From Good Babies to Bad Mothers: Behaviorism and the Influence of "Mommy Training" on Maternal Anxiety

Monday, May 05, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Psychology of Motherhood

Avoiding anxiety in parenting is essentially impossible because there is a discrepancy between internal drives, early modeling, social norms and societal goals that all compete. In recent human history, behaviorist thought has played a large role in altering the way we respond to internal cues about parenting, and many women enter therapy trying to field pressure from too many sources. Figuring out what those sources happen to be matters. There's a reason we feel like we're doing it wrong: according to some part of our brain, we totally are. 

Let me be clear that this is not an attack of a specific parenting model or ideal. It is also not to say that some forms of training are not useful. We evolved to watch those around us and model behaviors, learning how to parent through those interactions.

But our drives to attach are often at odds with the drives to fit into out current idea of what normal parenting looks like. And behaviorist mandates can create an additional layer of shame responses that some women may be susceptible to without even realizing it. This may be true whether they parent against the grain or not.

It is for those who are having trouble understanding their anxiety responses amidst competing drives that this post is for.

Good Mothers

In our society we have a very distinct idea about what good motherhood looks like, and it happens to be one that is very different from what parenting looked like when our brains were developing. This may create additional strain for mothers when internal drives and expected hormonal input don't match up with the environment. But most don't pay attention to those drives or the resulting anxiety because we have an internal list of "Good Mother" dos and don'ts dictated by our upbringing and cultural influences.

Good Mothers Do:

  • Have children who do well in school
  • Have children who listen to them/are "respectful"
  • Have children who are "well behaved"
  • Have children who play well with others/have lots of friends
  • Have children who sleep well alone
  • Have children who...are perfect

Good Mothers Don't:

  • Have children who struggle with school
  • Have children who are bullied
  • Have children who are defiant or don't want to listen
  • Have children who have trouble controlling impulses
  • Have children who have any number of psychological/behavioral issues

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list, and just as clearly, not reflective of reality. Great mothers have children who are bullied or who aren't social butterflies. Great mothers have children who climb into their parent's beds all through elementary school and beyond. Great mothers have children who struggle with all kinds of behaviors that society deems unacceptable, regardless of whether the behavior is a normal developmental phase or not.

Because we have these deeply ingrained ideas about what good motherhood is supposed to look like, we are that much more motivated to change the behaviors of our children. And behaviorism gave us the blueprint to do it.

Good Babies

"Is he a good baby?" 

Well, that kinda depends where you are, and who you are. Because according to anthropologist Meredith Small, in Our Babies, Ourselves, the way people expect babies to behave is directly related to the type of economic structure in place around them, which informs the nature of their goals for their children1

So, if you live in a farming community in some rural village in Asia, fostering strong connections that will persevere throughout adulthood are critical because your offspring will grow up to work the land with you, thus affecting your economic status. Children are workers, on the same level as their parents. According to Small, parents don't mind heavy investment because they are getting that  investment back in future production.

Good babies cry. And when they do, you pick them up as our ancestors have done from the beginning of time. You wouldn't do something to your kid that you wouldn't do to an employee...or your grandmother.

"Hey Harry, did you finish your TPS reports? No? Come here and let me smack you on the ass."

American culture dictates something else. According to Small, forced early independence is not so much meanness as it is the desire to foster that independence in adulthood, because it is necessary for the American version of success. Here, our children don't usually take care of us in old age, nor will their income as adults affect ours. Our process is to pour everything into them, including a second mortgage to pay for their college, just so that they can walk away from us and not look back. Based on this model, we expect obedience, because the goal of our sacrifice is to benefit their lives, not our own.

"Good babies listen and let us sleep, dammit. Some of us have to work tomorrow."

Right, okay, fair enough. So what you expect from your kid is based on how success is defined by the society you live in. Got it.

But why the hell would we think we have control over how a kid sleeps or behaves? 

Turns out that as our economic structure evolved, so did the way we thought we needed kids to act. There were some disturbing periods during this evolution where women were encouraged to abandon their children (who weren't really human until they were a few months old anyway), or shipped their kids off to be nursed through babyhood by others. Due to high mortality in both of these practices, this was followed by periods where women kept their kids at home, but they were to be seen and not heard, or forced into submission through violence. 

But with the onset of psychoanalytic thought, and the idea that children might just be human after all, parents began to seek alternatives to beating (though the remnants remain today). That's when we ended up with a more specific blueprint of childcare that would train children to act the way we wanted them to without the bother of baby binding or brutality.

So, how do you train a kid to behave differently? That's the easy part. 

You train their mothers.

From Good Babies to Bad Mothers

While independence is better fostered through security, that little gem got lost somewhere in the economic model of childrearing. The "good baby" thing refers to the idea that one trains an infant the way you would train a puppy. 

John Broadus Watson specifically emphasized a parent's role in the behavior of children in his 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child2. In it, this behaviorally trained psychologist embraced the notion that children could be conditioned to be anything their parents wished. Furthermore, they could be conditioned to fear (or not fear) anything through parental environmental control. 

Nature was irrelevant, nurture was imperative and mothers were to be blamed if their children turned out to be less than ideal specimens.


Watson took this a step further by conditioning a child named Albert. This 11-month-old child was shown a rat, of whom he had no fear. Watson proceeded to bang a steel bar with a hammer behind the child's back each time the rat was introduced, which led to the child crying. Eventually, the child cried merely at the sight of the rat as he had been conditioned to respond fearfully3. Very Pavlovian. 

Okay, that guy is seriously a douchebag.

Unfortunately, douchebags will one day rule the world--who am I kidding, they already do--and Watson's ideas were soon generalized to the rest of the population, not just the unfortunate Albert.

