Are Babies Manipulators?

A few months ago I found myself in the throes of conversation with an ex-colleague around baby sleep. This is usually a topic I like to skirt around the edges of in certain circles due to its potential to be such a  highly charged, emotive and divisive topics of parenting. Nonetheless we were somehow there. As I’m not great at lying in the face of a direct question I found myself talking about how, at that time, Little Star was waking very frequently during the night and that I usually comfort and nurse her back to sleep. “Oh no!” exclaimed my ex colleague, as many others may have done, “can’t you see, that’s what she WANTS”.

This comment is laden with assumptions, notwithstanding that I must be a naive parent – not knowing any “better” and slave to my natural instincts as a caregiver. Another, that it is somehow wrong to give a baby what they want.

Built within the much favoured conventional wisdom of child rearing is the idea that babies behave in a way that is intended to manipulate their caregivers. This idea seems to underpin much of the logic around why babies and young children ought to be left to cry – insofar as to not “reward” their crying with that which they are seeking – parental and caregiver contact.

There is accumulating evidence that responding to, holding, nursing / feeding, and otherwise comforting a crying baby actually leads to less crying, not more crying or a “clingy” child as we are ingrained culturally to believe.

It is as though we’re so concerned with a child’s physical development that we forget their emotional needs and their psychological needs from a developmental perspective – if they’re not hungry, thirsty, have a dirty nappy etc. then they should be happy, right?. What perplexes me, however, is that even if we put aside the science around the importance of responsive and empathic parenting, the idea that a baby is trying to manipulate an adult just seems illogical.

Let us say a baby is crying. That is a fact. It is clear and observable to those around the child. We can hear the cries, see the tears, see their face screwed up etc. It seems very rational to conclude that the child is upset, that they need something, particularly as crying is their primary tool to communicate this need.  Viewing this crying as an act of manipulation, to “trick” the caregiver into providing contact and interaction is a huge, seemingly irrational leap.

Some may argue that the fact the baby appears consoled and happy when picked up, spoken to or embraced is proof the child is not crying for a legitimate reason. What if, however the child genuinely needs play, your love, your wisdom, connection with you, and thus once they have it there is no need to be upset. How would you know the difference?

If I, as an adult, were to ask my partner, a friend, a parent, a sister or anyone else I hold close for some company, some companionship or some time to spend together I doubt this expressed need would be simply ignored. That is simply not within the scope of a healthy relationship.

So what logical argument makes it okay to treat babies and young children this way? Worryingly the only construct which makes it logical is the idea that children are socially inferior to adults. That their needs are less important and may only be met when it is convenient for the caregiver.

Whilst this idea may be convenient as we go along in our busy lives it hardly feels right.

A sense of objectification rather than empathic understanding lies within the idea that babies are inherently manipulative, that they “wrap you around their little finger”, when we don’t take their needs seriously. It is a disassociation, a learned perception of a child as a thing rather than a feeling, dependent person.

Mothers, fathers, caregivers: follow your instinct. Hold your baby. They do, genuinely need you.

This post is not intended to demonise any parent or method of parenting, only to question the logic around popular assumptions and approaches towards children. I acknowledge most parents hold only the deepest love and best wishes for their babies in their hearts.



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