Cutting the Cutesy With Our Kids

Stepping into our children’s shoes (or booties) in order to see their point-of-view helps us to empathize, meet their needs, foster healthy self-worth and a secure attachment.

Sensitive observation and reminding ourselves to wait a moment before intervening are effective ways to do that, and sometimes the insights we gather are reinforced by adult experiences that demonstrate to us first-hand the way kids are commonly treated. Helene shared such a story:  

Hi Janet,

I wanted to share this experience with someone who would understand fully what I mean: you!

I’ve been participating in a morning workout (bootcamp) for the past few weeks. A group of regulars get together in a park, and our trainer J, a low key guy in his late 20’s, has us do laps, squats, push-ups and the like. He doesn’t talk a lot, just gives simple, clear instructions, makes a few comments throughout to correct someone’s form, but keeps it matter-of-fact. In terms of encouragement, he’ll offer a “hang in there” from time to time, and at the end he tells us to give ourselves a round of applause. That’s about it.

I don’t think that 20-something guy would imagine he’d be a great parenting model, but he is, and it’s something I only realized in his absence…

The other day, J was sick, and we had a sub, a young woman, early 30s, with a very different style. As we walked up at 6am, she started by telling us she wanted us to work as a team and had us introduce ourselves to each other and shake hands. Then, as we proceeded with the exercises, she would repeat “come on” and “good job” every few seconds. At the end of every single exercise as we recuperated, she would remind us to “hydrate”.

She kept trying to get some enthusiasm out of us, “how are you feeling guys?”, “you’re doing awesome”. She also kept differentiating between the “advanced people” who could do an exercise one way, and the “others” who could do it another way.

When she went as far as singling out one of the participants by saying, “See how well he’s doing, he’s almost done, come on guys”, I thought to myself: “That’s it! What are we, toddlers?”

And there’s the rub. I immediately thought of RIE and of the struggle I’ve had with some relatives and other adults being relentlessly “on” my son at the park or while playing at home. Basically, they talk and interact with him exactly like this woman.

Thanks to RIE, your blog and recommendations, I have seen the immense value of standing back and letting my son do his thing without these constant interruptions. The other day, I really felt like I was in a toddler’s shoes, and the only thing I wanted to say to that woman was to go fly a kite (or something less polite).

And I’m sure that’s how a lot of toddlers must feel when they’re patronized in this way, forced to “socialize”, congratulated for the simplest tasks, taught a “valuable lesson” at every opportunity, compared to others, and expected to perform to make adults feel good about themselves for being “good teachers”.

Being used to RIE’s respectful approach to parenting, I’ve noticed my son has grown quite “allergic” to this type of intervention from an adult. He has already learned to set his boundary when other adults (grandparents for example) try to tell him what to do at the park, or do something for him, or grab him without warning. He will often send them away with a vehement “Noooo”.

Ok, I wish he said it in a nicer voice, but deep down, I’m really happy that he can set his boundaries in this way.

So from now on, every time I might be tempted to intervene or be a little too invasive with my son at the playground or elsewhere, I will remember my trainer J and his annoying sub…

Have a wonderful weekend Janet, thanks for letting me share.


Helene is the French mom of two-year-old Pablo, living in Los Angeles. Her blog, French Foodie Baby, chronicles her journey in the nurturing and expanding of her son’s tastebuds and love of life through good food. It includes baby and family cuisine recipes as well as musings on parenting, cooking, and the many life lessons learned in the kitchen and at the table.


(Photo entitled “fishlips” is by epicture’s (more off than on) on Flickr)


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

  1. monica ryan says:

    Hey Janet!

    I have a question on being cutesy and I’d love your thoughts on it!

    During our “undivided attention time” together with my 16 month old girl, I worry that I am too enthuasiastic! She seems really happy with it and my priority is to always acknowledge her feelings first if she is ever upset, but the rest of the time I like to express my gratitude and sportcast enthusiastically. I always try to watch ‘good job’ or praising judgementally. I just worry about being too cutesy! I have read about “over praising” in different places and I try to avoid judgemental praise as such and stick to gratitude/sportscasting/respectful two way communication. Since I have really paid attention during our undivided attention time together and I have really mastered the ho-hum attitude from the ‘toddler discipline’ section, I have noticed she has been really cooperative with me and our relationships is great! (from my point of view anyway!)

