It can be a difficult task, discussing parenting methods and tactics. People are often passionate and even more so, defensive. I want to open this article up with the idea that this isn’t a slap on anyone’s wrist saying, “bad parent!” but rather a piece to make you think, to encourage you to research, and to not just go with the way things are and instead embrace the way things could be.
This isn’t a judgment on parents, this is a judgment on ideas. Parenting is hard, and I support parents on this journey, but I can’t support actions that are harmful to others or actions that remove another persons autonomy and free will. I like the saying, “once you know better, you do better.” Nobody is standing trial for past mistakes. All we can do is learn and grow as often as we can.
” To allow someone else’s mind is to be newly open to our own mind. To abide a whole room of individual thoughts is to feel large, containing worlds, abundant and whole. No enemies. No one to fight. This ability to listen seems a strong foundation for democracy.” Said by Natalie Goldberg in The True Secret of Writing, but applies here too.
Some of the ideas that encourage detachment are cry it out, “controlled crying,” sleep training, not picking babies up for fear of spoiling them, letting children cry for a few minutes so they can toughen up or so they won’t manipulate us, and love withdrawals like timeout and punishment.
WHEN DID THIS IDEA OF FORCED DETACHMENT BECOME EMBRACED, SUPPORTED, AND TAUGHT TO US AS A WAY TO GROW HEALTHY CHILDREN; EMOTIONALLY HEALTHY; PHYSICALLY HEALTHY; MENTALLY HEALTHY?
I truly believe that the majority of parents choose these tactics because they honestly believe that they are making the best choice for their children, and that they have their child’s best interest at heart. But I think they fail to realize the consequences, the deep rooted consequences, of these methods. I think parents can feel desperation when they are tired, when they aren’t surrounded by a solid support system, when all they know is what they are doing, and they don’t see any need or reason to seek out a different way. The biggest failure of this system is the hearts of our children, our future generation, who they are when they first come to be. They are often not seen as whole people, just a tool to be sharpened, and clay to be shaped, as a representative of our own success, a representative of what we think they should be like.
The thing is though? Every single person, when they are born, is completely unique. They won’t be just like me. I can try to make them like me, but in reality, they are them. My goal as a parent is to foster who they are regardless of how similar or different they are to me. Yes, I can talk about things that I’m passionate about and things that I believe in, but they don’t have to believe it and I’m not going to try and force them to believe anything that they aren’t ready or willing to believe.
Each person is on his own journey, and some will reject this message, and some might initially feel defensive, but oh so slowly think, “Just maybe.” And then some may be willing to fully embrace this idea; this idea that all people, children included, deserve unconditional love. In theory, we might all say “well, obviously I believe in unconditional love. I love my child unconditionally.” But do your actions tell your child this? I ask that question in a non-judgmental way, in a way that you truly look within yourself to see how you have been doing things and how that could potentially affect your child.
How do these detachment parenting practices impact children?
BABIES CANNOT SELF-SOOTHE.
Let’s start with crying it out, controlled crying, or sleep training. All of these terms fall under the same category and idea of trying to “teach” our children to self-soothe. Babies cannot self-soothe. Sure, they can stop crying and fall asleep with dried tears on their faces, and eventually no tears… no feelings… just apathy. This is called the extinction method. And “controlled crying” or “sleep training” may not be seen as severe at first glance, but it is labeled the gradual extinction method. Basically, from an evolutionary stand point, a child/baby will cry out for its mother. The mother’s instinct is to go pick up the child. This was, once upon a time, the key to survival (and really, it still is). If a child was left alone, they were at a huge risk of dying.
In the case of cries going unanswered, the child eventually stops crying because they know that nobody is coming. And I’m not talking about putting your baby down crying while you take a minute to get your mind centered again after feeling like tearing your hair out. In the sense of cry it out to make a child stop crying out for a parent. Sure, it “works.” But at what cost? A child becomes quiet on the outside, but studies and evidence have shown that the same stress hormones are active and screaming on the inside. On the outside, the child, who is fully dependent on their caregiver for survival, has stopped crying. They have shut down. They have given up on thinking that their parent or caregiver will come to them and help them when they are in distress. How devastating.
Out in the wild, they would feel and know that no one is coming to save them so they must stay still and quiet to conserve their energy because who knows how much time they have left before they are attacked and eaten by a predator.
One article states that, “we know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated persons who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation.”
TRUST IS UNDERMINED.
As Erik Erikson pointed out, “the first year of life is a sensitive period for establishing a sense of trust in the world, the world of caregiver and the world of self. When a baby’s needs are met without distress, the child learns that the world is a trustworthy place, that relationships are supportive, and that the self is a positive entity that can get its needs met. When a baby’s needs are dismissed or ignored, the child develops a sense of mistrust of relationships and the world. And self-confidence is undermined. The child may spend a lifetime trying to fill the resulting inner emptiness.”
