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Behavior Expectations for Babies (And Their Parents)
I have written several articles discussing the importance of teaching preschool children behavioral expectations in different situations. I have also given several techniques for this. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should be talking to babies and their parents… until last night.
Yesterday was a friend’s birthday. We went to a movie and then dinner at a popular new restaurant we hadn’t tried yet. We sat at a table with a row of booths perpendicular to our table. Because of the back of the home, I couldn’t see the people at the table, but I had a perfect view of an adorable baby boy, about 7 months old, sitting in a high chair next to the booth.
At first, my friend and I did as usual, smiling at the baby and waving a finger. Babies usually react to this in two ways. Babies with a stronger sense of self tend to smile or giggle and may try to wave back with the same gesture. Babies with lower self-confidence will break eye contact and turn away. This little fellow was another type. So no more eye contact. But after a few minutes I noticed a rather strange sound. No yelling or screaming, no whining or screaming. It actually felt like very little desire, and it took quite a while to find the source. It came from the baby. He was doing something deep in his throat to make that sound. I think he really practiced making this sound.
However, the sound did not stop. It slowly increased considerably in volume and continued for more than half an hour. During that time, no one at the table reacted to him in any way. No light touch bothered her. No toy or finger food was offered – nothing. When we gave credit where credit is due, this little guy was completely ignored for over half an hour. Considering this, his behavior had been surprisingly good.
The sound, which had increased in volume, turned first into a very loud squeal and then into a long, loud screech. This was no longer a sensible exercise. It was very loud demand for attention. In the 45 minutes that had passed since we arrived (I have no idea how long they had been there before we arrived), no one at the table ever paid attention to this baby. No one had touched him. No one had spoken to him.
As the scream began to cause everyone in the ward to show agitation and frustration towards the parents, someone in the ward reached out and started tickling the baby to make him laugh. The “adults” got up to leave after a while. I was shocked at their ages. They were so young and obviously untrained in how to be effective parents. I was sad for both the parents and the baby. I’m sure they have no idea how many negative things they taught their child in that hour; and unless something changes soon, they will likely feel these negative teachings for many years.
What did these young parents do wrong? First, they arrived at a nice restaurant completely unprepared to effectively handle a baby. They apparently didn’t bring little toys, no finger food to play with and eat (Cheerios are great to keep in a bag for baby), they didn’t offer him water or juice, they didn’t offer him any food, they never checked to see if he needed a diaper change, and they paid no attention to him for nearly an hour.
Second, by tickling him and making him laugh Meanwhile he shouted, parents actually increased the yelling increases the likelihood of the behavior repeating itself. With non-verbal children, the unwanted behavior must be stopped before you do anything the child finds desirable. A simple touch to the high chair in front of him would most likely have stopped the screaming for a moment. When the bad behavior stops, it’s time to give a quick positive message. You want reinforces the stop for bad behavior. The timing can be tricky, but it’s very important that you never reinforce a behavior you don’t want to repeat. By not actually stopping the unwanted behavior, the parents gave the child implicit permission to repeat it.
What did the baby learn in that lesson?
1. I have to scream really loud to get your attention.
2. You want me to do this because you reinforced it by tickling me.
3. You want me to do this because you ignored my other attempts to get your attention.
4. I should do this the next time I want or need attention.
5. I can’t trust you to meet my needs.
This last reason is by far the most important. Babies always need to know that their parents can be trusted to take care of their needs.
Parenting is so hard! I’m just half joking when I say that every person should take a parenting class and pass a test before they are allowed to reproduce.
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