The “Life Lessons” Fallacy

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life 101One of the things that drives me absolutely bonkers is when people talk about how they decided to do whatever parenting method in order to teach their baby about the real world.  I’m sure you know the ones I’m talking about.  Parents who say that they leave the baby to cry because in the real world people don’t respond to your every request or whim.  Parents who tell their truly hurt child to shut up because in the real world people need to be tough.  That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.  And it seems that every time someone says this, people applaud.  People think we have a generation of self-entitled brats because we didn’t teach them about the real world when they were 2 months old.

Really?  Because I’m going to say that your thinking is flawed.  And I’m going to tell you why.

Lesson 1:  I leave my child to cry because s/he has to learn that in the real world people won’t always be there for you.  It’s a cold world.

Seeing as this is the one I hear most often, it’s the one I’m going to start with.  Somehow in this world we live in, parents seem to think that if they actually respond to their infant, they will expect that the whole world will be at their beck and call.  Ok folks, your infants depend on you to be there for them whenever they need it.  Why?  Because they can’t do a single thing for themselves.  It’s really that simple.  Your babies aren’t sitting there thinking that because you actually respond to their cries that it means the whole world is their oyster.  It means that they feel safe and secure and that they won’t die.  There is a large difference.

If you need to read more on crying in infancy and the purpose of crying, please check out these links:
Educating the Experts – Lesson One: Crying (Evolutionary Parenting)
12 Things Your Crying Baby Wants You to Know (Our Muddy Boots)
The Potential Dangers of Leaving Your Baby to Cry (The Analytical Armadillo)
Dangers of “Crying It Out” (Moral Landscapes; Darcia Narvaez)

In fact, what you are teaching your babies is that the world is a scary place where you can’t even depend on the people closest to you to help you out.  And that doesn’t actually harden them.  It cripples them.  (Note that we are not talking about putting a little one down while you pee or take a moment to regain your sanity.  We are talking about not responding for periods of time – meaning 10-20 minutes which is a LONG time for a baby.  However, if you are at risk for harming your infant and there is no one around to help you, put them down and walk away until you can safely return.)

Neurologically speaking, being left to cry for prolonged periods of time results in the brain being flooded with cortisol, the stress response hormone[1].  When this happens repeatedly, your children develop what has been termed a “stress-reactive” neurological profile[2].  This type of profile is associated with a greater stress response in all situations; that is, your child will grow up seeing situations as being stressful more quickly and have the associated stress response to them.  Now, when you think of how you respond when stressed, do you feel secure?  Do you feel comfortable?  If you say yes, you’re lying.  The entire point of the stress response is that we panic at least a little.  It’s why it’s so unhealthy for us in the long term.

Psychologically you’re also teaching your child that the people they should expect to be there aren’t.  Do you want your child to grow up believing you aren’t there for them?  Because that’s exactly what you’re doing.  This argument always makes me wonder why parents believe we should be treating our children as total strangers would.  It’s ridiculous.  I would say that because strangers may not give a crap, it’s even more of a reason for us to care and be there.  I don’t want my daughter thinking that her family cares as little as her boss or the guy at the DMV.  If that’s the lesson she’s taken, I have failed miserably.  Being responsive to your child leads to healthy attachment[3] which is associated with greater independence and ability to handle difficulties later on[4] and can even reduce the stress response in the brain when faced with a difficult situation[5] so in fact, being responsive will help them navigate the world much better than ignoring them.

Lesson 2: I spank my child so s/he learns how to respect people.  S/he needs to learn to respect others if s/he’s going to survive the real world.

I’ve covered the research on spanking here, and to quickly summarize, people can spank without immediately causing damage, but even mild and infrequent spanking raises the risk of later harsher spanking and abuse.  It is associated with higher levels of aggression and worse mental health.  But let’s put that aside for a moment and assume that spanking has no negative effects.  Do you really believe it will instill respect?  I would really like to know how.  If we consider the data, I see it teaching obedience through fear.  Not respect.

Respect (n): A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.

