As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional Bonds

What does respectful parenting look like as our kids get older? Where can we get advice similar to Janet’s but for older kids? Janet receives these kinds of questions often and takes the opportunity to answer them in this episode. 


Transcript of “As Our Kids Get Older – 5 Ways to Continue Building Lasting Emotional Bonds”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be responding to a question, a couple of questions, actually, that I’m often asked—and by the way, I love any kinds of questions that you send me, so please keep them coming! The questions are around, What does your approach—respectful parenting or the RIE approach—look like as children get older? Does RIE end at two years old? What do you do then? What approach do you go to after that? Sometimes they’ll ask me, Who does what you do, but for older kids? And by “older” they might mean kids beyond three or four or five years old. So I thought I would take this opportunity to clarify some things about this approach I teach and my background.

What I’ve called “respectful parenting” is my interpretation of Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach, commonly known as the RIE approach. And RIE is R-I-E, that’s the acronym for the nonprofit organization that Magda founded with pediatric neurologist Tom Forrest in 1978 called Resources for Infant Educarers, RIE. RIE was created for the first two years of life, and all the specific guidelines that Magda offered pertain to those first two years of life. In that sense, it does end at age two. But the whole purpose of this approach, and the whole reason it’s focused on zero to two, is that this is a foundational approach. It’s a way of understanding our children as babies and our relationship with them, a nurturing healthy relationship, how to navigate that in the first two years and give our child the foundation that they need, and our relationship the foundation it needs, to flourish for all the rest of the years. So this isn’t now we stop doing this and now we’re going to start spanking our child or molding them like clay. This approach lasts throughout children’s adulthood, and I can verify that as a parent of three adults.

Another question I’m often asked is, Is there a RIE person for older years? And there is not a RIE person for older years, because there isn’t a RIE approach for older years. What I’ve done is interpreted and also used my experiences—not only as a parent of three very different children with unique needs and temperaments and talents, but also the many families that I’ve consulted with over these past almost 30 years now, who have children up to age 10 or so. And some of these have been in-person consultations, some have been telephone conversations. And I’ve mainly learned that this approach is still totally valid and works for children of all ages. This same approach that is focused on the first two years of life continues to work. Personally, I’ve never needed anything else as a parent with my own children. Maybe because I’ve put so many years into studying and training, and then practicing and teaching this approach, that it’s foundational in me, in the way that I perceive everything.

I find it so interesting, too, that all these studies show that in the first three years of life, children are learning more, developing more than in the rest of our lives put together. And yet these early years are the ones we don’t remember, right? Magda focused on the first two years because it’s the beginning, and if we can set ourselves up in the beginning, then we’re giving our child something, and ourselves something, that will last.

One of the reasons is because of what science shows, that this is the most important time for children in terms of their self-confidence, their sense of self, even basic character traits, many of them that we’re modeling and they’re learning them that way. This is a precious time. We could say the most precious time in terms of learning and brain development and our relational development. So that was one reason.

Another reason is that while most believe—I don’t know if this is still true because there have been so many studies showing what amazing learners babies are, but yet still I would say we tend to discount these early years. We tend to see babies in this very limited way. Maybe because they’re not talking yet, they don’t seem like full people we can interact with. We maybe don’t understand that they might not want to be in somebody else’s arms, so we don’t bother to let them know or ask them and get a vibe from them whether that’s welcome or not. We maybe talk down to them. We don’t treat them as whole people so much. And yet what Magda believed, and studies confirm, this is actually a time we should want to be extra-careful, because they can’t express themselves. They can’t share nuances about what they’re feeling or their needs. So this is a time, in Magda’s view, and I’ve come to agree with this, to be more careful in what we’re doing with babies. How we’re engaging with them, how we’re treating them, because they can’t express themselves verbally. That’s why she was especially interested in all the things that are going on with babies in the first two years.

So, because it’s foundational and because they can’t tell us, we want to give them extra respect instead of less respect. And that’s why she talks about welcoming a baby as an honored guest when they’re born, not just a cute little thing that’s maybe a little empty-headed in the way that we see them. I mean, I definitely did that. Some people are naturally able to see into a baby and see the person there right away, but I was not able to in the beginning. Now that I do, I can’t stop seeing that with every baby. It’s like once you open this door, you never want to leave and maybe you can’t leave, if you wanted to.

That’s why there’s often this confusion around why this approach is focused on the first two years and what we’re supposed to do later. But I do understand that, just as everything looks different as our children grow, the way that we’re engaging with them looks different. And that’s why in this podcast, I do love to answer questions about children that are up to eight or nine years old. I don’t often go beyond that, because my basis of experience for those years is personal. But what I thought I would do in this podcast is share how I’ve continued to interpret Magda Gerber’s approach and how it has served me beautifully as a parent. I mean, I am not always beautiful as a parent, but this approach has served me that way.

