As adoring parents, encouraging our children should come naturally, right? Not for me. Sure, I knew how to help, coax, cheer my kids on, and I assumed those actions were the essence of encouragement. But through child specialist Magda Gerber, I learned that what actually encourages our children is far more subtle. To my surprise, most of her advice was the exact opposite of what my instincts were telling me to do. Magda taught me that providing true and lasting encouragement is about fostering self-motivation and inner-directedness. And since I had always felt lacking in these personal qualities myself (and wanted something better for my kids), this perspective not only made complete sense, it also resonated with me deeply. Here are some of Magda’s ideas that I’ve tried to practice with my own kids:
1. Don’t try. Instead: Trust.
Encouraging kids is not as active a process as I had once thought. It’s basically about facilitating rather than doing. Children feel our presence and sense our emotions and intentions, so our trust in them as capable, unique, evolving individuals is the most valuable support we can give them.
2. Don’t cheerlead (“You can do it!”), praise (“Good job! Good girl!”), or coax (“Come on… just give it a try”). Instead: Calm yourself and reflect what you see (“You are working hard on that. It’s really difficult.” Or, “You did it!”).
My impulse is to assure my child (and reassure, and then reassure again) that I’m in her corner, rooting her on and 100% believing in her. But what I’ve learned is that children are magnificently aware beings that feel more genuinely supported when we don’t try to push or sell it. I’ve also realized that my impulse to actively demonstrate support for my kids mostly stems from my own discomfort with the possibility they might fail or become frustrated. In other words, my child doesn’t need this feedback as much as I need to give it to her. That was a big Aha for me. So, calming myself is the best way to keep the air clear of pressure and urgency that might make a simple task or struggle seem of paramount importance.
3. Don’t direct or fix. Instead: Be patient and fully attentive, providing only the most minimal direction needed for children to be able to accomplish self-chosen tasks themselves.
(I share details in 5 Best Ways to Raise Problem Solvers)
4. Don’t sympathize or attempt to actively comfort frustration. Instead: Allow, accept, and acknowledge feelings.
Sara shared her experience helping out in her son’s kindergarten classroom (which illustrates points #3 and #4):
I’m in my Dylan’s classroom on Mondays – the kids come to my table to do a little drawing/writing exercise, and I set the intention before each group arrives at my table that I want each kid to feel seen and heard by me… I try to carefully acknowledge each of them when they’re frustrated with what they’re doing or happy with their outcome, and it’s so gratifying watching their little faces light up. One little girl was trying to draw a shirt on her person and was having a hard time… She asked me to draw it for her and I told her I could see how hard she was trying and that I’d give her my full attention while she kept at it… She gave me the most pleased smile, drew her shirt and beamed… When I saw her the following week, she came up to me, held my hand and said she wanted to draw again with me. Melt.
(There’s more advice about handling frustration in my podcast: How to Help a Frustrated Child)
5. Don’t project your own agenda or urge to get it done and done “right.” Instead: Let go and enjoy the surprises.
Betsy’s story illustrates:
If I had shown my two year old what to do with this puzzle he found at grandma and grandpa’s house, I would have missed the beautiful moment when he looked up at me to explain, “I’m lining all butterflies up to dance.”
Thank you for being the voice in the back of my head, constantly reminding me to step back and let my babies find their own way.
Thanks so much to Sara and Betsy for sharing your stories (and photo)!
I share more in my book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available in Spanish)
(Thumbnail photo by Jude Keith Rose)
Another fabulous piece, Janet. I’m going to be meeting with a group of RIE parents in Tel Aviv in December and I’m thinking maybe we’ll use this article as a basis to share experiences in trying to implement these important approaches. Hats off to you once again!
Thank you, Ruth!
Love this post! What do you suggest we say when our toddlers become verbal and say things like, “I can’t pull this shirt off because it’s too tight”, but we know that they can do it they just give it a genuine try. Also, one of my son’s often says, “You do it this time Mommy and I’ll do it next time.” Thoughts on how to respond? I would prefer to be able to simply give them their clothes to put on or take off as physically I know they can do it, but being toddlers means that they are distracted from the task and find it unimportant, or simply prefer Mommy to help so that I’m involved with them. (This post has taught me to add to my rhetoric the idea of saying that I’ll be there to watch them try- that will hopefully take care of the need to have Mommy involved.)
Good question, I’m often stumped in this situation too so would love to hear Janet’s thoughts on it.
On a different note, I wanted to add that I absolutely adore the podcasts and hope you will continue producing them on a weekly (if not more often :)) basis. I find them and your audiobooks immensely helpful! Please keep up the wonderful important work. You have done wonders for my relationship with my child as I know you have done with countless others.
Thanks, Jessica! I would take your child’s words at face value, even if you know that he’s capable. So when he says, “I can’t pull this shirt off because it’s too tight”, I would reply, “Hmm… you’re having a lot of trouble taking that shirt off… ” And then leave it at that. If he asks for help… “Sure, I’d be glad to help…” and then go close and wait a moment… If he still needs help, do the most minimal thing.. first try giving him a verbal direction like, “Maybe if you bend your elbow a bit.” Then if that’s not enough and frustration mounts or you need to get going, maybe stretch one side of shirt ever so slightly so he can do the rest. Children will sometimes “fake” these stuggles because our less patient responses have created little power struggles. So, I would back off and give him the benefit of the doubt.
This post might be helpful to you: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/09/when-children-cant-do-it-and-how-to-help/ And I share advice on this topic in my podcast episode, How to Help a Frustrated Child: https://soundcloud.com/janet-lansbury/how-to-help-a-frustrated-child
Sara, thank you so much for your kind words about the podcasts! I am thrilled you’re finding them helpful!
