Bronco-Buster Parenting: Baby Unwise

Parents are so stressed these days —trying to survive without extended family support while balancing the demands of work—that they easily succumb to what I call bronco-busting parenting. It seems to be increasingly a feature of industrial society. And there are a lot of books out there (and advice from acquaintances and family) encouraging such an approach. Parents ‘break in’ the baby so they are less needy and more independent. At least that is the story.

What is bronco-busting? See this post’s opening photo. European-descended folks brought to the Americas this technique for horse training. It is not gentle. “Bronco-busting” is about force and power, human over horse. The trainer jumps on the back of the horse without much introduction or warning, forcing the horse into a panic of bucking. The rider attempts stay on the horse until it stops bucking. It is the coercive way to make a horse learn to take a rider.

In contrast, Native Americans (and other indigenous peoples around the world) treat a horse gently to keep its survival systems (e.g., stress response) from becoming overreactive, which will by nature initially gear up to move away from a stranger. Over a few days or weeks, the horse learns to trust the trainer. This is the approach recommended by horse trainers today .

Although the “bronco-busting” approach can work in the short term, horse trainers today know that it leads to trouble later—unpredictability, obstinance, opposition. Coercion plants the seeds of distrust and resentment and those seeds sprout unexpectedly later.

Similarly, bronco-busting parenting involves ignoring relational attunement with the child emotional and physiological needs. Instead it uses coercion to get baby to stop signally its own needs and meet the needs of the parent—to be obedient to parental wishes. Parents seek to mold baby to parent desires rather than following the rhythms of baby to gently guide developing systems into healthy functioning while the baby is learning to adjust to the world beyond the womb. Think of how much babies have to adjust to! Breathing air; shifting from breathing through the nose to breathing through the mouth when needed; adjusting to shifting somatosensory input—the body in space, bright lights, loud sounds, temperature shifts; and more. Responsive parents help the baby adjust with kindness and tenderness.

Trusting that your children love you, allows you to do the “parent things” that may sometimes make them dislike you for a while.

Baby-busting parenting does not fit with our species needs, nor with optimal child raising which requires nearly constant responsive presence in the first months and years of life (the evolved nest ). What happens when parents routinely are unresponsive to their babies? Insecure attachment ensues (Grossmann et al, 1991). This decades-long work of Klaus Grossmann is cited in a Scientific American article noting that unresponsive parenting techniques, advised during Nazi Germany, may still reverberate in the German society.

Attachment . Secure attachment is an indicator that the child’s relationship with the parent (when they are tested together) is a responsive one. It’s a signal that the brain systems related to social and emotional intelligence are developing well enough. Insecure attachment comes about when relationship with the caregiver is inconsistently responsive (e.g., does not attend to baby’s cues, their emotions, their needs). Insecure attachment of the avoidant kind has been rising in US college students, a signal that early life relationships were less than optimal.

Avoidant attachment . Avoidant attachment is a sign of impaired social and emotional intelligence. The individual has learned to shut down emotional development from the hostility encountered when his emotions were expressed as a baby. The individual puts a shell around his softer emotions and moves into his intellect. (You know the type—like us professors! It takes concerted effort to heal in adulthood.) The individual comes across as a snob, dismissing emotional expression and vulnerability—signals of underdevelopment and fear. The individual can feel superior to those who do express their emotions. Because they feel superior and get caught up in their intellectual machinations, they can be dangerous. They can create theories and take actions that a well-developed, full-hearted person would never do, that bring harm to others.

Bronco busters were in a hurry. You could “break” a horse in a matter of hours if not minutes, rather than days. I suspect baby-busters are also in a hurry. They want to get back to their lives, to the interests established before baby arrived to interrupt them. Or they want to move baby along in development, as if this were possible (not!—it’s like trying to hurry up the growth of the oak tree you just planted). But it is possible to slow down baby development from lack of enough affectionate touch (part of our evolved nest ).

Plan not-so-random acts of kindness. Kids need to know that helping others is an everyday practice, not a visit-a-soup-kitchen-at-the-holidays grand gesture. Challenge yours to complete small tasks every week, like throwing away another kid's trash at lunch or raking a neighbor's lawn. Training your children to focus on others helps curb entitlement. "Gratitude becomes woven into who they are," says Jeffrey J. Froh, a coauthor of Making Grateful Kids.

When started during babyhood, we can call bronco-busting parenting “baby-busting” parenting.

We can look at sleep training as one example. Of course, parents want to sleep and may be scared to death of following their instinct to keep baby in bed which would help with sleep (safe bedsharing and cosleeping advice here ).

A baby busting approach may be taken up out of desperation, for example, for sleep. There are many books about training your baby to sleep on his/her own ‘in a week,’ for the ‘happiest baby.’ But these approaches use cruelty to meet their mark. Like bronco busting, success with crying-it-out is temporary and it plants the seeds of dysregulated, disruptive behavior later due to the distress changing the brain’s development.

Babies get the messages: ‘The world is not safe (like the womb was felt to be) so watch out.’ ‘You are ‘wrong’’ (Narvaez, 2011). Survival systems go on alert drawing blood flow, thwarting the growth of right-hemisphere-driven social capacities (scheduled to grow in the first years; Schore, 2003a, 2003 b), undermining social and emotional intelligence.

Notice what baby busting actually does.

The child has experienced a “broken continuum,” a breakdown in support for its growth and wellbeing. A gap in empathy develops and commitment to relationships is wounded. The tether of connection to the human community, represented by the parent, is frayed. A hole in the fabric of self development is made, perhaps never to be repaired. As a result, actions the child takes up later may not be as a connected family or community member, at least not fully, because they learned distrust so early. Harming the social fabric won’t seem so bad. Selfish pursuits won’t seem off-putting. Moral disengagement may become routine as the child learns to ignore personal emotional and bodily needs, which were denied in a formative period, making it easy to extend such ignoring towards the needs of others. (See Narvaez, 2014.)

Let your kids place an order. Once a week, allow your children to choose what's for dinner and cook it for them.

Such a breakdown so early in life may shift the trajectory of development for the child, sending them on a path toward less empathy, less trust, less self-assurance, less fulfillment and more anxiety and insecurity and an orientation to dominance-submission relationships (what babies practice with caregivers is what they become).

If parents are only interested in the genetic package a child carries, baby busting may be attractive. But chances are, the lack of responsive nurturing will undermine brain development in ways unnoticed unless you compare a baby-busted child’s development over time with that of a nurtured child. Attachment studies do comparisons of those with secure versus insecure attachment. In every way studied, securely attached children do better (Sroufe et al., 2008).

Parents know instinctively it is wrong to let their babies cry. But external forces are telling them not to worry, that it is necessary, that the baby will be “spoiled” if they respond.

Note: young babies have difficulty stopping crying once they start so it is best to respond to their nonverbal signals (grimace, body shifting)—before they wind up to crying—and mitigate further distress.

Shouldn’t a baby learn independence? As noted earlier, the species-normal developmental route leads to independence, whereas the opposite occurs if independence is imposed. Surely, there is a time in child development to help a child develop toughness or “grit” to develop their talents. For the mastery of any skill domain (a sport, musical instrument, etc.), they will need to participate in extensive focused practice, generally guided by one or more coaches. But babyhood is not the time. Remember that babies are like fetuses of other animals till 18 months of age. Babyhood is the time for tenderness.

By acknowledging small improvements in behaviour you make it easier for big improvements to follow.