Christine Sweeney, LICSW Program Manager, Parent Connection, BIDMC
APRIL 28, 2016
At some point in our pre-parenting lives, most of us have heard that you can’t spoil a baby. So why is it then, that as soon as we become parents, any progress in our slowly developing parental self -confidence is completely shaken when anyone makes the accusation, “You’re going to spoil that baby.”
My sense is that the threat of spoiling is our parenting “Achilles Heel”. Whether it’s termed spoiling or manipulating, both terms carry a negative connotation, and something all good parents want to avoid. Who among us wants to be that parent of the out of control child throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store? Just a warning, chances are that sometime in your tenure as a parent of a toddler you will find yourself in a circumstance like that.
The measure of your parenting will have less to do with your toddler throwing a tantrum, as you will come to learn that tantrums are typical for this developmental stage. What will matter is how YOU manage to maintain control of YOURSELF in the midst of your toddler’s lack of control. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Babies are very different than toddlers, who are different than preschoolers , who are different than school age children, and on it goes. As the years go by, you will learn that your children need you to respond differently based on their developmental age. This is particularly true when it comes to discipline. You cannot spoil an infant. Infants have needs, and at different stages develop the cognitive capacity to learn different skills. In the beginning however, as they are adjusting to life in the world, babies need you to respond to their needs, and that is key.
Babies cry. It’s the only way they have to communicate their needs. Sometimes the need is obvious, such as hunger, or a wet diaper. Sometimes the need is not so obvious, but just a need to be held. In responding to your baby’s cries, you are not only responding to the need, but also laying the foundation for your baby’s positive sense of self and the capacity for positive relationships with others.
Babies learn who they are by how they are treated. For example, when you sing to your baby, talk to her or respond with delight to his smile, you give your baby the message that he is valued and loved. When your baby is fussy or crying and your respond to those cries, you communicate that she is heard, cared for and that she can trust in you to be there for her. By responding to his needs, you help your baby to feel safe and secure, which over time develops into positive self-esteem, self -confidence and the capacity to build trusting relationships.
Please know, that if you are in the shower, or otherwise engaged and don’t immediately attend to your baby’s cries every time, it’s OK. I’m talking about an overall pattern of responsive care. When a baby cries, most parents report experiencing an innate wish to want to attend to that cry. That’s the right thing to do, so trust your gut, and if someone warns you about spoiling, pay no attention.