Respectful parenting differs from other approaches in several essential ways, and they all center on a pivotal and now (finally!) scientifically proven view of infants as aware, sentient, whole people. Guided by this revolutionary perception of babies as capable individuals, respectful parenting focuses on nurturing an intimate person-to-person relationship with our babies from birth.
In other words, respecting babies means we don’t wait years, months, or even days to invite them to actively participate in life and engage honestly with us. We assume our child’s receptors are active and access this channel immediately, using the same tool to build our parent-child relationship as we would to nurture all our other human relationships: communication. Real, authentic communication that is as receptive and responsive as it is directive and explanatory. More often than not, the results are astounding.
Experts and scientists agree that we should talk to our babies, but what is often advised is actually more like talking at babies: engaging them in one-sided games, singing songs, stimulating and performing while encouraging babies to coo, smile, or laugh in response.
The most important stuff is left out – the meaningful dialogue, observation, and listening, the back and forth that makes our babies and toddlers feel understood, included, and valued. This is the language of bonding, calm words that help prepare them for the next “surprise” in their overwhelmingly novel environment; acknowledgments and shared observations that guide, validate, and empower them as they navigate their world.
These ideas define respectful parenting and often confound conventional thinkers. Babies can’t understand our words, so why bother explaining things to them? And they can’t talk, so how absurd is it to consider asking a baby a question?! Well, no, they can’t understand or respond if they’ve never been asked real questions or exposed to words used in context. That would be impossible.
Janna shared an enlightening experience:
“I just had the most amazing experience with my 20 month old son. Being a working parent, weekends are more laid back than work mornings when we get up with clear purpose and momentum. The holidays mean a disruption in routine. Though I think I do a good job telling my son what is planned ahead in the day, this morning I learned how crucial this communication is, that he is really listening and needs clear information.
It started off like a normal, relaxed Saturday, except we were going to a holiday function. Without really thinking about it, I told my son that we had to get ready to go. From that moment on he became clingy. I finally paused, confused, and asked him what was wrong. I asked if he was feeling sad (while wondering if this question even made sense to him, since we’d never discussed feelings.) He said, “Yah.” I asked why. He rested his head sweetly on my shoulder and said, “Mommy. Bye.” He said it a couple of times before it dawned on me that he thought I was leaving for work.
It’s not that he is sad on work/school days. Most days he hits the ground running at school and he actually pushes me toward the exit door. Today, though, he had gotten mixed messages from me and was confused about our day. Was it a work day or a play day? He didn’t have certainty.
When I realized what was bothering my son today, I sat with him and explained our day in detail. When he understood, his whole demeanor relaxed. Usually we talk about physical occurrences (what happened…oh, you fell…yah?…and hit your head there…yah?), but this is the first time we’ve had a two-way communication using words about feelings. I am amazed by the effectiveness of this simple practice of acknowledgement and communication. It feels earth shattering as a mother.
Thank you for teaching what you teach and giving such eloquent words to the natural instincts many mothers have but don’t always trust.”
When I asked Janna if I could post her story, she replied:
“I’d be glad for you to share. It was so shocking to ask him a question for which I wasn’t really sure he would have the capacity to comprehend verbally and to get a clear answer. It was so reaffirming that this approach works. I’m still just kind of shaking my head in wonder. Here’s to a New Year! Thanks again!”
Respectful communication changes everything, and it’s never too late to begin.
I share more about respectful parenting in my compilation: Elevating Child Care
and Lisa Sunbury’s article, Entering into a Conversation with your Baby
(Photo by M&R Glasgow)