The Most Powerful Way to Love a Child

I’m a hugger. Perhaps overly so, if that’s possible. I was reminded of my demonstrative tendencies recently when my 14-year-old’s tribe of buddies arrived at our home, each expecting his customary warm embrace from me. It was only slightly awkward when two boys walked in that I didn’t know as well. We chuckled a little as I went ahead and hugged them anyway, and they seemed okay with it. You really couldn’t ask for a sweeter bunch of guys.

Offering hugs to greet, say goodbye, or express gratitude or affection will probably always be my go-to, but I’ve learned a far more profound way to connect with young children that I highly recommend. It’s simply seeing them — seeing into their hearts and souls through the lens of our unconditional acceptance. It’s especially powerful when kids are struggling or their behavior is defiant, aggressive, or otherwise disagreeable.

Connecting soul to soul with our children comes easily in the good times when we’re sharing a laugh or perhaps appreciating their latest triumph, when we might lock eyes and quietly acknowledge: “Wow, that was so hard for you, but you did it all yourself.” (That response tends to be much more encouraging than a static “Good job!” stamp of approval, because it feels more intimate and genuine.)

Far more challenging for us is to see our children when they need the reassurance of our connection most – when their feelings or behaviors aren’t so pretty and might even trigger emotional reactions in us. But it is in these uncomfortable, painful and, sometimes, shameful moments that I believe our children have the most acute need to feel seen and accepted. If they were able to articulate this wish, they might request:

Just for a moment see me…

With soft, receptive eyes

With openness, interest, and a desire to understand

With patience

In my frustration, aggression, rage, jealousy, failure, sadness, while you set and hold limits on my behavior

With trust that it’s okay for me to feel whatever I feel

With unconditional acceptance, love, and if at all possible, like

With a perspective so clear that it cuts through the haze of your anger, annoyance, sadness, pity, guilt, fear, resentment, or other concerns, because if I have to worry about you, I can’t share me…

Notice the curiosity in my limit-testing, the innocence in my defiance, the fear in my aggression.

Recognize that my impulses have gotten the better of me. I’ve lost self-control and need your help, guidance, protection.

Accept all these unpleasant sides of me that don’t make you proud, realizing that underneath all of them is fear that I’m bad and will lose you.

Will we always be able to be accepting and nonjudgmental? Of course not. We are not saints. These suggestions are not must or always, but rather an ideal to strive toward. Again, we won’t be perfect, but committing just a little to accepting rather than judging our children goes a long way in fostering emotional security and resilience. Seeing takes only a mindful moment, but it can make a lifetime of difference in nurturing parent-child relationships.

My own father could not have been kinder or more unconditionally loving. He always told me how beautiful and wonderful I was and gave me an abundance of kisses and hugs. However, for reasons of his own that I eventually came to understand (I’m certain he did the best he could), he never seemed to actually see me. I had the vague sense growing up that he didn’t really know me at all, and that he might even have difficulty distinguishing me from my three sisters. Objectively, I knew this couldn’t be the case, but I was left with the feeling that I was not really anyone to him – that we were adoring, affectionate strangers to each other. This may be why later in life I got caught up in seeking endless validation.

My experience with my father might also be at least part of the reason Magda Gerber’s parenting approach struck such a deep chord in me. Through Magda I learned the power of observation. I learned that to see clearly meant putting aside my personal hornet’s nest of feelings, concerns, and projections so that I could discover and connect with my child. In Blue Sky Thinking I describe seeing my three month old daughter for the very first time. In that moment, my feelings of failure as a new mother were overshadowed by hope. Seeing my daughter was an indescribably precious gift to both of us.

Children will sometimes express to us their need to feel seen by saying something like, “I’m going to hit Sally.” It gives them a great sense of relief and security when we can meet their gaze with acceptance and calmly respond, “Ah, thank you for letting me know you might feel like hitting Sally. I’ll always try to be there in time to keep both of you safe. Please let me know if you feel the urge so I can help.”

Or when they tell us they don’t like the baby and we make eye contact, nod, and acknowledge, “I hear that. Wow, that certainly makes a lot of sense. I always want you to tell me those things.” Our choice of words doesn’t really matter. Gently seeing does.

When parents request my help, whether in person, via message or during a phone consultation, their issues are often alleviated by simply making the effort to see their children a tiny bit more. It can be so easy to get stuck in setting limits, reiterating rules, explaining why our children shouldn’t do such-and-such, or why we need them to do this, that and the other. Seeing our child provides us with the perspective we need to be able to understand what drives their challenging behaviors, and the practice of seeing can actually prevent them from happening in the first place.

Hugs rock, but feeling seen is feeling loved.

For a deep and complete understanding of your child and their behavior, please check out my No Bad Kids Master Course.

And I share more in my books, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame



(Photo by Lance Shields on Flickr)


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

  1. Dear Janet,

    You have taught me a lot in this article and i cant thank you for you exist. I am a mom of 5 terrific kids and have been trapped into forming idealistic families, parents and children. I was wrong and i have a tinge of guilt creeping inside of me until i saw your website and read a lot about your principles and Magda’s.