B.F. Skinner: Captain Control

Skinner was an early behaviorist who studied the effects of conditioning on rats. He believed that internal driving forces (or innate drives and instincts) were irrelevant to practice. Instead, his focus was on reinforcements (to increase behaviors) and punishments (to decrease behaviors)4.

His rodent experiments were soon generalized to the human population. Using a specific set of criteria, moms should have control over their children. Period.

Here is an illustration of those conditioning patterns proposed by Skinner, as they might look if you were training your husband:


Four Types of Behaviorist Conditioning Practices:

1. Positive Reinforcement: Give something to increase behaviors

"I will give you a blow job for taking out the trash."

2. Negative Reinforcement: Take something away to increase behaviors

"I'm hiding the remote control until you take out the trash."

3. Positive Punishment: Give something to reduce behaviors

"I will slap the shit out of you if you don't stop whining about blow jobs."

4. Negative Punishment: Take something away to reduce behaviors

"The remote will stay hidden until you stop whining about blow jobs."


Obviously, with children these would look different, and if they don't, you have a much bigger problem then can be addressed here. (On a related note, seriously, honey, take out the fucking garbage, or I'm going to hide the remote in the bottom of the trash can.)

Behaviorism Is Really Effective...but not at creating happiness 

As the above examples illustrate,  behaviorism can be super effective. 

What guy wouldn't take out the trash for a blow job?

While you can indeed change a behavior using behaviorism, the feelings of the individual (and subsequent anxiety) are irrelevant both for the person giving the action and the one receiving it. This is particularly important when people don't understand how they are being influenced, because it's harder for them to understand why they feel the way they do. Blow job guy up there knows exactly why he took out the trash, and he has no qualms about it. But what about when things aren't so clear cut?

It turns out women are less receptive to sexual favors as a conditioning token, particularly since if we want sex, we usually just have to ask. What we are receptive to is shame and guilt, a process that is a lot more subtle. As highly social creatures, we evolved to care about those around us. Shame informs behavior because it triggers an internal mechanism that gets us to respond in order to avoid the guilt. If you want to change someone's mind, the fastest way is to change their emotions. 

Mother nature is a sneaky bitch.

Behaviorism implies that the brain is far simpler then it actually is by ignoring complex emotional responses that can be persistent over time. When faced with competing drives, the urge to cry while wearing a smile (because someone will roll their eyes at you) is maladaptive for anyone. It fractures trust, teaches you that your feelings don't matter and encourages ignoring feelings or changing actions in order to please others. The resulting deviation from innate expectations does little to bolster mental health and can lead to long term detriment in both mothers and their children.

For women, instead of taking away dessert, we get shame and criticism for not sleep-training, or doing-time outs, or not breastfeeding for giving the kids Oreos for breakfast, or whatever it happens to be. 

So, the maternal behaviorist model might look more like this:

Positive Reinforcement: (From a pediatrician) "I will congratulate you, praise you and say things like 'you'll all be happier for it,' if you take my advice on sleep training, regardless of whether the practice makes you uncomfortable."

Negative Reinforcement: (From a sister)"I will not invite you or your children to my son's birthday party unless you respond to your child in a way I deem acceptable."

Positive Punishment: (From a peer)"I will give you dirty looks, talk behind your back or try to make you feel guilty if I see you parenting differently from me, at least until you come around to my way of doing things."

Negative Punishment: (From a mother-in-law)"I will refuse to babysit for you until you find a way to get your child to stop (back talking, hitting, breastfeeding, whining, etc)."

Unfortunately, Skinner's mandates have held ever since their inception, repackaged in new and improved training manuals from Piaget to Dr. Spock to Redbook to Supernanny and everything in between. This has lead to deeply ingrained cultural expectations of mothers where children are a direct reflection of their abilities. It's a no-win situation, especially because we get it from the media on top of what we get from our peers, physicians and families.

So, we have:

  1. Evolutionary drives to parent a certain way 
  2. Societal goals that dictate something else
  3. Belief that we are solely responsible for our kid's actions 
  4. Behaviorist societal mandates that shame us into responding certain ways (and ultimately mold us through rewards and punishments while ignoring our feelings on the matter) 
  5. An internal model of motherhood from our parents that may or may not be contradictory to the above
  6. Guilt and shame from those who do it differently, regardless of our path
  7. Anxiety responses related to the interplay of the first six

Fucking sweet.

Here's the thing: everyone feels the impact of these issues differently. For some, the evolutionarily relevant internal drives towards closeness and attachment will outweigh any drive to sleep train. For others the desire for immediate response will outweigh the pain they feel while their child is in time-out. Because even though we may have evolved to parent a certain way doesn't mean that this parenting style is the one that will cause individual women the least amount of stress, particularly in such diverse environments. 

Stress is the result of a complex interaction of numerous other factors in any woman's head, and everyone does their best to reduce that strain. Stressed-out mothers lead to stressed-out kids too. But women who feel anxious or guilty at choosing certain practices should at least know where it's coming from in order to address it and weigh her options. 

While the argument may exist that certain parenting models may provide broader benefits to children in the long term, it is more difficult to say definitively that one model is universally better for mothers in terms of stress reduction. Which is a bummer, because it means the mommy wars won't end any time soon, and neither will societal pressure to embrace certain practices and produce perfect children while feeling anxious and wearing a smile.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Our Babies Ourselves
Anthropology and childrearing with a unique focus on the effects of culture on mothering

Psychological Care of Infant and Child
Read this only if you want a reason to punch someone in the throat. If nothing else, it is a great perspective on how things change over time.

Mothers and Others
Anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy explores the history of maternal drives and assistant caregivers

Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain
A look into the neurobiology of an infant and the brain connections that are formed in response to loving (or not so loving) interactions with caregivers.

Mother Nature
Women, sex, competition, cooperative breeding and monkey heirarchies.