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Understanding the Key to Children’s Inner Well-Being

Parents, especially new ones, are confronted with countless parenting theories, and strategies to guide them through parenthood. Among these theories, the Smart Love approach is distinctive in that it places a child’s long-term inner well-being and capacity for healthy self-regulation as the primary goal of parenting. It answers the question – what are the necessary ingredients for a child’s healthy emotional development and how can parents lovingly and knowledgeably help their children attain happiness and success in adulthood.

In this post, we’ll break down one of the key concepts of the Smart Love approach to parenting - that all children come into the world with a deep love for their parents, a belief that their parents are perfect and that whatever care they receive is deserved and caused by them. This conviction stems from children’s immaturity and unconscious assumption that the care their parents provide is ideal.

One way to think about this concept is that children both personalize and copy the care they receive, so it is important then to consider how the way you respond to your child in a given situation might affect their view of themselves and also how they treat themselves. For example, parenting approaches that are based on a system of rewards, consequences, or punishments for managing a child’s behavior can have the unintended consequence of making children feel poorly about themselves or believing they are undeserving of compassion, understanding, empathy, or kindness. In other words, children believe how their caregivers treat them is a reflection of their self-worth and becomes a template for how they should treat themselves and others. 

Although one-off interactions are not consequential in the short term, over time these types of responses can have a lasting impact on a child’s inner well-being. 

So, how can you manage your child’s behavior without causing them to feel badly about themselves? 

The answer is to see the world, and especially yourself as the parent, through your child’s eyes. This involves understanding and accepting appropriate behaviors based on a child’s developmental stage and responding accordingly to help them with their feelings, which promotes healthy self-regulation.

This insight and perspective becomes particularly important when children are struggling and need help. For example, when children throw tantrums, it’s important to stay available and to understand their distress. Offering your understanding and compassion will help them deal with their unhappiness, build a positive parent-child relationship, promote healthy self-regulation and a secure sense of self-worth.   

Smart Love offers parents a way to respond to children, called loving regulation, that protects children from the missteps caused by immaturity while also remaining kind and compassionate. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “With loving regulation, you will see that it’s less important to wonder, ‘How do I get Susie to behave herself right now?’ than to ask yourself, ‘How can I help Susie develop into an adult who will want to and be able to, take good care of herself and be caring toward others when I’m not around?’”

The key is in how parents respond to their children during such outbursts. The following are some real-life examples that illustrate how parents’ responses affect a child’s inner happiness: 

  • Two-year-old Bobby insists on grabbing toys from other children. His parents don’t like when he does this and insist that he share his toys with others. However, “not sharing”  is a normal development stage in which children want what they want when they want it to feel good about themselves. Therefore, making him share provides a model of unhappiness instead of understanding.

Smart Love approach: But by accepting that this is normal behavior for his age and understanding that he will outgrow this phase eventually, his parents can respond with kindness to their son’s grabby behavior. For example, they can say, ‘I know how much you wanted that toy, but Jenny is playing with it now. Let’s give it back and I’ll help you find something else fun to do.’ This type of response shows Bobby that although he can’t always have what he wants, he can count on his parents’ love and comfort. 

  • Ten-year old Jill has been riding her bike in the street even though her parents do not allow it. When they find out about this, they decide to punish her for breaking the rules by withholding her allowance. Although her parents do this with the best intentions of teaching Jill the importance of their rules for keeping her safe, this response may make Jill conclude that mistakes are unacceptable. Over time, this type of response can result in Jill being hard on herself when things go wrong as children naturally emulate their parents. 

Smart Love approach: Instead, Jill’s parents can interpret her behavior as a sign of her immaturity and not being able to fully understand the dangers of riding her bike in the street. Instead of imposing punitive measures like taking away her allowance, her parents could say, ‘We see how hard it is for you to stay on the sidewalk where it is safest for you to ride your bike, so we are going to keep your bike in the garage and when you want to ride your bike, you can let us know and we will stay outside with you to make sure that you stay safe.’

As you can see, the benefit of understanding and accepting the behavior linked to each stage of your child’s development and responding with loving kindness will protect your child’s inner self-worth while also managing their immature behaviors. This awareness and understanding enables you to provide your child with the lasting conviction that she is loved and understood while also keeping her safe. Also, as Drs. Pieper explain, “Your child will learn to govern herself better through the desire to feel happier and more competent than she ever would from fear of negative consequences.”


Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying Your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999. 

Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2010. 




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