The Science of Parenting

April 23, 2011 at 9:32 pm

In February of 2010, I heard about The Science of Parenting by Dr. Margot Sunderland (director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London) in a Canadian news article with the headline ‘Crying it out’ may damage baby’s brain. Now that’s a heavy headline, eh? I was definitely intrigued, so I decided to dig further into this.

My initial reaction to the book was: it looks and feels like a text book. Lots of pictures, sidebars, bullet points, etc. The tone of the writing also reminded me of a text book–one that was giving you basic information without personality or fluff. But I was sort of disappointed because the book repeats phrases like, “There is a mass of scientific research showing…” but it only speaks in very general terms about what those studies actually show. I guess I expected a book called “The Science of Parenting” to delve more deeply into the science of parenting.

So where did the Canadian news headline come from? Sunderland devotes a whole chapter of her book to crying and separation. How does prolonged crying “damage” a baby’s brain? Here’s an excerpt:

Let’s be clear at the outset–it is not crying itself that can affect a child’s developing brain. It doesn’t. It is prolonged, uncomforted distress. . . . It is the type of crying that goes on and on and on, and eventually stops when the child is either completely exhausted and falls asleep or, in a hopeless state, realizes that help is not going to come. . . . In a crying baby, the stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands. If the child is soothed and comforted, the level of cortisol goes down again, but if the child is left to cry and cry, the level of cortisol remains high. This is a potentially dangerous situation, because over a prolonged period, cortisol can reach toxic levels that may damage key structures and systems in a developing brain. Cortisol is a slow-acting chemical that can stay in the brain at high levels for hours. (p. 38-40)

I have heard similar explanations in previous reading and research, so this wasn’t new to me, but I found Sunderland’s explanation, visuals, and charts enriching. Despite these points, I personally feel that intuition trumps science and that we each are given promptings of how to respond to our children individually.

The part of the book I found most helpful was Sunderland’s section about the two types of tantrums–distress tantrums and “Little Nero” tantrums. She explains that these two types of tantrums should be handled in very different ways.

Distress tantrums mean that rage, fear, and/or separation distress have sent “too-high levels of stress chemicals searing through his body and brain” (p. 122). These stress chemicals “hijack” your child’s ability to think or reason or communicate effectively. Children in distress tantrums need help managing their big feelings. Sunderland encourages parents to remember that their child’s distress is genuine and focus on giving physical comfort, emotional empathy, and safety.

Little Nero tantrums are another story. These tantrums are about control and manipulation and rarely involve tears. There aren’t stress chemicals involved. Sunderland explains, “A Little Nero tantrum is about a child trying to get what he wants–attention, a particular toy, or food–through bullying his parents into submission. . . . Children who have Little Nero tantrums need to learn that they can’t always receive the gratification they want at the time they want it, and that it’s not OK to bully or control people to get what they want in life” (p.128). Sunderland encourages parents to ignore these tantrums, avoid trying to reason, argue, or negotiate with the child, remain emotionally calm, and be firm in saying, “No.” Above all, don’t reward these inappropriate tantrums with attention.

Reading her explanation of these two types of tantrums was one of those “aha” moments. I have seen both types hundreds of times but never really made that distinction or realized that they called for different parental responses. I’m trying to incorporate Sunderland’s suggestions, when I remember. Fortunately, Little Nero rarely makes an appearance around here. But I definitely need to work on keeping my cool and ignoring those.

Even though it wasn’t really what I expected, I’m glad I read The Science of Parenting. It reminded me to respect my children’s feelings and respond in a way that honors their identity as children of God. It helped me to better understand what is happening inside when my 4-year-old freaks out about something–as she often does. It has validated my efforts to create a secure attachment with my babies through responsive parenting–both night and day. I’d definitely recommend the book to others, but only after making them aware of the author’s preference for the attachment parenting style.

A couple of Amazon reviewers’ statements might be helpful:

I think it inflates the parents’ role in child-rearing. It goes completely overboard about activating the wrong parts of your child’s brain. I’m not saying there is no merit to this theory, but the book would make it seem a miracle anyone ever grew up halfway sane if their parents nevcer read this book. -SWB “Parent”

[T]he discussion of the science is extremely superficial . . . . To learn more about the science of how the brain actually works, I would recommend What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Eliot.

I’ve already put What’s Going on in There on hold at our library. It sounds more like what I was expecting The Science of Parenting to be, and the reviews promise lots of dense scientific details. Goody!

Do you have any other book recommendations while we’re at it?