I am often asked to blog more about my parenting style, and so today, I would like to discuss something dear to my heart: raising children on love, love, and more love. I am often told that I am raising a spoiled child (not always in such a direct way of course), that Franklin will never learn to play on his own, that he will be clingy, whiny and will not learn to be independent.
Many years ago, I decided to pursue studies in psychology. One of the reasons for it was to learn as much as I could about child psychology to see what the biggest findings in the field were, and potentially use them for my child’s benefits. One of the most important principles in psychology is the concept of reinforcement. If you do something, and get rewarded for it, you are more likely to do it again. If you get punished, you are less likely to repeat it. Pretty simple, right?
People often use this principle in child rearing. If a child whines and is indulged, the child will whine again. Do not encourage whining, and the child will find different ways to get what he wants without relying on you. For instance, if your child wants to play, he will want to play with you first, but if you are not available, he will whine. You can indulge this behavior by giving in and playing, or you can ignore the behavior until the child understands you are not available to play, and he will play alone.
Does it seem pretty simple and straightforward? Not so fast.
Have you ever wondered why people addicted to gambling cannot break their addiction easily? That’s because they are getting reinforcement based on what is called a variable ratio schedule. They won’t often get their reward (like winning at the slot machine) but sometimes they will, and this reinforcement (even if it’s very, very rare) makes it very hard to extinguish the behavior (indeed, the behaviors that are hardest to extinguish are those reinforced by a variable ratio schedule).
In short, if you think that ignoring your child’s whines or other undesirable behavior will make your child independent and never demanding, be prepared to ignore every single whining instance. Every. Single. One. Indulge your child a few times, and you will face the opposite of what your were trying to achieve. Just like a slot machine junkie will play for hours and hours before giving up, the child will whine and whine and whine, hoping for you will give in.
What alternative do I suggest? It’s pretty simple. Don’t give your child the opportunity to whine. Babies spend 9 months in the womb, they think that you are them and they are you. They don’t know where you end and where they begin. They need a smooth, loving transition where they are carried nearly the entire time and are nestled in your arms at night.
As they grow a little bigger, they are faced with an incredibly interesting world that they have limited access to. You could put the child away while you “get things done”, but why not include the child in your activities instead? Give the child what he wants, which is to spend time with you and experience the world.
One might say that this is the best way to raise a spoiled child. But, this is where I disagree! In my scenario, there has been no reinforcement of whiny behavior because there has been no whining to begin with.The child’s desires are anticipated.
Let’s take sleeping, for example. According to Dr Sears:
Babies will wean and someday they will sleep through the night. This high maintenance stage of nighttime parenting will pass. The time in your arms, at your breast, and in your bed is a relatively short while in the life of a baby, yet the memories of love and availability last forever.
This, to me, is crucial. Indulge a child’s desire to sleep with you, indulge the frequent wakings, and always be there at arms’ reach. Little by little, the child will realize that waking is unnecessary, that mom is always there, and sleeping will be associated with positive, loving memories. Because there were no night wakings with strong calls for comfort, the child will not associate waking/crying with comfort at all, and therefore waking/crying will not be seen as something that needs to be done. As the child grows older, waking will be seen as an annoyance that leads to tiredness and absolutely no benefits, and the waking behavior will be gently extinguished.
Let’s take Franklin’s example. From birth, Franklin was the worst sleeper. He would wake up a gazzilion times, and only wanted to co-sleep (and even then he would wake up often). With time though, he started sleeping for longer periods of time, and most importantly, falling asleep became less and less of a struggle. As he got bigger and was still breastfeeding, I didn’t need a routine to get him to fall asleep. All he needed was to be tired and to be breastfed. When he was tired (and the cues were obvious), he was out in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes, he would unlatch, put his head down on the pillow, and close his eyes.
He didn’t have a good notion of what’s to be expected, and seemed frustrated when he didn’t fall asleep in 30 seconds, but it was obvious that he was trying. More importantly, he smiled while trying to sleep! I let him try until he would start getting worked up, at which point I would give him the breast and he wold fall asleep almost immediately. Sometimes, he would wake up a night and try to fall asleep on his own — by putting his head on my chest to hear my heartbeat, or by running his hand on the bed sheet to make a ssshhh sound to soothe him back to sleep. I’m willing to bet that a child who has always been a good sleeper would reach this milestone much sooner than this.
Some might say: “Joanna, Franklin did whine, you were still reinforcing this behavior!” but I disagree. I don’t think that what he did was really whining, it was more like asking. I meet his needs very quickly, and I knew that once he would be able to do more, he would ask for a lot less of me. I could see it already when I would give him an interesting task: he would play and explore on his own and would not even look at me.
I’ve been able to read so many books since he became more independent! Sometimes, he would look at me to make sure everything is OK, and go back to playing. For example, we were at the library one day and a little girl started playing with him. As they played, he sometimes would look up at me, and I would smile. He’d smile back and go back to playing. As he grew older and could understand me and the world a little better, I knew he’d think nothing of playing for a few hours while I was away.
Paying attention to your child’s cues is also, in my opinion, very important to developing a high IQ. Franklin is a very smart boy who isn’t satisfied with simple tasks. He wants more. Had I ignored him and his needs, he might have resigned himself to playing with toys that aren’t stimulating and interesting. But, because I noticed how much more he actually needs, I’m always on the look out for objects that will keep his attention for a while. Anything with a mechanism works, for example (we joke that he’s going to be an engineer).
So here’s my take on whining and meeting a child’s needs. Franklin was my first child and I might have done it all wrong, but I doubt it. I saw him growing into a very confident, very independent little boy. He didn’t want to be carried in an elevator. He wanted to push the button and stand with the adults. He wanted to face the door and be the first to exit when it opened, and he wanted to walk to the car without having his hand held by anyone. He wanted to explore on his own, and only complained when he was bored — it was obvious that he was not complaining to have our company to play, he was complaining that he was not being stimulated enough by his environment.
And now? Franklin is now almost 4. He goes to summer camp without complaining, is happy to be dropped off, but is also happy to be picked up (unless he’s playing hard, in which case he wants to stay.) As my husband once remarked, “the cord has been cut!” Compared to other children I see at parks, Franklin is very often more independent, more imaginative (he will play pretend games with children 2 years older than him), and I’ve noticed something important… He doesn’t whine if things don’t go his way. He doesn’t come to me to “tell” on other children, and doesn’t cry every single time he gets a little hurt. He’s a tough, strong, independent little boy, and while I believe that a lot of it has to do with his personality, I think that my parenting style also had a noticeable impact.
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