Hi Janet, before i read your post, i was doing these mistakes of cheerleading or fixing this issue that i thought is not right but actually it was correct as per my 11mo baby boy. After reading your post(i’m becoming a big fan of yours and your advices :)); i actually implemented few things such as “breathe and observe” and to my utter happiness, i could enjoy each moment. This is such an eye opener and I’ve used your post(s) in my blog (hope you dont mind). Its here(https://sunayana18.wordpress.com/2015/11/12/motherhood-and-how-to-tips/) and if you think I need to remove it, please let me know ill remove with no issues. Many thanks as always. 🙂
Hi Su! What a lovely post and website! Thank you so much for your endorsements. “I could enjoy each moment…” is the best feedback I could ever hear. Keep up the wonderful work!
Thank you for this post. Self confidence is something that my 5 year old is struggling with, more so now that he is comparing and realizing that he may not be the best at everything. He constantly needs reassurance that what he is doing is “cool”, funny, or good, from his teachers, friends, and me. It’s non-stop Watch Me, all day long. I always put the question back on him, “do you think its cool?” or acknowledge that it he has worked really hard to complete something and it shows…but it just doesn’t seem to be enough. Do you have any advice or resources on how to build confidence and inner-directedness? Thank you, Jayme K.
I just came across your website and I am so amazed. Thank you for the wonderfully helpful content. My 4-year old son goes to a Montessori school in NYC and although his teachers say that they emphasize the “process”, they also expect him to finish the “work cycle”. They complain to me that he doesn’t always. He’s a perfectionist and gets frustrated very easily when he can’t do something the way he envisions it. He walks away usually, and comes back when he calms down. I was very much inspired by Susan Stiffelman’s Parenting Without Power Struggles and asked his teachers last year whether they were acknowledging his feelings and empathizing with them or telling him what he should do. They said they were empathizing but somehow I was not convinced. In any case my son does not accept any verbal directions when he’s frustrated. It just breaks my heart to see how much he suffers when he’s frustrated (he’s very upset and screams). It’s not always easy for me to keep calm either in those situations. And my reaction is probably guilt driven. It just resonates more with him when I acknowledge his frustration. But I will definitely try to stay even more on the sidelines to let him figure out his own power. As I read your posts I see that this is what he needs. Anyhow, I originally wanted to ask you about your take on the Montessori education which seems to have similar goals with RIE in terms of developing self confidence and problem solving skills in children. Thanks again for the very valuable content put together in such a “real” way.
Thank you so much Janet. You are such a guiding light for me and obviously so many other parents as well. I’ve always known what kind of parent I wanted to be but wasn’t sure of the ‘how’. When I read your blog and listen to your podcasts, it’s like the path lights up clear as day, and I just feel relief and joy in the knowing that I can be the Mum I really want to be. With so much love and appreciation, for all that you do. x x x
Aww, thank you, Ailbhe! You have no idea how much I needed that boost today. Sending love straight back to you and your lucky family.
could you give more information on that: ” Don’t sympathize or attempt to actively comfort frustration. Instead: Allow, accept, and acknowledge feelings.”
What do you mean by “don’t sympathize”? For example, if your child falls and gets hurt, saying “I know it hurts” could be sympathizing? I ‘m feeling that once I get an idea of how RIE works, next moment I have no clue! We have no RIE classes in Ontario (btw Canada seriously lacks in RIE classes and books at the public library) plus English is not my first language so reading through all this is such a struggle. I’d appreciated a re-direction to an article of yours that explains more on sympathizing as opposed to accepting -I think the line is so fine between those two, but maybe I’m wrong. Thank you.
Child falls..they may or may not seem hurt. Wait to see how they feel. If they are hurt walk over calmly and listen, look. Say there’s a scrape, “ahh I see the scrape on your knee.”Perhaps suggest getting up and walking to a place where you can help them clean it. Listen, wait for calm. Give comforting child seems to want, hug, hand hold, take cues from child. “That scrape is hurting right now “. Wait listen, comfort as they need. Offer wet towel they can gently clean it themselves. Offer band aid if it’s a choice, of course if it’s necessary..put one on. Just letting them have their feelings, listening..not speaking so much shows this moment is theirs to go through. We don’t have to say much. Not bring our feelings into it is best.
Hi Janet! I feel very thankfull for your post. This is something i was searching for. I have tryed to explain what im doing to my MIL but she keeps on telling me the oposit..like you have to talk to your children all the time,be always close so they want fall atc. Now I know I cant change anything about it but i can change myself. And im trying it with your posts. Thank You Janet.
P.S. I hope that your books will be translated in more languages so they can help mothers,families,friends,…the world be better.
Please add me to your mailing list….
I have found this website and love the philosophy being taught here and would love to learn more. I’ve noticed that most of this example about this type of play is with other babies involved, so I am wondering how to apply this philosophy of non-interference when playing with my little guy when there are not other babies involved. BTW, I have the unique challenge that he is 4 months old, but 6 weeks adjusted age, as he was born at 25 weeks.
Thanks, Dave. It’s easier with one! But we’re required to trust that our baby does feel our attentive presence (science supports this), and that we don’t need to entertain or initiate engagement. Then we take cues from our baby looking at us or seeming to react to a sound he or she has heard, etc. Here’s a post and video that might be helpful to you: and video that explain: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/02/infant-play-great-minds-at-work-captured-on-video/
By the way, I would like to mention that, unfortunately, the nearest RIE class to me is about 3 hours away.