So why am I writing this blog series, on such a volatile subject? Well, after being a child once myself, babysitting for countless people growing up, raising a younger sister, working in a daycare, observing hundreds of parents raising their kids, and now me raising my own little boy, I feel there are things I've observed over the years, that might help someone out there who has struggled like me, to begin to see a different perspective, like I have. You may not like what I have to say. You may not agree with it. But please read with an open heart, and see if maybe some of what you've been taught about child rearing may in fact not be biblical, or beneficial at all to your children. I'm not writing this because I have it all figured out. I'd be the first to answer a "well who are YOU to write something like this?" with an honest "I'm Nobody!" Just a mom, that on this second go round has started putting pieces of the puzzle together, that were previously huge sources of frustration for me. I am sharing this because I, like many of you out there was really never taught how to raise a kid. We were told what kids should do and not do, but we weren't shown clearly how to get there. Or if we were, maybe there were some HUGE red flags in the child training methods that we were presented with. We get to see a lot of what "not" to do out in the world, and we learn what kids shouldn't do, by watching parent's who let their children run all over them and scream and fight at will, but we don't get taught what TO actually do. So that is why I'm sharing what I've learned over the years, both from experience, research, and observations of children and parents.
Children Ages 0-2
What I want to talk about in this post is primarily young children, 2 and under, although if the proper steps were not taken when the child is younger the parents will need to go back and work on things with an older child that they failed to establish when they were younger.
We have all heard the raging debate between scheduled feeding of babies and demand feeding.
Between rocking babies to sleep and letting them cry it out. If you've been raised in any Christian circles at all, you've most likely been told that an infant needs to learn that "The world doesn't revolve around them." or "Your baby needs to be on YOUR schedule, not you on your BABIES schedule," or you may have heard a parent sigh as they hold a screaming 3 month old and say "well you sure can see their little sin natures can't you?" May I be so bold as to say all of these statements are not only untrue, they are harmful and hurtful to an infants development, it goes agains the very nature of how God set up the infant parent relationship. All through the Bible God praises children for their innocence and challenges us to be like them. The places you read about an infant being "born in sin" are not statements of fact, they are lamentations from an adult that is ashamed of their current sins. It is an expression to God that they know how evil their heart is and how repentant they are before Him. And yet somehow from the prayers of repentant adults, the "fact" that we take away is that children are evil right from the womb. I am not disagreeing with the "sin nature," but what I am disagreeing with is how that is used to explain the normal, innocent behaviors of an infant away into depravity and sin. It is just not the case. Emotions are not evil. Sadness, Anger, Fear, these are emotions that are shown by an infant and none of these are sin. And aside from all the biblical side of things, saying that an infant needs to immediately be conditioned that the world is not at it's beck and call is just plain bad science. I hate to break it to you, but IT IS all about the baby! The world DOES revolve around them! God created an infant to be completely helpless, not so they can be taught they are not important, but so that the baby can do the necessary bonding with both the mother and father that can be the cornerstone of the rest of his life. God created this beautiful time for a child to begin to understand what trusting the heavenly Father would look like, and to learn to trust, and "be still and know that I am God." We all know that if that trust is not established at a young age, later on in life, grasping the concept of God as a Father, will be much more difficult. It is our jobs to start setting the example early.
So, If you are not ready to learn to be unselfish, and deny yourself and your comfort for the needs of your baby, then by all means please don't have one! They are helpless infants, that have been thrust out into a scary world, and their source of comfort and safety all rests in the hands of the adults that are in their life. At the infant age, a child does not need to learn the world doesn't revolve around them. Developmentally, this is the time that bonding takes place, that is crucial for the rest of the child's life. There will be plenty of time for a child to learn boundaries, and that the world won't always jump at their every beck and call, but this is not that time. Now is the time to bond, to nurture, to develop a deep trust.
