When I only had one child, I took a lot of credit for the things that made her appealing. At 2, her attention span was such that she could sit through a full-length movie in a theater, or be read to for hours. She was highly verbal. She was also gentle with objects, sensitive to the feelings of other children, and exceptionally perceptive about interpersonal dynamics.
But she had a dark side, too, for which I also felt responsible. If disturbed, even by the slightest irritant, she could scream at a pitch that might break windows. If she had a bug bite, or a stuffy nose, she was virtually intolerable. (Was I too indulgent?) She never slept for more than 3 minutes in a crib; the only lengthy stints occurred when she was beside me. (Had I misapplied sleep training methods?) She was inordinately opinionated, about the clothes she put on her body, the music she listened to, and the specifics of the activities she participated in. (Was I not allowing her enough space to individuate?)
If you’d asked me where I fell in the nature vs. nurture debate, I would have called myself a centrist. But emotionally, as a parent, I was acting as a behaviorist.
John B. Watson, father of behaviorism, once wrote:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.
I didn’t have this much hubris, but I did think my parenting style was pretty important. And deep down, I thought my daughter, in her totality, was my fault.
Then, just after she turned 3, my son was born. He was, from the start, easy to soothe and friendly to strangers (my daughter had been suspicious of everyone, including her grandparents). He fell asleep easily (in a crib!). He seemed to have been born with a secure attachment. As he got older, he displayed more energy, and a shorter attention span than she. Now, at 2, he’s more affectionate, more physical, and more outgoing, but also has less regard for authority, and a complete inability to sleep beyond 5:30am.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow had two daughters who were different even in the womb.
Prior to having kids, he had identified as a behaviorist; his belief in behaviorism as a systematic way to solve individual and cultural problems was almost religious. But, when his first child was born, his convictions began to dissolve. His daughter’s existence, her humanness, seemed irreducible. Then he had his second child, and his allegiance to behaviorism dissolved.
“Our babies destroyed Freud and destroyed Watson and Pavlov, “ he explained, “especially if we had more than one.”
His own daughters were so different, even in the womb, that he was forced to throw out learning theory as a full explanation for human behavior. He began to take a more holistic approach, an organismic approach, which was based on the idea that people couldn’t be understood in pieces, but only in their chaotic totality.
In my own life, the introduction of complexity (and confusion) has freed me up a bit. It seems good to temper whatever knowledge I have about conditioning and the benefits of good parenting with what I know about genetics and, more importantly, mystery.
Abraham Maslow and Warren Bennis, Being Abraham Maslow: An Interview with Warren Bennis, http://www.abrahammaslow.com/video.html.
John B. Watson, Behaviorism (Revised edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930), 82.