Let’s talk about some of the major points that continue as our children get older and how they look. I mean, all of this continues as children get older, but how it looks.

First: keeping faith in our kids’ competency. One of the amazing lessons in this approach is that babies are born, yes, very dependent on us, and that’s good. It should be that way, right? That’s how we’re going to begin our attachment with them. And there’s so much that they can’t do. But even at birth, they have competencies. And the interesting thing about perceiving our children as competent right from the very beginning is not only is seeing believing, but believing is seeing in this case. So if we believe that our baby can learn how to communicate with us, we will see that this actually is true, because we will act on that belief, meaning we’ll try to include our baby in communication with us.

We realize that babies also have thoughts and interests that aren’t just about us. I remember years ago someone commenting on one of my posts saying, “Well, if a baby is away from you, if they’re out of your arms, they are just waiting to be in your arms again.” Basically, they’re putting life on hold. And first of all, it implies such a limited view of babies, that they couldn’t possibly have an independent thought or interest. Those of us that observe babies know that that’s not true. But if we don’t believe it, we probably won’t see it. We won’t see that the baby is actually quite content, sometimes, in their playpen or safe crib or on the floor as they get older. And they’ve got a lot to do, they’ve got a lot to see, they’ve got a lot to take in. When we see this limited view, we become very self-centered in the way that we’re considering babies, right? It’s all about us, adding so much more pressure to an already challenging job.

When we do begin this—and none of these things I’m going to say can’t be picked up on later in life. That’s the whole point of this podcast episode, is to show you how you can pick this up later in life if you want to, it doesn’t have to be when they’re babies. But when we start it when they’re babies, it becomes so much easier for us because we’re already into the seeing is believing, believing is seeing. We’ve believed and we’ve seen, and that just builds on itself. Wow, my baby can do this. They learned to roll over to their tummy all by themselves. We saw them trying, we saw them working on it, we saw them using their body freely, doing all these interesting intermediate positions. They can do that. And then from there, they can scoot, they can crawl, they can walk. They’re communicating with us. They’re practicing cognitive skills. They’re building higher learning skills like focus, attention, and critical thinking. Wow. Why would we get in the way of that if we saw it, right?

So this is never about abandoning a child or forcing independence. I mean, forcing independence is not possible anyway, right? Because independence isn’t a specific action someone else can teach you. It’s a feeling that you have. It’s something you want to taste, even as a baby. You want to have moments where you get to decide what to look at, what to touch. And the sense of agency that this builds is very powerful for children and carries them through adulthood. What we can do is honor independence, make room for it, notice it, and know that that’s such a positive aspect of our children’s development.

Also, it’s not only that children develop self-confidence and a sense of agency, this I can do it feeling deep within them. But this is also such a healthy relationship dynamic, right? That I trust you in all these areas. You know better than I do what you’re working on. You know better than I do what interests you. So why would I get in the way of that? And when we start opening ourselves up to that, we realize that children of all ages, not just the older ones but the little ones as well, they know what they’re doing. If we could stay out of their way in these areas of development and just create the environment that allows them to practice whatever they’re practicing. Not indicate to them, either overtly or subtly, that Really what you’re doing isn’t important, you need to be doing this right now. Because this is what I’m worried about you not getting, or this is what I was told you need to learn at this age or whatever.

And this can carry through with walking, talking, the way toys work, climbing, toilet learning, reading, homework. Eventually applying to college, choosing partners, choosing jobs, and navigating workplaces and relationships. Through all these autonomous struggles and accomplishments, our trust in our children’s abilities keeps growing, along with their self-confidence.

Alternatively, if we don’t truly believe that our kids are capable of handling their developmentally-appropriate tasks without our assistance—we’re not talking about putting children in a situation that’s traumatic, these are developmentally-appropriate tasks—I mean, if they ask for our assistance, we’re going to find a way to give it to them, right? Assistance, which doesn’t mean doing it for them. If they’re not asking, let them explore it. That’s the best possible thing they could do. But if we’re worried that they’re going to be crushed if they get too frustrated or if they make a mistake or get disappointed or, God forbid, they fail, then we can perpetuate this cycle of dependency. That, again, puts so much pressure on us and creates less security in our child, less self-confidence. The feeling that they need us for all these things that they really don’t, but we both got caught up in it that way.