Respect is something to be earned.  But spanking a child is not instilling feelings of admiration, especially not for the action of spanking.  Perhaps you believe that spanking will teach a lesson and that that lesson (or accumulation of lessons over childhood) will earn you respect, but if you’re flat out saying you’re spanking to teach respect, what other lesson is there?

There’s also the issue of wanting our children to automatically respect others.  It makes no sense.  Polite?  Sure!  But respect?  It’s something you earn.  In cultures where they speak of respecting elders, it’s typically based on all the elders have done.  Thus the respect comes from making children aware of their elders’ achievements and the default assumption becomes that your elders have achievements worthy of respect until shown otherwise.  (Whether this system is wrong is another question and certainly isn’t always applied this way, especially in larger cultures, but it’s a topic for another day.)  You can’t spank that into a child.  I also can’t help but think that trying to teach automatic respect without reason doesn’t do them any good either.

Imagine, if you will, that you grew up assuming that you just automatically respected people.  Now how would you believe people should treat you?  Do you think you would have to earn their respect?  Of course not.  Oddly, parents who preach automatic respect as being necessary in the real world often tell their children that they need to earn it.  Confusing much?  If you want your children to respect you and those around them, do it by being a person they should respect.  Make them aware that others are worthy of our consideration and politeness, but that they too have to earn our respect.  If you ask about someone’s life, you may end up respecting them right away, or not so much, but make it clear that they have to get to know someone before passing judgment.  And in turn, offer them respect when they have earned it.  Too often children are seen as not being worthy of respect whilst we expect them to respect everyone else.  It’s nearly impossible to understand respect when you yourself have never had it shown to you.

Lesson 3: I won’t “give in” to my child because s/he needs to learn that s/he can’t always get what s/he wants in the real world.

This last one is a bit trickier.  When your child is older and asking for unnecessary things that you have your good reason to say no to, of course you don’t give in.  So I’m going to be very clear that that is not what I’m talking about.  But often this is overused.  And by that I mean parents use it to take away love, affection, or play time, all things that kids NEED.

Let me give an example to highlight what I mean.  The other night my daughter was in the tub and had been happily playing for 40 minutes while I was working.  In my mind at that time the work was necessary.  After 40 minutes, she asked if I would get in, something that is quite normal – I usually finish out the bath with her.  Twenty minutes or so of play time with my girl is an awesome way to end the day before bed.  But that night I decided my work had to come first for some reason I can’t remember now.  So I said no again.  She tried her usual next step of telling me I smelled like poo and had to get clean.  I laughed and still stuck to my guns.  After a brief pause she looked right at me and just said, “Mommy, please?”  I had a choice at that moment.  I could stick to what I’d already said twice and tell her no, “teaching” her that she can’t always get what she wants.  Or I could say yes.  I said yes.

Why?  Well, why not?  I have decided to teach her that she can affect change and she has the power to try and negotiate what she wants, especially when it’s done in a reasonable way.  I’ll add that she also tried the other day to bargain for chocolate for breakfast.  She didn’t get that one.  As she learns, sometimes you’re effective, sometimes not.  But by and large, when we get so stuck on what our children can’t do, how are they to learn about what they can do?  I don’t believe my daughter walked away from the experience thinking she’d won something or got one over on me.  In fact, the moment I hopped in, she sat on my lap and came in for a cuddle—that was what she really needed.  And perhaps one day I really will have to do something else and the answer will be no, but I can only hope there are enough yeses in the mix to make it clear that she always feels she can ask.

To get what you want requires skill, determination, hard work, and to a certain degree, some luck.  We can’t give them luck, but we can certainly instill the other qualities.  However, when you turn your back on your child’s requests every time on principle, then how are they supposed to internalize that they can work hard to achieve their goals?  If no goal is met when they are young, how can they ever understand success?  In some ways, when overdone (which is what I’m talking about here), you teach your children learned helplessness.  They can no longer influence their environment, and we know from research that children not only learn this relatively quickly, but extend the lesson to relevant domains[6][7].  So why not give them something to hold onto that makes them realize they do have the power to control their world?


