From “Spare the rod, spoil the child” to “Children should be seen and not heard” to John Locke’ s ideas on educating through reason to the debates over corporeal punishment to ruling with praise, it’ s clear that popular views on child discipline have changed over time. I have been a pediatrician for over two decades, and even during this relatively short period of time in the history of child rearing, I’ve seen numerous standards in parenting advice change due to fads or improved medical knowledge.
As a result, parents from different generations can have very different ideas on the do’s and don’ts of caring for children. In my last article, I addressed certain fads and facts regarding general baby and child care. In this article, I will look at the different views on addressing parental disapproval of a child’s behavior.
Crying at Night: Pick Up and Comfort vs. “Cry It Out”
Everyone wakes up during the night – babies, children and adults. When you wake up at night for any reason, the last thing you need is for someone to come in and entertain you. The same goes for a child who wakes up; once babies are 6 months and older, picking them up is just preventing them from falling back to sleep. Granted, children may want to be picked up and comforted, but there are quite a few things that children want but really don’t need. This is one of them; being entertained at night should be looked at in the same vein as an all-candy diet.
Ruling with Discipline or with Love: Spank vs. Spoil
Dr. Spock advised parents to treat their children as individuals and respect them. He was against strict discipline and spanking. Opponents said that Spock’s ideas would lead to spoiled children. Later, Spock was blamed for a generation of rebellious youth in the 1960s. However, this misses the entire point: Spanking is a marker of parental failure at being a benign, enlightened despot.
Boundaries of behavior need not be narrow or restrictive, but they should not be movable on a whim. The spoiled child isn’t the one who uses all the latitude allowed to them but one who succeeds in increasing the latitude beyond that originally intended.
Temper Tantrums: Address vs. Ignore
The best way to put an end to tantrums is to make them useless. One of the many developmental stages that children usually master between 6 months and 2 years of age is to learn to “read” their parents. Ideally, the purpose of this is so they can internalize their parents’ rules and values by reading approval or disapproval for their actions. Unfortunately, many toddlers find it more rewarding to “read” their parents for buttons to push to achieve desired ends.
Children do have a built-in imperative to explore the boundaries – both physical and permissive – of their universe. English is one of the few languages that separate “I can” and “I may,” but certainly for children there is no difference. They will internalize best those parental prohibitions that are accompanied by gentle physical restraint.
Lack of it will set up a situation where the child begins to explore the solidity of the “verbal” wall, and finding it lacking, will start to ignore it entirely. After that, the child will explore the solidity of the parents themselves. I see the results of this dynamic in my practice again and again; a family comes in with parents and grandparents trained into perfect telepathic servants for the child.
Loving restraint is part of reversing this trend; it starts, for an infant, with holding them so they don’t fall out of your arms when they squirm. Similarly, you would hold a toddler’s hand so they don’t run into a busy street. This guidance has to be extended to many types of undesirable behaviors.
The loving restraint is protective in nature, not punishing. It not only says “I won’t let anything happen to you” but also “I won’t let you do anything that will harm you.” The child who does not perceive the second implication will be just as scared as one who lacks the first.
ANATOLY BELILOVSKY, M.D.