Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 14, 2000

Shower child with attention in 1st year
Study finds meeting needs produces a secure, relaxed child once independent

By MEG KISSINGER of the Journal Sentinel staff

Most American parents have it backward. Sparing the rod doesn't spoil the child, a new study commissioned by Germantown-based Brio Corp. finds. It's actually the other way around.

The study finds that most American parents - and especially grandparents - believe babies can be spoiled, when, in fact, they cannot, the authors say.

"We have solid evidence that the way a child becomes independent is to have his or her needs met in first year of life," says J. Ronald Lally, director of the WestEd Center for Child and Family Studies in San Francisco, who served as advisory group chairman of the study.

"If a baby cries, it is because he or she needs something. If those needs are attended to, the baby will see the world as a friendly place, one worth exploring. That baby will be more secure, relaxed and trusting."

But what about Grandma's advice to the blurry-eyed parents to "let the baby cry it out?" Nearly two-thirds of the grandparents and 44% of the parents of young children said they believed that picking up a 3-month-old every time he or she cried would spoil the child.

Bad idea to let the baby blubber, the study authors say. You're just setting yourself up for bigger problems down the road.

"What you are actually doing is increasing the level of insecurity," Lally says. "Ignoring them doesn't make them tougher; it makes them less secure."

A majority of American parents - 61% of those surveyed - condone spanking as a regular form of punishment, the study found. More than one-third who responded - 37% - said they thought spanking was appropriate for children under 2.

Actually, spanking is detrimental to the child's development, because it teaches children to solve their problems with violence, says Kyle Pruett, a physician and clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale University Child Study Center.

"We're potentially raising overly aggressive children who react to situations with intimidation and bullying, instead of cooperation and understanding; children who won't be able to tolerate frustration, wait their turn or respect the needs of others," he said.

Yes, but what of all those tough-minded Americans who say "We were spanked, and it didn't kill us?"

"Look at our society," says Lally. "We're a mess. We have violence in schools. Hate crimes. Our generation is not one to hold up as a model. It's easy to say, 'It didn't hurt me' when the truth is, we're killing each other."

The study is sponsored by Brio; Civitas, a Chicago-based non-profit group that aims to help educate and support adults who care for young children; and Zero to Three, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that serves as a resource for young children's development.

The survey is based on interviews with 3,000 adults and parents.

Among the findings:

Parents expect too much from their young children.

Half of all parents surveyed said they expected children as young as 15 months to share a toy. One-fourth said that a 3-year-old should be able to sit quietly for an hour at a time. Both are unrealistic expectations, the panel experts say.

Nearly three-fourths of those surveyed did not know that babies as young as 4 months old can experience real depression. Fifty-one percent said they believed children could not experience depression until they are at least 3 years old. Other misconceptions: young babies can suffer long-term effects from witnessing violence, although 23% of those surveyed did not think so.

Most people also did not know that young babies are affected by the moods of others. Study authors say this is important because child development research shows that if a care-giver is particularly anxious or depressed, it can have a damaging effect on a baby's development.

Parents need to lighten up and let their kids play more.

"Play is extremely important to a child's development," Pruett says.

Many parents place too much emphasis on less valuable forms of play, such as flash cards, educational television and computer activities.

Parents also don't understand the importance of the connection between physical play and intellectual development.

Most parents don't feel they have enough help raising their children.

Nearly 65% of parents of young children say they feel the government is not doing enough to help with supports, such as making companies provide child care leave to parents of newborns.

Nearly two-thirds feel their employers are not doing enough to help them.

So, what do we do with the gap in what parents know and what they should know?

"Teach it in junior high," says Lally. Too often, he says, the classes are offered only to high school kids who are already parents. The information needs to be given before the baby is born.

"We have computer classes," he says. "Why not classes on how to care for children?"

Sounds a lot like the old-fashioned home economics classes to some.

"Exactly," says Lally. "Only without the the cooking."

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