A Question of Self-Worth

This isn’t what I’d planned to write today, but I’m learning that blogging isn’t always about what we want to write. Sometimes it’s about processing what’s making it impossible to concentrate on anything else.

My focus as a parenting teacher and coach, and the underlying theme of every post I’ve written, is respect for babies and toddlers. Everything I share on my blog is intended to evangelize one basic truth – all of us are born real and whole people. The sooner parents understand this, the better chance their children will have for emotional health, happiness and success. 

When respect is deeply understood, parenting is ridiculously simple. Even when the day-to-day is not so easy and fun, we can make sense of it, because we can always relate to our child’s needs on a human level. Respect is our beacon.

As I’ve expressed in other posts, I was once oblivious to the real meaning of respect. Of course, I thought I respected babies, but I really didn’t until the day I observed my infant lying on her back on the floor and for the first time saw her — a unique person deeply occupied with her own thoughts who deserved to be treated as I would expect to be treated.

Once respect is understood, we see our children through a new lens.

Respect is a sensitivity that some might be born with, or perhaps develop early on because parents treat us respectfully. Many will never quite get it, though, unless our cultural perception of infants and toddlers shifts dramatically.

The depressing truth I learned this week is that there is no point trying to explain respect to the in-the-dark majority. Like love or music or ice-cream – you can’t possibly understand if you’ve never experienced it.  So, I found myself in a quagmire of inane arguments over something as obvious (to me) as whether or not we should enjoy photos of a child in distress…

Toddler’s cry all the time for ridiculous reasons, don’t you know? It’s funny! Don’t you have a sense of humor? And it makes us so happy to see him upset over nothing because our children cry over stupid things, too. We feel less alone! The child should learn to laugh at himself. Why are you so uptight? Party Pooper!

Although it seems utterly futile and a little masochistic, I’m going to attempt (one more time) to explain my intense objection to these photos. Would we laugh at a senile granny in anguish for seemingly ridiculous reasons? Would photos posted without our permission of us in tears be hilarious? How about whimpering animals — is their misery disturbing or just plain funny?

Assuming the answer to those questions is, “well, no, but…” then consider this: Are pre-verbal children sub-human cartoon figures? Why is a crying baby funny?

We don’t suddenly become people when we start to toddle, speak recognizable words, respect our elders, vote or get married. We are all there from the beginning and waiting, hoping to connect with someone who can really see us, the person. We have a powerful instinctive need to understand and be understood, and we trust our parents to show us the way.

Psychologists have long known that in these formative first years (while our brains triple in size) the interactions we have with our loved ones, especially the manner in which our emotions are received and responded to, are internalized as “self”. Meaning, how we are treated is who we become, and psychotherapists know this deep sense of self is difficult, if not impossible to shake later on.

So the early years are the most dangerous and potentially damaging time to scoff at our children’s feelings. In fact, it is during this brief period that we have our very best shot at positively affecting our child’s future happiness, relationships and self-worth. The choices we make will matter for all the years to come. Kind of scary. Certainly the time to be extra careful.

For some reason, though, perhaps because they are accepting and can’t object, babies and toddlers are the people we’re most inclined to dismiss, manipulate, objectify, ridicule and generally disrespect. Could this compulsion to trivialize early childhood stem from core feelings of self-disdain we’ve internalized? I wonder…

“When we help a child to feel secure, feel appreciated, feel that “somebody is deeply, truly interested in me,” by the way we just look, the way we just listen, we influence that child’s whole personality, the way that child sees life.”                             – Magda Gerber


(Photo by jerryfergusonphotography on Flickr)


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

  1. Thank you – great point you made today about respect! – and not laughing at children who are upset on the weird assumption that it is “cute.” Thank you for being consistent and purposeful.

    1. Carol Atkins says:

      Great article though I have to say I’ve never found a picture of a crying baby funny! I find it distressing as I want to know what’s wrong and how I can help! I prefer pictures of babies laughing. Their laugh is often infectious.

  2. I’m so glad someone has finally spoken about the pictures of these poor toddlers. I can’t imagine how those poor babies must be feeling when they are overwhelmed and distressed, waiting to be comforted and loved while their parent(s) quickly run for their phones and take their pictures. Karma strikes back though. When these parents turn old and are one day in extreme pain and need their children’s support and love, their children will most likely not know how to support or be there for them and will probably dismiss their parents’ feelings just like their parents did when they were babies.

