Responsive parenting is often accused of creating “spoiled” children. Some people who struggle to see the connection between being responsive and emotional growth will, at times, accuse responsive parents of “spoiling” their children, by trying to regularly attend to their emotional needs and refraining from using punitive parenting strategies. What’s unfortunate is that if you don’t have an in-depth understanding of Attachment theory, all the critics can seem quite right.
A small child who’s needs are regularly met with love, empathy and compassion will continue to seek this support. This may look like crying, hugging, physical attachment to the caregiver and sometimes whining.”
As securely attached children find their voice, they can sometimes be demanding, forgetting the societal norms of politeness and not caring too much because they are not scared of the consequences of forgetting to “say please”. They just “say please” after they are gently reminded to do so.
The child who has had their needs ignored or dealt with using hostility or ambivalence, will begin to ignore their own needs and accommodate to the emotional needs of their parent in an effort to please them (if that sounds appealing to you, please seek therapy before becoming a parent or an educator). This is where things get tricky. avoidant attachment mom is punitive in her approach to parenting and “trains” her child to adapt to her needs, rather than the other way around. As a result, the child becomes focused on the parent’s happiness, instead of their own. This child will then exhibit the behaviours that the mother desires, further proving her point that the way she parents is creating a polite, obedient and respectful child who does what they are told and doesn’t put up any fuss.
But is that really the goal? Sleep training is an excellent example of how this myth of the spoiled child is negatively impacting even the earliest emotional development of our children. Sleep trained children can often appear to be “perfect angels” which then confuses responsive parents and gives fuel to the sleep training fire. The answer is avoidant attachment- children who’s needs are not usually met or met with frustration and hostility become focused on pleasing the caregiver. They begin to ignore their own bodily cues and adapt to the emotional needs of their parents.
By not responding to their night-time needs, parents are sending the message that “your feelings are not valid, your needs are not important to me, leaving me alone while I sleep is more important than your need for comfort, food, warmth, a burp.” Instinctually the child will try to turn off their bodily cues, try and silence them so they can appease the needs of the caregiver. They begin to learn that the more they try and follow what the caregiver wants, the more time the caregiver spends with them. Because young children need human interaction to survive, this actually overrides their other needs in some cases. For some children this is easy, for others, many others, it is very hard to constantly try and please a caregiver. Especially since children are egocentric and have very little knowledge of the external world, so every time the caregiver is upset, they assume it is their fault. They also lack impulse control and will continue to act like children (which is often incorrectly termed “misbehaving”) and then are punished for being playful or having emotions. This can have a profound impact on emotional and social development, as well as cognitive development because their play and/or emotions have been stifled.
At some point, all the psychological damage from having your needs ignored does surface, for every person that looks different. A recent Study found health risks associated with avoidant attachment. Adults with an avoidant attachment quality have learned to ignore symptoms and try and hide their feelings of discomfort, instead of seeking appropriate medical care. Other studies have found that adults with avoidant attachment have difficulty connecting with partners and often struggle in intimate relationships. Anyone who has been to any kind of therapy will tell you- stuffing down feelings is like trying to hold a beach ball under water, it will always surface and the effort to keep it under is far more challenging than just letting it float.” I heard a quote from a child psychiatrist once that said something along the lines of
all the parents we see in here with teens say ‘I don’t understand, at 3 he was a perfect angel.’ 3 year olds are not supposed to be perfect angels.” – unknown
Alfie Kohn wrote a wonderful book called “The Myth of The Spoiled Child.” Turns out every generation from the beginning of time has accused the next generation of being a danger to our society because of their entitled, “spoiled” behaviour. I’m not sure why we tend to focus on “fixing” everything and everyone but children whine, they forget their manners, they interrupt people during conversations and they can be very loud in places that you are supposed to be quiet. That is because they are children who are still learning all these rules, not because they are “defiant, entitled and spoiled”
A child needs to experience something over and over sometimes, before it sinks in, especially something as difficult as being quiet in the library or saying please ALL THE TIME. Think about how much they have to say “please,” because they can’t do anything for themselves yet. Every time a child wants anything, they have to go find an adult, ask nicely and then hope the adult gets the message and complies. When I’m hungry, I walk down to the kitchen and find something to eat. When I am cold, I put on a sweater. When I want to get some fresh air, I go for a walk. All of these things children need to ask for. Of course, they are going to get excited sometimes and forget to ask nicely. Sometimes they may even be in a bad mood and that could trigger a tone that may be perceived as “rude.” But adults never do that! We always speak to each other with kindness and respect (cue the sarcastic laugh).
