The Teaching Power of Pacifiers

The Teaching Power of Pacifiers

© 2004 Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.


Michael’s low birth weight and somewhat complicated delivery did not keep him from quickly settling in on the daunting task of teaching me how to be a good father. He had not yet finished his second day before he took good advantage of an opportunity to be sure I understood an important point about parenting. There in her hospital room, Cheryl had just finished nursing him, complete with the obligatory burps that would later reemerge as a hallmark of early adolescence. Now it was my turn to hold him. When he began to cry, the advice from a book for new parents flashed before my eyes. When a baby cries, the book had counseled, it is typically hungry or in some distress. Satisfied that Michael’s crying was neither from hunger nor gas, I assumed it was from the overwhelming novelty of life outside the womb. The book’s author recommended a pacifier, since infants instinctively use sucking to calm themselves. I was prepared. I had done my homework. I reached for one of those ultra-sterile pacifiers that are only sold for firstborn children and offered it to Michael.


He didn’t want it. I rubbed it gently across his lips to be sure he knew it was there waiting for him. He didn’t want it. In my mind I heard myself give him his first logical lecture about how I had read the books and knew that babies like to calm themselves by sucking on something. He would have no part of the pacifier. So much for my pride. Then I remembered the next paragraph in the book. Sometimes babies use crying as a one-size-fits-all method for getting rid of stress.


That’s when I got Michael’s teaching point. This time in my mind I heard him telling me, “Dad, your job these next 18 years is to give me safe alternatives from which to choose. My job is to make my own decision about which alternative I prefer. We’ll have far fewer power struggles if you don’t try to make my decisions for me. Thanks for the offer of the pacifier. This time, I’d rather deal with my stress by crying it out. Thanks for understanding and leaving the decision to me.”


Some call it the illusion of choice. My mother must have understood it well. “Would you rather have carrots or string beans with dinner tonight?” “Which of these three books would you like to read together with me?” “Would you like your bedtime snack before or after your bath?” As a child, it would be years before I would recognize what she was doing with these questions. Each question offered me the illusion of choice. At the time, what I knew was that I got to make my own decisions. I had long since become an adult before I understood how she utilized many of those questions as opportunities to teach me life skills. Mom was a professional seamstress who worked at home. She knew about colors and fabrics, which ones worked well together, and which ones didn’t. “Do you want to wear the blue shirt or this red one with these shorts?” Imbedded in her questions were opportunities to learn about how to sequence the steps for completing a project, how to break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable ones, and how to develop different ways of organizing the things that mattered to me.


My 18 years with Michael ended eight years ago with his graduation from high school and his departure a month later for the Naval Academy. Of course, the time went quickly. It was surely only a few months ago when he got his first progress report from middle school, the one that looked very different from its elementary school predecessors. Cheryl and I had privately debated whether to pull back on the amount of freedom we gave him in dealing with his homework. We chose, instead, to talk with him. We asked him if he thought he understood what changes he would need to make in his study habits at home and at school to restore his grades to their earlier level. We decided to trust him when he told us that he believed he knew what it would take. We told him that we wanted him to have the first shot at making his own adjustments to the increased demands of middle school. If the next progress report indicated he needed our assistance, we would be happy to provide it. The next progress report, and the ones which followed, confirmed what he taught me that day in the hospital: If we did our part as his parents to give him good, clear alternatives, he would make good decisions.


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Paul W. Schenk, Psy.D.
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