Ignoring cry teaches: the world is bad, communication is needless, I'm not worth of attention.
Last week I was talking about two different approach to child rearing: the ancient, closeness seeking bonding between mother and child and the stimuli-response style "Let the child learn from I don't react style."
Is it really only the behavior that counts, or are there something important behind it?
You might sit before the window and be looking out into the thin air. From the behavior perspective that’s it and nothing more. At the same time, inside you, you can daydream about your future, you might replay the kind words what your spouse whispered in your ear last night, or you might be raging about your boss who gave a promotion to your less talented but two faced opponent. Subjectively, this is what matters, not merely the sitting and looking.
Translating it to the child rearing, you can teach your children that no matter how long she cries, you will not go into the room. Sooner or later she would stop crying. It is the behavior part. What is not that obvious from the behaviorist perspective is that during the process, she learns that you (and through you the whole world) is not good to fulfill her needs, crying (or communicating negative feelings) is not worth it because there is no reply, and that she is not worthy enough for you (and the world) to respond to her call.
In other words: you build up trust issues, avoidant communication style and low self-esteem.
If you are an orthodox behaviorist, you might say this is untrue! There is no such thing as trust, communication style and self-esteem, only the conditioned answer. Then you don’t have to consider how you can support its development in your child. But if you think it was an oversimplified theory of the 1930-es, then it’s high time to revise its practical implication to child rearing.
For today psychologists agree that over the stimuli-response conditioning, children learn mostly from modeling their parents’ behavior. The first point is when children learn something about empathy when their parents empathize with them. Later on they have to learn to imagine themselves in the other’s situation and predict others’ state of mind. However, this all builds up on their original experience that the care giver understood and responded to their needs.
Taking their requests seriously, we also model respect for a person and for feelings in general. Sure enough, the opposite is true. If we don’t consider the child’s feelings, we should not be surprised if the child grows up and doesn’t respect the care giver’s feeling either.
Cognitive development goes hand in hand with emotional development. If we ignore that, the child naturally seeks closeness for security and she might experience a wide variety of feelings while exploring the world. We might compromise her balanced development.
Theory in practice: with all my respect to Mr. J.B. Watson for his contribution to the theory of behaviorism, I need to reveal that his strict, learning-theory based non-affectionate child rearing practice ended up with deeply injured children. Two of them committed suicide, and a third one struggled with his physical and mental health until his early death. You can read about it from first hand in the following book: Mariette Hartley: Breaking the Silence
Learning theory is valuable and working, but it is only a piece of reality. We cannot restrict ourselves and our child rearing practices to such a narrow attention path which concentrates only the immediately observable behavior of a child. There is so much more in the background that needs to be considered: the early experiences and the type of the attachment, building up trust, teaching communication, supporting cooperation, emotion regulation just to name a few.
Seeing the cultural history of humankind and the different approaches of the psychology itself, the secure bonding, closeness seeking, the long nursing way of child rearing is far more conventional then fallowing the methods of a last century intentionally narrowed scientific approach. Moreover: more and more data suggest that it is much healthier than the last century affection-denying style.