The world can be a shitty place, there’s no doubt.  But I will never understand parents trying to bring that shittiness into the home just so their kids can learn about it.  I want my home to be a safe haven for my children.  It doesn’t mean that they will always be happy or get everything they want, but that I will be sure they always feel loved, responded to, and appreciated.  Not only do we tend to have the opposite effect than what we plan when we treat our children as strangers would, but we also take away their place of comfort, the place that they will need if they are going to survive the harder aspects of life.  Please, infancy and childhood are not the times for harsh lessons.  You can teach many lessons with love and guidance, lessons your children will learn from without being hurt by.  If you find yourself ready to teach a “life lesson”, step back and ask yourself what you’re really doing and if it’s really necessary.  If a lesson needs to be taught, fine, but consider that the way you do it will be carried around by your child for a long time.

[Image credit: I don’t know!  I can’t find out who actually created this.  Let me know if it’s you!]

[1] Anders TF, Sachar EJ, Kream J, Roffwarg HP, & Hellman L. Behavior state and plasma cortisol response in the human newborn. Pediatrics 1970; 46: 532-537.

[2] Gunnar, M. R. Social regulation of stress in early childhood. In K. McCartney & D. Phillips (Eds.), Blackwell Handbook of Early Childhood Development (pp. 106-125). Malden (2006): Blackwell Publishing.

[3] Grusec JE.  Socialization processes in the family: social and emotional development.  Annual Reviews in Psychology 2011; 62: 243-269.

[4] Simpson JA, Belsky J.  Attachment theory within a modern evolutionary framework.  In J Cassidy & PR Shaver (Eds) Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (2nd ed.) (pp. 131-157).  New York, NY (2008): Guildford Press.

[5] Gunnar MR, Brodersen L, Nachmias M, Buss K, Rigatuso J.  Stress reactivity and attachment security.  Developmental Psychobiology 1996; 29: 191-204.

[6] Watson JB & Rayner R. Conditioned emotional reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology (1920); 3: 1-14.

[7] Watson J & Ramey C. Reactions to response-contingent stimulation in early infancy.  Revision of paper presented at biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.  Santa Monica, CA, March 1969

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  1. JC says

    So is sleep training completely wrong then? Even to some degree? My biggest issue was getting my child to sleep…..period. I couldn’t get him to relax enough to even think about sleeping (as soon as he started being aware of his surroundings) when he was tired. No amount of the usual suspects (rocking, snuggling or other sleep props) worked except the soother. Then, as time went on, that did not work and we had even worse issues. I had read the Sleep Sense program before I had my son and instilled some of her advice, in teaching my son to fall asleep on his own. Yes, it did involve some CIO that I hated to my core. I would do it in doses and by the time we were through that first week, he had made tremendous progress. He could fall asleep on his own, and I would always go to him when his cries were really serious, I was there to assure him and comfort him and attend to every other need. It was one of the hardest things I had to do but it worked (not every single time was CIO though either). I didn’t care if it helped him sleep in longer blocks (which it did), I was just happy he wasn’t relying on anything to go to sleep. His personality is one that is ‘too busy’ to sleep. If I hadn’t trained him, I don’t think either of us would be in a very good place. He’s a very happy, smiley, goofy and extremely BUSY little guy. And now, when he cries it’s always for a very specific reason as he does not cry often. And I am there every time. I do not believe in letting an infant CIO to learn that it’s a ‘cold harsh world’ either and completely understand babies not being able to cognitively understand the ‘why’, therefore you can’t expect them to learn a ‘lesson’ either. So I would like your input about this aspect of sleep training (or sleep training in general?). Thank you for the article!

    • Tracy says

      JC, My personal view is against CIO in all forms, and that’s based on the research out there along with my personal view of what it teaches children. I know there are gentle methods that typically work for people in terms of sleep training (see the No Cry Sleep Solution) but also just having a routine that fits with your child’s needs has been found to be more beneficial than sleep training in research. I think the fact that CIO hurt your core is telling you that it’s not really right. But at an individual level, you have to do what works for your family, and I know families that have done CIO that love their children to bits and they have happy, healthy children. However, I also would say that I think there are other ways and that we just need to make people aware of them so we can get to a stage where families do what is necessary for them but without it sacrificing the child in some way. I strive to educate so people know what things involve. I’ve done a piece on CIO which you can see here:

      So in short, I am generally against “sleep training”. I think you can guide your child in terms of sleep in a gentle way and end up with the same results. Hopefully that helps!

