Surprising Benefits of Doing Less, Observing More, and Welcoming Feelings

A parent describes experiencing a dramatic shift in her parenting perspective through the ideas Janet offers in her podcasts and books. The developmentally appropriate lens suggested by Janet and her mentor Magda Gerber has transformed this parent’s relationship with her baby. She is gaining more compassion for her child and herself, learning to regulate her emotions, feel more confident, and use her energy wisely. She’s even noticing surprising results in specific situations. For instance, by following Magda’s and Janet’s advice to do less, observe and trust her baby more, a cross-country flight she had dreaded became a “sublime” experience. Best of all, this mom reports a newfound “ability to enjoy parenthood in a way I would not have otherwise,” and that she is learning to care for her childhood self, which benefits her, her child, her marriage, and all her relationships.
Transcript of “Surprising Benefits of Doing Less, Observing More, and Welcoming Feelings”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be sharing a success story that I received that exemplifies several important aspects of the parenting approach that I teach, and describes how these ideas are benefiting this family in some surprising ways. The letter talks about trusting a baby as a capable person and accepting their feelings. In short, we could say it’s about, in my mentor, Magda Gerber’s words, doing less, observing more, enjoying most.

The sponsor for today’s episode is JLML Press, which is the company that produces this podcast and also publishes my books, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  They’re available in audio at Audible, in paperback at Amazon, and in ebook at all of your favorite ebook distributors. I’d love you to check them out and let me know what you think.

Okay, here’s the note I received:

Dear Janet, I grew up believing, and still largely believe, that I had the best childhood ever. There hasn’t been a day of my life that I didn’t know I was deeply loved and delighted in. However, I was raised in a conservative, evangelical community where spanking was the norm and sin nature was the engine behind all undesirable behavior, and the goal of parenting was to eradicate behaviors based on that behavior’s desirability to the parent. As my own faith evolved or devolved, depending, I knew what I didn’t want to perpetuate. But that alone did not give me positive alternatives and new tools. I felt like new wine in old wineskins, to borrow the analogy. I tried Attachment Parenting, but it was very overwhelming and seemed yet another impossible standard, another burden falling disproportionately on the shoulders of, in my case, the woman. How could the goal be to have a child that never cries? How can I be human and meet my own needs when I am the be-all-end-all for someone else’s needs, and sometimes multiple someone else’s?

I had read a bit about RIE during pregnancy, but so many articles just focused on: “you have to ask permission to pick up your baby and that’s ridiculous.” I missed the message. When I really dug in, it was truly a revelation. I really got into it before a cross-country flight to see my parents, and I was so concerned about how I would entertain, placate my baby for that long. Your podcast gave me all the tools and confidence I needed and helped me set appropriate expectations, not just for my baby, but for myself as well. And we had a sublime flight. I observed and let her explore and experience her surroundings, and was blown away time and time again, how long she would spend examining something as simple as the seatbelt buckle or tray table, or overhead lights.

Beyond that, it was the final piece in my faith journey because it gave me a developmentally appropriate lens through which to view my child. It has challenged me to better understand, manage and express my own needs and emotions, which, of course, makes me a better friend, spouse, coworker, and human. It has allowed me to be more compassionate. Even the conversations I had with my daughter when she was screaming in her car seat (“It sounds like you’re frustrated. Maybe you don’t like being stuck in your car seat. It’s hard to feel restricted or have to stay in our seats when we want to get out. As soon as it’s safe to do so, I’ll get you out. Until then, you can keep telling me how you feel about being in your car seat. I am a safe place for you to share your feelings, and that means I won’t be swayed off course, controlled, or angered by your feelings. You can always share them with me.”) Obviously, I’m saying this to her to reinforce it to myself. But having these little conversations has helped me regulate my own emotions and help me stay focused on the end goal, not the momentary frustration or that every-cell-in-your-body-is-screaming-to-“fix”-the-problem-when-your-baby-is-crying thing.

The difference between seeing tantrums as a behavior to punish versus seeing it as an outcry of emotion or overwhelm that is deserving of our presence, love, and compassion… that’s a paradigm shift, the positive implications of which are limitless.

You and Magda have given me such a gift: the ability to enjoy parenthood in a way I would not have otherwise been able to. And not only that but tools to care for my own childhood self and the tools to cultivate my own emotional maturity where it was lacking. This has benefited me, my child, my marriage, and all my relationships. It has also become a great way to connect with other parents. “Oh, you listen to Unruffled too?” Immediately, we’re at ease, knowing we don’t have to do “performative parenting” because we’re coming from the same philosophical starting point and won’t be judged because we aren’t running after our toddler constantly, but rather letting them explore at their own pace, navigating their own social dynamics in a safe but not micromanaged way. I could go on and on, but I feel I’m already past the point of TL;DR! Thank you again.

I am deeply touched by this note and so grateful to this parent for taking the time to share with me, especially these details, which I hope will be helpful for other parents listening.

