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How do I get my husband to understand our baby isn’t ‘crying for attention’?

1 week ago 32

Dear Meghan: What is the best way for parents to align on parenting styles? And which parenting “style” choices are actually nonnegotiable? I’m already seeing ways my husband and I differ in parenting our 7-month-old. For example, my husband is annoyed and unresponsive because the 7-month-old is “just crying for attention.” I’m anticipating disagreements as our son finds his voice and more independence.

We grew up in fairly stern households with isolation “time outs” as punishment and (for me) spanking for talking back. Unsurprisingly, both of us aren’t great at expressing or talking about feelings. I’m really trying to break that cycle but am having a tough time knowing where to start.

I think my husband would be open to discussion and does care about being a good parent, but I want to make sure that we are aligned on a framework for what “good” means that isn’t falling back on parenting like our parents. I’m not sure that my husband would agree that his parents’ approach wasn’t good, so I think I need another trusted source of info to lay out a better way.

— Looking for a better way

Looking for a better way: I love this question because, it seems to me, parents are more pressured than ever to get on the “same page.” You are somehow meant to be “aligned” and even at times, a mind reader, and I think this notion is killing parents. Of course, get your values together and have thoughtful conversations with your partner, but I find that the pressure of being “aligned” can also squeeze out any grace, room for mistakes and changes, as well as compassion for yourself and your partner.

When it comes to “nonnegotiables,” parents are often surprised that I have a very low bar (practically speaking). No spanking, humiliation, silent treatment, name calling, withholding of love and affection, or nonsensical punishments and consequences. No physical, emotional, sexual, psychological or spiritual abuse. Almost everything else is up for grabs depending on the child and the family.

I am dismayed but not surprised at your spouse’s “just crying for attention” statement. “Children are wild beasts that need to be tamed” is an old way of seeing children that, even though it’s been debunked by science, still has a grip on parents today. And while your spouse isn’t “abusive” toward your baby, it is a form of neglect to be unresponsive to a baby crying. All babies cry, of course, and it is appropriate to listen for a moment for the “I am falling asleep cry” (for example). However, purposely not responding to teach the baby “a lesson” actually interferes with your baby’s attachment to your partner, and that’s not what your partner wants.

While you don’t want to tell your spouse that he could be irreparably hurting his relationship with his son, you can explain a little attachment 101. A baby cries for attention; that’s all his body and young mind can do. He relies on his parents for everything, and crying is a form of him saying, “Stay near me; I need you.” It is not manipulation, nor does it need to be disciplined out of him. Young children need to stay close to their parents and caretakers to feel safe, and we don’t mature unless we feel safe. A baby’s nervous system regulates, over and over, with connection. And with common-sense, relationship-first, responsive parenting, you actually never have to “ignore” your child’s needs to teach them a lesson, but that’s another column altogether.

As for parenting styles, every child, even multiple children within the same family, needs something slightly different from their parents. You cannot plan for this; it’s a “learning on the job” kind of gig. If you adopt a highly specific style of parenting early on, it will only get in the way of the actual needs in front of you. Your child is your best teacher, and responding to his cues in his early years is your only needed parenting “style.”

It sounds like both of you are interested in learning and growing individually and together as parents. You don’t need to worry about your spouse understanding that his childhood was tough; that will come in its own time. There are more immediate needs that should be addressed, such as making sure your spouse doesn’t withhold affection from his infant son. I would begin with Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell’s book, “Parenting from the Inside Out” and Siegel’s book with Tina Payne Bryson, “The Power of Showing Up.” These science-driven books are full of compassion for caregivers and children and should be on every parent’s bookshelf. I also love Louise Bates Ames’s development books; starting at one year of age, her common-sense and attachment-based approach is a balm for weary parents.

I would also recommend some good parenting classes or one-on-one coaching. Whether that’s in person or online, please look for something “attachment-based” rather than behavioral. There may come a time for some behavioral modification (rewards and consequences), but your son is still too young for this way of parenting. Look for coaches who won’t shame your husband for holding these old beliefs and ways from his childhood. He is doing the best he can with what he has (as we all are), and the willingness to get support and learn something new is worth its weight in gold.

Finally, I want to offer empathy and compassion for you, your partner and every caretaker reading this who experienced spanking, being sent away, isolation or not being able to express their emotions safely. It leaves deep marks when the people who are supposed to offer us unconditional love physically and emotionally abuse and hurt us. These marks can remain hidden until we begin our parenting journeys, and then we start to behave in ways that we never “chose” and don’t want! While uncomfortable, you and your spouse are being invited to change. You can do it, and your son is relying on you. Good luck.

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