      • Tracey says

        Neurologically speaking, being left to cry for prolonged periods of time results in the brain being flooded with cortisol, the stress response hormone[1]. When this happens repeatedly, your children develop what has been termed a “stress-reactive” neurological profile[2].

        First of all, in the 1970 study of 4 babies!! The cortisol levels were measured as normal at the 90 minute mark. Second of all, there is an absence of reference to a longitudinal study that correlates both the frequency and duration of crying to a permanent negative outcome.
        Don’t get me wrong, I am all for reducing crying and I love my babies, however, to impose guilt on a mother who has allowed her child to cry to sleep is irresponsible. I read you link, according to you I have set my son up for teenage depression as he cried long and often, ok due to colic, not controlled crying, but you make a point of stating crying is crying, stress is stress. So with one broad brush stroke, according to your flawed, unsubstantiated logic, all babies who cry for more than 10-20 mins (no reference or evidence to frequency , just a vague “often”) will suffer negative effects in their adolescent years. Is this really the message you want? By that logic, all circumsized babies, all chronically ill children, all child care kids (because separation caused stress), all babies who have an older sibling poking them will have permanent negative effects. Doesn’t that sound ott to you? Because it is!!!!!! You give no acknowledgment to the fact that one of the exceptional things we humans can do is adapt. Why do we exhibit hormonal responses to stress? Perhaps to give us an evolutionary advantage to survive a situation that can harm or kill us. Ok we don’t run in packs and need to fend off saber tooths anymore, but my point is we are adaptable.

        Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you should let your child cry because the world is a tough place, wrong mentality. BUT!!!!! you are irresponsible for tarring and feathering mothers who have allowed a child to cry. Way to go on adding to the guilt they already feel. And to say it is backed up by evidence and then site a study more than 40 years old……….really!!!!!!

        • says

          I recommend you read this piece which talks about the distinction between crying in arms and crying alone:

          The fact is that it’s VERY hard to get a stress response in a baby who is being comforted which means biologically they aren’t supposed to be having these severe stress reactions in the first year. Babies have not evolved to be left alone when upset – the reason their cries pierce our hearts is to draw us to action. Not all crying is equal.

          • Tracey says

            Yep, read that, and your own opinion notwithstanding, you site a study published 43 years ago, goodness knows when it was actually conducted (yes I have a research background and am very familiar with how long it can take from data collection to published paper) and Wikipedia.

            I don’t believe this is overwhelming evidence that then gives you the right to be so denigrating to women who have made different choices. I had one each way, one slept with me, the other often cried in his cot. Yes, I had massive guilt because of that. He was held and nursed so much more than number 1 as he needed it but there was a point where reality slaps you in the face and says attend to your other child and he had to lay down. For so called experts to come along and accuse me of not putting his needs first or implying that he will suffer depression in his teen years is disgraceful.

            I actually agree with your principal of avoiding controlled crying as we call it here, because that is what suited me and my babies, well most of the time. I encourage young mums I know to avoid it, but I certainly do not condemn them if that is what they feel is right in their situation. Why should my opinion make them feel guilty. What I disagree with you with is using the so call scientific evidence, to allow you to shout your point. Coming from research it is quite insulting to see someone take a small portion of your study and push their own agenda. The scientific evidence is not yet overwhelming, in either direction, so until it is please stop contributing to widening the gap between mothers and the way they choose to parent. It really is not helpful.

          • says

            I will say I’m rather confused by your response. I focus very clearly on those who use controlled crying or cry-it-out *in order to teach their children a lesson about the world*. Sorry, but I have a problem with that. This isn’t about parents that are exhausted or need a break or don’t have support or PPD, but parents who want to teach their kids it’s a harsh world. If you read the other posts on here you should know there isn’t a condemnation of parents, but rather those who promote these methods. As for “making” people feel guilty, I don’t believe one can do that without that person’s permission, but I will not be quiet because someone wants me to tell them that I agree with their choices when I don’t because it’s not just about mom, but about baby as well.

