Some weeks ago, a newspaper article referring to the 2013 Brooklyn Baby Expo and its promotion of “natural products”, discussed the baby market generally. The author points out that the baby market is devoted to figuring out which preferences people will pay more for. The outcome is seemingly endless choices of such things as pacifiers, car seats, and bath toys, which in fact, are all made from the same raw materials, manipulated into similar shapes, and tested in exactly the same way.
The challenge for companies selling these mostly identical products is to persuade parents that a product has a unique feature that would justify paying a higher price. Parents vary in what they value, so for some it might be appearance, for others practical considerations, and safety concerns for still others, although all products are required to meet government safety regulations. A common theme in all the selling approaches is the implication that a particular product is the key to a healthy and happy child.
This made me think of one mother who told me she had spent several hundred dollars on sippy cups after being told by her doctor that it was time for her son to be weaned from the bottle. The child had protested the loss of his bottle by refusing to drink milk at all. Thinking the right sippy cup might solve the problem she tried every one on the market without success. This was an example of using a product to solve a developmental issue, which rarely, if ever, is the answer.
Another example is the attempt to solve toilet training problems by trying different potties or toilet seats. Still another has to do with sleep issues and cribs. While different products might be useful as part of a more thought through plan, more often the sippy cup, toilet seat or new bed becomes part of a power struggle between parent and child. The product itself becomes for the child a symbol of the change he is protesting, and can actually strengthen his or her resistance.
I’ve often alerted parents to beware of getting into a struggle with a child over bodily functions such as eating, sleeping or toileting. This is a no-win situation since a parent cannot control a child’s body in that way. But more important than winning or losing is to understand what a child is letting us know through his behavior about where he is in his development. Such understanding can give us a clue about how to proceed in helping the child and achieving our goals.
Most often, resistance is a form of protest about the next step being expected of a child. A child may not be ready for that step, or not happy about giving up his bottle, his diaper, or his crib. Part of our job as parents is to determine how significant the protest is. Many times, it reflects an understandable ambivalence about giving up a pleasure in exchange for growing independence. A parent’s emotional support and understanding of the feelings involved will help a child make the transition.
A strong protest that begins to turn into a power struggle is often a clue that a child is not ready to take the step a parent may be ready for him to take. Or it may reflect too abrupt a change, which carries with it the threat of permanent loss, and ignores the mixed feelings that change can bring. An example is the mom and the sippy cups. Her idea was to go “cold turkey”, which meant for the child absolute loss with no possibility of salvation. He used the only power available to him by refusing milk altogether.
This does not have to mean mom’s capitulation. Introducing the sippy cup more gradually, before the total loss of the bottle, might have had a different outcome. Mastery is involved in using a sippy cup, and this can usually hold great appeal for a child – especially if it doesn’t at the same time hold the threat of the immediate, total loss of the treasured bottle. More gradual transitions and assessing where a child actually is developmentally (not where some chart says he should be), is probably a good rule of thumb in making “next step” changes.
The article on the baby market points out that the idea that everything children touch should be completely safe is a fairly new one. In the past, having children was an economic investment and only in the last century did parents stop seeing their children as contributing to household finances. Various factors such as child-labor laws and a significant drop in child mortality made children less of an economic asset. Ultimately, this became the contemporary sentimental view of children in which their comfort and protection has become paramount – at least theoretically.
The author writes that “Now, for the first time in human history, having a child in the United States is a net financial loss for a parent.” The baby market has certainly contributed to that. But, hopefully, we will not let products replace patience in understanding our children.