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University states that “experiences are built into our bodies and significant adversity early in life can produce biological “memories” that lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health.”
Then there is the idea that falls in with controlled crying, but you go in and talk to the baby without picking them up. Or picking them up for a moment and then putting them back down. This is highly distressing for a baby or child. It serves no purpose really besides continuously confusing the infant and releasing a ton of cortisol from stress.
I like this article written by Jessica with Pocketful of Pebbles: the Myth of the Sleeping Baby.
PICKING UP YOUR BABY WHEN THEY CRY IS NOT MANIPULATION.
Why does it matter if a parent wants to pick up their crying child? What damage could that possibly inflict on them? “I can’t pick you up sweet darling. I have to let you cry lest you feel like someone will respond to you when you are upset. You need to know that people aren’t going to be there for you all the time so I might as well teach you that now. But I still love you.” It just makes no sense.
It’s not possible to spoil a baby. It’s just not. Are they supposed to go sour if they are comforted?
Babies don’t have the mental capacity to manipulate. I often hear, “oh, she’s got you wrapped around her little finger!” Just because I picked up my baby when she was crying for me. That’s what she wanted, of course. And she can’t talk. So how else is she supposed to communicate that she wants to be close to me? Is it really so bad to be close to our children? To hold them tight? To let them know that regardless of the obstacles they face in their life, they can always come crying to me and they will never hear an “I told you so” or “you asked for it” or “that’s life.”
A tiny anecdote: every single one of our writers here responded to our infant’s cries. We wore them. We held them close. We didn’t push them to do things that they weren’t comfortable with. And as each of our kids get older, they have had the security and confidence to spread their wings and go out and do things that they are interested in. They go to school or classes on their own. They run off and play with friends on their own. And they do all of these things without pressure. Wearing a baby constantly doesn’t equal them being clingy as they grow older. If anything, it makes them less clingy. In their own time.
PUNISHMENT AND WITHDRAWALS OF LOVE DON’T TEACH ANYTHING POSITIVE.
Love withdrawals. It sounds harsh. Did you know that a timeout to a child is a withdrawal of your love. “You are not conforming to my standards, which means you need to go away from me and anything that brings you joy needs to be removed from your environment until you can behave within this set box of acceptable behaviors.” This is called control and manipulation.
I will manipulate you and deprive you until you conform to the beliefs of others. That is what the most basic purpose of a timeout or punishment is. That isn’t teaching our kids to be assertive, to be curious, or to be outspoken against injustice. Are they supposed to magically learn how to do all of these things once they leave the nest? I’m here to say, that will not happen. I am a living example. I was required to behave a certain way or face the consequences. I wasn’t allowed to say no. I wasn’t allowed to speak up if I felt I wasn’t being treated fairly. “Life’s not fair,” after all. I was taught to do what adults told me to do regardless of how I felt about it. Thank goodness I wasn’t sexually abused as a child. It could have easily happened. I would have done what I was told because that was law in my world. Well, not anymore. And not in my kids world. Read this article about why I encourage my children to tell me no.
Punishments and rewards may be the only tool that you have in your arsenal, but I am here to tell you that they don’t work. We are looking long term here. There are plenty of sources for a non-punitive and gentle upbringing. Pocketful of Pebbles is an attachment parenting blog. Some books that I have loved are Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn (this also has a video version) and Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon has excellent communication advice for parents. Any book by Daniel Siegel (Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline are great!). Any book by Alice Miller. Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen. Hold Onto Your Kids by Gordon Neufeld. Cosleeping studies and books by Dr. James McKenna. Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne. Any book by Brene Brown (for self-growth).
Our goal in raising the future generation should be to equip them with the tools to thrive emotionally. If they have a strong emotional intelligence, they can handle anything. I want my child to make choices because they feel in their heart that it is the right thing to do, always. I don’t want them to make choices based on extrinsic motivation; like fear, rewards, or punishments. Alfie Kohn talks in depth about how detrimental rewards and punishments and praise are. You may think I’m being dramatic, but I’m not. My goal isn’t to raise children that “turn out ok,” my goal is to raise children that are world-changers, freethinkers, confident, secure, and empathetic. We can do that by tossing out punishments, throwing out love withdrawals, eliminating these outdated ideas of what is “good for children” and actually provide them with what is truly good for children; unconditional love, peacefulness, empathy, modeling behaviors that we want to see, kindness, and a whole lot of grace. No person is perfect. We all fail everyday, that’s part of life, but how we choose to use those failings to grow and change are what matter most.