them. I distract her with other toys.

    2) She always wants to play with the dog (grab his fur and tail). This isn’t fair on the dog, and it is isn’t fair to lock him in his cage on a regular basis. I say “be gentle” and model how to stroke him gently, but often I have to move her away and distract her with other toys – is this wrong?

    3) Quite often if she is crawling towards something she shouldn’t touch, I swoop in and move her. In the article you say this is wrong, but I can’t imagine letting her go to something that might harm her?

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Shelley – All of this would be resolved by giving her a safe, gated-in “YES” place to play. Exploring and testing her environment is her job! That’s how children learn. So rather than thwart that healthy impulse (and confuse her with all the distractions), offer her an environment in which interventions and “no’s” can be eliminated completely or at least minimized. And then when you do need to intervene with her, do it directly and honestly as I’ve suggested in this post.

      1. My daughter has a yes space and is t crawling yet. She spends most of her non caring times in her space. But i do wonder how to let her explore the rest of the house without intervene every 5 minutes (I feel like because she spends her time in her yes space the rest of the house will be more interesting at some point and I don’t want to have her feel like that her yes space is some type of time out space)
        I might be thinking this wrong and I’m not at the point yet but just wondering … thank you!

  17. Hi Janet, thanks for the article! I’m confused about #2…you suggest that we don’t want to interrupt children to divert them from unwanted behavior (I think that is what you meant) and yet you so often advise to physically prevent children from hitting, for example. Isn’t that an interruption? How should we prevent unwanted behaviors if not with some sort of interruption? looking forward to clarification

    1. Hi Dawn! There’s a big difference between a sudden interruption (abruptly removing a child from a situation… “what happened?!”) vs. a minimal intervention (placing a hand between the children but allowing them to safely continue their exchange).

  18. In your example F: “Do you want me to pick you up?” Isn’t that a distraction?

  19. This is awesome, thank you.

  20. Hi Janet,
    I’m really enjoying getting to learn the RIE approach through your articles and podcasts and find its quite in line with a lot of my intuitive practices I was already doing with my 5 month old! He’s a very mellow baby and makes motherhood so much fun! My only question is how to acknowledge feelings and communicate when he’s having an off (for him) moment of crying or shrieking? I try to acknowledge and “check in” but he’s using that voice and doesn’t notice me doing this!
    Thanks in advance

  21. Vicki Burgess says:

    Hi Janet, today I was with my preemie granddaughter who is now 14 months old in this world, but her developmental age is 11 months. She is having to take some medicine and her mom asked me to administer it. The baby does not like it and when she saw the dropper with the white liquid, she shook her head back n forth and told me, “No!” That about goes along with entering the toddler phase! 🙂 Well, I just dislike forcing anything on a baby. I carried her downstairs to change her diaper. I remembered your podcasts and blogs as I did and began to talk to her about what I needed to do. I’ve been talking to her since I held her in the NICU so speaking to her is nothing new. But today it was more necessary than ever. Her blue eyes stared into my eyes and she seemed to be listening to me speak. I was telling her that I am going to give you some medicine and I know you do not like it. But I need you to open your mouth and let me give it to you. She didn’t open her mouth right away and I didn’t force it on her either. I waited and waited for her to be still and let me give it to her. She did protest and I allowed her to do so. I just waited until she relaxed and I had to give it to her. I hugged her afterwards. I am thankful for this group and having learned so much about RIE. I love having respect for babies and toddlers. They are smarter than we think. Today, I set up an area for her. I lined up the dinning room chairs with a narrow aisle for her to cruise between them. She is learning to walk and took three steps this past week with her mother. I set toys on the chairs to invite her. She did arrive at it and her reaction tickled me. She said, “Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!” She was overjoyed at being able to stand and cruise along with ease while she engaged with each toy I set out. It was nice for her because I haven’t been able to take her and her big brother (2 1/2 years old) outside. Just 30 miles north of us is a horrific, large fire and so our sky is full of ash. Mother does not want them outside and I don’t blame her. It reminds me of when Mt. St. Helens erupted. The sky is masked over with ash. So I am brain storming what I can do to make inside more interesting for the two. Before I left today, there was a bit of contagion going on–which I am always intrigued by! I love babies and young children and what they will do. The big brother was standing in front of the large cooler and making sound that is magnified by the machine. Well little sister joined him and that’s what was going on as I kissed them goodbye!

  22. This is a great example of how I strive to raise my babies into adults. And you know, after reading this particular one and contemplating a moment, I burst into tears. This is exactly my mother’s principles that she developed on her own after coming out of the sixties combined with a life of heartache and being treated without respect and dignity. She always said that I was her “Mini-Me” and I’m feeling more like that now days than ever. I sit here, crying, missing her and feeling my calling more.

  23. Hello!! Can I use the electrical socket situation on my nearly 2 1/2 year old??

  24. This was very helpful. How would you handle a 12 month old putting everything in their mouth like lint, dog hair…etc.? I try to keep my house as clean as possible but she finds everything!

  25. I tried to “flick” my daughter’s hand if she persisted in touching something that was off limits for a couple of days. Once she caught on to what I was doing, she simply would touch, flick her own hand, and laugh as if it were a game. We figured if she could flick herself, she could learn how to touch those “off limits” things in ways that were safe and acceptable. She did. The really dangerous stuff she could not get to, we kid-proofed, or we locked away.

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