Babies Sometimes Just Need To Cry
We are often told that "Well babies just cry," and again, I get so saddened by well meaning people who continue to spread lies like this to young mothers, either because it helps them feel better about their own parenting job, or just because that's what they were told. Just because you do not know what the baby wants or needs does not mean the baby just needs to cry. Are there times that despite every best effort you cannot find anything wrong, and your baby may just cry for a while? YES! But that doesn't mean there ISN'T a reason. There IS a reason. The baby may be cold, or hot, or scared, or have a tummy ache, or an ear ache, or with older infants they may be beginning to dream and have a nightmare. If you can't figure out what your baby needs, you don't need to feel mountains of guilt, or beat yourself up, but parents should not be so arrogant as to assume that if a child's need is not readily obvious that the baby is simply crying for no reason. Parents need to LEARN what their baby needs. Some mothers intuitively know more, and can easily understand what their infants needs are. But for those who can't, there are resources! Did you know infants have different cries, that are universal for different needs? Yep, it's true! There is a language of crying. It breaks my heart when a mom hands me a 2 month old little girl that is screaming and it is obvious to me, that she has a stomach ache, but everyone just fusses and says "oh nothing is actually wrong, she has just been fussy. Maybe she's just grumpy." I've been immediately discounted for even suggesting that an infant might be nauseated, or have another pain, and told "oh you don't know this infant. She just cries a lot." Sigh. Yes, but why. Infants do not enjoy crying. It is a distress signal. It is YOUR job as the parent to understand your child's needs, or to reach out to others for help when you can't. That is what communities are for, and sadly something we have gotten far away from in our modern American culture. But understanding your baby can be learned. God gave infants the ability to communicate if a parent is willing to learn. Do you sometimes have to guess what is wrong or try two or three things before you figure out what the problem is? Absolutely! For example there is a "pain" cry that infants have. It doesn't tell you where the pain is, but it can alert you to a problem. There was two nights as an infant that my little guy woke up HYSTERICALLY SCREAMING and would not be consoled no matter what efforts I made to soothe him. We tried all the usuals: tummy drops, massage, bouncing, rocking, and singing within a matter of 5 minutes trying to figure out the problem. And because I knew my baby, I knew he wasn't just crying for no reason, there WAS a reason, I just hadn't found it yet. Guess what it was? Ear ache. Put drops in his ears, and within literally two minutes he was back asleep. He didn't have a cold. He wasn't sick that I knew of. Why did his ears hurt? I don't know! But he got instant relief from the ear drops and slept well for a couple hours, then woke up screaming again. This time we went right to the ear drops, and again, sleeping within minutes. You can't learn your baby or figure out what they need unless you are willing to TRY things. Many new mom's have been so schooled in the "babies just need to cry" line of thinking that they don't even try to understand what is wrong past changing a diaper and trying to feed them. Once these two things are tried and the baby is not happy, "Well I guess she just needs to cry it out." And the sad thing is that as a result, your baby learns that they are not safe, and rather than learning to trust you more each day, they become more insecure. And in my opinion this a huge part of the reason for the "terrible twos." Now the child has reached an age that they can choose to be defiant, and they realize they don't have to listen or comply. And because the trust was not established as an infant, and they do not believe that you have their best interest at heart, or will really work to understand them and what they need, then why should they give you their attention and respect? And I am not writing this merely as a mother. I am writing this as a child. I have clear memories back to when I was 18 months old. I remember what I was thinking every time I was disciplined, and what made it seem fair, or unfair. What made me feel close to my parents, and what made me feel utterly alone and 15 million miles from home in my heart.
Are we perfect? Will we always know what our babies need? Nope! But giving up and leaving a baby to cry it out should be the anomaly, not the norm. Will crying it out a few times scar our children for life. Nope. Babies are resilient. THANK GOD!
