The key to balanced parenting can be illustrated with math.

I was intrigued by this author’s illustration of balanced parenting using standard mathematical equations using positives and negatives, and the possible combinations of positive and negative ‘actions’ and the resulting ‘reactions’.

By Sven Grams

The key to balanced parenting - negative and positive reinforcement

The key to balanced parenting can be illustrated with math.

Negative feedback, discipline and restraint; the propaganda surrounding these terms for parenting has reached such fever pitch as to often invoke the specter of the word abuse, regardless of individual circumstance. We live in a world where the adverse effect of discipline’s complete absence in parenting is suspected or even obvious to many. This paper aims to show that the often poor results of their complete absence is itself a long term abuse of the grown up child due to the much higher probability of social skill deficit that they must then overcome on their own.

How can endless love, compassion and forgiveness on its own ever be responsible for causing any negative character traits in a grown child, a knee jerk reaction may be. Simply put, it is when it is applied to a child regardless of that child’s behaviour.

A surprisingly apt simplification using mathematical symbols is as follows:

Child’s behaviour  * Parental reaction  =  Learned behaviour

    *   +   =  
   *       =   +
+   *   +   =   +
+   *       =  


The current issue is that many in society would advocate that only positive parental reactions are allowed. And automatically extrapolate any argument for negative reaction out to its undesirable extremes of beatings and the extreme physical violence.

Where does this current exaggerated tendency come from? A component stems from our evolution. Much like the bodies’ preference for sweet and salty food was a massive advantage for most of our history where food was generally hard to come by (but a large disadvantage today in times of plenty) so too was it historically advantage for most/many mothers (and to some extent fathers) to want to sacrifice and endure endless hardship to make their young child happy, because throughout most of history they barely had the time or resources to lavish such overwhelming positive attention towards the child or be able to afford or tolerate negative behaviour.

...children had to adapt to the family, not the other way around

…children had to adapt to the family…

To simplify even further the child had to adapt to the family, not the often observed trend today where parents excessively adapt to their child. As often observed with human trends over time, the ability to now-a-days provide enough positive attention to children compared to what was historically the norm has allowed the pendulum to swing too far towards the other extreme where no negative feedback is given to the child even when negative traits are shown by the child. Prevailing trends regarding human nature also plays a part. Just like the historically perverse notion of original sin left distorted behaviours and generated misery, today’s parents often can see no wrong in what their child does and don’t realise that the long term harm that not addressing negative behaviour has for their children.

Children are a blank canvas, and like all animals their natural instinct tends towards looking out for themselves, even before they have the mental faculties to understand what this is. They will explore and test their environment with an eye to achieving their immediate goal. Biologically speaking this not only serves as an advantage for tough times when resources are scarce but provide the basis for extreme flexibility of behaviours that is culturally observable throughout the world even today. Though some components of what is traditionally called personality is no doubt underpinned by ingrained physical traits the majority is clearly formed by environment and experience.

Even from the earliest age, people’s reactions to the child’s behaviour will reinforce the way that child behaves in future. The type of reaction that is shown just changes over time to match the physical development of the child. From staying calm and as relaxed as possible around the baby to setting feeding times and play/rest periods to match the rhythm of the parents day (the first example to the child adapting to the parents, and not vis versa) to appropriately reacting to negative behaviours as they emerge through withdrawal of attention, physical separation and if required physical restraint. These measures do not have to be prolonged or intensive, toddlers require generally very little negative feedback before showing emotional discomfort. It only has to be immediate and consistent. The toddler will adapt, that is what they want to do. They need to learn appropriate behaviour for their environment and they cannot easily do this without constant, consistent and immediate feedback.

Crying is a baby and toddler’s primary and normally first way of showing any form of discomfort regardless of severity of distress. Some people equate any crying at all as a sign of a child’s deep distress requiring immediate rectification to avoid long term harm to the child’s development, when often the opposite is true. If a child is healthy, hydrated and fed (allowed to eat as much as they want during allotted feeding times), unsoiled, not hot or cold and allowed periods of rest to avoid overtiring; their discomfort is not likely to be severe and stem from desire more than need… not that the child’s reaction to minor discomfort would always make that clear. However, the parent’s knowledge of having satisfied these core physical needs should reinforce in their minds what the likely cause of the crying might be. Anyone who has had a baby with a diagnosed illness or condition that generates pain in the child will know there is a noticeable difference between general crying and sever pain crying.

balanced parenting - identifying a child's need for sleep

…identifying a child’s need for rest…

Identifying a baby’s and child’s need for rest is still one of the most difficult learning curves for many parents, next to getting their child to sleep if already overtired. This issue varies noticeably from place to place given different cultural practices and handed down parenting habits. It is of interest to note, however, that the most trouble is had by affluent western cultures in this regard who have notably more resources and often time to invest in this matter.

“Necessity is the mother of all inventions.”
“It builds character.”
“Nothing that comes easy is generally of any value for self-development.”

If a child has to often learn how to sleep… is it really any surprise that the ultra-flexible minds of humans require training in all aspects of behaviour?

  • How is a child supposed to develop their imagination & fantasy if they are always over stimulated?
  • How is a child supposed to learn to think if they are always spoon-fed the answers and actions are done for them when they become frustrated?
  • How is a child supposed to learn patience if they are always immediately catered for.
  • What is a child supposed to learn from constant bribery?
  • What does a child learn if crying and/or throwing a tantrum gets them what they want?

