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True personal story:
When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain. We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down. About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative. Her response surprised me. She said:
“Are you going to let her get away with that? Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”
At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant. But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.
To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off? When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn. So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time? It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other. And it’s not their fault, either. Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way. Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain. You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online. That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.
So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.” Instead:
Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state. That’s the very best time to teach!
When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example: poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.) To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding. Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.
What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives. This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.