    I just simply want to thank you for i have something to push me to be “seeing” and “accepting” and struggling to become a better parent each moment of my life.

    1. You are so welcome, Linnda, and thank you for sharing! It sounds to me like you are doing an excellent job (5 terrific kids… Wow!). I also love that you recognize that this is a lifelong learning process, which means we get to leave the past in the past and keep moving forward, learning and growing and realizing new things about ourselves and our children. The beauty in this perception is that we have the incentive to stay intellectually engaged (there’s seldom a dull moment!). I wish you continued joy in your journey!

  2. Very true. I guess that might be why i’ve always had a problem with statements like “you’re my son/daughter, of course i love you” because whilst it might make perfect sense from the parents point of view, from the childs it might leave you with a bit of a hollow feeling. But what about me as a person? Would you love/like me if we werent related? What does this relationship mean if regardless of either our behaviors we still say we love each other because thats what we should do? It made me annoyed as a child because “im your mother” felt more like a burden, an agreement in an emotional contract that i was never asked whether i wanted to sign. I think “Im your mother so i am RESPONSIBLE for you, but i love you because i know you” would have sat with me better! I wasnt the easiest child to rear, i can see now, but i wish my mother had been able to see me more for who i was rather than just seeing all the crazy behaviors.

    1. Thank you for sharing all these insights, Rhiannon. You are very perceptive.

  3. What a wonderful reminder! Thank you, Janet. I am so thankful you share your wisdom with us.

    I have a question about being present during caretaking activities. My almost three year old is still in diapers. After he is wiped on the changing table he likes to have time to touch himself. I’m completely comfortable with that and of course allow him. However, I’m not quite sure what to do (just stand there? Look away?), and how long to allow him to do it (especially if we don’t have anywhere we need to be). Your thoughts?

    1. Thanks, Amber!

      Hmmm… I don’t see it as your responsibility to make that time for him in the middle of a diaper change. Could he explore in the bathtub instead? I wouldn’t rush him through, but I would calmly acknowledge something like, “That penis is very interesting, isn’t it?” while you move forward with changing his diaper. “Okay, now here’s a fresh diaper…” If he complains, then let him know (with eye contact) that you see he’s disappointed, but he’ll have lots of time to explore his body in his bath (or, if there’s another time… then, too).

      1. Thanks for your response, Janet! I think I get confused about where responsibility lies sometimes. Thanks for clearing that up for me and for the great advice.

  4. I just printed the “Just for a moment see me” section and have it posted on my fridge. Thank you for this reminder today on how, I believe, we all want to be loved and seen.

  5. Janet, I feel that this post touches the very essence of your parenting approach. This one is a true jewel in my collection of parenting wisdom. Wow!

  6. It inspired me to open my eyes and be the safe abode for my children when they feel disconected.

  7. I certainly needed this reminder today. I somehow can feel that my son does not really think that he makes me happy cos I only say it when things are good. He acts maturely more than I do as I am struggling with some “homesickness” issues. I’ve always believed in Magda Gerber’s methods but I still find it hard to find the right words to say when my limits are being pushed or when he is showing me his accomplishments.

    For example, when he is showing me his drawing and I just couldn’t figure what he drew, I always find myself asking, “What is this that you drew?” But then I feel like it’s making him feel that I don’t understand what he drew.

    And today, he told me that he said the word “Fuck” at school. He just turned 4. I replied, “Oh no but you can’t use that word.”
    I don’t know how else to say it. But after reading this article, do you think it would be okay to say “I wonder why you said it, but thanks for letting me know.” ?

  8. Heather Razzak says:

    Dear Janet,

    Every time I read your books, articles or listen to your podcasts I feel so emotional and yet at the same time so excited to try a new learner skill or just to simply observe my children. I have a 1 and 3 year old at home, and find most days very challenging, but this article like all your others inspires me and gives me hope that I am doing the right thing with my kids. Thank you for all your guidance and support!



    1. Hi Heather! You are so welcome. “Excited to try” and “inspires and gives me hope” are the best response I could ever ask for. Thank you for being so encouraging and supportive!

  9. This was such a wonderful article! I truly resonate with the way you are bringing voice to the voiceless. Young children really need advocating for, especially when it comes to their behavior and interpreting that hidden message. Thank you for articulating their need so well. I am certainly sharing this one!

      1. Thanks Janet,
        This is a very interesting and empowering article. I have a 2.5yr old who resorts to pushing in certain social interactions. I find it incredibly stressful. She has amazing language and often talks about the interactions before or after. It happens a lot with one particular (close) friend. Previously the before chat I’ve said “oh we don’t want to push xx over, that will make her Sad and/or she might get hurt” upon recommendation from daycare about how they deal with pushing, dialing up the feelings of the other child. However I will try to adjust my response as above.

