By Sara Zacuto

“Children need to be loved as they are, and for who they are. When that happens, they can accept themselves as fundamentally good people, even when they screw up or fall short. And with this basic need met, they’re also freer to accept (and help) other people. Unconditional love, in short, is what children require in order to flourish.”

~Alfie Kohn

A long time ago, early in my days as a teacher, my friend and mentor told me something that has stuck with me through the years. She said:

“Parents just want to know their child is loved.”

I believe she was helping me prepare for my very first round of parent-teacher conferences, and calming my nerves with this pearl of wisdom. I didn’t have children of my own at the time, so even though her thought made sense to me on an intellectual level, it didn’t carry the same meaning that it carries now. Over the years I have reflected on her words, and they have since resonated so deeply in my experiences as a mother and teacher. Her simple yet profound statement has, in part, informed my practices in relationship building with families, and put an unconditionally loving filter on my view of all the children I’ve cared for in my many years of teaching…especially the challenging ones. And, of course, I have found these words to be true as a mother, as I want for my own children to be seen, respected and yes, loved by the other people who care for them.

I am constantly in a state of challenging, and thinking about my identity as a teacher and mother (sometimes too much, or too critically) and I’ve gone in and out of what I call grooves of “getting it.” I’ll have weeks where my connections feel strong and deep, things kind of roll, and click. I’ll feel confident and can handle curve-balls being thrown my way. Those are the weeks where all the tools I’ve learned how to utilize seem to be easily accessed, I can call up the right language and attitudes in the face of struggles. Then I’ll experience other times where I feel a tangible distance from others, or a general lack of patience and ease (all of which I can usually attribute to tiredness, anxiety or hunger), and the path of “loving well” becomes much more elusive and slippery. But this pattern of highs and lows that has emerged continues to teach me how vital forgiveness (of self and others) is, and also how critical it is to develop and hone the art of repairing and hitting the reset button after I’ve made mistakes. It takes a conscious effort to step back onto the path.


I was recently inspired by watching an interview with author and educator, Ann Pelo, whose work focuses on reflective pedagogical practice, social justice and ecological teaching and learning and the art of mentoring.  She describes, with such eloquence, embracing a curious mindset about children. She breaks down and re-frames the notion of a teacher as an instructor who aims to deliver a measured amount of content knowledge, but rather a careful thinker who deeply considers the child, and instead offers responses to their play and interests. She speaks to the expectations of teachers, and how overly invested they can become with offering “things” to children, all in the name of supporting their learning. She suggests that we clear space for learning rather than try to fill it, which points to an authentic trust in young children as self-motivated learners. I loved her trademark, poetic phrasing when she said these offerings to children should have the “lightest touch” and teachers should have the “least attachment” to preconceived outcomes. She goes on to talk about what she calls “lively” learning, and that the emergence of new ideas and thinking comes from wrestling with conflicting ideas…that learning should be fluid, reciprocal and engaging. For a link to the video of her full interview, look here.

It is this idea of responsiveness to children, and curiosity about them, that makes me feel that it is a form of love…and I wonder:

Can we love someone if we aren’t truly curious about them?

How much do we really desire to know more about the children we are close to?

How often do we actually marvel together with the children in our lives?

As adults we often operate out of a belief that we know more than children rather than, perhaps more accurately, know differently than children. It is what makes it difficult to hold space for them, or slow down when they need more time to process something. Our “knowing” overrides theirs, and it turns into a battle of wills- which we are almost always certain to lose, not to mention be completely exhausted by. As Ann says, it isn’t “sustaining work.”

So what is the “food” we can thrive on when working with young children? What nourishes us as teachers, and in return nourishes the children we care for? It might sound overly sentimental but, it’s LOVE. We can’t show up and be present with children if we don’t love them unconditionally, and desire to know them deeper. We can’t be responsive to their needs if our love doesn’t fuel our actions. We can’t uphold the sheer energy it takes to be with young children all day without loving them. We cannot hear what they say if we do not listen from a place of love. It is love that enables children to feel validated and safe. It is love that illuminates our work with them.




7 thoughts on “Nurturework

  1. What is your definition of love for the child? Love is not what drives everyone to work with every child. We don’t always love the child first. As the relationship of getting to know one another grows, love may appear and sometimes it never does. As teacher I believe that our job is to build a relationship with children and getting to know what drives each child. We learn to coexist with one another and learn from each other. As we learn together we build respect for each other. It’s not all about love. As a parent I don’t want someone to love my child as I do. I want someone to understand her for who she is. And I want the teachers to teach her (make space for her learning) and guide her as I would, since I’m not able to be with her during the hours I’m at work.


    1. Hi Lisa…
      I will take all your points and try to tackle them one by one. Perhaps my definition of love is not entirely clear in the piece, and I’m not sure I could list every single act of love I can imagine, but to answer your question…my definition of loving a child is: seeing them, listening to them with curiosity, being responsive to their needs, taking their feelings and ideas into account, setting clear and appropriate boundaries for them, being a resource for them, thinking about their lives outside of school, noticing their relationships, trusting them, being vulnerable with them, reflecting back an image of competence to them, acknowledging their unique strengths and stories, providing a stable and safe environment outside of the comfort of home, being a trustworthy adult in their life, committing to have a deep understanding of human development, honoring their individual need for physical touch (some children need hugs or wrestling, others don’t), and being an advocate for them in the wider world.