If you do find yourself caught up in a situation where your child seems to need you to do all these tasks for them, then just try backing off. Not all the way maybe, but a little bit. If your child thinks they need you to sit there right with them while they’re doing their homework and show them how to do it, then just back off a little at first. I’m going to stay here with you the whole time, but instead of giving you the answers—and I’m not saying to say all this out loud, but this is the way to maybe approach it—instead of me giving you the answers, I’m going to ask more questions to help you find the answer.

I remember when my son was I think 10, and he had to make a book report and he had to draw a picture for the cover of the book report of this dog that was a big part of the story. And he said, “I don’t know how to draw a dog. I can’t do it.” And I thought, Uh-oh, yeah, that is a lot. That is kind of intimidating, for sure. But instead of starting to draw it for him—which believe me, I have that impulse. I have all the impulses everybody else has, but I’ve learned to kind of let them go and trust. So instead of taking that on for him, I just asked him questions, like “Is there a part of the dog’s body that you could draw first? What do you feel like you can draw?” And he said, “The nose.” So I said, “Okay, why don’t you try drawing the nose?” He drew the nose and then I said, “Okay, what next? What else could you draw?” “The ears. The eyes.” And it went like that, and he drew this really cool dog. I mean, it wasn’t a perfect dog, but it was perfect for him, at that time, to be able to do that.

I’ve learned, starting at the beginning with my kids as babies, that we want to help. But true help really means doing less, so that our child not only does the task, but learns that they can do it themselves. We want both of those types of learning to happen at the same time, ideally, as much as possible. Not only did you draw a dog, but you can draw. And he wouldn’t have had that part if I’d drawn the dog. He wouldn’t have had either one of those, actually. So this dynamic, keeping faith in our kids’ competency, continues.

There’s a really common thing that we can get caught up in with teenagers, which is we have to nag kids to do homework. And we can put an end to that cycle by stepping back, letting go, and having faith in our child to cope with these age-appropriate situations. And in the case of homework, encouraging our child, if they’re struggling with that, to bring that to their teacher. Because teachers love that too, right? Staying out of parts of parenting that are not really our job, that need to be our child’s job. Developing these skills is one of them.

Along with that is the second point I want to make: encouraging that inner-directedness, that process orientation, and the sense of self that that builds—the communion with self. When children are drawn to enrichment—if we are privileged to be able to give our child enrichment beyond school, in terms of hobbies or sports, if we can make that happen—what I’ve learned through this approach is to let that belong to our child. To let it be totally our child’s idea, if possible. Maybe they were exposed to it, they went to go watch their friend play a soccer game and now they want to do it. Never starting to lead that ourselves. Because once we put ourselves in the position of leading that, we can create a dynamic where our child feels like now they’re doing it for us. Maybe they’re now realizing they’re more interested in something else, but now they’re stuck with this because we feel like they need to finish everything they’ve started.

I don’t agree with that. If we have a child that keeps stopping things they’ve started, I would actually look at who’s really starting those activities and if it really is our child. Because oftentimes we think we’re suggesting things to our child, like, “Why don’t you do gymnastics?” And our countenance is telling them, My parent thinks I should want to do this. Really trying to prioritize letting our child lead these activities, because this is this precious bell inside them of their calling, of their interests, of all the things they’re going to end up doing in life as they get older. And doing with full commitment, because they’re their choice, right? It’s not going to be full commitment if it’s our choice or our suggestion, even. Wanting them to feel that full commitment. And trusting that some children don’t want to do anything after school, it’s exhausting. That’s perfectly okay too, and maybe there are things that they’re doing that are just as valid as going to take a class somewhere.

This looks, as children are older, like they’re choosing their subjects in high school, their electives that they want to take. I remember doubting when one of my kids said they didn’t want to continue with French and they’d done so well in French. I might’ve raised an eyebrow, but I let that go and I trusted and it was the best thing and perfectly fine for my child to do that. He’s a college graduate now and successful at a job already. They know better than we do. And even if we think they don’t know better than we do, allowing them to know better than we do will teach them so many more important things than that they should take French. That belief in: I can do my life, with my parent’s unconditional relationship and support.

And children benefit so much from downtime, what’s known as downtime, which is just they don’t want to do all those lessons that their friends are doing or the other parents are telling us we should do. They actually learn better because they have more time to digest and integrate and assimilate what they’ve been exposed to. And that’s the real brain-building part of experiences.

The other week I talked about praise and being careful not to overpraise, so that children can continue to be self-rewarded as much as possible. Yes, our communities and societies do give rewards, and that’s okay. It’s more important that our relationship with them is unconditional and trusting. They can get all those glossy things other places, but it’s not what our relationship is based on.