Now please, before you get all up in arms, and think I'm all about catering to your child's every whim, just stop right there. Cause that couldn't be further from the truth. I do not have the energy to wrestle with a screaming two year old. I expect him to be respectful. And he is. But that didn't start at 2. That started as an infant, when trust was built. My husband and I didn't have the energy when he was an infant to get up all hours of the night over and over for a fussy baby. So we made sure we learned, and listened to him, so we could make midnight wakeup calls as short and sweet as possible for both us and the baby. People tell me I'm "lucky" to have such a good kid in Hudsen. And I will agree I am blessed, oh so blessed. But I have not just coasted along hoping for the best and learning as I go. This go around with Hudsen is SO MUCH easier since it isn't my first time in the saddle raising an infant. But a lot of hard work, time, and energy has gone into making the good little boy he is today.
Is "giving in" and letting and picking up a crying infant what makes them learn to be selfish and defiant? NO! Inconsistency is though! My son never once cried himself to sleep, (that I'm aware of) unless I was right there patting his back loving on him. Do I have problems with him sleeping now, or then because he was "coddled" or "catered" to him ? Nope. Did he manipulate me and take advantage and "rule our house?" Nope! I don't have the extra energy for that! He knew if he needed something I would come, and as a result, he didn't feel the need to constantly cry or call out just to see if we were going to come this time, or ignore his cries. He knew we would come! We didn't spoil him, but we tended to his needs, rather than leaving him crying in a room because he we didn't want to "give in to his demands." People still marvel at how easy he is to put down for a nap. No screaming. No fits. There is no need for any of that. Sometimes there are some random tears, if he is too tired or thinks he will be missing out on something now, but in general nap times are followed by no protest at all. If something comes up, and he needs us, he knows we will come. We always have. And that is what erases the fear of being alone. There is no need to fear being alone if you know that help is just a call away. But if you know that you could scream your brains out and no one will come, that is a cause for fear, especially as a completely helpless infant. And that fear can follow children for years to come. Now am I suggesting that if an infant is ever left to cry in their bed they will be scarred for life? No, I'm not. But it is not an effective way of teaching a child that the world does not revolve around them, and the philosophy behind the "cry it out" or "infants need to be alone so they can learn to not be selfish" methods can cause a whole host of problems, that will reap negative consequences for years. I know those are fighting words, but please consider this with an open heart. Developmentally, a child is not capable of learning to be unselfish at this stage in life. So why are we working ourselves silly trying to teach something that can't be learned. More times than not it will create a MORE clingy child, rather than a less clingy one. A child that can't be without mama without panicking. A child that has extreme anxiety if they are not in their own bed, or not on a tight schedule, or don't have their favorite binky, or stuffed animal at bedtime. And rather than giving the parents the peace and control they are hoping for, it instead rewards them with the exact behaviors they were hoping to avoid.
Many people site the cry it out method and say that it is biblical because it "works." This is utter malarkey. Infants are not idiots. They learn. Will they most likely eventually stop crying if they are continually left in their crib to cry? YES! But just because they learn to be quiet eventually, does not mean it is best. And it does not mean they are learning what you THINK you are teaching them. In my experience children that are put in the crib to cry every nap time, cry far more, and for much longer than a child who has the confidence of knowing their parents will come if they cry. And just because they stop, does not mean they were just trying to manipulate you. It just means they gave up, or wore themselves out. If you know your child, and their needs, and their forms of communication, you will recognize when your child is trying to manipulate you, and you can put a stop to it immediately. Not letting an infant "cry it out" does not mean you are letting them run your household, or are giving in to their manipulations. While it may be easier to just let your baby cry than working to find the problem, in the long term, it is much better for the parent child relationship. Don't take my word for this, take the word of scientists around the world. Take the word of history. Babies were not left alone in a room to cry. They were strapped to their mothers back all day, or sleeping in a one room house full of other family and children. They were not left to cry, that would have disrupted the entire household and extended family. Aloneness, was not something that has been historically viewed as healthy for a baby. Togetherness was what was valued, to the point of not just one family living in a house, but all the extended family living there too so they could be available for loving, caring, and teaching the children as well. In our crazy busy world where we all want our "space" we want our infants to learn to be alone so we can have some peace. While this may not be all wrong, it is also not all right, and it is NOT biblical. And those of us who proudly proclaim what "biblical" raising of children looks like when we are going agains all of history, and the Bible too, perhaps we should stop and take another look. So buyer beware when it comes to books on "biblical" child rearing. Often the word "biblical" is simply used to describe the best way to make your kid always do what you want and never be a bother. But children ARE a bother! And that's the way God intended it.