    This must sound like a strange question, but I have a niggling fear of being ‘too enthusiastic’ with her in case it isn’t beneficial for her on some level!

    Can you make any sense of my question? I wish I could articulate my worry better!

    If it makes no sense, can you give me some thoughts on a way to express my joy with her in a way that isn’t overpraising?

    Sorry for the very confusing question!

    1. Hi Monica! I’m sure your relationship IS great and I think it’s wonderful that you are being so mindful. Since you have a “niggling fear”, you might want to check in with yourself about a couple things…. First, do you feel totally genuine when you speak to her? Or are you trying to take these experiences up a notch, rather than trusting that the real you is “enough” to be encouraging to her? Remember that she can be totally engaged, fulfilled, happy, and feel your love without smiling or laughing. She wants/needs a relationship with the authentic you, not just your upbeat side. 🙂

      The other thing I would look at is whether your enthusiastic reflections on her play are shifting her focus to you and being slightly interruptive.

      If neither of these things are happening, I wouldn’t give it another thought. It’s lovely that you are so adoring of your toddler! Enjoy! And I’m glad to hear that everything’s going so well.

  2. That Really helped! I love clarity!!!

    Yes! I can definitely see where I’m interrupting her!

    And I’m so happy because you’ve helped me realise being enthusiastic is me being authentic!

    Also I just wanted to add that the number one reason I am such a happy person is because I always always always acknowledge my feelings (and hers) whenever painful feelings need to be processed. Processing my darkest feelings through acknowledging them has brought me endless happiness! How wonderful empathy is!

    Thank you For your inspiring articles about respect and empathy! I’ve learned so much about self respect and respect for others!

    Love Monica

    1. You’re so welcome, Monica! Thank you for your kindness and sharing this very crucial piece:

      “Also I just wanted to add that the number one reason I am such a happy person is because I always always always acknowledge my feelings (and hers) whenever painful feelings need to be processed. Processing my darkest feelings through acknowledging them has brought me endless happiness! How wonderful empathy is!”

      You nailed it! (And that was unquestionably authentic enthusiasm!)

  3. Hi Janet!

    First of all I would like to thank you for the aproach you show on parenting. It’s very helpful.

    I have a doubt that’s related to your entry of today. I’m a mother of a six month old baby boy and for the last weeks he has being discovering the movement of rolling and staying with his tummy down. This he does very well but he doesn’t know how to roll over and stay with his tummy up again. I really don’t know how to help him. He feels stuck and frustrated without knowing how to roll up.

    I will stay with him and I will tell him what he is doing without cheering or praising and in the end I’m the one that rolls him over after telling him that’s what I’m going to do.

    I don’t want to let him cry out of feeling helpless and frustrated and I just don’t know what to do to help him.

    Have you any idea on how to manage this situation? I don’t know how to handle it and I also feel helpless when I see him feeling like that. I know that he is going to learn how to do this and a lot of new things, its just that between now and then I’m feeling lost…

    I would appreciate if you could help us. From Madrid, I send you a sincere thank you.

    1. Hi Mada! Please don’t worry at all, this is a stage that happens with most naturally developing babies and they all pass through it. Just acknowledge the feelings of discomfort, “You rolled to your tummy and you seem to be getting tired in this position. Would you like me to pick you up and give you a break?” I would pick him up rather than just turning him over, because then he will not be waiting for you to “fix” him each time. If he seems to want more playtime, place him down on his back again.

      Lisa Sunbury shared a post and video about this on her blog:

      Cheers to you in Madrid! My daughter will be studying abroad there next year, so I’m excited to hear from you.

      1. Hi Janet!

        Thank you for your words! I’m really grateful for your help. That’s a great idea to pick him up and not just turn him over, it makes much sense. That was one of the things that was making me feel akward about turning him, I was feeling that it would be the natural thing that he would expect to happen each time he would get stuck.

        I’ve read the post and watch the videos you sugested and they where also very helpful, thank you!