The third thing: accepting children’s feelings without judging or rushing them. What I talk about here all the time, because it is so integral to their emotional health, to being able to set boundaries—which I’m also going to talk about today—and really for them to flourish in life: Letting them express all those intense feelings. If they’re expressing them through behavior that might be aggressive behavior or unsafe behavior or even just annoying behavior to us, then all the more we want to encourage them to share those feelings another way. Not by saying, “Don’t do that, do this,” but saying, “It seems like you’re feeling this,” or “Is this what’s going on with you? Because you keep yelling at me.” Or, “Are you worried about something?” In that open, intimate way that we want to talk to our children. Not judgmental. Noticing the feelings beyond the behaviors.

Now, there are lots of ways that we can discourage feelings or diminish them that are far more subtle and loving, even. So we might want to keep our antenna up for those as children get older. Because of course, we never want to see our children hurt or upset in the least. We might say, “Look at all the things you have to be grateful for. It’s going to be fine.” Or, “Ah, they didn’t deserve you anyway.” There were so many times I wanted to say that about a problem with a friend or other relationship. “Oh, they just don’t get you.” No. Just allow the feelings. For me, it’s been about practicing zipping it. I mean, that sounds terrible, but just wait and let them keep going.

Because my urge to say something is often an urge to try to make them feel better or stop, and that doesn’t make them feel better or stop. What makes them feel better is to express it all, the whole way. Because it’s not our power to make our children feel a certain way, unfortunately, or anyone else for that matter.

And I will say that one of the reasons I talk about this so much in my podcast is that resisting the urge to calm feelings never really gets easier, at all. And our kids are going to get their feelings hurt a lot in life. They’re going to get rejected by friends, they’re not going to make the A-team, they’re going to lose the debate, they’re going to do poorly on the test, get their hearts broken. And all of this is life. As Magda always said, If we can learn to struggle, we can learn to live. And that learning to struggle is lifelong learning. And just acknowledging, “Ah, that was hurtful,” or that was whatever our child said it was. So children receive this healthiest message that whatever their moods, their darkest moods, their harshest feelings, even towards us, are safe for them to feel. Will be heard, accepted, hopefully understood by us, if possible.

This is really the biggest secret I know of to fostering a close lifelong bond with our kids. Not just accepting them and believing in them with skill development, but accepting and believing in them when they are at their absolute lowest.

And four, just in case you thought this was about letting kids do whatever they want: remember that the basis for all the healthy freedom that I’m talking about giving children is: boundaries. This could have been the very first point that I made, because none of the rest of this will flourish if children don’t feel safe in our confident, empathic leadership. Making those hard choices sometimes that are going to upset them, but we love them too much to not put ourselves on the line like that. We love them and ourselves too much to not confront it. I mean, I don’t want to confront things unless I absolutely have to, but I learned that this is real love. Real love isn’t just saying, “Okay, whatever, I don’t care.” That’s saying I don’t care. And we don’t mean it that way. We just mean, I can’t deal with another boundary right now. And I understand that, I’ve felt that many times. And maybe we can’t right then. But knowing that even though our children won’t tell us they love us so much when we state boundaries or hold boundaries for them, that’s how they feel.

What I’ve seen over the years is that the children know that. And the children that don’t have that, that seem like they’re so free to do whatever they want and the parent just accepts them, they will seek boundaries somewhere else usually, not necessarily in safe ways. Because it’s not a comfortable feeling when you’re a child—or a teenager, going through all the changes teenagers go through—that you’re in charge of your whole life. Yes, you want to be in charge of your skills and your learning and your free time, as long as it’s safe and reasonable, but not in charge of how you treat people or in charge of how you act on your moods or hurt yourself or hurt people. If we feel in charge of those things, we do not feel the slightest bit safe or loved or able to blossom.

Our boundaries are very often the dynamic that children need between us to be able to share their moods and feelings. So we want to keep practicing reasonable boundaries, sticking up for ourselves, while welcoming our children to disagree in whatever way that they do, as long as it’s not hurting us. And that’s the hardest part, right? Meaning they have a right to feel however they feel about our boundaries. It’s not, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” A parent shared with me that a teacher was saying that to her child. And no, that’s called stuffing our feelings. It’s that you’ve got a right to how you feel, and we’re reminding ourselves constantly, maybe, that them putting it out there is healthy and good. Much better for our child, and our relationship with them, than for them to hold it in.

As Susan David wisely shares—you know I always quote her here, I’m a big fan of her work, it’s very much in line with everything I believe. She says, “Research on emotional expression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification.” She also says, “When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” And I believe she’s referring mostly to adults here, but all of this applies to children. Because we continue to have the same basic needs from birth until death: the need to have boundaries and know our place in the world, to express ourselves fully, the need to be in communion with ourselves, to be inner-directed, the need to feel capable that we can achieve things when we put the effort in, with lots of ups and downs in the process.

