The #1 Reason We Misunderstand Our Kids (And Secrets To Better Clarity)

Since one of our primary goals as responsive parents is being attuned to our children and their needs, it’s helpful to be aware of a natural impulse that obstructs this clarity: projection.

Projections aren’t all bad. These “educated guesses” stem from our healthy, socially adaptive instinct to imagine each other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions in order to relate and connect.  Projections are sometimes accurate, but more often than not they are at least a little off track, because they are more reflective of our own thoughts and feelings than those of the person we’re projecting about.

We project most when our children are preverbal and can’t share what they’re thinking. These projections often cause us to:

1. Misread our child’s cues and reactions

Does our 5-month-old baby love it when we pull her up to sit or stand, or is her glee a reflection of ours? Do our child’s squeals mean she enjoys being tickled or thrown in the air, or are we seeing what we want to see? Does our toddler want reading lessons with Daddy, or just to please him? Is our baby bored, or are we?

2. Respond inaccurately to crying

It’s extremely challenging not to project the worst case scenario (like a deeply traumatized child, always) whenever babies cry. Our baby’s cries feel like a knife (if not several) to our heart, and a powerful instinct to calm our baby overwhelms us. We’ll do anything.

But is immediately scooping our baby up or offering breast milk or a pacifier what she needs? Or are we just temporarily quieting, perhaps even stifling her? And what messages do we send children when we can’t bear to hear their cries for the minutes or even moments it takes to discern what they are trying to communicate? I can’t handle hearing your feelings. Your way of communicating is not valid. You are alone with these thoughts and feelings, your needs are not recognized.

3. Interrupt our child’s important processes

Every week in my RIE Parent-InfantGuidance Classes the parents and I share projections we have about the children, but we make it a point not to act on them. We project that 4-month-old Johnny wants “help” rolling over, because he has moved from his back to his side and is crying. But after we probe a little, acknowledge his feelings (“you are working so hard and seem frustrated”), ask him questions (“do you want to be picked up?”), listen and wait, we discover that he was saying he was tired and needed a break. Or, we realize that his cries were expressions of his effort and that he was actually able to roll over himself when we gave him a minute or two.

4. Impede socialization

Adults commonly project when children are engaging with each other. This is another scenario I witness at least once a week in my RIE classes:  Johnny has the ball, Savannah comes over and touches the ball. “Uh-oh”, we’re all thinking — although after my years of witnessing these interactions, my “uh-oh” is more about the parents getting angry with me because their kids might end up momentarily unhappy, which has actually never been the case (yet my fearful projection remains). More often than not, Savannah takes the ball from Johnny, who takes in this interaction with interest, but is not at all stressed.  The parents and I saw a potential problem that might need fixing. The children saw “learning to play together”.

5. Not provide children the clear boundaries they need (which includes defining our own personal boundaries) 

From late in the first year through age five, especially, children often object very strongly to our boundaries, even if it’s about a preference for mommy’s attention when only their wonderful, loveable daddy is available.  These strong objections, screams, tantrums and meltdowns are a healthy expression of will and pent-up emotions that can include real tears, shaking, holding one’s breath – all reactions that are ripe for our fear-based projections. “Does our child feel unloved, abandoned, devastated?” No, not if we’ve honestly and calmly communicated with her and acknowledged her feelings. Although she may feel disappointed and angry, she also feels safe and secure, assured that she has the leaders she needs.

6. Distort our perception

A friend recently shared an astute realization: While trust for her six-year-old daughter had come easily, she had overreacted to her older son’s behaviors over the years, because she feared he’d become like her own alcoholic, abusive brother.

7. Emit a sense of foreboding that is self-fulfilling

When we project that a diaper change is going to be a disaster or that our child will freak out when we try to separate, our child senses our discomfort which makes a relaxed diaper change or easy separation far less likely.

But enough about the problems. Let’s move on to the solutions:

Beware of the Mini-Me’s.  The positive side of projection is that we are relating to our babies and toddlers as little people, but when we project, this little person is usually a mini-“us”.  Although children inherit a combination of traits from their parents (some of which might be noticeable), our kids are totally unique, separate individuals and the earlier we recognize this, the clearer our perceptions will be.

Observe. If there’s an antidote to projection, observation is it. Sensitive observation is the key to clarity. The two years parents usually spend in our RIE Classes are all about learning to observe, and this is a fascinating process, because it’s about understanding and accepting our children, and also ourselves. Parents come to our classes to learn about respectful care and are blown away by the insights they gain about their own fears, concerns, motivations and childhood experiences.

Be responsive rather than directive during play and when choosing extra-curricular activities. Allow children to come up with the ideas and set the pace. Follow infant specialist Magda Gerber’s advice:  “Do less, observe more, enjoy most”.

Wait before responding rather than reacting to the first impulse, which is often driven by projection. Your perception of the moment will likely change.  ‘Wait’ was Magda Gerber’s magic word and I wrote all about it in this post:  The Parenting Magic Word.

Our natural tendency to project is powerful, instinctual and doesn’t go away, but our increased awareness of our projections combined with a pause for observation can lead to a new level of clarity about our children and ourselves.

“Being understood creates security, trust and confidence. Being misunderstood creates doubt both in oneself and in one’s own perceptions. So how can we try to understand rather than misunderstand? What should we do? The answer is, observe more, do less.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent – Caring for Infants With Respect

“Attunement sounds simple. Yet so often we can become transfixed by our own internal notions of what should be rather than remaining open to what is. In other words, our own preoccupations can limit how we truly take in another.” – Dr. Dan Siegel

I share more in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish!)