  3. The same people who laugh at these pictures probably laughed at Jimmy Kimmel’s “Giving Kid’s Bad Gifts”. Using someone else’s distress for a laugh! Do they not know what that does to a relationship? Would you do that to your spouse? A laugh is more important than your relationship with your kids? Very sad.

    1. Christina says:

      yep those were not very funny really. some jokes are not funny

    2. I was thinking of this too; I cringe every year when I see that he’s done it again.

      1. Kathryn Ingrum says:

        I would carry this concept a step further and suggest we not laugh when they make “cute” mistakes. I have had parents try to tell me something they see as cute and funny in front of their child and visibly watch the child shrink. It might be as simple as a mispronounced word or trying to put on socks. I certainly don’t want people laughing at me as I am in deep concentration learning a new skill. I understand that these may become fun stories to share in families but with time,not in the moment. Years ago my 10 month old grandson was putting on dad’s shoes, emptying drawers and climbing in,etc. All very developmentally appropriate. He then found a small jar lid and very dramatically lifted his leg and sat on it. He was so serious as he tried to fit in this tiny lid. Cute? No, he was experimenting with how he fit in space, developing math skills. When students tell me a child is cute, I make a point of helping them understand that this is not truly respectful of the child. At a later date I tell them the dean asked me about my class. I can tell her that it’s a great class. They are all so cute. Or I can tell her that it’s a great class. They are curious learners who support each other with respect. We then discuss that idea and most all get it.

  4. Christina says:

    childrens feelings are important yet they are often dismissed as ifnot important. I think some of my family or friends think I do strange things like the way Ispeak to my 14 month old at times, apparently there is no need to explain things, well I feel baby copes better with change or with what is going on when I talk to her and let her know what is going on rather than just scooping her up and putting he down for a nappy change, or when it is time for bed and I sit with her I tell her when I leave and give her time to respond so I know she has heard or maybe understood me, tonight she gave me a wave as I left her room. and didn’t cry again afterwards. respect is important and it doesn’t mean children will get there way, baby had to go to sleep just needed a bit of extra time and respect in being told that I was leaving the room ..

  5. Today’s parent has the overwhelming need to share every moment of their child/rens lives. Why? I am a parent but have no desire to share every Kodak moment with Facebook and beyond. Just recently 2 friends had very sick children in hospital, whilst I (kind of) understand a status update here and there, the constant pictorial update of their child in various states of distress is and was just plain confusing. At what point does a parent feel capturing the horror of a needle in their babies arm more important then comforting said child? The mind boggles

    1. Perhaps sharing her pain and calling upon the support of her Facebook community was the best she could do for herself at the time. Having a seriously ill child tests a parents coping skills and sanity to its limits.

      I would encourage compassion.

  6. Thank you for this. I sometimes feel alone in my fight for the rights of babies and toddlers!

    Common adult statement:
    “Ignore him; he is just looking for attention.”

    “So, if you are looking for attention, I should ignore you?”

    Feelings are always valid and important, no matter what age a person is. I struggle to understand why this is such a hard concept to come to terms with. I can only suppose that people who like to laugh at the distress of others struggle with their own feelings being valid.

    I could ramble on for ever!… 🙂

  7. This article is so true and wish more parents could see this . I was at my sons soccer and one Dad wishes another Dad a happy birthday for his one year old.The Dad’s start talking and comparing baby stories and saying how painful , hardwork and a nuisance “kids under five” are and can’t wait till they grow.
    This made me so sad and annoyed but the majority of Dads shush their kids would grow up instead of embracing these wonderful years

  8. Thankyou for this. It’s something that has been rattling around my head but I’ve not been able to verbalize it well. I’m not sure I always get treating my kids respectfully quite right, but having the language for what I am trying to do helps.

    1. Emma, just by leaving the comment that you did, know that you DO show your children respect! I found Janet almost one year ago. Sadly, it was after I did the requisite Santa pictures with my toddler. She was scared, I sat with her but we’ve come a long way since then. I too used to think I crying pictures were cute – until it was my baby. The feeling that I had in the pit of my stomach was my turning point. Since then I know I can truly trust my gut – and the advice of Janet. You sound like you’re new on the RIE path. I hope you find it makes sense to you. Most of all, keep looking forward! You’ve got this!

