Cockeyed Behaviorist Dogma Continues to Lose to Neuro-Science and Cro-Mags

Last week on Facebook (yeah, that’s right, *FB*), there was an article circulated through my network of friends and colleagues, entitled “Science shows up Supernanny: A mental health expert warns that fashionable advice to ignore your child’s tears may cause lifelong harm”. It was actually published back in 2004, and refers to some contemporary research that seems to indicate that letting babies “cry it out” (CIO as it is politely called in the circles that prescribe it), can cause neuro-dvelopmental anomalies linked with later mental disorders. Well, I thought that was cause for an Attachment Parenting holiday.

As I read the article, I was first struck with a sense of jubilation, and then almost immediately, confusion. If this was published in 2004, and the research that suggests the correlation between parenting attachment strategies and neurological development is at least that old, why haven’t CIO strategies been outlawed by now? That’s a joke, but seriously, why aren’t notions like “self-soothing” and “CIO sleep training” more passé in the general populace?

All I can figure is that the popularity of particular parenting gurus (and their subsequent ability to dupe us into ignoring our parenting instincts and intuitions), and the taboo against discussing other people’s parenting (as in, “Parenting is a personal issue, no one can tell you how to treat your baby…”) combines into a perfect storm of stasis, such that by and large, we go on parenting the same way some other “expert” told us to, regardless of what other information shows up along the way. I know that is bound to be a vast over-simplification, but I think you get my point.

So instead of a landslide of change in parenting styles toward greater attachment and connection, we hear people saying, “Oh well, they can find a scientific study to prove anything…” And what should have been an about-face in common parenting tactics has wound up being a very slow turn of a few at a time brave enough to swim up the viscous stream of (very recent) parenting dogma. And though, we will have to continue to swim through being thought “extreme”, “permissive”, “pandering” “fools willing to raise brats due to a false allegiance to new age scientific mumbo-jumbo”, we will not only continue on in a direction that feels more humane and natural to us, but also more scientifically grounded.

I won’t typically bother to make the following argument, because I, too, have learned to be skeptical of biased, agenda-laden “scientific study”. However, in certain cases, such as the current one, the evidence all seems to stack up together in such a way that science, nature, and human intuition coalesce to make a cosmic assertion. In the present example, we have years of Behaviorist studies on the one hand, which seem to conclude that if we respond to behaviors we like, and ignore ones we don’t like, that our children will adapt to exhibit only the preferred behaviors. There has been some reported/assumed veracity to this argument — that is, research (and parent experience) has lent some truth to the central Behaviorist theory. Children do tend to alter some of their behavior based on our responses to it. I would suggest, however, that this theory has been used to attempt to “control behaviors” with which it was never meant to interfere, and, additionally, that there are ramifications that go beyond the simple expression or suppression of certain behaviors. Further, this theory, when applied in methods like CIO, flies in the face of what feels right to parents, and what seems most natural for the human species.

On the other hand, the findings of recent neuro-scientific analysis which suggest that babies experience stress and shock when being left to cry alone, and thereby undergo interruptions and curtailment to brain development, is a pretty different kind of analysis than Behaviorist studies of cause and superficial effect. When B.F. Skinner et al studied how parents can alter the behaviors exhibited by their children, they had no way of seeing what happened to the children, other than what was externally exhibited. Now, with advanced MRI techniques, neuro-scientists can actually see what the brain is doing under the influence of repeated stress, attachment issues, and psychological abandonment. And it ain’t a pretty picture, let me tell you. But what is more, the finding that leaving babies to cry it out, or experience other stressors on a regular basis, is problematic for brain development — and the corallary argument that we, therefore, should not leave babies alone, or expose them to risks of insecure attachment — aligns perfectly with the most natural (historical) approach to parenting children, the instincts/feelings of the parents, and what seems most humane.

What I mean to say is simply this, Behaviorist methodology doesn’t mesh with what feels right and normal for human parenting, but the idea that we’d better nurture the heck out our babies so that they may develop  fully and normally does match with what feels most appropriate. And although I mean that it feels right for me, I would also lean toward assuming that under normal circumstances most healthy adults will feel the same about this particular discussion. Honestly, what parent would feel normal about leaving her baby alone to cry, if she wasn’t inundated with skewed parenting dogma?

After I read the article, “Science shows up Supernanny”, I decided to go looking for a more direct route to the research discussed there. Margot Sunderland, the director of Education and Training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, was the primary human subject of the article. She’s written more than 20 books about child mental health, including, The Definitive Child Rearing Book, but the claims she makes in the article are actually forwarded by an overwhelming host of neuro-scientific researchers, who seem to be reaching the same conclusions in growing numbers. I found article after article discussing effects of stress on baby brains, noting everything from elevated stress hormone, cortisol, levels; to chronic dysregulation of cortisol rhythms; to neuro-transmitter malfunctions; to under-development of various areas of the brain, including the limbic system, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA). Almost all of the research I perused, linked these changes in brain development with later “mental symptoms”.

