Parenting Advice ColumnSubject: Is a crying child manipulating the parent?
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 need."
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 toddler.
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 to mature.
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 childhood.
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.