Many would claim that these skills develop later, well after the negative traits manifest themselves for the first time. Some even believe that tolerating this phase should be a natural maternal reaction!?

It is true that many a child will adapt components of these skills when they are older, quite simply because they are forced to. At the latest, once they enter into a world of other children they are thrown into a world where continual positive reinforcement regardless of their behaviours is brutally changed as they are forced to interact with individuals who don’t automatically bend to their whim… other children. They must then quickly adapt without the benefit of parental patience, calm explanation and consistency as the reactions they receive come mostly from the children around them. Aside from the shock and uncertainty of having their previous reinforced behaviour shown to be massively unworkable in general society they may develop further negative traits such as violence, bullying or simply withdrawing from interaction instead of the desired traits of compassion, sharing and tolerance needed for social interaction.

Human interaction is the primary basis for our behaviour. No surprise that inconsistent reactions to behaviour early on can lead to unstable foundations for future development. Is there any wonder that such a inconsistent start often leads to children latter having such low self-esteem and being prone to bullying others.

An often used double standard centres around he comment “babies and toddlers understand much more then you think” and “they are too young to understand” depending on what line suits the parent in regards to their current reaction to the child. So which is it? It is true that there is no point in yelling at a baby or discussing at length something to a toddler to try and get them to understand a complex human interaction (though this is a useful precedent for later on) children do, however, very quickly react to negative feedback. Withdrawal of attention, temporary isolation… unless the child shows signs of discomfort, normally crying (and no, this doesn’t have to be physical intervention), they are not learning that the behaviour they just showed was inappropriate. Why would the child give up an action that gets them what they want without any notable consequences?

The key to balanced parenting can be illustrated with math.

…all they have to do is cry, throw a tantrum…

Instant access to the foods they like, endless attention and someone who does everything they want. Why would they give that up when all they have to do is cry, throw a tantrum or behave in a way they know will get them what they want? Sounds selfish? Throughout most of history the high child and infant mortality rate and limited access to a parent’s time made this a major advantage to survival. The squeaky wheel gets the oil so to speak.

The traits we see as childish are only a “phase” as some would call it, only as long as the child is not provided with ample opportunity to see that acting in such a way is not to their long term advantage (and often short term). No surprise that many of these childish traits are carried all the way through adulthood for many people. The term childish being clearly distinguished as negative behavioural traits as opposed to the term childlike which reflects positive behaviours such has inquisitiveness, openness playfulness etc. No one should be childish, even children, while everyone would benefit from being more childlike, even adults.

Parenting is tough, you have to constantly attempt to interpret actions of the child and react appropriately regardless of your current emotional state. And toughest of all, you have to model appropriate behaviour and remain consistent. “Do as I say and not as I do” is a common saying for a reason, and on a subconscious level at least, never works.

Parenting is not about aiming to make a child happy, to be their friend and hope somehow that they will develop into reasonable beings. To later blame others and society and say “when they were with me they were fine, I showered them with only love and affection and gave them everything they wanted… they were happy.”

I hope that I have reinforced the line that what a child wants and what a child needs are often very different things. Parenting is about being a guardian, sacrificing your own needs and desires to ensure the child has a stable, confident base of behaviours for successfully interacting with others. And in doing so greatly increasing their chances for long term sustained happiness later on and now.

Some people believe that discipline will rob a child of a happy childhood, when the opposite is true. Discipline does not need to be long, it only has to be long enough to generate emotional discomfort (for toddlers a time out of a few minutes is normally enough, and feels like an eternity to them). As long as the child knows their actions/behaviours will generate a prompt negative response (from their perspective) they will quickly adapt their behaviour, and be the happier for it. 5 x 5 minute timeouts to clearly show a behaviour is unacceptable is considerably less time than hours and hours of the parent getting gradually angrier while the child tests its behaviours to see what it can get away with today. Discipline does not require anger, (which is in of itself a poor example for the child). You must show your displeasure clearly and react with enough conviction to generate emotional discomfort, but controlling of emotions is something you actually want to demonstrate. Relying on anger to trigger discipline or negative reaction almost guarantees your reactions to the child will be erratic and inconsistent, imparting completely the wrong message. You know when a behaviour is inappropriate, angry or not. Not reacting to bad behaviour at its outset will often lead to a build-up of anger until, depending on the mood, an often more extreme form of negative reaction eventuates, an unnecessary rhythm that helps no one over time.

Oddly enough, endless love and attention regardless of behaviour with the aim to keep the child always happy, all of the time, can take considerably more effort and sacrifice from the parent than a measured amount of discipline. That makes it even more tragic that this practice often leads to behavioural traits in the child which result in such negative interactions with the parents later on as well as society in general.

A blank canvas that is a child’s mind will try every facet of life, good or bad, to quickly determine what works and what doesn’t (often in terms of getting what they think they want). This simple fact allows for the massive variations in human behaviour we see even today, let alone throughout time. It is the parent’s duty to encourage the good and discourage the bad regardless of what they want for themselves at that point in time. No one said life was meant to be easy. But that is exactly what makes it worthwhile.

As a final note:

“People who have no problems, generate their own.”

Article Source: Sven Grams
Photo credits: Jon McGovern via photopin cc; demandaj via photopin cc; Matteo Bagnoli via photopin cc; mandi leah via photopin cc


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