When in the UK (United Kingdom) last week, I heard excerpts from an interview Prince William gave. In the interview he called his new baby, Prince George, a “rascal.”
It is disturbing to hear a parent call a baby a “rascal” because it sounds like the parent thinks the baby has motives to be oppositional (far from possible) which sets up a parent-child power struggle. This can mislead the parent into domination parenting, a misconstrual of babies and of how best to parent babies.
Domination Parenting: Another Crisis Mode
It used to be in the USA that you could point to domination parenting among the ignorant poor (stressed out from their life situation) or among religious extremists who were trying to beat the devil out of their children (advocated by their community’s ideology). In both cases, they would smack their children frequently but with different rationalizations, at least on the surface.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, “science” (mostly behaviorists) took up the issues of parenting and childrearing and advocated domination parenting (partially for fear of passing germs; Watson, 1929). Even though we know better about what helps children flourish, behaviorist views continue to populate discourse today--treating babies, in my view, like trainable seals or controllable hedges.
At base, these views assume babies are masses of disorganized urges that parents must dominate as soon as possible (condition) or trouble will follow. Hence, feeding schedules, sleep training and other controlling practices. According to this view, babies are considered essentially dangerous creatures who need to be dominated by parental authority (views that emerged from the 14th century; Aries,1960). In fact, parent-child relations are considered ones of domination. If parents do not dominate the child then the child will dominate the parent (inegalitarian relations are assumed to be the norm). Children needed to be coerced to be obedient, self-controlled and moral.
We know this is all wrong if you are interested in raising a wise and compassionate child, though, again, you can use these techniques and maybe get a compliant child (in your presence, till they get bigger and stronger and smarter).
But if you succeed you have taken the rose out of the rose. You’ve taken the child’s uniqueness from them and tried to make them like a plant in a monocultural field of corn—all the same. An obedient, robotic child who will treat others the same way.
These parent-domination approaches might be called totalitarian parenting. It’s like the old Soviet Union or Nazi Germany’s control of individuals, making them conform, for the good of the system. According to Alice Miller (1983), Germany’s Third Reich was led by those who grew up in totalitarian families where the father is the ruler and wife and children have to obey even in the face of humiliation and injustice. Indeed, Hitler relished and desired a “brutal, domineering, fearless, cruel youth” (Griffiths, 2013, p. 152).
Most parents, of course, are not trying to create children who will obey Mao, Stalin or Hitler. But they do need to be aware of the effects of their parenting.
And why do we have to worry that parents will use domination parenting? Because it gives the parent the delusion of being effective. Just like spanking does not work to help children in any way (and harms their motivation, character and trust), domination parenting is for adults.
Domination over children’s behavior can make adults feel “like they are doing something” in response to their own stress. When a person’s stress response is triggered, they don’t think too well (blood flows away from higher-order systems) but do what will restore a sense of homeostasis or control. This is often something that they experienced in the past in stressful situations. So if your parent yelled at you when stressed, you are likely to do the same to your child when you are stressed. If your parent spanked you, spanking seems right. If your parent dominated and coerced you, this can become your default approach as well.
Although we know better now and understand that babies have built-in needs that parenting is designed to meet in a back-and-forth shaping of the child’s personality and wellbeing, the behaviorist approaches still fills the conversations about childrearing.
And some people are making a “science” out of this kind of neglect that we’ve forced* too many families into. Unfortunately, science has a tendency to justify existing conditions in part because, just like everyone else, scientists start with the worldview they were born into. So they too are subject to the shifting standards for what is “normal”. (This idea of shifting baselines or standards first came up in for scientists in the field of oceanography and the increasingly emptying oceans that to each generation seems “normal”.) Scientists typically set up studies according to the criteria they think is a normal worldview. So for example, instead of considering breastmilk a necessary part of human heritage, formula is considered normal (because it is “scientific” and widely used) and becomes the default. As a result, breastmilk has to meet experimental standards that are set up to prove formula adequate (e.g., comparison of one variable for outcomes of 3 months of feeding).** But see here.
Even though data do not support the baby-harming opinions (Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013), why are these outdated, mistaken, simplistic, harm-generating views still commanding attention? The aura of “science” or “expertise.” We are in the age of science and technology when wisdom of elders and traditions is challenged as “old wives’ tales” until proven otherwise. The advice of a compassionate, seasoned grandparent is dismissed in the aura of scientific knowledge. Plus, we have fewer seasoned compassionate grandparents because everyone feels compelled to work outside the home.
Alternative to domination
Babies are not machines. Yes, we want babies to learn the circadian rhythms of day/night but this is done through natural practices like spending mornings outdoors and minimizing light exposure late in the day, not by ‘cry-it-out’ sleep training and isolation. Controlling coercive care of babies is detrimental to their wellbeing. A totalitarian, mechanistic approach is not for their benefit.
Babies don’t need to be managed or trained. They just need to be given what their bodies (including brains) need and to live life within their community. Then they will grow themselves.
Undamaged babies know what they need—physical closeness to caregivers when their brains and bodies are establishing systems they will rely on and build on for the rest of life. Constant physical presence is expected and needed for optimal development, as is frequent breastmilk, positive, responsive social interaction that includes play. Companionship care treats them like little people who are growing into goodness and intelligence. More here.
Maybe I’m overreacting to Prince William’s use of the term “rascal.” Maybe it was meant in fun and referred to the baby playfully not doing what the father expected in a particular moment, rather than generally. After all, the best relationships between caregivers and child are those that create their own patterns of playful interactions.
*FOOTNOTE: It is “forced” because (1) it is almost impossible for a family to meet middle class standards on a single-wage because of inflation and declining good-paying manufacturing jobs, forcing all household adults (including parents) into the workplace; (2) The standards for what is middle class has shifted to include an endless consumption of products that others have manufactured-- from entertainment to food products to energy. In the past people produced their own food and entertainment and subsisted on local products; (3) alternatives to a consumption way of life are rarely presented or discussed because the discourse in society, like social policy (that affects small farms, small business, families) is also controlled by those who benefit from the system as it is (at least in the short term).
**FOOTNOTE: In the short term one might find an effect of the “scientifically-tested” practice on some small, narrow outcome. But the big picture, including long term health of the individual and of the community, are ignored. In fact, science generally cannot test “the big picture” in which every action is affecting the effects of everything else and their future trajectories and interactions. Humans are especially complicated creatures with so much left to develop at full-term birth and about 25 years to get it done. How a life starts out affects everything downstream.
Griffiths, J. (2013). Kith: The riddle of the childscape. London: Hamish Hamilton.
Narvaez, D., Panksepp, J., Schore, A., & Gleason, T. (Eds.) (2013). Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development: From Research to Practice and Policy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Walker, A. (1983). For your own good: The roots of violence in child-rearing. New York: Faber.
Watson, J.B. (1928). Psychological care of the infant and child. New York: W.W. Norton.
NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS: When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).
The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: breastfeeding on demand for several years, nearly constant touch, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and natural childbirth.
All these characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies. Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.