Thursday, 20 March 2014

"They've got to learn" – but what are they learning?

"They've got to learn." Those four words seem to come up a lot when discussing parenting. Often they are applied to scenarios such as leaving a child to cry, either at night or when the parent has got 'too much to do', or using time out/naughty step to correct unwanted behaviour. Basically any situation where attention is withdrawn from the child, this is rationalised by the phrase, "they've got to learn."

But the problem is, that's often where the phrase stops. I very rarely hear it followed through with exactly what they've got to learn. I suspect if we delved deeper, words like, "independence", "self-soothing" or "self-reflection" would come out. But is that really what a child learns when we withdraw attention?

I'm hesitant writing this blog post because I don't want to give the impression that I'm judging other parents. I'm really not. I just feel like this handy phrase is being passed down from generation to generation without criticism and maybe it's time we stopped to think before trotting it out. I'm not saying, "don't do controlled crying," or, "don't use time out." I'm not a fan of either, for reasons explained more fully in this post about gentle parenting. But if they are achieving what you want to achieve with your child then go for it.

The important part of that last sentence is, "if." When it comes to any parenting choice we need to think about whether it is really going to get what we want for our children. And that's why trite phrases like, "they've got to learn," are so unhelpful - because they encourage us to just go with it unthinkingly. After all, learning is good, right? So if this is the way children learn, then we should do it.

But let's think a bit harder about all this. Does leaving a baby to cry herself to sleep teach her how to self-soothe? Is falling into a fitful sleep after exhausting yourself crying a particularly soothing act? I'd say not. I'm not a sleep expert by any means, but for more information on self-soothing this post is brilliant – and was a great comfort to me when Eleanor was small and would only fall asleep feeding, rocking or being walked about in the carrier.

Similarly, if a baby's desire to be held is ignored during the day so the caregiver can get some chores done, does that teach him how to entertain himself? Or does it give him the message that those chores are more important than his needs so he may as well keep quiet? I know this is a really hard one – Eleanor wanted to be held almost constantly as a baby and it made getting stuff done so difficult, until I got a baby carrier so I could wash up, type essays, hoover etc and cuddle her at the same time. She now entertains herself pretty well, so giving her attention as a baby has not impeded her ability to 'learn' that skill.

Or what about the toddler placed on the naughty step for a misdemeanour. Does she learn to sit there and reflect on why her behaviour was wrong? Or does she learn that doing something wrong (which she may not yet fully understand is wrong) will lead to the withdrawal of attention which, to a toddler mind, is tantamount to the withdrawal of love? Would it be more helpful for a parent to stay with her and lovingly explain why her actions are unacceptable?

As I've said, if you've really thought your parenting choices through and believe that they are right for you, don't let me stop you. Hey, I don't know your family, I'm not judging. But let's do away with these meaningless, blanket phrases and make sure our reasoning is sound.

Or, even better than doing away with them, let's reinvent them. Yes, my daughter's got to learn.

That she is worthy of attention.

That she is loved no matter what she does.

That she is important.

That I am there for her, and I always will be.

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