Deuteronomy 6:7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.Notice he doesn't say to teach them what NOT to do at all times of the day. We are to teach them WHAT God wants us to do. Again, positive, not the negative. And that is SO very hard to do as a parent. We gravitate naturally towards the "no" and what "not to do." But we have to keep ourselves in check, and keep in mind what is best for our child, and how they learn as infants and toddlers.
The Value Of Ground Work
A LOT of ground work has to be done the first two years of a child's life. These two years should not primarily be about teaching a child that the world doesn't revolve around them. These first few years should be about you learning your child, what works, what doesn't, how they tick, what their fears and insecurities are, what their strengths are, how they learn, etc. There is plenty of time for boundaries. Your child will spend the rest of their life being pounded with the fact that the world does not revolve around them. But without a sense of trust, and a sense of self (who God has made them to be), a child cannot properly learn boundaries. This isn't a theory, it is a developmental fact. A child that is insecure, and uncertain of whether their needs will be met as an infant, will in their older toddler years constantly be pushing the boundaries, trying to get the security they lost out on as an infant. I have seen it countless times. A three year old that has to be told six times to come here, and is constantly pushing the parents buttons to try to figure out what is safe, and what is unsafe. As an infant they never knew when their needs would be met, or when they would be deemed the "sin nature" and left to fend for themselves, and as a result, as an older toddler, they constantly push. They do NOT trust that their parents have their best interest at heart, and so they are always on guard, and defensive toward the parent, just like they perceive the parent is towards them. As parents we need to put ourselves in our infants and toddlers shoes. Not just view things from the adult side of life. We know an infant crying in the bedroom is not truly in danger. They are not going to starve, or die, etc. But what does the infant think, or feel? That is what is important, not our adult logic. Try to put yourself into your toddlers shoes, and walk a mile in his world, not understanding half the words the adults say, and trying your best to figure out life, and love, and growing up. I know when I do this I suddenly have a lot more compassion for a struggling toddler that is pitching a fit. When I realize he doesn't understand, rather than simply addressing the outward action, (the fit) I can address what is going on inside. "Hudsen, I think you don't understand mommy. We ARE going to Go to Grandma's house, but we just have to stop by the grocery store first to get some milk. THEN we will go to Grandma's house!" Suddenly a different child appears! I am not catering to him. Toddlers have a very limited tool house for dealing with negative emotions, that is important to keep in mind. Developmentally they simply don't have any other options than crying, or throwing a fit. But taking the time to understand what is behind the frustration, and dealing with that, is much more effective than simply addressing the behavior. And after the child is calmed down, you can address the behavior. "Hudsen, I know you were sad because you thought we were not going to Grandma's house when we stopped at the store, but screaming is not a nice way to say that. Maybe next time you could use your words, and say "but I want Grandma's house!" and then Mommy can tell you what is happening. I am sorry I did not tell you before that we were stopping at the grocery store. Next time I will tell you so you aren't confused."
To be clear, I don't think conversations like this should be had while a child is throwing a fit. The time for explaining and helping your child understand proper responses is never in the midst of a conflict. It is only after the waters are calm again that you can effectively teach, and help prepare them for the next similar situation they may encounter.
Trust. There Can Never Be Enough!