The first thing I want to do is clarify a misconception that she brings up. I try to understand where this comes from. It’s such a common misconception that comes up all the time in various articles. It’s this idea that we are suggesting to ask permission to pick up a baby or ask permission to change a baby’s diaper. She wrote, “You have to ask permission to pick up your baby and that’s ridiculous.” And yes, it is ridiculous because a baby cannot answer that kind of question. And that’s not at all what we’re saying.

What we’re saying is to give your baby a bit of warning, to open up to them the invitation to participate in every aspect of their life. So I’m not just going to pick up the baby, I’m going to let my baby know and maybe ask if they’re ready, but not expect I’m going to get some clear answer. I am going to let my baby know, at least, “Hey, I want to pick you up now.” And I’m putting my hands out to them. “Are you ready?”

And why do I offer these questions? Not because I expect an answer, although babies do start to give answers once we’ve opened this door, but because I want my baby to know that I’m interested in their point of view. I believe they have one as a human being. From birth, they already have a perspective that’s worth considering. And I want them to know that I am interested in a relationship with this other person and that I want them to be an active participant in their own way when they’re ready. When they can. Children can’t really do that if we don’t open the door first and communicate with them with this respect and politeness. And empathy as to what that person might be feeling or thinking or ready to do right there.

As I said, I’ve thought a lot about how this misconception comes about, because it is very common. A lot of people think this about the RIE approach. And of course, they close the door on it. It’s so hard to imagine, and I remember this myself at first, it was so hard to imagine that a baby is an actual aware, sentient person. It’s so hard to see that and believe that. When someone suggests it, we only jump to what we know, which is, well, an adult’s a person, so you’re saying to treat a baby as an adult. That’s not what we’re saying at all. A baby is a baby. But because it’s challenging to accept babies as people, we jump to an extreme idea like we would expect them to act like an adult and respond in an absurd way that they cannot — giving permission for a diaper change.

A child is a person. They shouldn’t need to be treated as an adult to be treated as a person.

And as a person, we understand that they have their own unique interests that we should trust. Because we don’t know them. The only way we can know them is through one of the core practices that I recommend, which is observation, sensitive observation, noticing what our baby chooses, noticing what they’re looking at, what they’re interested in exploring. That takes us letting go of an agenda to entertain, to keep a baby constantly occupied, and ameliorate any kind of effort that may appear to be a struggle. It takes more of an open mind and believing in that baby, trusting that they are capable, that they have basic competencies. That’s what this parent does in the airplane example.

A baby’s a person with this innocent beginner’s mind and this incredible ability to learn and explore. It’s this wide-open, fresh perspective on the world. What that means is that they’re seeing everything for the first time. They don’t need a lot of entertainment. They don’t need us to wave toys or point things out to them. They are able to take in their surroundings. They have what researcher Alison Gopnik calls lantern attention. They’re taking in everything very capably, working to understand their world, exploring. They’re interested in understanding all these details that we ignore and take for granted.

The downside to that is that they’re very easily overstimulated because they’re absorbing everything without a filter, these filters that we develop as we mature. We’re less aware than a baby because of these filters. But the baby doesn’t have them so they get very overstimulated easily. And a lot of times when we do something with them, like take them on a trip, there’s all this novelty, but we want to keep them occupied, quiet on the plane, all of those things. And so we’re keeping them busy, we’re adding more and more stimulation when they’re already getting a lot.

What this parent did is she trusted. So she did less, but she says she observed and let her explore and experience her surroundings, and was “blown away time and again by how long she would spend examining something as simple as the seatbelt buckle.” Yeah, seatbelt buckles are pretty amazing if we consider seeing them for the first time and trying to figure them out, or a tray table or overhead lights. The parent had a sublime experience because she trusted her baby. She did less and she observed more and enjoyed seeing these things anew through her child’s eyes.

When we trust babies this way, what happens is that they are actually able to dictate just the right amount of stimulation for them. If we’re not adding it in, they’re not forced to take in more, and they’re going to take in just enough. So we won’t have those crying jags from overstimulation. They’re so common, especially in the first year. Gauging stimulation with our adult view is going to be difficult, and we’re going to be likely to overstimulate.

This is also why, with the RIE approach, we believe in simple toys and objects. We believe that those are the most encouraging to babies who want to learn and understand their surroundings. So, even though I know this is a small detail, just to give an example, we don’t put a mirror in their play area because they can’t understand a mirror yet. Studies show that children don’t really understand until closer to two years old that that is their reflection. So with the RIE approach, we don’t want them to be distracted by something that they can’t actually learn from. We want them to be able to feel that sense of comprehending their environment, mastering, discovering everything an object can do. That encourages them to seek more knowledge, to understand more. Instead of feeling overwhelmed that oh, there’s so much in my world that I can’t possibly understand.