      I’m surprised by some of the ideas you gleaned from the post. I don’t feel that I claimed that love is what drives people to work with children, but rather what CAN sustain the energy it takes to work with them. I know firsthand how draining it can be to work with young children, especially in the absence of love. It is also such an important part of working with very young children, who are away from their Mama’s and Daddy’s for the very first time. Dropped off with strangers and feeling insecure, our preschoolers need warmth, acknowledgment, and care…which are all descriptors of love in my book, and that is how the relationship gets built. Of course there are children who are more challenging (some would describe them as harder to love, I never would say that), and I’d argue that they are the ones who need a wider embrace. I choose to call it loving, but it could also be called “unconditional acceptance.” I think it is our job as teachers to push ourselves to see children as inherently lovable, to look beyond their behavior and value who they are as people. And all children (all people, actually) are worthy of love.

      I know, too, that teachers work out of necessity, out of a desire to make an impact, and a variety of other factors…but I have to believe that regardless of how one defines the role of “teacher,” that a love of humanity is a motivating force, if not for all, than for many who are committed to the profession.

      I would challenge the notion within the statement “as we learn together we build respect for each other.” I wholeheartedly believe that it is not an appropriate expectation that very young children will be respectful, or hold respect for others, especially when they feel threatened, shamed, or upset, which is often within the context of a school setting. At these stages of development (2-6 or so) we need to model respect firsthand, and be there when conflict is happening so their feelings can be clarified through our respectful lens…we cannot force respect any more than we can force a child to walk or talk before they are ready. Respect has to be something that is cultivated from within (rather than imposed from the outside) as their brain and body matures. I don’t think respect has to be reciprocal when we are speaking about toddlers and young children.

      I would never argue that a teacher’s love should be the SAME as a parent’s love…but I know there are many parents who do feel like they want their children to be surrounded by loving and warm people who “get” them…really see them, and can speak to all the wonderful things about them, and share what their challenges are. Maybe we really are saying the same thing in different ways.


      1. Thank you, Sara for your explanation of love. I agree with what you are describing love to be.

        I feel when you say this as an educator it means something completely different. This is explaining to parents what we do as teachers. It’s not just love. These actions you speak of is something that can be done to understand someone, without love being present. Just an interest of getting to know each child and understand what makes them who they are.

        Each one of the ways you described are ways of showing a child respect. Children can learn respect if they are shown respect. RIE talks about respect. I know that you talk about RIE often, and believe that all children need to be shown respect. So yes, I do believe we get to know children by showing them respect. By us showing respect they learn to be respectful and how to treat others. As teachers, I believe that it is our job to point out to children when they may have hurt someone with their words or actions. Often times we brush over this because it is hard to solve problems when our feelings are hurt. And we give power to the children who say things in a way that, if shown, could be said in a kinder more respectful way to the other child. I have worked with infants and toddlers for most of my career and yes you can show young infants respect and they will show you respect and other young infants respect. So yes I disagree with what you are saying about respect. We are not doing our job if we don’t help children stand up for themselves and others in a respectful way. If we look the other way when they say something hurtful to another child and don’t help problem solve the situation. Then yes they will not know how to be respectful of one another.

        I agree with you that parents want their child’s teachers to be kind, caring and nurturing. I don’t disagree that children need warmth, acknowledgment, and care. All of these descriptive words are all ways of showing respect and understanding towards any human being.

        Yes maybe teachers begin their journey as a teacher because they have a love for children. I think as teachers grow in the field…we learn to describe in a different way why we enjoy working with children. And really as educators we can be better at describing what we do and why we do it. We throw the word love around to encompass what we do, but the word doesn’t even begin to describe all that early child care providers (teachers) do each day.


      2. Thank you for your insights here Lisa…I do believe we are simply using different words to describe the same thing.

        I would, however, like to clarify that I very much believe in facilitating respectful communication when problem solving with children, and giving children guidance to rephrase hurtful words. I would never advocate for a “look the other way” approach because I consider this a fundamental responsibility to all the children…that they feel safe and respected while at school.


  2. Hello Lisa, my friend!
    This blog post brought tears to my eyes as my parent feelings were validated by a long time colleague 🙂 When I said “Parents just want to know thier child is loved” it was from that flutter and leap in my heart when I dropped my children off with strangers I did not know- especially in elementary school- It also encompassed thoughts like: Does anyone see my child? Understand my child? Relate to what my child is going through? Accept my child for who they are? Care about my child? Will my child have friends? Understand that my child is doing the best they can with the tools they have? Yes- I needed to feel my child was loved and accepted for who they were and not judged or labeled- Maybe “loved” isn’t the right word, but I expect any educator with a heart and soul to consider the child in their sight and experience an emotion for their being, their thoughts, their warmth, their insight, their humanity, their soul- that is what I expect from an educator of my child (and of myself)- unconditionality for the human being before them-

    Liked by 1 person

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