Let me give you an example of trust in the life of me and my little boy. Of course things will look different in yours life, but hopefully this will let you understand where I am coming from:
A few months ago I was sitting in Subway with my two year old. He had take the unopened bag of chips out of the sandwich bag and was trying to open it. Without even thinking, or saying a word to him I rudely snatched it out of his hands to open it for him. I wasn't trying to be rude, I just didn't think and acted abruptly. He looked up at me completely content, not a shadow of a doubt in his mind that I was obviously going to help him. I handed him back the chips and stopped to think about how many children would have responded if their parents snatched some type of a treat away from them. Those children that have not had the experience that their parents have their best interest at heart would have screamed, and got into a fit because they believe their parents are not looking out for their best interest, which makes them feel they have to fight for it. But children that are secure have no reason to believe their parents would be trying to hurt them, so there is no need for panic and protest. All children will protest some times, and I don't mean to imply that a secure child will never have a fit. But it should not be the pattern. If your child continually throws fits, or is defiant, that is a sign that something is WRONG. Not with the child, but with the parent! We are the adults. Often times we need to alter our behaviors even more than our children do, as they often follow our examples and this can lead to conflicts!
Another example of trust would be when my little sister was about 3. She constantly wanted someone to come and play with her. I would respond either "yes" or "no" when asked. Other family members would respond with "maybe" or "later", and would get met with whining, pestering, and frustration, until often they would get fed up and inform her that since she was being whiny they weren't going to play with her at all. So what's the problem here? "maybe" and "later" are two words we should be very careful with. They can easily lead to broken trust. What the child hears is "yes!" and when we do not follow through, it can be heartbreaking for them, or worse yet, we punish them for insisting we keep our word. (nagging us.) There are appropriate times for these tow words, but in general, we should be very cautious with words that have nebulous meanings around young children. Like Eph 6:4 says: Father's do not exasperate your children, but instead bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. More often that we realize we exasperate our children, and then punish them for their negative emotional responses. Just something to ponder.
The Strong Willed Child
Children often get labeled as "rebellious" or "stubborn" or "strong willed" when in reality most of the times the behaviors that lead us to conclude these things are a symptom of a problem in the relationship, not a problem with the child. A child's will does not need to be broken. This is not a biblical concept. A child's will needs to be guided, instructed, and channeled, never broken. A strong will is what makes an adult determined, persistent, dedicated, and strong. It is not something to be broken. I believe the idea that a child needs to be "broken" at a young age comes from a serious lack of understanding about the developmental process that children go through in their early years, and also an a lack of understanding about howGod deals with us, and what He desires from us as adults. We should model our parenting after God. God never seeks to break our will, or subdue us. Rather, he guides, leads, teaches, and loves. He instilled our wills to be used and channeled, not to be broken by our parents. We have to have a sense of self, and have the freedom to choose wrong to ever truly choose obedience and love. Many people compare raising children to breaking a horse. However, any horse trainer worth their salt will tell you that "breaking" a horse is about trust, and guidance, not forcing the horse into blind compliance. While a horse, or a child CAN be forced into blind compliance, and appear to be "good" without trust, as soon as a situation comes along that the child or horse does not understand or feel safe in, they will buck, panic, runaway, or violently protest. The goal of raising a child is not to get them to the point they never defy or disagree with you, but always are compliant and docile. The hard part is, that taking the time to train a child, and guide them in the way THEY should go, takes a lot more work, wisdom and effort on the part of us parents than merely trying to subdue someone that is 100 pounds smaller than you. "Breaking a child's will" while exhausting, does not require nearly the time, the love, or the wisdom that guiding your child does. Teaching a child the why, and how of obedience is much more time consuming than the simple "because I said so."