  9. Maggie W. says:

    I think laughing at toddlers catches on because it helps the parent feel better about themselves: that other parent’s toddlers are having a hard time too and there’s nothing that can be done, it’s just the way they are so we can laugh at the situation. I noticed I was falling into that thinking when I saw some “funny” posts by friends about the things their toddlers were having fits about. I thought, “well good to know that’s just the way not is and there’s nothing I can do about it when my time comes.” Good to know that’s not the case.

  10. When my twin brother and I were small he said a wrong word at the dinner table and everybody laughed. He immediately hid under the table. We were about 4 years old. After reading this article I recalled the incident and wondered if his difficulty adjusting to school and feelings of anxiety were at all related to the insensitive and disrespectful manner in which he was treated that time and probably others. I am now 58 and that incident has never left me. One reason respectful parenting of my own children was so important, and it felt almost instinctive at the time.

    1. This post and CarrieO’s comment has hit home for me tonight. While I’ve never seen those pictures in question, something happened in my home tonight that upset me and I couldn’t quite figure it out but this post helped me realie why. The short version was that my toddler was eliminating in the bathroom with the door open right before bed. I was sitting with her chatting about the day when my stepson walks by. He is a young adult who recently moved in to our home from another country to attend college here. He said hi to my daughter and observed that she was using the bathroom, and then she said “yes the poop is coming” and well, that’s exactly what happened. As she said this I winced because I just knew how he would react: he burst in to laughter at her. I was horrified. She didn’t show signs of being upset, but I knew she was. She was so puzzled at why he would laugh at her eliminating. I did not know how to make up for his disrespectful laughter, so then I lied! I said he was not laughing at her elimination, but that he was laughing at something else. I did not like lying but I just wanted to shield her from what I felt was so disrespectful. Reading this article tonight make me realize why I was so bothered by this incident and this comment makes me worried this is going to force her to be self conscious earlier than I would hope for a child.

  11. thanks Janet! I had a similar on line disagreement just last week when I responded to a post where people were giggling and making “how cute” type of comments about toddlers who were in an intensely sophisticated social negotiation. I understand you completely. Thank you for taking kids seriously and seeing their beauty, joy, intelligence and their full humanness!

  12. Judi Lister says:

    My boy was wild and terribly unsettled until he was like 7, his kindy teacher handed out pictorials for of the kids for a couple of years, none of my son, she said ohhh you wouldnt want them, they are not nice,,,I knew he was not pleasant and sunny but that did not mean he didnt exist, I felt she wanted to edit him out of her sunny existance because they were too confeonting for her, gee it hurt me. Not all of us who may have photos of our kids unhappy are monsters, sometimes thats all we have and we love them unconditionally, just saying xx happy to report he is the most loving and compassionate man now, particularly kind to 5he kids who were the same as him, I am very proud of him,,but thank god those days are over, there was a lot of judgement on me x

  13. I really love your opinions and perspective. I also really love “whymybabyiscrying”- I love it as a pressure release valve. I don’t think it’s ok to dehumanized babies but I think this is more about laughing together as parents at the absurdity of the human condition. I believe the real reason all of the babies are crying is why all babies have tantrums- they’re overwhelmed and need a break to organize and process the information acquired today before they can do anything more. But it’s still hilarious when such absurd things become the last straw, and I hope that’s what this meme is actually about.

    1. Yep. Totally, for me, a release valve. Toddlers! They’re toddler-y! They all do these things, not just mine! It makes it easier to not get angry when mine does it.

  14. If you want to read a perfect example of how the destruction of early childhood affects development, life and the adult brain, read my blog at http://www.survivormumblog.wordpress.com
    It’s why I’m such a huge fan of JL and gentle parenting – I know what happens if it’s done wrongly!

    1. Gosh you have been through a lot, so unfair. I respect your resilience and motivation to not ever repeat with your own baby. Big hugs. x

  15. Hi yes I would not usually think of taking a pic of my child in distress but I actually can’t help laughing at little when he has a tiny tantrum (he’s not yet 1). Certainly it can be funny sometimes but I’d be very reluctant to post it on the Web or try to distract him mid wail. My partner does this and after reading your posts I have to tell him not to

  16. Nicely said. I agree with you. In fact it is so obvious to me that I don’t understand why others don’t agree with us! 25 years ago, I birthed my only child. He is great person and a great man. I am so proud of the person he is. Since birthing him however, I have been unable to watch movies or tv shows that involve a child being hurt, teased, bullied, tortured or anything else along these lines. These themes are not entertaining. I firmly believe that our society has become too desensitized to these things and that desensitization has led to an increase in the violence so many young people endure these days.

