Read an Excerpt
MOLLY: I’m a mother of two young children facing parenting challenges common to us all. Luckily, I have my mother, Dr. Susan Rutherford, to turn to for advice. Not only is she an exceptional parental role model, but she is also an insightful clinical psychologist with more than thirty years experience. Best of all, she has the gift of being able to take seemingly complex issues and talk about them in language that is easily understood.
My friends knew I was getting good advice and began to come to me with parenting questions. I realized that many other parents would use a resource like my mom if they had access to it.
To share what I am learning from my mother, I started the website Conversations with My Mother.com to publish my mother’s psychological insights and practical parenting tips. On our site, we tackle tough questions submitted by readers and site subscribers that cover many aspects of parenting through lively and opinionated dialog, with a focus on how to raise great kids.
In our mother-daughter/doctor-layperson conversations, we examine common parenting dilemmas like handling behavior issues, discipline, marriage, divorce and separation, education, emotional issues, siblings, relationships, socialization, and any other topics related to raising children. Our conversations may not always reflect conventional wisdom, and we often spur heated debate in the comments areas.
When I am stuck in a parenting situation, I need to know both why it is happening and how to address the problem. For instance, how do I ask my child a difficult question in a way that encourages an answer that can help me solve the problem instead of asking it in a way that just shuts her down?
We have been interviewed about Conversations with My Mother.comon Sirius Radio. Our site has won an award of recognition fromAmerican Express, andhas received rave reviews from experts and readers alike. Check out the testimonials. We love sharing our readers’ stories.
This book came about when my first child was just eight weeks old and I was considering attending my high school reunion in a different state. I had thought about leaving my baby behind with my husband for the weekend. But when I told my mom, I was surprised that she counseled against it. I asked why. The conversation we had that day was the first of many focused on understanding how trust develops and why the first eighteen months of a baby’s life are so crucial.
In this book we are focused primarily on new parents and what information they need to facilitate the nurturing of a trusting baby, a baby who will ultimately become an adult with positive self-esteem and healthy interpersonal relationships. Parents of troubled older children might also benefit from this conversation and may find the inspiration to adjust their parenting style to help their children become emotionally healthier people.
At a time when there are many types of family units—from divorced parents to stay-at-home dads to equal participation parents to single parents—it’s hard to make generalizations. Each family has to do what works for them in terms of financial realities and other stressors, but it’s helpful to be able to understand what is happening during the child’s first eighteen months.
Throughout this book there are links to related conversations on our site. Be sure you’re on our newsletter list because we will address questions submitted by readers and other information that relates to this book. We will also let you know about the release of upcoming books in the Raising Happier Kids© series.
Because the discussions in this book relate equally to boys and girls, we will use male and female pronouns interchangeably throughout this book.
In comparison to previous generations that only had a few core parenting books available, today’s parents are inundated with parenting theories, parenting books, blogs, talk shows, and even celebrity opinions on how to be a good parent. This book came about because we noticed that people outside of the field of psychology may not be aware of the body of research explaining why the first eighteen months of life are so critical for a child’s emotional development.
This book focuses on how parental actions during this time can influence a person’s future self-esteem, self-worth, sense of security, and ability to trust others. Taking into account Dr. Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, which stresses that the first year and a half is critically important and will shape the remainder of one’s life in terms of social and intimate relationships, we examine common parenting dilemmas and their lifelong impact on our children’s lives.
Going deeper, we bring in John Bowlby’s theory of attachment and discuss how it helps describe the dynamics of long-term relationships between people. These two theories are closely related during the early years of human life.
Through our conversations we offer expert advice to parents for raising happier kids.
Letting a Baby Cry It Out
MOLLY: Even though a baby’s personality is somewhat built in, I realize that the parenting he receives will have significant influence on who this infant will become later in life.
I’ve heard debate about whether or not to pick up a newborn at every fuss or whimper. Some say that letting him cry for a while is the right thing to do because it allows him to learn how to soothe himself. Do you agree with this approach to child rearing?
DR. SUSAN RUTHERFORD (Molly’s mom): That concept may seem appropriate, but we need to wonder about our goals. Are we trying to teach infants to be self-disciplined? A hungry baby won’t learn to be patient before he cries for food. Instead, the baby learns that the people around him won’t take care of him and meet his needs. A few minutes to an adult feels like an eternity to an infant.