So now there’s two things I want to know. First, what is it going to take to undo the socially corrosive gospel according to B.F.Skinner, such that parents can begin to return to what feels right, and natural, and intuitive in child-rearing? And second, if insecure attachments negatively effect brain development in children, what becomes possible with potently, securely, ultra-connected attachments?

I believe that if we move, as a culture (and a species), more in the direction of radical nurturing, and natural parenting, we will discover a capacity and capability in humanity that we have only yet dreamed. If we take the time to form deep, securely-attached bonds with our infants, and respond to their early needs immediately and compassionately, I believe a revolution of conscious will occur in humanity, unlike anything seen since we came down out of the trees. Our Cro-Magnon predecessors knew all this already. They had it down so well that they evolved into modern humans. I believe we could take that further, toward developing the currently uncharted terra incognita of our minds, perhaps even one day using more of our brains than we even know about now…

Believe in your instincts, power nurturers. And if they’ve been quashed by your conditioning, believe in nature. And if you can’t find your natural flow, or you need some hard data to hold onto, then swim with the neuro-scientists. They’re headed up stream, but they’re riding a rising tide…


Be well.

Want more? Here’s a drop from the bucket:

  • The article, “Science shows up Supernanny
  • Another article (with references!), “Cry It Out: the Potential Dangers of Leaving Your Baby to Cry”
  • Shirtcliff and Essex in Developmental Psychobiology [2008, 50(7):690-703], argue for a link between high levels of cortisol and mental health symptoms in early adolescence.
  • Hawes DJ, Brennan J, Dadds MR in Current Opinion in Psychiatry [2009, 22(4):357-62] argue that cortisol dysregulation (both elevated and suppressed levels) causes developmental problems.
  • Oskis A, Loveday C, Hucklebridge F, Thorn L, Clow A in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines [2011, 52(2):111-8] argue that the same pattern of cortisol dysregulation associated with disorder in adulthood manifests as a function of anxious insecure attachment style in females during healthy childhood and adolescence.
  • Weiss SJ in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care [2007, 43(3):114-22]  argues that exposure to traumatic stress is associated with changes in the limbic system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and key monoamine neurotransmitters. Different neurobiological alterations can be linked to specific symptoms of hyperarousal, dissociation/numbing, and reexperiencing of the trauma.

About Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I am a full-time parent of three, Writer, Life Coach, Lecturer, Parenting Mentor, and Shamanic Practitioner. In all of the above, I am seeking to assist my fellow humans in their processes of claiming and unleashing their highest potentials.
This entry was posted in Parenting Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Cockeyed Behaviorist Dogma Continues to Lose to Neuro-Science and Cro-Mags

  1. kloppenmum says:

    Yes, yes, yes!!! Margot Sunderland also wrote The Science of Parenting.
    Behaviourism sucks. Our children are not puppies!
    Yeeha! Love this post!!! 😉

  2. kloppenmum says:

    And to answer your questions, now I’ve settled down a little…
    1. You and I, Mamadandelion, hakea, et al just have to keep doing our thing.
    2. Well you know the answer to that one – hugely self-assured, competent, gorgeous human beings: who are actually pleasant to one another!

  3. hakea says:

    G’day Nathan

    Research geek here! The “father of attachment theory” John Bowlby was forming his theories in the 1950’s and continued to refine them through the 60’s and 70’s. Melanie Klein heavily influenced John Bowlby’s work, and she was his supervisor. Donald Winnicott was also writing about the importance of parental bonding (object relations theory) the same time as Bowlby. Mary Salter Ainsworth expanded Bowlby’s work with the Strange Situation Protocols in the 1970’s, which sparked a growing research interest in attachment.

    Attachment has been around a long time! If you want to get pernickety, you can trace the beginnings of the concept of attachment parenting back to Freud, and that is a long time ago. Freud’s work was continued through the Tavistock Institute in Britain, and also the work of his daughter Anna Freud.

    When I started my masters degree in 2002 it was already well established that letting babies cry for longer than 5 minutes caused pruning of the synapses. Yet, it took at least another 5 years for parent-infant centres (here it is Tresillian) to stop forcing parents to do controlled crying.

    The world will eventually catch up, but I think it will take quite a while longer. I always say that BF Skinner and his theories on behaviourism have a lot to answer for. Behaviourism is rife through the education system, most teachers have not heard of attachment theory.

