Monday, July 16, 2007


There was an article published recently declaring that children as young as 6 months can lie. You can read it here.

Now that you're back, let's discuss.

The premus here is that there is nothing really wrong with the child when they cry, therefor they are lying and manipulating their care giver into responding to them. Seems basic enough. I'm sure everyone who's spent any time around kids has encountered this - baby cries, nothing seems wrong, you pick baby up, baby stops crying. So obviously they were just trying to manipulate you, right?

Or let's consider this. Baby has limited means of communication. Baby is feeling lonely, stressed, cold, uncomfortable, itchy, whatever. Baby cries and is picked up. Whatever was bothering baby suddenly isn't bothing them, they stop crying.

Yeah, sure, but the researches covered this, they said babies would cry, wait for a response, and then cry again. Well if most babies start doing this at 6 months then Hana is ahead of the curve. At around 4 months she learned that she could "call" to us when she woke up in the morning. It isn't really a cry, but I suppose that's what it would sound like if you didn't know what she was doing. That's how we knew she was awake and ready to get out of bed in the morning. She wasn't making us think something was wrong, she was just communicating in the only way she knew how.

So why do babies "cry for attention" - I have a theory. Babies start life with the ability to communicate. There are signals they make when they are hungry, when they need to eliminate, when they are tired, when they need to be held etc. The first few months of life is spent refining this communication. For example:

Mother is watching baby. Baby moves towards mother's breast. Mother makes no response. Baby moves hands to mouth. Mother makes no response. Baby sucks hands. Mother makes no response but wonders what's going on. Baby cries. Mother feeds it.

Next time things are similar:

Mother is watching baby. Baby moves towards mother's breast. Mother makes no response. Baby moves hands to mouth. Mother makes no response. Baby sucks hands and whimpers. Mother feeds it.

And the next time:

Mother is watching baby. Baby moves towards mother's breast. Mother makes no response. Baby moves hands to mouth. Mother feeds it.

Ok so it might not be quite so smooth as that and it takes a lot more practice, but you get the point. Baby and mother develop their own language in order to get things done. If these signals are missed in the early months then the baby resorts to crying. Not crying to manipulate, but crying because that's how they've learned to express their needs.

So why does this happen?

Because we live in a culture where children are seen as less than adults. Their needs aren't as important and need to be controlled, scheduled, or extinguished. We're told by relatives, strangers, friends and (most appalling) medical professionals that if we're not careful a baby will quickly gain power over us and manipulate us and we'll become slaves to our children. The only way to stop this is to very early teach a baby "who's boss". There's even the perpetuating myth that crying is good exercise for babies and is actually necessary for proper lung development.

Give me a break! Look at things from the eyes of the child. Hana is in the "grab everything and put it in mouth" stage. She's so funny to watch because her mouth is almost ALWAYS open waiting for whatever it is she's trying to get her little hands on. We're pretty good about keeping safe things within her reach, but every now and then she's grab a forbidden object (my glasses for instance), and we'll have to take it away from her. We try our best to always trade things because we want to teach her to give, not to take, but it's not always that easy. So she cries.

Now some would say she's crying so that I'll take pity on her and give her the object back.

I say she's crying because something she worked hard to get has been taken from her and she doesn't understand why. She's frustrated, confused, a little angry and has no other way to expect that. Yes, she'd stop crying if I gave it back (wouldn't you?), but that doesn't mean the purpose of the cry was to manipulate. I don't give it back. But I also don't dismiss how she's feeling. I let her know I understand she's frustrated and upset, but that she can't chew on x because of y. Then I try to find something that will make her happy.

Why do I react like that? Firstly because that's how I would want to be treated. Secondly because I want to teach her to name and express her emotions in a healthy way. Thirdly because I want her to see that her feelings are valid and important so that she'll learn to validate and respect the feelings of others.