Allowing a baby to “cry it out” misses the goal of developing trust and a sense of security in the child. I’m talking about during the first six months especially. I recognize that sometimes parents must sleep-train earlier than six-months old and that this may require short periods of unattended crying—no more than five to seven minutes at a time. But ideally, the first six months of a baby’s life should be about developing trust.
MOLLY: Don’t people spend a lifetime developing trust?
DR. RUTHERFORD: When developmental psychologist Dr. Erik Erikson defined the stages of psychosocial development – eight stages that all humans go through along the path toward maturity – he affirmed that the first stage of development revolves around trust. The period from birth to eighteen months is considered the most important period of a person’s psychological life and sets the stage for all relationships that follow. What happens during this time determines, to a great degree, not only how this person will relate to others, but also how he will feel about himself. And not just in childhood, but throughout life.
A baby’s brain is constantly making connections and trying to make sense of his world. The physical web of nerves and synapses is forming in the brain during these early months. What a baby experiences early on greatly influences and shapes the way he perceives the world for the rest of his life. Either he finds that he can trust the people around him and views the world as safe and secure or he learns that he can’t rely on others and sees the world as inconsistent and unpredictable.
Babies have lots of needs. They need to be fed, held, changed, clothed, and comforted. It is very important that parents and caregivers meet these needs quickly and safely to assure the baby that he can depend on others to care for him.
Babies who are held frequently will not necessarily become clingy or needy older children, as previous generations thought. In fact, it’s more the opposite. When babies are held and comforted during the first eighteen months of life, especially during the earliest months, they will become more secure and more confident children.
Let’s dispel the antiquated myth that picking up a baby frequently will spoil him by making him a demanding and whiney youth. We’re not talking about looking the other way when he pulls the cat’s tail or spits in his brother’s face; those actions may require a different parental response. We’re really talking about patterns of parenting, not about isolated instances, so parents shouldn’t beat themselves up for the occasional lapse or for not being a stay at home parent while their children were young.
If you meet the specific needs of the baby during the stage he’s in, he will be able to move forward emotionally beyond that stage.
Babies who know that they are loved feel safer and are more empowered to venture out into the world. They feel and know that the parent or the primary caretaker is going to be there for them. Early experiences with caregivers shape a person’s worldview and color their thoughts, memories, emotions, beliefs, expectations, and behaviors as they grow and interact with others.
Babies who are consistently ignored or are left to cry it out may have trouble throughout their lives with developing trusting, loving bonds with their parents or others. They often have more fears of venturing out of the family nest and exploring new things.
So aside from a brief period of sleep training, I feel strongly that it is not a good idea to let babies cry it out. From the infant’s perspective, crying it out teaches her that that the caregiver is not consistent and not a reliable source of comfort. And that almost always leads to many kinds of difficulties later in her life.
MOLLY: Are you saying that regularly letting babies cry it out can be damaging in the long term?
DR. RUTHERFORD: Babies use the relationships with their parents to learn how to interact with others as they grow. Children who learn they cannot trust their parents or other caretakers to care for them may be more fearful of moving on and growing up. They may have trouble becoming self-confident kids because the world simply doesn’t feel safe or secure for them.
We see separation distress in infants whose caregivers are unresponsive or unavailable.1Prolonged physical separation for more than a day or two at a time can cause anger and anxiety that leads to sadness and despair in infants. 2
An infant cannot learn to be safe and secure by simply being told. It is behavior that counts. You cannot tell a three-month-old that mommy will be back in three days and that she will miss Junior dreadfully while she’s gone. Junior simply senses that his mommy is no longer there.
MOLLY: Some might interpret this to mean that a baby needs a stay-at-home parent. Is that what you’re saying?
DR. RUTHERFORD: No, we’re not talking about short duration absences like a workday. We’re talking about longer periods—more than a day or two for the infant to be separated from the primary caregiver.
MOLLY: Is there any way to try again later if you didn’t know how this might impact your baby early in his life? Is it possible to try to change the bond later, when the child is older? Or to put it bluntly, if you messed up as a parent in the early months, can you do anything to fix things when the child is older?
DR. RUTHERFORD: That’s a good question and we’ll get to that answer. But let’s start with the reality that even though it may seem that the baby is doing little more than eating, sleeping, and dirtying diapers in these first few months, she is actually learning a lot. The first eighteen months are formative and will shape her entire life.