The main debate about crying has long been about whether to comfort or ignore babies when they are crying, but one occasionally finds experts making other suggestions, some of them quite ludicrous.
Suggestions to stop crying
In an article in the Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, Thomas Dorsel’s number one suggestion for eliminating child crying is: ‘‘Do not allow acquisition’’ (Dorsel, 1978, p. 158). In other words, he says, never reinforce crying, which he quickly notes is utterly impossible. His next suggestion is: ‘‘Insulate against crying’’. Yes, that means to block your ears or isolate your child so that you cannot hear him or her. ‘‘If the parents cannot hear the children crying, they are not likely to reinforce through attention or otherwise’’ (p. 158). (Needless to say, if the child is crying because he or she has just suffered a serious injury, the insulation technique will not only extinguish the crying, it might also extinguish the child.)
Another suggestion: ‘‘Use a punisher that produces non-crying’’—which, he acknowledges, might be ‘‘hard to find’’ (p. 158). He suggests reinforcing non-crying only ‘‘combined with’’ punishment. Most important, Dorsel notes that one should not attempt this program ‘‘half-heartedly’’—that one should not even think about trying to tackle a crying problem unless one is stalwart and determined (p. 158). The absurdity of such suggestions brings us, once again, to our original dilemma: whether to comfort or to ignore.
The solution, once one sees it, is simple. Yes, of course, crying is in some sense a baby’s way of communicating. It is almost always a sign of distress: pain from teething, discomfort caused by a soiled diaper, alarm or a bruise resulting from a fall, and so on. In this sense, Dr. Developmental Psychologist was right: completely ignoring a cry makes little sense. At the very least, one needs to try to locate and remove the source of distress. Moreover, given that love and emotional bonding are important parts of the parent–child relationship, it could reasonably be argued that a baby in distress should always be held and comforted. Even putting aside the bonding issue, as a practical matter changing a diaper or holding and rocking a child is sometimes the only way to keep it from crying for a very, very long time. On the other hand, doesn’t one also need to be concerned about inadvertently reinforcing the crying?
We concluded in our first problem that the crying we were observing probably was not operant, but couldn’t we conceivably create an operant form of crying? That is clearly the logic behind the school of thought that recommends ignoring, and, as I noted above, ignoring does seem to reduce the frequency of duration of crying in certain contexts. Even if we are not concerned about operant crying per se, we are definitely teaching something when we pick up and comfort a crying baby. Shouldn’t we be careful about what we are teaching?
Comfort or ignore?
While outlining this essay, I was reminded almost immediately about a very different crying-baby problem (also read Decoding baby crying): the practical problem that parents and other caregivers face when a baby is crying.
Just what is one supposed to do: comfort or ignore?
The world is not ready, I suspect, to read two separate articles by me about crying babies, so in this essay I will do my best to present reasonable solutions to both problems, and, toward the end, I will show how they overlap.
A baby is crying. In an attempt to stop the crying, a caregiver slaps the baby. The baby then cries louder. Again, in an attempt to stop the crying, the caregiver slaps the baby. Once again, the crying gets louder. Eventually, the parent gives up, and, after a while, the baby finally stops crying. Is the crying operant or respondent? Is the slap reinforce? If the slap is not reinforce, what is it? How would you prove your answer?
I think that I’m only supposed to pick one type of behavior, but the crying seems to be both respondent and operant. Also, the slap seems to be reinforce—because it’s strengthening the behavior that it follows—but it also seems to be an unconditioned (also called unconditional) stimulus (UCS). Slapping a baby should make the baby cry, just as tapping a tendon on someone’s knee should make the knee jerk. I think the procedure as stated in the question already shows that the slap is reinforce. To show that it’s also a UCS, we could just wait until the baby has completely stopped crying and then slap it. At this point, the baby will almost certainly start to cry again, which shows that the slap is a UCS.
One reason why I feel strongly that the crying-baby problem is a reasonable tool for determining someone’s real understanding of the basics of operant and classical conditioning is because this problem barely even touches upon truly complex issues. All interventions produce multiple effects on behavior, both short term and long term, and all behavior is the result of multiple causes; although the crying-baby problem can be looked at in the context of multiple causes and effects, one can also approach it and indeed solve it using only basic facts about operant and classical conditioning. Advanced concepts in behavior analysis tend to cause unnecessary confusion in introductory courses, in my experience.