- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2011

I recently saw the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Valentine’s Day tips” on how to love one’s child.

Clearly, the pediatricians do not subscribe to “tiger” parenting, a la Yale professor Amy Chua. Poor Mrs. Chua has been chewed up in recent weeks for her push-them-into-greatness style of parenting that she wrote in her memoir.

But before I offer you AAP’s parenting advice, let me remind you of where American parenting was 100 years ago.

In the early 1900s, mothers were admonished to set their children on a strict schedule, and not to kiss, cuddle or play with them, lest they ruin them. “When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument,” warned John B. Watson, a national authority on parenting who became the head of the American Psychological Association in 1915.

Back then, good parenting was scientific — children should be raised by conditioning and training, much like Ivan Pavlov’s famous dogs. Being cuddled or comforted was destructive to a child, the Watson reasoning went. If babies are picked up when they are crying, they will just cry more, he said. And playing with children or holding them “for pleasure” was verboten.

I wrote about this child development history in a 2002 story on Deborah Blum’s book on psychologist Harry Harlow, called “Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.”

In the 1950s, Harlow famously conducted experiments with baby monkeys, offering them two “mothers” — one made of metal wire with a nipple with milk, and the other made of cloth with no food.

If babies need mothers primarily for food, then the baby monkeys should cling to the metal mothers with the food, Mr. Harlow said. But the exact opposite occurred: The baby monkeys clung to the cloth mothers, seeking the metal mother only when driven to seek food.

Harlow’s experiments helped upend the sterile, mechanical parenting approach, and confirm that mother love is crucial for children. The AAP’s list of ways to love to a child, which is available at healthychildren.org, captures our current understanding of parental love:

• Use a lot of “positive words.” Avoid using sarcasm, since children often “don’t understand it, and if they do, it creates a negative interaction.”

• Respond promptly and lovingly to a child’s needs. “[B]anish put-downs from your parenting vocabulary.”

• Model good behavior in public and at home. Use words like “I’m sorry,” “please,” and “thank you.”

• When the child is angry, argumentative or in a bad mood, “give him a hug, cuddle, pat, secret sign or other gesture of affection he favors, and then talk with him about it when he’s feeling better.”

• Discipline without violence. Use a system of rewards and restrictions starting in early childhood “to help prevent trouble during the teenage years.”

• Use Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to spend time alone with a child or teen. Make cards with younger children and send cards to older children or teens.

• Consider getting a pet, to encourage physical activity and companionship.

• Engage the child in cooking, from meal planning and shopping to cooking and serving.

• Read with your child starting when they are six months old. Broaden their skills and abilities beyond watching TV or computer games.

• Foster positive relationships between your child and siblings, family members and friends.

• Offer your child steady support and encouragement as he tackles challenges.

• Don’t forget to say, “I love you” to children of all ages.

A final piece of advice I read years ago was to be sure to convey love to children even when they are moody, crabby, acting out or rebelling. The love can be “tough love,” but in the end, when a child asks his parent, “Will you be there for me?” the only possible answer is “yes.”

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]



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