How to Enjoy a Beautiful Relationship with Your Toddler (Right Now)

One of my shining moments as a new mother was when a middle-aged woman approached me and my 15 month old daughter at a restaurant to say how much she’d enjoyed observing us delighting in each other’s company. My oldest has always had a penchant for dining out (now an avocation she would love to turn into a profession) and would rise to the occasion even as a baby. Not all kids are like that.

But if I hadn’t discovered child specialist Magda Gerber’s respectful approach to parenting, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to engage in a fulfilling, intimate relationship with a toddler. I wouldn’t have believed I could relate to a child this young as a real and present person, and I would have missed out on so much.

Through Magda I learned that we can open the door to a genuine person-to-person relationship with our baby at any time, and the sooner the better. Parenting is a taxing, difficult job, and there’s no reason to postpone the most rewarding aspect. Embracing a relationship-based approach to parenting fosters our children’s self-confidence as well as their social and emotional intelligence. Here are some of the steps that help get us there:

  • Perceive your baby as a whole person and a unique individual
  • Sensitively observe and listen rather than reacting reflexively
  • Talk to your child using respectful, “real” language
  • Share your thoughts, describe your feelings
  • Believe in the innate goodness of your child
  • Consider her perspective, sensitivities, and developmental stage
  • Remember that there’s always a reason children cry, scream, whine, meltdown, push our limits, so…
  • Be open and curious
  • Seek to understand what your child is communicating rather than judging her behavior
  • Learn how to set limits with empathy and respect
  • Allow, accept, and acknowledge all feelings
  • Above all, prioritize building a safe, nurturing, trusting relationship

Here’s the story Lila shared that inspired this post:

“I had an experience yesterday that showed me just how powerful respectful parenting is: We are traveling in France at the moment and have been off schedule — missing naps, meeting lots of people (lots of doting people speaking a foreign language), staying in new beds, not having a “yes” space, etc. My nearly- two-year-old has been taking it all relatively well, but definitely needing to test limits more than usual and having a few meltdown releases.

Last night after a long day of activities, we were having dinner at a friend’s place (first time my daughter has met them). It was a typically long French Sunday meal that started late, dragged on and involved a lot of formalities. After she had eaten a good amount, she started acting out a little and suddenly stood up from her chair.  As I cleaned her hands and helped her from the table, she reached out for me to pick her up to carry her to the potty (unusual, because she usually likes to take herself). As I lifted her, he pulled me close and said, “I’m overwhelmed.” I repeated in acknowledgment, pondering the statement. She hadn’t been acting overwhelmed, just maybe a bit sleepy. It made perfect sense given the situation, but I had never heard her use the word before, so I was quite surprised.

So I took her to the bathroom and told her we could have some quiet time, and that she didn’t have to go back to the table if she didn’t want to. We read a book together, and she then said she was done. She grabbed my neck to pull me in and gave me a big kiss, and then we went back to the table to continue eating.

What was especially remarkable was that she was in a completely different mood from then on — super social, talkative, charming, focused on her food, and gracious to the hosts. AND she actually outlasted all of us through a two hour meal — she was the last one eating!

It was so inspiring to see how her growing ability to be aware of and express her emotions — and have them honored — has such a profound impact on her well-being. Practicing the RIE approach, I have always had the general sense this is true, but last night I really saw the difference from one moment to the next. Even though we got to bed late and in yet another strange bed, she was a joy the rest of the evening and slept really well.

Thank you all for giving me the tools to be constantly learning and improving my parenting –indeed, my overall self — through these powerful relationship-based approaches to raising my child.” (RIE/ Mindful Parenting Group)

(Thank you, Lila, for sharing your story and photo!)

To learn more about RIE parenting, check out these resources:


Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

My books: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (both available on Audio)




(Photo by Simon Lim)


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

  1. Beautiful article. Just what I needed to read today.

  2. Again, I continue having epiphany moments just from reading your articles. This time it’s the shedding of my own childhood hurts through understanding what happened to me when I was a toddler. Since 1951 I’ve held a grudge against my mother for not “seeing me”…but it all dissolved away just now. I was given a different perspective which made all the difference. Yes, I was mistreated, but then I mistreated my own daughter, unkowingly. The air is clear now!
    My granddaughter will reap the benefits.
    Thank you, Janet.

  3. I assume it was a child older than 15 month old who said “I’m overwhelmed”… I think she would be somewhere between 2 and 5 years old to say that in a conscious manner?

  4. Beautifully written!!
    I totally agree with the steps you listed. Following all of them (or trying to follow them all) makes me so much in love in my baby boy as well as in parenting – the journey is full of mutual love, (self-)discovery and enlightenment.
    I am so happy to have found you, Janet, and Magda :))

  5. This is lovely, we are always looking for great things to share with our families at our childcare centre. This is wonderful.
    Well done.

  6. I read this article when my son was about 3 months old…and i always kept this in my back of my mind. we went to a huge BBQ party the other week when my son was 16 months old and naturally everyone wanted to see my son, so there was a swarm of people around him. He got overwhelmed and cried. I actually took him away from the crowd to a quiet spot where I simply allowed him to cry and I told him that it was ok to cry as much as he needed and I understand that it was so much going on and it was overwhelming. I then told him that we will stay back here until he was ready to go back to the party. At that point he stopped crying. After 5 mins of observing from afar, he was ready to join the party and was the life of the party.
    I am so thankful for this blog because I now see my son as a beautiful soul who deserves to be heard, respected and be treated as an intelligent person. I don’t see him as a “toddler.” I absolutely love our relationship.

    1. Beautiful story, M! Thank you for sharing with us.

  7. Yeah, I too believe that we should respect our baby as well. They learn from us and react on the basis of their learning.

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