There's this idea floating around that parents are either dictators ("because I said so" sort of thinking) or permissive (let their kids have whatever they want no matter what). As with almost everything else, there is middle ground. It is possible to set boundaries for children (because everyone needs healthy boundaries) without minimalizing their feelings, needs and wants. Yes, even wants. I get things I want but don't need (like tonight when I asked Ben to go get me some popcorn at 10 husband is too good to me!), so I extend the same ability to Hana. No, she won't get everything she wants, and as she grows up I'll t each her how to choose what is important, but right now I make those choices for her. I hate the language of control that is used when talking about parenting. We need to empower children, to support them in their emotions, in their explorations, in their desires. There's this cultural attitude that allows us to put adult motivation (manipulating emotions for a desired response) on a child's behaviour (having no way to express how they feel but crying).


It's human nature to learn behaviour through what we see and experience. If power is taken away from a child then they will take away power. If feelings are dismissed they become uncaring. I honestly think that if the world had a healthier view of children we would have a lot more healthy adults.


Lindy said...

I hope that this blog on parenting goes better than the last?

I have a couple of questions-

When do you think that Hannah will learn to lie? I lied for the first time with I was a year and a half. (or so my Mom tells me). At the moment Hannah is totally innocent- but theologically I know that you acknowledge a sin nature, so it's going to come out at some point, how does this apply to the way you are choosing to parent?

In developmental psych class I learned that babies learn cause and effect between the ages of 5 and 9 months. Once they learn casuse and effect they learn how to work the system. "If I cry I will be picked up"- cause and effect. When are you going to start saying no to her?

I'm not saying that you should be doing this now- and knowing you I'm sure you have thought about the questions I posed. It would help me in understanding where you are coming from though.

Steph said...

First off, I didn't spell her name wrong, it's Hana (and with that spelling means "flower" in Japanese, so yes, it is important...)

Secondly, she will learn to lie at some point, I don't doubt that. From what I've read (and I admit it's limited in the toddler/preschool department at the moment) when young children lie it's out of their desire to please people (as in mommy wants me to say yes when she asks if I cleaned up my toys) not out of self protection (if I say yes I won't get in trouble for not cleaning up my toys). So the whole response has to be different.

Thirdly, I do say no to Hana. When she grabs my glasses I tell her she can't have them, I need them to see, but she can play with whatever other toy happens to be within reach at the time. As I said, there exists something in between being a dictator and being permissive.

Fourthly, Hana does know cause and effect. She knows that when she vocalizes a need that someone will respond to her. I don't call that "working the system", I call it effective communication skills. As her ability changes, so will her means of communication, but right now it would be foolish of me to expect her to say "mommy I'm bored of playing on the floor, can we do something different?"

Lindy said...

Sorry about the misspelling- I'll remember now. I think that you are right about the lying. It's definatly to early to think about it now.

I guess a lot comes down to what we define as "working the system" as well. My last semester at Bethany my friend Kim Stonitch had a baby who went from 4 months to 8 in front of me. In December Kim said "she is the best baby- she never cries about anything unless it's really bad"- and she was right. Kaytlin was completly good natured. Kim had her on a pretty strict sleep scedule which Kaytlin loved (I'm not saying it has to be that way).

When 6 months hit Kaytlin started crying when they put her down for their naps. Kim would come in, hold her, play with her, ect. It seemed fine, except Kaytlin stopped sleeping through the night, eating regularly, was cranky a lot. It was ridicules. She concluded that it was the sleep scedule getting off and realized that she would have to learn to let Kaytlin cry when she went down for her naps. I sat with her for a day while both of them cried. It was awful. The next day Kaytlin went down for her naps with few problems. She slept through the night again, got back on her eating scedule, and was happy as before.

I would define this as Kaytlin "working the system". Sghe decided that playing was more fun than sleeping. She figrued out that if she cried Kim would run in and take her out of her crib. It's not a hard leap to make. Once Kaytlin realized that crying wouldn't get her out of her nap she accecpted it she was happier for it.

I'm not saying that you should be doing this your way. That experience really stuck to me. I learned a lot from it. I think that it is about a middle ground, like you said above.

Steph said...

Personally I think parents are more prone to "working the system" than babies are.

Hana is going through the same thing - having a really hard time going down for her naps and not sleeping nearly as long. So we're helping her transition to one nap a day (much sadness...altho one 2-3 hr block of sleep is better than 2 less than 1 hr naps). We did the same thing at around 4 months when she transitioned from 3 naps to two.