    I don’t understand why behaviourism took such a hold when there was so much other good work being done by the abovementioned researchers and theorists. I find behaviourism so repugnant that I haven’t researched that side of things. It may have been a Britian versus USA rivalry? Interesting that Ainsworth’s work (being in the US) kickstarted a revolution in attachment theory.

    • Exactly, exactly, exactly! My sentiments precisely.

      Thanks for throwing some names out for others to look into, as well. I would only add Wilhelm Reich to that list and timeline. Oh, and the great great great grandparents of attachment theory — those Early Modern Humans (or Cro-Magnons as I still like to call them).

      Thanks so much for writing in!

  4. jo johnson says:

    hurray! still relevant, unfortunately…

    i absolutely agree that at this point in history, the sky’s the limit for kids raised in a humane way. however, it might be useful to remember that many cultures still do treat their offspring in many of (though not all for most of ’em, as far as i know) the ways you’re (we’re!) promoting. but certainly, it feels as though the western world really needs to wake up to the untapped power of healthy, happy children (/families) – so much economic etc power here, and so little emotional intelligence.

    my feeling is that in the uk, we’re still living with the legacy of war and of empire-building, both of which require, i imagine, a pretty comprehensive tuning-out of sensitivity towards oneself and others.

    and i also think it’s no accident that it’s now that we’re ‘waking up’ as parents; we’re on the verge of an ecological crisis, not to mention all the other shit that’s been going down over the last few years…i’m pretty sure attachment parenting “build” healthy humans, but that’s lucky, because they’re likely to have unprecedented and un-dreamt of problems to solve…we’re handing them a complicated world, so we’d better make damn sure we equip them as well as we can to handle it!

    • Hey Jo!

      So glad to hear from you!

      I think you’re right that although for us Westerners it is very much about a return to our “humanity”, there are still cultures where they’ve “lost less” or maybe none of the natural ways of child-rearing. Interestingly, I think we feel like we’ve discovered something and are therefore dedicated in a very conscious way, whereas indigenous attachment parents probably never think about parenting as a subject, and only occasionally about “what should I do when my baby…”. I also think that history will say it is this difference which made all the difference — which will indeed be a very convenient perspective from their side of our future history… I theorize that the “empowered nervous system” — one which gets intentional doses of attachment and optimal input (of all kinds) — is capable of things we currently think of as super-human.

      We’ve been watching Call the Midwife (well, we started and then couldn’t stop, so now we’re done watching…) and that has gotten me thinking a lot about how the European postmodern mindset would have been sooo much more heavily influenced by both Great Wars than the American has been, and some of the different ramifications of that. You’ve hit on a big part of it — and how it has effected our cultural development by/through the generations.

      As for whether we can get far enough along in our development as a species fast enough to change self-destructive cultural trends will remain to be seen, eh? Since I don’t believe that anything can really, finally go “wrong” — I find it pretty exciting to be here now. How about you? If we can survive long enough to advance far enough — then humans won’t have any trouble cleaning up our global room — we just kinda have teenage scramble-brain at the moment…

      As always, I like where your thoughts go. Thanks for sharing them!

      Be well.

      • jo johnson says:

        hey nathan,

        thanks for your reply. great to correspond about such things. i also think the industrial revolution screwed it up quite a lot re sensible parenting, in that it necessitated splitting the family up so someone could work (= less support for bf’ing woman, for instance). do you know the book “the politics of breastfeeding”, by gabrielle palmer? it’s a pretty devastating expose of formula company practice, but also contains some fascinating historical insights into how parenting has changed over the centuries as breastfeeding declined. bf’ing is still the central issue for me. i think if we can get that right in terms of supporting women to feed fullterm, with joy and pride, so much would change.

        yeah, i’m excited to be here, too! however, i tend to swing between feeling exhileration about raising humans at this historical juncture, and feeling utterly daunted at the importance of the task. i work within the birth world (pregnancy/postnatal/fertility yoga) and that can get pretty depressing, since it’s so often the birth experience that sets parents off on a particular parenting path, and although i live in a little pocket of sanity about such things, in the uk, homebirth etc is on a steady decline. however, we’ve had the hardest winter here in 50 years, and i will most likely feel much more positive when the spring finally appears!

        love to you guys…it makes my heart sing to know there are other people around the globe who i most likely will never meet, steadily getting on with raising happy kids. x

      • Jo,

        It’s great to have you in our (virtual) community, too! I think having like-minded connections, some near and some far, is the modern village — again lacking the purity of the primeval model, but again having the benefits of intentionality and modernity as well. It is sincerely a pleasure to get to have the ongoing conversation part of this whole blogging thing. That’s a fantastic perk of spending the time to write it in the first place.

        I have not yet read The Politics of Breastfeeding, but it is now on my list. Thanks for the tip — it sounds right up my alley!

        Keep keepin’ on, Mama! Big love to you and yours as well.


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