Okay, okay, it’s a kind of misleading title. Hopefully we all know how important warmth is to the parent-child relationship (or any relationship for that matter) and we make sure we are as warm as possible when it comes to raising our children. BUT… yes, the but… often people mistake warmth for responsiveness. I regularly hear the argument that people used cry-it-out (CIO) or controlled crying (CC) to get their child to not signal them at night (because you honestly can’t say they don’t wake, you just aren’t aware of it) because it allowed them to be happier and warmer during the day. I’ve also heard people justify their yelling at or hitting their children under the guise that they are generally warm parents and these warmer moments outweigh the times they screw up and lose it (and regarding discipline, I am not talking about the time your child cried because you didn’t let them have the cookie, but when you knew you lost control or were harsh in your discipline).
The argument is that if you have a warmer relationship at other times, the failure to be responsiveness or to even be hurtful is not a problem. Now, before I continue, let’s be clear that there are always moments in which we are not responsive or may lose it. The manner in which we handle the aftermath of these acts is critical. Communication is key and being able to express your regret and apologize to your child is paramount to negating the negative effects that may happen, especially when it comes to discipline.
Often parents don’t apologize or aim to be more responsive because they don’t feel there’s a need. They take the global view of how they parent, see that there are some negative moments, but rationalize that generally they are warm, loving parents and that the warmth they show generally will buffer their child against any negatives from the other acts or even help them reach the positive outcomes they want for them. Sadly, there seems to be evidence that this isn’t the case.
Let’s start with the case of harsh discipline. I wish I could say that it wasn’t very common, but sadly it is and there is quite a bit of evidence that greater use of harsh parenting techniques – including yelling – is associated with poorer child outcomes, like behaviour problems or anxiety. Often, though, parents see it as either a necessary evil or a case of they made a mistake and being kind after will make up for it. A recent study from the University of Pittsburgh, and published in Child Development, looked at the main effects of yelling at your child (in this case 13-year-olds) on later behaviour and the moderating effects of parental warmth and the conclusions suggest this line of reasoning is actually faulty. The authors found that yelling at your child and name-calling at age 13 predicted antisocial behaviour and depressive symptoms at age 14. Importantly, there was no moderating factor of either paternal or maternal warmth. None. This means that regardless of how warm and loving the parents were outside of these “discipline” episodes, the negative effects persisted. However, they did not assess how the parents responded to the event – apologize, ignore, defend – and so we don’t know if that might have moderated outcomes.
[Note that new research from Duke University has found the similar non-effects of warmth (i.e., lack of warmth helping with physical punishment) in 8-10 year olds and found that the warmth can actually make things worse. You can read up on it here. Source: Duke University. (2015, March 16). Some things hugs can’t fix: Parental warmth does not remove anxiety that follows punishment. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 21, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150316165949.htm.]
The second example that I often hear is when people engage in sleep training, or CIO techniques (including CC). I’ve gone into a lot of detail elsewhere about how these can be seen as a failure to respond to distress in the infant. I don’t think anyone argues that it’s not that (or at least I hope not), but many people argue that there would be no effects (which is silly, of course there are effects, but whether they are negative is the issue) because any negative would be outweighed by the now more positive interactions during the day. In short, because mothers are warmer during the day, the failure to respond to distress won’t matter.
The first bit of evidence that pokes a hole in this comes from Dr. Wendy Middlemiss in her groundbreaking research that found infants undergoing CIO show heightened stress responses as they fall asleep even when they no longer are crying. For the purposes of warmth, however, it was another result that stood out: The cortisol synchrony between mother and infant that was present prior to sleep training (and is associated with attachment and later positive child outcomes) was now gone. This means that mothers were no longer “in tune” with their babies as they had been before. The questions that remain, however, are if this is a long-term or short-term effect and what needs to be done to regain synchrony.
The second bit of evidence comes from the domain theory of parenting, as described by Drs. Joan Grusec and Maayan Davidov. This theory, which has considerable support in the literature, suggests that different aspects of parenting influence different outcomes. According to the theory, parental responsiveness to distress is associated with separate outcomes than parental warmth. In practice, we know that responsiveness to distress is linked to a host of positive outcomes including greater attachment, the development of empathy, emotion regulation, etc.. Important here is consistent responsiveness. When responsiveness is absent, children learn to minimize their signalling of distress, but when it is inconsistent, they learn to exaggerate it. But what about warmth? Well, warmth is certainly important, but it is not linked to the same outcomes as responsiveness to distress. In a study looking at 6- to 8-year-olds, it was found that maternal warmth was associated to regulation of positive affect only and for boys, peer acceptance. Responsiveness to distress, however, was linked to better regulation of negative affect and children’s empathy and prosocial behaviours. This was not moderated by or in any way influenced by warmth.
So what do we have here? Well, we can cut the idea that simply being warm will make up for not responding to distress or engaging in harsh discipline. It simply won’t. Regardless of whether one believes in domain theory or not, the evidence suggests different outcomes based on different domains of parenting. Warmth is its own domain with its own set of outcomes, but they are different than those of discipline and responsiveness.
Does this mean parents have to be perfect? No. But we have to be careful about what we promote to parents. If we’re telling parents that utilizing sleep training isn’t a problem because you get to be all warm and fuzzy the next day, it’s somewhat disingenuous because the effects of that warm and fuzzy on our children are different than the effects of responding to them at night. Same with harsh discipline. But what if you’ve done this already? Are you forever stuck? No. The point of bringing this up is that the thing that will help is to change. That means that families need to have information. If they don’t have that information or we want to continue to peddle the myth that just being warm is enough for all outcomes, we don’t do any families any favours. But giving them the information means they can go forward acting in a way that benefits them and their babies because relationships can change and outcomes can change with them. And if they can’t be responsive for a period or lose their cool, they don’t have to pretend it’s fine, but just accept that we all make mistakes, apologize, and continue to move forward.
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