            Second, no where have I suggested putting your baby down for a moment or because you need to will lead to horrid outcomes. Not one spot. So let’s be clear here – if you want to put words into what I’ve written, fine, but at least be honest that you’re jumping to conclusions that are not even close to being in the pieces. What I have written – and I do not believe it’s wrong – is that *repeatedly* leaving your child to cry without comfort can cause long-term neurological change in the form of the stress reactive brain. If you would like to counter that, please go ahead and tell me what’s wrong with the research by Gunnar and colleagues that suggests that is the case. Remember though that the key word is “repeatedly” which is something that happens when babies are being taught about what a harsh, mean world it is.

            You can disagree with my take on the research – that’s fine, I’m not telling you that you have to agree with me. The way we see this issue is very different and the way we have read the research is very different. I will continue to write about sleep training and include the research that is out there so that parents can read it and take it as one more piece to their parenting puzzle. Some will ignore it, some will think about it and look to alternate solutions, but they will have a fuller picture of what’s out there than what is popularized regardless of what decision they make.

          • Tracey says

            Tracey, thank you for your reply.

            Ok, I will try to take a step back and be very clear as I also want parents who read this to have the full picture. This is from your reference
            “In the Essex et al. (2002) study, the elevations in cortisol at age 4.5 that were found to predict internalizing and externalizing problems were in turn predicted by levels of maternal stress. Notably, however, concurrent maternal stress predicted high child CORT levels only if the currently stressed mother had also been highly stressed during the child’s infancy. Furthermore, most of the association with maternal stress was carried by the effects of maternal depression symptoms. ”

            What I would like new mums to understand is that yes, stress hormones rise when their child cries, and yes that can be mitigated when you hold them. Yes, there may be some very tenuous link so detrimental effects, and I do mean tenuous and MAY, but given it is your baby, you certainly do the best you can by them. But, this is not the full story, your own reference lists so many contributing factors, child care, social interaction as a toddler, divorce, starting school, moving house, institutions, poverty, being a teenager, and the list goes on. The authors themselves point out that there are so many potential impacts on stress level, which we all concur. Blind Freddy can see that. What is not ever said, because it is not tested is that a toddler who was allowed to control cry is any different to one who did not. Similarly I was unable to find any reference to a study that compared crying babies with non crying babies, matched for comparable stress states during growth (ie school, divorce, sickness, puberty), that showed that controlled crying had any SIGNIFICANT effects later in life. I have looked for hours so if it exists, please pop in the reference and I will gladly read it.

            What I wearily wish to finish on is this, there are many things which raise stress levels and thus associated hormones, both for mother and child. There has been measured increases in various diagnosable traits later, absolutely, not disagreeing with you there. Is allowing baby to cry for say 10 sessions going to SIGNIFICANTLY and NEGATIVELY impact them in the future is unknown, and is it more or less SIGNIFICANT than starting school, falling off you bike 10 times or being bullied? The answer is we don’t know. What we do know is that a happy mum leads to a happy baby, mostly. So if a mum decides controlled crying works for her, and in turn feels she is doing the best by her child, then her stress levels are appropriate and that is reflected in the child. Your own reference states
            “Examining the cumulative effects of one’s lifelong history of social stress and support on HPA axis activity, health and functioning using longitudinal data on social, behavioral and physiological functioning, is a critical direction for future investigation.” Meaning WE don’t know!

            So on the basis of a possible maybe versus a much more likely scenario, isnt it such a disservice to pit one mothers parenting against another to say you are doing it wrong. Hey, I don’t agree with unschooling either, but don’t condemn the parents that do as they are trying to do the best they can and that is all any of us can do.

            So to the new parents out there, I implore you, seek advice, explore the options, but don’t feel guilty about your choices if you believe they are in you family’s best interest.

