As anyone who has ever struggled to manage a toddler’s meltdown in a busy supermarket line can attest, parenting can be both confusing and humbling. To make matters worse, seeking out advice from so-called experts can often lead to even more confusion since their wisdom can be contradictory and bewildering. So it’s worth a quick examination of some of the major strains.
One popular branch of parenting advice that emerged in the mid-20thCentury was based on behavioral analysis. Psychologists John Watson and B.F. Skinner, who studied how to predict and control behavior, found that by using rewards and consequences, they could manipulate behavior—first in animals and then in humans. Their research quickly grew in popularity, and over many decades, parents, mental health providers, and educators adopted their approach, giving birth to the behavioral analysis industry.
John Bowlby, a British psychologist and researcher, introduced another approach; focused on the idea that attachment to a caregiver is a biological imperative for human infants and children. Bowlby emphasized that what was most important in parenting wasn’t reinforcement schedules but rather predictable and loving relationships.
That approach was further popularized by Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician whose wildly popular 1946 book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, encouraged parents to relate to their children. From the late 1970s onward, other notable professionals—including Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, further promoted the idea that we should seek to nurture relationships and and not merely seek to manage children’s behavior.
Today, these two contrasting philosophical approaches—behavioral and relational-attachment—exist side-by-side. It’s important to reflect on their influences on our own approaches, and whether they are appropriate in light of our current understanding of social and emotional development as well as basic neuroscience.
My own graduate classes in child psychology in the 1980s was informed by a combination of these approaches. Then came the 1990s, known as the Decade of the Brain, which brought entirely new ways of understanding children’s brain development. These new breakthroughs helped us understand how children develop psychological resilience: through relational safety and by recognizing and honoring their individual differences in perceiving the world.
Yet some current approaches to parenting disregard these two crucial elements. One is 123Magic, whose author, Thomas Phelan, likens parenting to working as a “wild animal trainer,” and suggests methods like counting to use until the child “does what the trainer wants.” Phelan suggests that parents count to three to manage misbehaviors and then, without emotion, implement consequences such as time-outs if children don’t comply with their parents’ wishes. PCIT (Parent Child Interaction Therapy) and Triple P Parenting (Positive Parenting Program) are also built upon the status quo of viewing behavior through a compliance/non-compliance lens that results in the use of rewards and punishments as consequences to motivate a change in behaviors.
To be clear, I’m sure that the originators of the PCIT approach had noble intentions: to increase positive techniques, enhance relationships and reduce child abuse and neglect. Indeed, research supports that PCIT decreases maladaptive parenting patterns. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take a closer look and improve the approach based on current knowledge of neurodevelopment. We now know that the children PCIT was designed for, those with oppositional defiant and other challenging behaviors, do not always act out of purposeful defiance. This is the paradigm shift we need to talk about. If the driver of such behaviors is autonomic distress, then social isolation, which these paradigms utilize, is the opposite of what a stressed-out nervous system needs. Here’s where PCIT needs updating. It teaches parents a strategy that utilizes discipline instead of emotional co-regulation regardless of the etiology of the behavior.
As I have written in previous posts, we should proceed cautiously with such parenting techniques. They have the potential to increase distress in a child’s autonomic nervous system if an adult misinterprets the underlying causes of behavioral challenges and punishes a child without understanding that stress may be underlying the behavior.
Parenting approaches that insist that children are wild creatures to be trained, or that don’t recognize the importance of emotions, or suggest that we need to outpower or outwit children in order to raise them sidestep what we know about building emotional resilience.
What characteristics of parenting approaches are consistent with brain and mental health? Compassion, loving and predictable limits/boundaries, and an appreciation for behaviors for what they tell us about each child’s unique brain and body. When we do so, we protect a child’s budding sense of self and help to build protective resilience that lasts a lifetime.
I share more about how to support resilience in parenting in my latest book Beyond Behaviors. We welcome you to join our Beyond Behaviors newsletter at the bottom of the page.