As I continue reading through Robert Karen’s book “Becoming Attached” I continue to find great topics to write about. In this brief overview of the beliefs behind two basic parenting strategies, I draw from Karen’s writing about the academic debate in the last century about how to best raise a child.
Two historical approaches to parenting
One of the long-standing battles in American culture regarding raising kids is whether the way we parent is spoiling kids or making them stronger. It’s a big issue in the U.S. in part because self-sufficiency achieving the American dream in spite of any obstacles are important themes for many of us. Independent functioning and accomplishing more than our parents are wonderful ideals. In this post I want to explore two different perspectives on parenting that emerged from the field of psychology in the 20th century that I believe influence many of our parenting choices today, even if we are unaware of names like John Bowlby or B.F. Skinner. Understanding these perspective better will better equip any parent for the difficult and rewarding job of mom or dad.
behaviorist & Learning Theory
The first stance is what I call the “don’t reinforce the behavior you don’t want to see more of” stance. It’s also called behaviorism or learning theory. Psychologists and scientists like Ivan Pavlov, James B. Watson and B.F. Skinner popularized this view, especially in the United States. Behaviorism is appealing for many reasons, one in particular is that it supports the belief that kids are be “born bad” and instead can be “made good”. That feels better to many parents and gives them hope and a simple plan to follow – train your kid by rewarding good behavior and punishing or at least not rewarding bad behavior. The underlying theory of belief behind this approach is that children, and people in general, are like a blank slate when it comes to personality, feelings, and behavior. The classic example from the early days of behaviorism is teaching a parent not pick up a crying baby so the baby learns not to cry. A more modern example is the behavior chart for toddlers on up (which, by the way, my wife and I are considering starting with our toddler). The one aspect of this approach that I do like is the focus on learning over inheritance. There’s something very American about the ideal that all people are born with the ability to learn how to succeed and can be trained to function better. It’s very egalitarian because it’s available to any child with parents who commit to training that child.
The second stance is the “comfort and support your kid so they don’t suffer unnecessarily” approach. I trace this back to attachment theory as developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. In the U.S. Ainsworth was the main supporter of the idea that interpreted they crying baby example very differently. Ainsworth would say that when a baby is crying, it’s an important assertive behavior that signals to parents and other caregivers that support is needed. The idea here is that the very behaviors of infants and young children that are distressing to parents, are actually pre-wired and important communication. Basically, attachment-oriented therapists recommend that a parent focus on responding well to any attempt by a child to seek out comfort, especially in the first year.
Integrating both approaches
Today it appears that most parenting books have found a middle ground supported by both parenting perspectives. It is found in a common parenting goal that sounds something like this: raise a child to become a healthy adult able to function interdependently, one who can face the hard facts of life with an inner strength derived as much from a network of supportive relationships as one’s own self.
As I’ve read Robert Karen’s review of the academic battles in the late 20th century between learning/behavioral theorists and attachment theorists, I’ve come to appreciate the principles from both sides. That’s also helped me be more open to the excellent research behaviorists and attachment theorists have done. The results suggest that humans, like many other animals in our world, do learn a great deal through reinforcement of healthy individual or social behaviors. Research has also shown how focusing a lot of energy on responding to babies cries in the first 12 months and then teaching toddlers and children to seek comfort and support from others pays huge dividends in equipping them with the resilience they need to bounce back from setbacks, even the most tragic kind.
So in a sense, the best behaviors to reinforce in anyone are the ones that help you seek comfort, support and connection from available others who are willing to provide that much-needed behavioral response.
Recent examples of behavior and attachment wisdom
I found a recent example of how adults, who didn’t learn to seek out support very well when they were younger, can develop health attachment behaviors from the NPR article “How Learning to be Vulnerable Can Make Life Safer” about how Shell Oil Company taught a group of tough, inexpressive oil workers to get extremely emotionally vulnerable so that they could develop the inner strength do their job better in more dangerous conditions and with fewer injuries.
Here’s a great article from Upworthy on research on what behaviors to focus on with kids in kindergarten – Researchers studied kindergartners’ behavior and followed up 19 years later. Here are the findings.
Good luck out there as you attempt to navigate the confusing ocean of parenting and self-help resources. I hope this helps. For more resources on developing a health self, child or family I recommend the following:
©Ryan W. Gano – www.ryanwgano.com – 2016
photo credit: Love you Son via photopin (license)