        I wish your daughter a wonderful experience living and studying at broad!

  4. This is a wonderful post (as always).

    I find that I revert back to this “all-about-me-fix-someone’s-feelings-so-I-can-be-great” mentality when I’m especially tired and “off.” I guess because I don’t feel well, I can’t get myself out of myself and just be observant.

    I wonder what your advice would be about illness in this case. I have a long-term illness that flares up from time to time. I have been sick for 2 weeks now, and I just don’t know how long it will go on this time. I feel like a terrible mother because I just want to rest and be alone (all the time, it seems like), so dad takes over a lot more than usual. Even though the rest really isn’t helping, after dad’s turn, I step back in and then still can’t really engage, my temper is shorter, my patience really thin. I feel like I want to be alone constantly…a whole month in Aruba on a beach would be nice.

    My 20 month old son has been cranky lately, and I wonder if this is why. He was very upset when I left him with his daycare providers this morning. I tried to reassure him by giving him a hug and telling him that I would be back later, but ultimately, I felt responsible for his bad feelings. I pulled out of the parking lot, feeling terrible as usual, but then a weird thought occurred to me: “You know what – he’s very sad, but it’s not my fault.”

    Or is it? After all it’s my fault that I am leaving him there all day and that I haven’t been as engaged as I used to be. Not sure how to work that around in my mommy brain.

  5. Jessica Isles says:

    Hi Janet
    This is the first mention I’ve seen of the super cutsie, cutsie approach to kids here in the US. When arriving from the UK we couldn’t understand why adults and teachers would speak to children in a different tone of voice – all cutsie baby tone and quite loud. And, very over the top with the praise and constant interruption of play to say ‘great job’. I thought it was to help them build their confidence but I found it quite grating just to listen a little so I don’t know how the kids must feel to be in a pre – school where that is a constant. I know I sometimes go over the top with praise and encouragement because I am enthusiastic about my children’s success but they tell me when to stop. A few years ago my 5 year old son was trying something new and I was cheerleading from the sidelines. He stopped what he was doing and looked at me and said ‘How can I think when you keep talking to me?’ What I saw as encouragement and help was actually a hindrance to him!

    1. I’ve struggled for many years (35 to be exact, since our oldest son was born!) with the differences in early care approaches between the UK and the US. (I emigrated from England in 1972)

      Now I think it’s the difference between the mainstream child care (parent or other) in the US vs. many other parts of the world.

      Pikler and RIE are really non-American in philosophy and very European in their methods – so obvious since Magda Gerber and Emmi Pikler worked in/were from Hungary!

      That’s the realization I had last week. That’s why RIE/Gerber/Pikler don’t seem at all ‘strange’ to me!

      Thank goodness we have Janet and Lisa Sunbury and their blogs for encouragement and support.

      Constantly learning, constantly reflecting.


  6. Hi! Thanks for this – very useful perspective. I was wondering if you have any advice on how to talk to family members (grandparents) about how we would prefer them to interact and how we ask them to stop doing some of the things they think are helpful, but are actually quite disrespectful. Examples include, saying “you’re ok. that’s enough” when baby fusses, always asking them to perform tasks, always interrupting play, and projecting feelings/thoughts onto them. Help!

  7. I second Jonna’s question as that is something we’re facing as well (and I can only bite my tongue so hard). Any advice for handling this, preferably gracefully? 🙂

  8. I third that request! Any advice, Janet? Perhaps there’s a post on this already that I’ve missed?

  9. Hi Janet,
    I love your columns – read them regularly and recommend them often. I’m giving a presentation at an infant/toddler conference in NYC on Friday – topic is Perspective Taking. May I please use your first sentence and the accompanying picture as part of the introduction? Of course, with attribution.

    1. Yes, of course, Ellen. Thank you for asking! I hope it goes well!

  10. To dani and sophie,

    This has bothered me for a while. Some of it stems from my own control issues. But, I will never be able to control how others speak to my son. I spend the most time with him and therefore have the greatest influence. I look at these situations as teachable moments. So instead of correcting the grandparent that picks him up without asking – I will tell my son “you can say no thank you or space please.” I know over time he will be able to set this limit without me.

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