        After the interaction she will often talk about it if the person’s name comes up, sometimes weeks or months later. I really don’t know how to respond and it drives me crazy (internally) reliving it. Any suggestion on what to do/say?

  10. Hugging says a lot that words can’t and kids love the affection you show them. Great article.

  11. Janet,

    I found your book and blog when my son was about a year old and RIE really resonated with me and was much like how I already was and wished to parent. So, first, thank you for your continual wisdom and advice. Every post gives me new “tools” in my parenting tool box to help my kids grow.

    I now have a very verbal and sweet 2year 2 month old boy and a 1 month old little girl. As expected with the big changes (we moved homes, childcare, and baby sister came all within 2 months) my 2 year old has been testing more and showing us his uneasiness. He’s been so sweet with his new sister and
    I couldn’t have expected a better transition, but he’s been emulating his sisters cries for attention and just “testing” our boundaries (likely as though saying “pay attention to me like you used to”).

    I feel like I’ve been trying to give as much one on one with him as I can and when he’s having a rough time telling him I’m here for him and seeing what I can do to help him in that moment. But that often turns into him telling me what he wants, then in his turmoil changing again what he wants and often ends in me saying “it looks like you’re having a hard time, it’s ok to let it out. I’ll be here if you need a hug or snuggles when you’re ready.” Which works now, when I’m on maternity leave and it’s ok if we’re 20 minutes late to where we’re going. But I want to be sure I’m fostering the best way to transition because this may not always be the case. Am I wrong to try and give some autonomy in some of these times? I feel like it’s a cry to want to control something since so much has changed, so try and give him some control back, but if it doesn’t seem to help I let him know it looks like he’s having trouble and take control. (My husband agrees with the respectful parenting and is a great dad, but he definitely doesn’t have as much patience…. when hubby is starting to get frustrated I usually intervene and sometimes get a comment from my husband how he has me wrapped around his finger since I let him do some of his “stalling” actions). My son has been very attached to me -vs- my husband for the months leading up to and now first month of daughters life. I don’t know if this is because I’m not giving him enough…. or if it’s because he sees that I see him better than my husband.

    We have nightly talks about his day as we snuggle before bed and if it’s been exceptionally rough day or night I be sure to tell him it’s hard with all the changes that have happened and it’s ok if he needs to let it out and that I love him so so much and always will no matter what. Is this the right thing to be saying? What are other good statements to say after the fact and in the moment of a “hard” situation?

    Sorry such a long comment. I’m trying to see my son and help my husband see him too and just feeling like I’m failing somehow, or not giving our daughter enough of me in trying to help her brother.

    Any and all guidance or words of encouragement welcomed!!

  12. My 3.5 year old girl is going trough some extremely difficult period, as her baby brother arrived a month ago. She is not acting like herself at all. And I sit with her and talk to her gently how I see her pain,, and I really do, it literally hurts me to see her like that… But she ignores me… When I talk to her how I understand her pain she shows no reaction at all, in fact most of the times she avoids eye contact.
    Is this normal, or is it that she is not really feeling my loving presence?

  13. Fiana Bakshan says:

    Hi Janet,
    Our 3.5 year old has had some major adjustments as of late. We had a baby 2.5 months ago and he’s now home from school (due to COVID) after being in full time daycare/preschool since he was 7 months old. So this has been a time of change for him to say the least and we are seeing some changes in his behaviour.
    One issue adding to this is that he has refused to take naps over the last few weeks. He previously used to nap every day for 2 hours. Every time we try putting him for a nap he comes out numerous times and just laughs when we walk him back to his room. It’s become a real struggle and he is definitely picking up on and feeding off our frustration (I sometimes lose my superhero cape!). In concept, I have no problem with him dropping a nap and I know it’s age appropriate to do that, but he seems to get really tired as the day goes on and we see that reflected in his mood. He at times even tells us that he should have had a nap today and can we remind him to nap tomorrow.
    Is this something that we should let him regulate himself or is this something we can and should insist on? If so, what are some tools you can suggest to encourage him to have some rest?
    We have tried giving him the choice of napping or reading books/other quiet activities in his room but he insists that he doesn’t want quiet time.
    Thank you so much for your advice. We often refer to your guidance in our approach to parenting.

  14. Bill Reitter says:

    Did you ever read “Love” by Leo Buscaglia? The famous professor from USC who hugged all his students and the only professor to each about the importance of expressing affection. The University refused to pay him because it was not an accredited course. It became one of the most popular courses ever taught there and that is why he wrote the book, LOVE. He couldn’t believe he got the copyright for “Love”. No one had ever written about it in this way!

    1. Bill Reitter says:

      He subtitled his remarkable little red book: A Warm And Wonderful Book About The Largest Experience In Life.

  15. komal raichandani says:

    I am struggling with my 10 year old’s obsession for Freefire and Call of duty. would you be able to help. we dont want to give it but dont know what is the right thing to do

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