One more point, point five: connecting during caregiving. You hear me talk about that with babies and toddlers and maybe preschoolers, but this is a way to keep nurturing our connection with children throughout their life. And it does look a little different as children get older. Mealtimes is the obvious one, sitting down to a meal without having our devices out, having that time together. Sherry Turkle, who’s the author of Reclaiming Conversation and has done a lot of research on this topic of technology interfering with children’s development of empathy and our ability to connect with each other, she has some great ideas for helping us as a family to limit tech use at times like that. But she also said, I really love this, she said: you can have it be certain rooms, i.e., We’re never going to have tech devices in the kitchen or in the dining room. I didn’t do that with my family, but I thought it was a great idea.

So, mealtimes, bedtime rituals. One of my kids wanted me to lie there with them while they fell asleep, even up to the age of, I think it was 10. And you know what? I was available. We don’t have to do that, but I did it. Only one out of three wanted that. But I’m glad I did it, in retrospect. I’m not saying everyone should do that, but there are some things you can do. Read books, sing songs (until they begged me to stop), of course, we did that for years too. Have those goodnight rituals that are special between you.

Then so many things can be caregiving: Band-aids. Medicine. When kids ask for help with homework or studying for a test, I consider that caregiving, even though I know it’s also skill-building for them and everything. But when my children would ask for help studying for a test, I would leap on that, because I could. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t. But as kids get older, there aren’t that many opportunities, like there are when they’re little, to connect in that way. And caregiving in all these realms is one of the main ways.

Seizing on those bedtime rituals, seizing on the mealtimes, help with studying for a test, and we used to laugh a lot. I’d be completely focused at those times, I would not have a tech device anywhere near me. Just with them. Shopping for clothes or whatever they need. You want me to go with you? I’m there. It’s an excuse to be with your child as you get older, as they get older and you get older. Helping them with combing and brushing their hair, hairstyles, detangling, make-up for the prom. Taking kids to the doctor or for a haircut. My kids are adults now and they want to go to the dentist with me. Yes! I’m there, I’m right there. And we’ll go get something to eat afterwards and mess our teeth up again. But it’s the best. It keeps that flame alive between us.

And then just simple things, like when my kids come into the house or I’m meeting them somewhere, I drop everything. I’m up, I’m going in for a hug, excited to see them. Those transitions, those transitional times, remain sensitive times for all of us. You’ve heard me talk a lot about how difficult transitional periods can be for young children or even just getting up and getting dressed and getting to school in the morning. Keep helping your child. Yes, they can dress themselves, but if they want a helping hand, they just want moral support while they’re doing it, we can try to be there. And if we can’t, not giving them a judgmental response, “You can do that yourself.” But just, “You wanted me there and I can’t. But next time.”

Because what children can do and what they want to do, what their real need is—which might be connection with us before they leave for the day—are two different things. So when we can, prioritize those activities. The same when I’m parting with my children, I try to jump up. And I mean, I always saw them off to school and everything, but my son’s living at home now, and I try to wake up and make sure I say goodbye to him before he goes off to work. And hello to him when he comes in the door. I stand up, I’m so excited. Basically, any excuse. That’s how it gets.

I know it feels overwhelming now, that you’re doing all this stuff and everybody needs you so much. And mommy, mommy or daddy, daddy, and you could barely take a free breath. Well, I’m not saying you should be happy because you’re not going to have that later and that you should feel bad about the times that you’ve missed. Absolutely not. However, just know that as you grow, you’re going to find these connection points still and find these areas to trust your child. And all of that is going to bring you so many surprises and delight, laughter and amazement, really, at how capable your children are.

And if you want to get on this track and you’re not quite there, you agree with some of it, you don’t agree with other parts of it—that’s okay. You can always step into trust, step into connection. Those are always available to us, and our children want those more than anything from us. So, it’s a win-win.

Now, for those of you who would still like to check out resources that are compatible with what I teach, but for older children, the first thing I usually ask people if I get a chance to respond to them is, what topics are you concerned about? Because that will help me to guide them. I do have a whole list of books that I recommend, that are in my books and recommendations section of my website, There are books covering a variety of topics, and many of them pertain to older children. Also, many of these authors have been on this podcast. So, check out all my other podcasts, and I hope you find the help that you’re looking for.

And by the way, Mother’s Day is coming up, and I’ve got a great gift idea for you: my No Bad Kids Master Course. You can learn all about it at

Thank you so much for listening. We can do this.

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