NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
CHILDREN AND PARENTS LEARN FROM EACH OTHER
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My husband and I have different opinions about how parents’ behavior affects a child.
I believe that the child learns from your behavior and watches how you react to situations, in turn learning how to handle his emotions. If you are patient even when a child is fussy, that helps him learn to be more patient. If you are frustrated with him and speak to him in a negative tone, that has a negative effect.
A. A child’s behavior is both genetic and learned from modeling on parents. The genetic endowment with which children are born gives them limits within which they can develop. Each child is born with strong individual traits.
Our first child was quiet, shy and hypersensitive. I am very intense and active. I reacted quickly and loudly, often injudiciously. The baby would look at me, cowering, as if I were crazy. I found I couldn’t reach her. She drove me to write my first book, “Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development” (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969).
Her behavior determined how I reacted. As I realized that her behavior was genetic and more powerful than anything I could change, I adapted to her and she adapted to me. We’ve managed together.
The second baby was more responsive – more like me. She was playful, laughed easily and talked all the time. She responded to my volatile behavior. Her genetic endowment fitted with mine and we’ve always gotten along.
Our last two children have each been different from the others but easier for me and for them. I found I learned the most from adapting to the child who seemed most different from me.
I think our differences also contributed to her growth as a person – from a quiet, hypersensitive child to an avant-garde musician. Our efforts to understand each other have led us to realize that we have much more in common than first seemed apparent.
Your husband may not fully appreciate just how important he is to his children. Often fathers end up feeling left out and don’t recognize how they affect their baby from the beginning.
If a father has been present during pregnancy, and he speaks just after the baby is born, she is likely to turn her head and look for him. After all, she’s been listening to his voice for the past several months.
Or watch how a 2-year-old boy looks up at his father adoringly. He proudly puts on his father’s shoes and tries to swagger just like him.
Our children are always watching us and learning from us. Children are born to learn, and parents are children’s first teachers. Children do not come into the world fully programmed to become adults. Of course genes play a role but couldn’t possibly prepare children to adapt to all the circumstances – including their parents’ personalities – they must learn to live with.
Both you and your husband are right. A child learns by modeling on the parent, but parents also learn by adapting to their children. If you are reading your child’s cues, she will read yours, and you will learn from each other.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.