(Photo by Andrew Huff on Flickr)


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

  1. Sammy Greer says:

    I had this happen today 🙁 I was moving too quickly (not baby’s pace) and put her in the high chair while asking if she would like some pear. I buckled her in and turned to get the pear, when she started screaming a very high pitched, intense cry. I had just come home from grocery shopping to find her crying with daddy asleep on the floor (he has really bad food poisoning- hence rushing her dinner) so I assumed she was upset that I was leaving her. I picked her up and reassured her that I was with her, and not going to leave her. I cuddled her, then nursed her when she still couldn’t calm down. Come to find out, she has a bruise on her chest where the buckle must have pinched her- and I had no idea!

    1. Sorry that happened, Sammy! I don’t know if that is a projection or just an understandable mistake. I hope you’ll forgive yourself immediately and move on.

  2. This is powerful stuff. I particularly have trouble with issue #2, seeing every cry from an infant as distress that needs to be alleviated. I give a lot of credence to responding to babies intuitively, and to me crying feels like a call to respond immediately. As all your posts do, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I’ll be sharing!

    1. Thank you, Laura! I think crying is the hardest issue for all of us. I know you are an avid reader… Have you read any of Alice Miller’s books? Like “Drama of the Gifted Child” (which is not about gifted children in terms of IQ)? I think you’d find her perspective fascinating.

  3. Maclachlan says:

    The most helpful part of RIE for me has been distinguishing between my projections and my child’s real needs. I was a very anxious, timid child who did not deal well with change and my default as a parent was to assume that my daughter also often felt afraid and shy in new situations (and to be overly protective in response) when in fact she is extremely adaptable, bold and extroverted! Now that I observe how she responds to situations before assuming her emotions for her, I am so amazed by her strengths!

  4. I have an off-topic question: what do you think about public schooling? It seems to go against many of your ideals since they are constantly forcing kids to do things they don’t want to do by bribing and/or punishing them.

    This is on my mind since my first child is almost kindergarten age and I’m trying to find a school that really works for him and respects his individuality.

  5. Lindsey, I believe in the scientifically proven power of the first years. If we tend to this foundational period by trusting children to develop skills in their way and time, and if we foster a trusting, respectful parent/child relationship and support children to build resilience and self-confidence, then our kids can succeed in less than ideal situations. They can survive mediocre teachers and schools when their influential parents continue to respect their individuality. We will always be our children’s most important teachers.

    Beyond that, some parents are blessed to have more options than others… We do our best!

    1. Your reply to Lindsey is very reassuring to me as this is my main worry these days with my son at a public pre-school. I worry so much that those influences will be stronger than those at home.

        1. Coincidentally, I am rereading this post on the first day of his second year of school. I feel better already! 🙂

          1. 🙂 I love that, Francine, and thank you for sharing

  6. I have the most trouble with the first one. Other people have this immediate urge to tickle, bounce, jog, stand-up, or otherwise manipulate my baby’s body. He (often, not always) giggles and smiles and laughs. I observe. I try to really ‘attune’, as they advise, and see if he is happy, laughing, enjoying the attention. A lot of the time, I really think he is laughing. I think he likes dad’s hair tickling his chin. He’s truly giggling. The first time I heard my baby laugh was when my husband was tickling him on the changing table. It was such a sweet sound. I don’t know…

  7. I do like this post, but I noticed something that bothers me, that a lot of parenting posts throughout various websites have. They say “secrets to parenting” or “secrets to understanding your child”. In the title of this post it says “secrets to better clarity”.It’s not a secret if you’re telling people; it’s tips, insights, advice, recommendations and pointers. You’re not becoming part of an exclusive club of people who have a bunch of parenting secrets; you’re gaining and expanding your knowledge about relationships and interacting with children.

    1. Lynn:

      As Janet’s sometimes editorial confidante, I understand your point. This is something we have thought about a lot, and since no one else is going to be particularly interested in an explanation, I’m going to take my time here(there are so few posts I can respond to in a helpful manner).

      Using ‘secrets’ as opposed to ‘tips’ is an editorial choice Janet and I made years ago because it seemed that all the popular parenting sites and mags who dish conventional wisdom use ‘tips’ to describe their advice.

      To us, these short tips were usually ill-conceived quick fixes, tricks or gimmicks offered to solve (sometimes) large problems, and that is not what Janet wanted to offer on her site, and it’s certainly not what she writes. Tips — or quick fixes — may temporarily address a symptom, but certainly not the underlying problem. Tips don’t usually include insight or experience… Of course, some caregivers may not care to take a thoughtful, holistic approach, but I doubt those folks actually take the time — or have the time — to read Janet’s work anyway.

      Secrets seems a decent — albeit imperfect — synonym with more meaning, because a secret, if you’re going to reveal it, really does demand explanation. Janet has never wanted to offer a purely surface view of any topic. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, she writes rather lengthy posts (sometimes too lengthy) and tries to cover topics completely, offering both insight and experience. Somehow, an article described as a list of “Tips” has always felt denigrating to the substance of the work.

      And that’s what I know about ‘tips’ versus ‘secrets’…

  8. What about breastfed babies who nurse for many reasons aside from hunger? I often can’t discern whether my son is tired or hungry when he is upset. I would hate to think I am merely stifling his cries when offering him an opportunity to nurse.

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