So how do you raise a kind and respectful human being? Be one yourself! Model grace, model kindness, model acceptance, and that starts with our children. Treat them the way you want to be treated, truly. Really think about that, it is the golden rule, we hear it all the time and many of us try to live by it, but we stop short at our children. We want them to live by the golden rule and then we expect them to just know how. The core of that rule is empathy. Empathy is learned, it is not innate. You need to receive empathy to become empathetic, you need to experience compassion to be compassionate, you need to see the selflessness of grace in order to be gracious and you need to feel the security of unconditional acceptance in order to accept others and to accept yourself. If you made a mistake, how would you want someone else to treat you? That’s the first clue on what to do with your child when they make a mistake.
What will this look like? Make sure you have reasonable expectations. Your two-year-old is likely not going to start holding doors open for people any time soon but you will see glimpses and know that you are on the right path. One time I was in a bit of an irritable mood. I let out an exasperated sigh and my oldest child, who was almost five at the time, came over and gave me a big, tight hug, patted my back slowly and said “it’s ok to be angry mommy, it’s ok to be angry.” In that moment he gave me acceptance, he expressed empathy and he offered comfort and compassion. That is the goal, isn’t it? Not to stop them from whining or crying for what they want but to raise kind, compassionate and empathetic members of society. That’s my goal anyway.
If you want to join me, and our community of responsive parents, on this wonderfully complex journey of parenting, please join my parenting support group on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/groups/806727139517086
Attachment theory,: What is secure attachment-http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2017/3/31/what-is-a-secure-attachmentand-why-doesnt-attachment-parenting-get-you-there
Sleep training: Your child is not “protesting”…they are crying. The language sleep trainers use and the damage it causes– https://themilkmeg.com/your-child-is-not-protesting-they-are-crying-the-language-sleep-trainers-use-and-the-damage-it-causes/
Because young children need human interaction to survive: Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing’s Importance– https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/moral-landscapes/201303/normal-infant-sleep-night-nursings-importance
overrides their other needs in some cases: Why Does My Baby Wake Up When I Put Her Down? https://www.bellybelly.com.au/baby-sleep/why-does-my-baby-wake-up-when-i-put-her-down/
egocentric: The Pre-operational Stage of Cognitive Development– https://www.simplypsychology.org/preoperational.html
punished: Part 1: Rewards, Incentives, Consequences and Punishments– http://attachmentparenting.org/blog/2010/08/31/part1-rewards-incentives-consequences-and-punishments-oh-my/
playful: Schemas in Children’s Play– http://www.nature-play.co.uk/blog/schemas-in-childrens-play
profound impact: STUDIES SHOW A “TOUGH LOVE” PARENTING STYLE CREATES MORE HARM THAN STRENGTH– http://thespiritscience.net/2016/06/29/studies-show-a-tough-love-parenting-style-creates-more-harm-than-strength/
Study: Avoidant attachment as a risk factor for health– https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.2044-8341.1994.tb01793.x
Other studies: How anxious and avoidant attachment affect romantic relationship quality differently: A meta‐analytic review– https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ejsp.1842
Model grace: Model Graciousness– https://visiblechild.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/model-graciousness/
Treat them the way you want to be treated: We Need To Talk About Childism– http://happinessishereblog.com/2016/08/we-need-to-talk-about-childism/