  17. Madinstan says:

    LOVE this article and most of the comments. As a child I was horribly disrespected, dismissed, neglected and abused. It continues to affect me (partly due to the fact that my mother is still extremely critical and unreasonable). I made a point to tell my children every day I loved them, and also hugged them ALOT. They’re adults, and I still do. I was determined not to make them feel the way I had.

  18. I love this article. One of the issues I see as a mother is toddlers who are allowed to do whatever they want and treated as if they are the boss of everything that happens in the household. To me they are crying out for boundaries but instead mothers give in to every tantrum, every cry, every request. To those mothers it is out of love. I presume. Otherwise it’s just lazy parenting because it is hard to not give in. However, as a psychiatrist I worry for this generation of children. There is value in having faith in your child. Knowing they can tolerate a degree of frustration, distress, disappointment. That seems harder to teach.

    1. Thank you, Sandra, and I agree completely. That’s why I focus most of my work with parents on setting limits clearly, confidently and respectfully.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I couldn’t possibly explain how much this article impacted me down to my very soul after I had to idly stand by as the court system manhandled my children with an absolute reckless disregard for their feelings or emotions … as if they were lifeless objects rather than beautiful, young and innocent individuals.

  20. I sooo agree!!! Not only once i asked myself when i saw on youtube with the title “Funny…” animals or babies that were scared, sad or even crying…. why does anybody find that funny!?! I hope that this article opened eyes and minds.

  21. Love your work. I am lucky enough to not associate with people who don’t respect their young children but I have never liked it. Somehow it always seemed self-evident to me that babies and toddlers are just as ‘equal’ and deserving of respect as any adult. I was the youngest with a sister 14 years older than me and have the odd painful memory of being laughed at as a child. It stays with you.

  22. Lili Trueba says:

    Hi Janet,

    Could you offer me some insight on how to how to manage my child’s anxieties once I start going back to work now that the lockdown has been lifted?

  23. How can I work on unintended laugh like reaction? I’ll state clear I don’t find these things funny. I always comfort and verbally validate and name the emotions offering closeness and love. But like this equivalent if a nervous laugh or watching a horror movie nervous laugh (but not nervous) bubbles out of my mouth before I can stop myself during occasional levels of high distress (example today my two year old was playing with a toy another kid came to play and he was not having it not angry but the full look right at me for help pout then big cry) while I say oh baby that’s rough she wants to play with the toy too and offer well received hugs im just awash with guilt for the initial laughteresque sound I made. What’s up with that. It wasnt funny i genuinely felt bad my baby was sad and was hoping he’d play side by side but accepted loved and offered alternatives (you can both play with the toy or we can find another toy) and felt a little bad that sharing didnt happen naturally so he got his emotions hurt. I’m just venting at this point. How do I work on this.

    1. Adding for more understanding same laugh bubbled up when he was nervous meeting santa. He immediately wanted up into our arms, was not made to sit on his lap, we reminded about santa and ho ho ho eventually we re approached for a hello and highfive which he was okay with. He was very happy to meet santa and kept talking about it so I feel i did well respecting his initial fear reaction and not forcing him into tears or lap sitting but still the first reaction while lifting him up was that laugh

  24. I don’t think I ever disagree with the philosophy or principle shared in your posts, but I find the tone, and that of many parenting accounts, alienating. Theory is easy, practice is not.

    I also have a strong dislike of any kind of prank on children, and indeed it is unfortunately radical in our society to show respect to babies and children.

    But reading this post, and the comments, there is a lot of righteousness, which never leaves room for dialogue or learning. This post leaves very little if any room for improvement or repair.

    Parenting posts should be empowering, not shaming. The tone should not be ‘wow, how could you not know/do this, and you’ve really messed your kid up irreparably’.

    Advice like this is very disconnected not only from people’s lived realities (poverty, lack of support, etc.), but also disconnected from understandings of manifestations of attachment.

    If one has the inner, social and financial resources to parent with gentleness and respect, and to write about it, that is a privilege that should be reflected in the knowledge being shared.

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