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Wednesday, June 19, 2013
One of the best-selling books on the shelves right now is “Bringing Up Bebe” by Pamela Druckerman. She believes the French have the market cornered on raising self-sufficient, well-behaved children, and we Americans could learn a thing or two from them.
But I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all parenting. When my son was born, my mother-in-law and I discovered we had no common ground when it came to child-rearing. I admit she had more experience — she raised her own two children and helped bring up five younger siblings. I had no contact with children until I became a mother myself. Everything I knew came from books.
She felt that because I did not do things her way, I was doing them wrong. For my part, I knew that in the past century, researchers had made at least a few new discoveries about child development, and that she had not even consulted the venerable Dr. Spock when she was bringing up her boys. What her mother had taught her during the ’20s and ’30s was good enough.
There were lots of rules to follow. Babies, she informed me, were born with the desire to manipulate the adults around them, and it was the parents’ job to clamp down on this behavior right away, before the child was irreparably spoiled. Feedings were to be given on a rigid schedule in set amounts, and the child was not to be played with in between. A crying baby was never to be picked up because that would reinforce the behavior, and anyway, crying was good for them — it “exercised the lungs.” Thumb-sucking was the ultimate evil — it meant you were a failure as a mother.
These days, doctors tend to recommend a more natural approach, with feeding on demand, plenty of physical contact and offering comfort to a child immediately, at least in the first few months. Self-soothing actions, such as thumb-sucking, are encouraged, as long as it doesn’t go much past the first year.
As harsh as my mother-in-law’s parenting methods sound, they were not based on ignorance or superstition. This was the advice turn-of-the-last-century doctors gave their patients, and these techniques remained popular well into the 1960s.
This form of child-rearing was a direct result of the practice of medicine evolving into an empirical science from a process of trial-and-error during the late 19th century. It also was a reaction to the high infant mortality rate in an era before the germ theory of disease was discovered. Many medical conditions were thought to be brought on by irregular meals when they actually were due to impure water and milk or poor nutrition of the child or the mother. This type of child-rearing also coincided with the rise of a psychological school of thought called “behaviorism.” Its adherents believed that every child was a blank slate and could be molded into someone with any kind of skill or ability with the proper application of rewards and punishments. Experts even issued guidebooks, which parents — anxious to do their best by their children — snapped up as fast as they were printed.
I know this because I did some research in an effort to understand where my mother-in-law was coming from. I was fascinated, but still extremely annoyed. I promised myself that when I became a grandmother, I would defer to the child’s parents unless they asked me directly for advice, and then I wouldn’t hold a grudge if they decided not to take it.
But in the past two years, there has been an explosion of babies among my friends and neighbors. And guess what? I often find myself on the verge of giving unasked-for advice. So I devised a mental checklist to go through before I open my mouth:
1. Is this my child? No? Then I should butt out.
2. Is the child being physically or mentally harmed? No? Then I should butt out.
3. Will whatever the parents are doing scar the child for life? No? Then I should butt out.
4. Will this make the parents’ life easier? Yes? Then I should butt out.
The truth is, child-rearing practices change all the time. Each child is different, and no one knows a baby as well as its parents do. Whether they’re bringing up bebe, bambino or mtoto (that’s Swahili) they should trust their own instincts, and the rest of us should trust them, too, or at least do our best to pretend that we do.
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