|Subject: Is a crying child manipulating the
As the mother of three grown children, and a
relatively new grandma, I am interested in learning what's new in
parenting. I might also add that I work in a Family Practice Medical
Office and take pride in the fact that I do not try to interfere in any
way in any capacity, personal or professional. That said I have a
question: If one is to respond to a child's every cry how do you keep
from enforcing negative behavior? If a child learns that you will come
running in response to a cry. who is training whom? Granted, a cry needs
to responded to but I have witnessed and experienced personally a
toddler manipulating a parent with crying. I don't have any answers -
just questions. Grandmas need to learn too.
Thanks for a lovely and informative page.
Thank you for this important question and your
obvious care and concern about the best care for children. I, too, had
this question as a new parent, as do many parents and grandparents.
The questions you raise have to do with our
interpretation of a child's behavior. There are three ways in which we
can misinterpret a baby's or child's behavior.
1. We can make the false assumption that the child
is deliberately attempting to take advantage of the parent.
If a child were really "manipulating" a
parent through his or her behavior, that behavior would continue or even
increase over time. However, studies clearly show that the more quickly,
compassionately, and consistently a child's cry is answered, the less
often they cry and the shorter the duration each time they do cry. The
reason for this is that compassionate responding helps the child to
mature, by meeting an important need at the right time. Needs do not
disappear on their own, but only by being met as they arise. As an old
proverb says, "It is the hungry man who steals bread."
As Dr. William Sears wrote in Creative
Parenting, children "do not cry to annoy, to maliciously
manipulate, or to take advantage of their parents in an unfair way. They
cry because they have a need. To ignore the cry is to ignore the
If a parent decides to comfort her child whenever
he cries, has he "trained" her? Yes, he has. But this is proper
training - training she should have gotten from her parents when she
was in distress. The best training is by the example of our behavior,
and the best behavior we can show by example is that of compassion for
the suffering of others. If a child does not learn compassion by his
parents' example, how will he learn it?
2. We mistakenly assume that the child's need for
comfort is somehow less important or less urgent than an adult's need
for emotional comfort.
If a woman asks her partner for a hug, she hopes
that he will respond in a compassionate way, without stopping to
determine if she has had too many hugs already, or is trying to
"manipulate" or "train" him. If he ignores her
request or responds with annoyance, the relationship suffers. If he
continues to respond in this way, the relationship may well end. Yet
this same woman may not see the parallel when she ignores her crying
A child should not be seen as
"manipulating" the parent to meet important emotional needs.
No one would feel that a child was "manipulating" the parent
if he were crying due to illness, hunger pains, or the need for warmer
clothing or a dry diaper. Yet many would label the cry
"manipulation" if a child is crying for comfort or to be held
(understandable needs in a medical office), though these needs are just
as important as any others, probably more so. In The
Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, the writers explain that "a
child's need to be lovingly held when he is upset is as strong and
important as his need to be fed and kept warm and dry." A
compassionate response to a crying child does not "spoil" him;
it simply tells him loud and clear that he is loved and cherished. No
human being of any age can be "overcherished".
In How to Really Love Your Child, Dr. Ross
Campbell states that "We cannot start too early in giving a child
continuous, warm, consistent affection. He simply must have this
unconditional love to cope most effectively in today's world."
3. We assume that by forcing a child to
"handle" whatever needs led to his crying, we are helping him
When we make this assumption, we have things
backwards. A parent's love, support, and reassurance are necessary
conditions for the child's growth. We do not expect a garden to grow
without sunshine, nor should we expect a child to mature without
unconditional love and trust. The truth is that the more love and
compassion the child receives, the more independent he is able to
become, because his needs have been met at each stage of his
development. We have all met adults who are still attempting,
unsuccessfully, to meet needs that should have been met in early
Dr. Lee Salk, Pediatric Psychologist and Director
of New York Hospital - Cornell Medical Center, assures us that "The
baby whose cries are answered now will later be the child confident
enough to show his independence and curiosity. But the baby who is left
to cry it out may develop a sense of isolation and distrust, and may
turn inward by tuning out the world that will not answer its cry. And
later on in life, this child may continue to cope with stress by trying
to shut out reality."
Babies and children who learn through experience
to trust that their parents will take their needs seriously and will
always "be there for them," have the greatest chance for
retaining the love and trust present in every child at birth. The best
proof of this is sociological. In those cultures where infants and young
children are carried 24 hours per day, crying is almost unknown, and the
children grow to be compassionate, resilient and independent adults. A
fascinating book describing such a culture is Jean Liedloff's The
Continuum Concept. This way of raising children was in fact
universal until a relatively short time ago. Despite our technological
advances, we have lost much.
As Psychotherapist Alice Miller observes in
several of her books, our readiness to see crying as
"manipulation" may primarily reflect our own painful feelings
as we watch a child receiving more love and support than we remember
receiving in our childhood. This recognition, though it may not be at a
conscious level, can trigger a deep sadness within us. Surely the best
way to cope with this painful emotion is to resolve that we will do all
we can to help other children receive more than we ourselves received.
Only in this way can the human species progress.