When she's laying there playing, cooing, crying etc. it's because she's sleepy but not sleepy enough to sleep. I could leave here there, regardless of if she cried or not, but that wouldn't help the problem of her needing a change in her schedule.

The extinction method is so ingrained in our culture that people really think it's the only option when something goes off with scheduling. I would argue that we should allow the child to set their own pace, while at the same time encouraging good, healthy habits (like watching for signals that your child is tired and doing what helps them fall asleep).

The extinction method doesn't fix whatever the problem is, it just teaches the child to ignore it. The the parent is given total control over everything, regardless of what the child may really be needing, because the child isn't expressing that need. It's not always taken to that extreme, but it does happen. Once a child learns that no matter how much they cry (scream, bang their head, throw up, whatever), that no one will come, they just stop wasting their time. Doesn't matter if they're hungry, cold, hot, have messed themselves, whatever. It doesn't teach them how to meet their own needs, just that their needs won't be met.

Now that's not to say that people who use that method are uncaring or won't meet the needs of their children. It's easy as adults to see that it's completely functional and situational, but kids (especially infants) don't always see things that way. If I was all alone and crying and knew someone who loved me was listening I'd feel hurt and rejected if they didn't respond, so I'm not going to treat Hana that way.

Joy Pusey said...

But what about self-soothing? I think it's important that a baby learns how to be comfortable with one's self enough to go to sleep without Mommy or Daddy stimulation. I'm not saying that you let your child scream her guts out for hours. Most of the time my girls go right to sleep when I lay them down, but when they do cry I check on them and make sure they're not poopy or stuck and let them know that I'm there. If all appears to be well, I let them cry.

Crying doesn't hurt a baby. And a mother/father knows what cries indicate something urgent. And I don't think letting a child cry compromises your respect for their feelings. When the extinction method (I'm new to this term) is used to its fullest degree, I think it would certainly teach a child to ignore their needs, and that isn't what you want to achieve! But when you teach your baby to self-soothe, you are helping them to become stronger people.

Our job as parents is first of all, to love, care for and respect your child, while at the same time giving them the tools they need to survive and thrive in our world. One of the first tools I'm giving my girls is the knowledge that they're ok, even when Mommy or Daddy is out of sight for a few minutes. Notice I say "out of sight" and not "gone" for a few minutes. Again, it's the middle of the road thingy.

Speaking of crying, my babies are telling me that they're awake now! Gotta run!

Steph said...

I agree that learning how to calm yourself is an important tool, but I think it's one that comes later.

For infants, up until about 9 months (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), they don't understand that an object exists when it is out of sight. So if your baby suddenly realizes you're not there they can't understand that you're going to come back. That's where separation anxiety comes from.

And for the record, there is a big difference between going in, checking your child, comforting them etc. and leaving them to "cry it out" - cry it out means your response to your child is centered around a schedule, not their needs. Hana plays herself to sleep pretty much every night, if she cries we go to her, if she stops before we get to the door we know she's ok and don't go in.

I figure independence is something she's going to have her whole life to learn. There are adults who still don't know how to handle their emotions in a healthy way, I can't expect my infant to be able to do it, especially without being taught. As she gets older we'll help her understand her emotions and teach her ways to deal with them, but until then it's our job to help her calm herself when the world isn't quite right.

And I don't have Hana with me 24/7 anymore. She's perfectly happy to play on the floor while I do dishes, fold laundry, check email etc. But when she isn't I don't hold it against her. I don't think she's manipulating me because yesterday I could be out of sight and today I can't. I just figure she's learning so many new things and needs some comfort and security while she processes them.

Anonymous said...

I have read most of what you have on your blog. You talk a lot about being loving and compassionate and respecting others feelings. So I was suprised at your reaction to Lindy, who seemed to make an honest mistake on the mispelling of your daughter's name. I didn't see anywhere in Lindy's reaction where you were accused of spelling your child's name wrong, however that was the stance you chose to take.
My daughter and I both have a common name spelled an uncommon way. When someone misspells it I usually just let them know in a gentle way that it is spelled differently. As with children, adults usually just need a gentle correction and maybe a reminder now and then, not chastisement in a public forum.