So this parent’s note also mentions at the end how she trusted her child to be a capable explorer, physically, cognitively, creatively, and socially. She says, “We aren’t running after our toddler constantly, but rather letting them explore at their own pace, navigating their own social dynamics in a safe but not micromanaged way.”

What a relief that is for parents, right? We can trust that they know how to learn, that they are self-learners who will seek out enrichment in their environment. So we don’t have to be the ones to always come up with it and figure it out. And what do they need now? And what should we put there? And how do we stimulate them? How do we keep them from being bored? If you imagine really being a baby, how can you be bored? Everything around you is new and interesting and weird and different. But children do get overstimulated and overtired and will cry for that reason. And sometimes misinterpreted as boredom.

Through this practice of observation that this parent says she’s using, we’re able to see the world through our child’s eyes. That’s how we gain more empathy for our children. That’s how we understand them and feel compassion for them, understanding them better and understanding ourselves better. As this parent said, most of these ideas apply to all relationships, understanding where that other person is coming from. So as this parent said, these tools helped her to have the confidence she needed to set appropriate expectations, not just for her baby, but for herself as well, challenged her to better understand, manage and express her own needs and emotions, allowed her to be more compassionate.

Then she talks about the conversation she had with her daughter when she was screaming in the car seat. And I absolutely love this. Not that I would expect or would even suggest a parent say all of those things to a child at one time. I mean, maybe just one of those sentences, “Ah, it sounds like you’re frustrated. Maybe you don’t like being stuck in your car seat.” And maybe we would add, “I’ll get you out as soon as I can. But until then, yeah, I hear you.”

This parent said a version of that. But what I love is that she recognizes the self-talk here, because I believe it’s crucial to being able to do this huge task. This parent acknowledges the huge task of allowing and accepting and even encouraging our child to express their feelings without putting a stop to them ourselves. It’s a huge task.

And what this kind of self-talk does: “I’m a safe place. I won’t be swayed off course, controlled or angered by your feelings. You can always share them with me” is it helps bolster us and helps focus our intention on something helpful. It’s a relationship dynamic that will carry us through our child’s adulthood. You have a right to feel what you feel. Your feelings are not about me. I want to hear them. I want to understand them. I want to be that person for you, but they’re not mine to change. Obviously, I will tell you honest things that might reassure you like that I will get you out of there soon, out of that car seat. But we’re not trying to shut down our child.

A lot of times parents will say things that are acknowledging, but they’re saying words when what they really mean is: okay, I hear you, now please stop because this is so hard for me. And I understand it’s hard. It’s hard for me too. It’s still hard for me. But I know, and I’ve seen, time and again, how important it is, and how letting the feelings flow is the right thing and the best thing that we can do. Often, the only thing that we can do. To accept, to trust that it’s okay for our child to feel how she does. I mean, she has a right. She’s in a car seat. She’s stuck. What is there to like about that? Nothing. So yeah, I want you to tell me that. I agree with your right to feel that. It’s understandable to me.

Accepting, acknowledging, encouraging, trusting.

And feelings won’t always be understandable to us right away. Usually, they will later on… we’ll figure out what that was about. But following our instinct to try to put an end to the feelings often results in more frustration and disconnection for both of us. Instead, what this parent focused on, and what I highly recommend is: I am a safe place for your feelings. And that means ultimately my own as well.

I hope some of this helps. And I want to thank this parent so much again for sending me her note, and all her brilliant examples. I’m thrilled that she’s made a huge paradigm shift and most thrilled of all that she’s gaining exactly what I did from this approach, from this way of being with children, the ability to enjoy parenting in a way that I would not have been able to. That’s the exact reason I’m here, podcasting, writing, sharing with parents: to try to help make your experience more enjoyable. Parenthood is really, really difficult. We deserve to enjoy it as much as possible. And Magda’s teachings were also, for me, a paradigm shift that changed everything — gave me clarity, helped me feel freer with more ability to enjoy the day-to-day and the long term as well because of the relationships that I’ve been able to build with my children.

I really hope some of this helps. We can do this.

(The tools for traveling with babies that this parent refers to are here in Traveling with Babies, Toddlers, Preschoolers)

1 Comment

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

  1. This post came just in time! We are about to embark on a trip overseas via airplane with our 2.5 year old. I have been stressing over how am I going to keep him entertained on the flight the whole time- watching YouTube videos, getting games and toys for him that are plane friendly, etc. and still there was this nervous feeling of what am I gonna do if he gets bored. So this podcast has reallllly given me a paradigm shift! I feel so good thinking instead, “I trust my son to entertain himself on the plane ride just as much (probably more) as I and my husband know how to keep ourselves preoccupied.” I will still bring the items I got, but I won’t be so anxious to pull them out every second worried he’ll get bored. I’ll hold back and just observe him observing his surroundings. Phew! I feel waaaay less stressed already!!! Thank you!!!

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