          • says

            First, as I’ve written elsewhere, I do agree we don’t know nearly enough as there isn’t research on long-term consequences of CIO techniques. But why then do we assume they are “fine”? Why not be more cautious, look at human history, biological adaptations, and evolution to say that crying is there for a reason and approach it with that lens? I think the bits we are starting to see support the idea that these methods don’t respect the infant – even if they help the mother. Of course, I will be the first to say that a lot will depend on child temperament; will all kids have negative outcomes? Nope, but some will have very negative outcomes – just like we see with higher-needs temperaments and attachment status. This gets at the crux of the debate for me which is not whether someone uses a technique, but the argument of PROMOTION of a technique. If we promote something, should we not be sure it does not have negative consequences? Should we not be careful how and to whom we promote it? None of that is happening and that is deeply concerning to me.

            Second, I am not out to tell a parent they are “bad” or “wrong” for using a method that they felt they had to. It’s why I share alternate resources, talk about how we need to promote these alternatives to families who are struggling, and present them early. BUT, and yes there is a but, I will NOT say that I support all choices as equal. As I’ve written too, I can support a person without supporting a particular choice. I can understand why someone did it, but still believe and say there is a better method and that’s what learning and growing is about. I have had to face that same realization in my own parenting. If I expected to just assume everything I did was wonderful because it was my best, how on earth would I ever improve?

            Third, the issue of guilt is misguided. Guilt is there to tell us something and if we feel it, it’s a sign we either aren’t secure enough in our choice or are aware we didn’t do something that we internally feel is good. If I feel guilt (and I have), it’s not due to anyone else but me realizing my own approach was not based on me having either done enough research or simply ignoring what I did know in favour of what was easier in the moment. I have had many criticisms thrown my way and not once have I felt any guilt about my approach because I have gone into all choices with eyes wide open. So the statement, “don’t feel guilty about your choices if you believe they are in your family’s best interest” is almost impossible. If you feel that you have done best and you have looked at your options and made a choice you won’t feel guilt.

  2. says

    I have to say that the information on how religious groups discipline and the use of physical punishment within those groups. The truth is though, that the entire idea of using the “rod” to better the child is absurd and not what is meant in the Bible at all. I could go very deep into the science of translations and why some words have been translated incorrectly while the majority of the text can still be trusted, but it’s long and many find it boring. Suffice it to say that the word has been translated wrong for years and what was meant by the word “rod” was in fact discipline, a word I think we all would agree is desperately needed in a home, tempered of course with love and respect, as you said.

    Sadly, that’s still little known even among the devout and is still only accepted by a portion of theologically trained people. There are better ways of teaching about consequences than hitting. I don’t want my kids to learn that hitting is something someone can earn with enough bad behavior. If they learn that, will they decide that people around them deserve to be hit because they are “bad enough?” We do not accept that hitting someone is acceptable response to poor behavior outside of our families, why should we accept it within our families?

    • IK says

      Hitting simply shows your helplessness, emotional instability, lack of alternative approaches and assures the child that “the strongest one always is right no matter of what” … :) Children will become stronger than parents at one point of time, so parents should expect some hitting when they don’t behave, right ? :) According to me, of course :)

  3. says

    Hi Tracy, I’m not into the research, but I have always felt extremely strongly that ‘teaching children the ways of the world’ is not the way I wanted to do things. I wanted to show my children that with Love, support and guidance they can shape their worlds into whatever they want them to be. There was never any part of me that felt like it was right to ‘teach children how they should behave.’ even if most others around me appeared to be doing just that – and at the time they seemed sometimes to have the easier road, and the better sleep. This, I understood as the essence of what you are writing about here – and I want to thank you for that. Kat

  4. IK says

    Tracy, THANK YOU !!! To me, these words say it all : “I will never understand parents trying to bring that shittiness into the home just so their kids can learn about it. I want my home to be a safe haven for my children. It doesn’t mean that they will always be happy or get everything they want, but that I will be sure they always feel loved, responded to, and appreciated.” THANK YOU, AGAIN !!! I’m so happy there are sites like this in the messy-full-of-shittiness-know-it-all Internet ! :)

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