Toddlers and Parents: A Declaration of Independence
a book by T. Berry Brazelton
(our site's book review)
This is a book about the struggle for independence and self-mastery undergone by all of us from ages one to three—the toddler stage. Brazelton says that the more autonomy the child can achieve at this age, the better. It’s critical that the child learns to choose for himself, whenever possible. Erik Erikson says that the self-esteem and self-control learned in this stage give one a lasting sense of good will and pride, but if parents over-control there will instead be doubt and shame. Like Maslow (Toward a Psychology of Being), Brazelton believes that exploration and adventuring are critical, and should be done from a base of security represented by parental love. He offers “time outs” and sending a child to his room as appropriate “punishments” for when a toddler goes past appropriate behavioral limits. These are only to be used when nothing else works.
A 'time-out' is merely the modern version of the dunce chair, which isolates a 'naughty' child
As long as “punishment” is defined in these terms, we can agree with it, since nothing is more important in toddlerhood than learning limits, self-control and autonomy. If parents are unresponsive to toddler tests and limit checking and resort to permissiveness, the toddler will have to find many limits the hard way, and he’ll experience confusion and anxiety, says Brazelton. However, Solter outlines The Disadvantages of Time-Out and instead advocates Time In and the "Cuddle Corner, which have no punitive context."
In general, T. Berry Brazelton is from the attachment school of Bowlby and Ainsworth, and has some rather conservative ideas about discipline, as did John Bowlby. However, Bolwby, Hart and White see the importance of making sure the childcare is not too steep-gradient, as childcare help from relatives or from other mothers who do cooperative childcare can be very helpful and vital for child and mother alike. Brazelton often depicts situations where such respite is obviously critically needed, but he sometimes fails to show the insight of Burton L. White (The First Three Years of Life), Mary Ainsworth, Thomas Gordon, Louise Hart and other experts. Instead, he actually recommends “angry outbursts” from parents as serving an important purpose, and calls them “honestly open reactions.” We call them an irresponsible loss of control that need to be replaced with I-statements where the anger is stated, unthreateningly.
There are many serious problems with Brazelton’s strategies. The kindest perspective one can have on his ideas are that he was overly swayed by such researchers as Diana Baumrind, who—although entirely correct that authoritative parenting rather than authoritarian or permissive parenting is the way to go—overuses the idea of the need for firm control and punishment. Also, one could note that if a person needed instructions on how to somehow cope with the overwhelming task of disciplining kids if one lived in an isolated nuclear family in a vacuum, most of Brazelton’s ideas wouldn’t fall too short of the mark. And that brings up the first of a number of errors in his thinking:
His utter determinism about isolated, steep-gradient nurturing borders on the foolish. Such isolation is a profound mistake, and leads to many terrible feelings between caregiver and child: “That any parent can live through this tumultuous period without actually destroying his or her child (and many do abuse their children in this second year), or without walking out in order to protect the child from the parent’s own angry feelings, is a testimony to the strength of parental ties to the child. One cannot like toddlers all the time through this period. . . . most parents end each day with an angry reaction that is equivalent in force to the turmoil in the child. If they can, they turn this anger inward on themselves, or attempt to save it for their spouses. What of the ones who can’t, and who fight back on the child’s own level? All of us are guilty of turning on the child at times, and the shame we experience after we realize we’ve just thrown a two-year-old’s tantrum ourselves virtually incapacitates us.”
The shame we experience after we realize we’ve just thrown a two-year-old’s tantrum ourselves virtually incapacitates us
The problem with his advice in this area is that it assumes that one is going to use 1950s’ values about the idyllic splendor of the isolated mother who does nothing but dote on her kids all day (except do the housekeeping and bake cookies and apple pie, of course) and isolate herself so oppressively (for both) with the kids that her mind will turn to Pablum, which of course hubby will appreciate, because then she won’t be so much “trouble” (although she’ll probably need her Valium anyway).
Brazelton’s ideas have an often obsolete context of isolated mothers and overly punitive discipline. Spock and Brazelton seem to have changed with the times with regards to women’s liberation in general, but some of Brazelton’s ideas didn’t undergo the appropriate transformation. Is it really necessary to set up a potentially abusive environment and to be reactive instead of responsive, and to teach the child through anger? Hardly.
Sibling rivalry contexts assume a very win-lose situation in which “. . . siblings rarely like each other in childhood, no matter what their relative ages.” The steep-gradient nurturance which sets up an intrinsically win-lose context in which one child loses while another wins (gets attentions from the parent) is avoidable, with a little planning (especially in an MC). Kids needn’t feel terrible anger and jealousy at one another because of being rivals for the attention of the one caretaker that’s normally available to them at any one time. It’s certainly a fairly normal way of handling things, but it’s anything but a given or a necessity.
Many cultures, past and present, have enjoyed the benefits of flat-gradient nurturance, and kids actually liked their siblings because there was an overall win-win context in relationships. Brazelton naïvely discusses other cultures but concentrates on their child-rearing errors rather than what he and his readers could learn from the nurturing characteristics they employ that improve upon the normal American method. He's tripping over ethnocentric bias as he wears blinders. Surely he cannot believe the U.S. has the best nurturance!
Reactive anger versus responsive I-statements can make all the difference in the world, and someone with all his experience should have seen that long ago. Saying “no” all day to toddler limit testing is vastly inferior to I-statements and conflict resolution. And Brazelton doesn’t even champion active listening, which most other experts do.
In discussing discipline, he doesn’t caution parents against spanking or hitting. Instead, he pushes the need for punishment in an irrational display of covert authoritarianism. He also pushes the need for authority. This is irresponsible, given what we now know about this subject. The use of natural and nonpunitive logical consequences along with active listening, no-lose conflict resolution, I-statements and the strategy of modifying the environment in the face of unacceptable behavior are superior to the use of power trips, rewards and punishment (thereby treating kids like laboratory rats), and punitive discipline. So there’s no excuse for his having abandoned his learning decades ago and his current propagating of obsolete, disproven parenting theories.
'Rewards-and-punishments' parenting is treating kids like laboratory rats
- Finally, he mysteriously discounts the importance of the age-spread of siblings. Burton L. White (New First Three Years of Life: Completely Revised and Updated) clearly showed exactly why age-spread considerations are critical, as have other experts, and many parents have found out to their horror what kids are capable of doing to one another if win-lose steep-gradient parenting occurs concomitantly with closely-spaced childbearing. The only way to mitigate the importance of this rule is to set up a situation in which flat-gradient nurturing prevails (like an MC—see Why Register for an MC?); then kids won’t have to be bursting with anger and jealousy over rivalries for attention and fears of being replaced—so they won’t need to attack their siblings and control them with ugly power trips. Brazelton has seen so many situations full of sibling hate and violence that he has unfortunately adopted them as the norm, in spite of the readily available evidence from other cultures that this is not a universal phenomenon of human culture.
Registering for MC search and match
Brazelton has seen so many situations full of sibling hate and violence that he has unfortunately adopted them as the norm