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Need vs. Habit

By Tine Thevenin

It is the law of human life, as certain as gravity; to live fully, we must learn to use things and love people ... not love things and use people.

~ Maria Montessori 

"It is not in the nature of nature," writes Salk, "to provide organisms with biological tendencies unless such tendencies have survival value."1 It would therefore be wise to heed nature instead of trying to suppress or ignore it. Certain aspects of human life are not matters of opinions, but are determined biologically. The need of a child to sleep with members of his family is not a subject to be determined by our opinion, but should be determined by his emotional wants.

The wants of a well-adjusted human being are his needs. It is when his needs are not fulfilled that his wants become excessive in the attempt to fulfill suppressed needs.

We are born needing. We have need for air, food, sleep, and shelter. We have need for intellectual and physical stimulation. We have a need to be loved and touched.2 If any of these needs goes fully or even partially unattended, the person hurts; and in the case of an emotional wound, the person may spend the rest of his life struggling to soothe the initial hurt.3

Gesell argues that a child passes through predictable stages of development at predictable times.4 Thus what might seem to become a habit, may be simply a gratification of a need.

Hymes, in his book Child under Six, describes a habit as an action which can easily be broken. "If you run into any major difficulty at all," he writes, "Beware! You are probably not dealing with an old outworn habit. The chances are that you are tampering with a human need."5

If the body indicates a need for food, treating it like a habit and disregarding it will not make the hunger go away. Ignoring the sensation of wanting to lie down and sleep will not cure one forever from having to sleep eight hours a day.

But if one is in the habit of putting his keys in his right pocket, there need be only a worn-out pocket to change the habit from putting the keys in right to the left pocket.

The child who seeks his parents' bed at night is expressing a basic need. And this need must take its own time and pace for satisfaction.

The child who is thus allowed to be with his parents will gradually mature to being satisfied with sleeping elsewhere, usually seeking the companionship of another member of the family. Should this child choose to sleep alone, it might do well to be aware that he has not transferred his seeking security from his parents or siblings to an inanimate object. If the child wants to sleep with his parents, it means he needs it. If he crawls into his parents' bed but then is content to be taken to a sibling's bed, it may mean that he was in the habit of going to his elders' bed.

For some strange reason we tend to think that to satisfy a child's need is to make it into an unbreakable habit, where in truth the exact opposite is true.6

When our children develop a "good" habit, one that suits us, we are afraid it is not going to last. But when our children develop a "bad" habit, one that does not suit us, we are afraid it is going to last forever. So many people are afraid that their children will not grow up. We are told to feed them solids with a spoon at three weeks of age, lest babies will never learn to eat solids, let alone with a spoon. We are told to toilet train them when they are one year old or they will never quit wearing diapers. We are told to begin to discipline them at one month, otherwise they will never listen to us. We are told that children must always sleep in their own bed or they will always want to sleep with us. It is commonly believed that babies need to be weaned by the mother. And yet when weaning is left totally up to the child, it happens in a natural, healthy, and relaxed way. At the time the child no longer needs direct physical contact with his mother, then he weans himself from the breast. Likewise, parents' experiences indicate that the healthy child will wean himself in time from the parental bed.

Children should be given the credit that, provided the home environment is healthy, they will mature. As each need is fulfilled at each stage, they will move on and become more mature. (We did. Let's hope.)

It will be found that one phase passes into another, and another, and another. Please trust that in a sound surrounding the child will graduate from each stage of development.

I remember carrying my first infant throughout the day. Then she began to crawl and I no longer needed to hold her so frequently. I remember nursing her fifteen times a day. Now she is weaned and eats and drinks what we eat and drink. I used to take her with me wherever I went. And if I could not take her I stayed home. (Except if she was asleep.) She was happiest with this arrangement. Then when she was about three years old, she took another step toward independence-, she looked forward to the occasional babysitter to read her a bedtime story and put her to bed.

A child who has his needs fulfilled will become an independent, secure person. But independence cannot be forced upon someone.7 It takes time and growing at the individual's own pace. The more secure he is in the knowledge that he can always come back to his parents, the more independent he will become. We will only create problems if we regard his needing us at night as a problem which should be "cured."

Our western society is so complex. Our very houses are far too complex to let the child have the freedom of his domain. It is truly amazing how many restrictions we must place on him in his every day life. The stove is dangerous, the electric appliances are dangerous, etc. it is a real eye-opener to count the number of times we say "No!" or remind a child that he is dealing with potential danger.

Should we therefore frustrate him even more by putting restrictions on emotional wants and needs?

The child's sleeping in the parental bed should not be regarded as a privilege, nor restricted for the fear of its becoming a habit. Rather it should be considered the necessary fulfillment of a basic human need.


1 Salk, Lee. "Role of the Heartbeat in the Relationship between Mother and Infant," Scientific American, May 1973, p. 29.
2 Montagu, Ashley. Touching. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971, p.289.
3 Janov, Arthur. The Primal Scream. New York: Dell Publishing,1970, p. 22.
4 "What Is A Mother To Do?" Newsweek, 9-23-68, p. 69.
5 -Hymes, James. Child under Six. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963, p. 87.
6 -Salk, Lee. What Every Child Would Like His Parents To Know. New York: McKay Co., 1972, p. 42.
7 "Frequent Night Nursing of Toddlers and Clinging Dependence during the Day." La Leche League Reprint No. 77. Franklin Park, Illinois: La Leche League International 

Excerpted from The Family Bed: An Age Old Concept in Child Rearing, Avery Publishing Co., 1987.

Reprinted with permission by the author.


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