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