Communication: More Than Words
I am a huge believer in communication with infants and small children. I believe 99% of us parents don't communicate enough with our children. The problem is, most parents who do talk to their children about their behaviors, tend to primarily talk to their children when their is an infraction. Then they have conversations like this "Mommy said not to do that! You need to listen! You have to obey! Mommy doesn't want to have to tell you again." And conversations like this repeat themselves over and over and over during the course of a day. Communication is extremely important, but WHEN you communicate is equally if not more important. The time to explain obedience, responsibility, listening, etc., is not when an infraction occurs, but before. Parents need to communicate their expectations, their reasons etc., all through the day, NOT when an infraction occurs. A mother should be having these conversations with their child at times of no conflict. Where they can talk, and learn, and understand. A child should have a full understanding of good and bad behavior not just because of what they are told when they are being naughty. They need to develop a whole picture of what "being good" is, not just learn what is "bad."
We all assume our children know so many things that they don't have the slightest clue about. We tell a 2 year old to "obey." but have we ever sat down and explained what that word means? We tell a toddler to "stop having a bad attitude" and when they don't, we take that as defiance, and they are punished. We say "sit still," "don't touch," "stop arguing" etc., but rarely do we take the time each day to discuss what these things mean in one or two year old terms, at times of no conflict. It's just as if someone came to you, chided you for what you were doing in Chinese, and then when you turned back to what you were doing, they beat you for "not listening". If you are punished for something, but didn't understand what you were told not to do, you won't feel any remorse for your disobedience, all you will feel is anger, hurt, and resentment for an unfair punishment. It is exactly the same with our children. We punish them for not obeying us, but we speak a foreign language. I hear so often "oh they know exactly what they are doing... little sinners." When often time it is quite clear that they in fact DO NOT understand at all what you are saying other than the word "no." And "no" in the middle of a sentence of Chinese, is still very confusing even if we know the one word "no". We use words like, "responsible, patient, respectful, attitude, obedience. We tell our children they could get hurt if they run out into the street, but they have no idea what "getting hurt" means when they are 1. You can't just talk. You have to teach!
Here is another examples: When my son was about 8 months old had a fascination with straight pins, like you use for sewing. I am a crazy crafter, and often leave things out and about, or accidentally drop one on the floor. He is down at my store with me all the time, and I knew there was no way I was going to be able to keep the pins out of his reach forever. So, I sat down with him at a time when he wasn't trying to touch the pins, and explained to him (yes, at 8 months I explained) "Hudsen, these pins will make an owie, that's why mamma says no no, don't touch." Of course he had no concept of what that meant, and kept tried to grab the pin I was holding. So I took one of the pins I took his hand and very lightly poked him with it. Just barely. Just enough to hurt a little. And as soon as the point touched his skin I repeated "OWIE!" very loudly several times. I was not being mean, I was teaching him. His eyes got huge, and from that day on you couldn't coax him into touching a pin if you tried. I wasn't harming him, or abusing him, I was teaching him. Rather than swatting his hand every time he reached for the pins, (which is what most of us have been taught to do) that would only teach him that MOMMY was the one that made an owie, not the pins, and that if mommy wasn't around to swat him, nothing bad would happen. Teaching children natural consequences is ALWAYS better than interfering and "punishing."
After the lesson about the pins, I was free to use the phrase "owie" to describe other situations, without having to prove to him every time the possible consequences. He now understood that when the word "owie" was used, what it meant. All the explaining in the world couldn't have taught him that at 8 months, all the swatting his hands in the world couldn't have taught him that either! But one tiny prick with a pin did! And after that, he trusted me when I said not to touch something because it would make an owie. As soon as the word owie would come out of my mouth his hand would jerk back from whatever he was trying to grab. It wasn't just empty words I was saying, his little brain had an experience to link it too. A safe experience, to help him learn, not to punish him for touching the pins, but to show him that mommy has his best interest at heart. I do not want blind obedience. Are there times a child cannot understand why? Yes. But there are far more times where a child could understand if the parents took the time to teach them. But it is often easier to just demand obedience, rather than building trust by taking the time to truly teach in a way that they can learn. Not focusing on correcting bad behavior, but focusing on building a trust so strong that when your child doesn't understand why, they have a whole bag of experiences to draw on that prove mom is looking out for them, not just that she is constantly demanding "obedience."