Ars Philosopha — March 6, 2013, 2:44 pm

Weird Parents, Normal Children

Does looking to the past help us become better parents?

“Parents,” (Dec. 1900)

“Parents,” (Dec. 1900)

I remember the first time one my friends told me he had been spanked. We were on the playground at Elbow Park Elementary School in Calgary, Alberta. I was horrified.

“What did you do?” I asked.

“I didn’t cry,” he said, but I could see that the memory was bringing him close to tears.

If my mother or my father had spanked me, I felt certain, I would have run away from home. Or something more radical, even. I would have demanded control of the home. I would have had my parents declared incompetent. I distinctly remember the feeling, not so much of sympathy for my friend, but of profound moral indignation. 

In Sweden, we learn in Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, my friend could have brought criminal charges against his parents. This Swedish law would have seemed entirely appropriate to me at age six. “If one Aka Pygmy parent hits an infant,” Diamond writes of another group with a similar view of corporal punishment, “the other parent considers that grounds for divorce.”

When my mother remarried my stepfather, she told him — and often reminded us that she had told him — “you can never discipline my three children.” There were three of us, plus seven of his kids. My stepfather was a spanker. Worse, he beat his children, my stepbrothers and stepsisters, some of whom predictably became hell-raising teenagers and then deeply troubled adults. But my two brothers and I were never touched. My stepfather only yelled at me once in my life, when my mother was in the hospital and I was monopolizing the phone, talking to my girlfriend. Nor do I think my father ever raised his voice at me (though he only saw us twice a year). Even my mother never really yelled. And, strangely, we didn’t much misbehave — at least, not until we moved out of the house, after which my brother and I managed to get into more than a bit of trouble.

In Republic and in Laws, Plato sets out guidelines for the proper upbringing of children. He worries about their well-being even before they are born, recommending that pregnant women take frequent walks — now standard advice among ob-gyns for healthy mothers — and that once born, children should be carried until about age three. They should also, he advises, be instructed with amusing stories, and not be exposed to scary ones. Nor should their behavior be controlled through fear. (Plato believes that all good people will be raised to be free and unafraid of death.) Children should be encouraged to play, should not be severely disciplined. “Unduly savage repression drives children into subservience and puts them at odds with the world,” he writes in Laws 7, 792 — a passage that naturally recalls for me my stepbrothers and sisters. They should also engage in games that replicate the sorts of activities they will practice later in life. In general, children should learn as they show ability and inclination to do so. In Republic, Plato also recommends that in an ideal society children will be cared for collectively, because no two parents alone are up to the task. (He also thinks sexual partnering should be a collective affair, but that idea, fascinating though it may be, is not our subject today.)

As it turns out, Plato’s prescriptions for the upbringing of children roughly accord — though they are much more detailed, formal, and probably less practical — with the form of education practiced by many hunter-gatherer societies and small-scale farming societies today.

I have three daughters. As a rule I don’t write about them because, even as a writer who is committed to the idea that public candor about our personal lives, generally speaking, is a moral good (and secrecy, morally dangerous), some things must be sacred. But The World Until Yesterday has me thinking about how my daughters have been raised by me and their mothers.

In 1994, when my eldest daughter was born, “Ferber-izing” (after Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatrician who specializes in child sleep disorders) was all the rage. The idea was that very small children, indeed newborn babies, should learn to sleep in their own beds: they’d cry themselves to sleep for a few nights, so the theory went, and then they’d get used to it. I learned from Diamond that this practice was common in Germany for many years:

The magic words for German parents were that children should acquire Selbstständigkeit (meaning, approximately, “self-reliance”) and Ordnungsliebe (literally, “love of order,” including self-control and complying with the wishes of others) as quickly as possible. German parents considered American children spoiled, because American parents attended too quickly to a child’s crying.

My wife and I tried this once. I remember the night. She asked me to leave the house — I couldn’t take the screaming. When I came back, an hour later, our daughter was asleep in bed next to her, her infant mouth still attached to her mother’s breast. She “co-slept” with us — despite the strong moral disapproval of many of our friends, who thought we were coddling her and interfering with her independence — for years afterward.

When my next daughter was born, Ferberizing was still around, and my second wife, too, thought that our new baby would learn independence from crying herself to sleep. Then she changed her mind and decided that both of our daughters (a second quickly followed the first) would be allowed to sleep in bed with us for as long as they liked.

All three of my daughters are what Diamond calls WEIRD children: children of a Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic society. Here, according to Diamond, is how they’re probably being raised:

We follow the rabbit-antelope pattern: the mother or someone else occasionally picks up and holds the infant in order to feed or play with it, but does not carry the infant constantly; the infant spends much or most of the time during the day in a crib or playpen; and at night the infant sleeps by itself, usually in a separate room from the parents.

Ha! I wish. During the first two years of my daughters’ lives, it was an open question whether or not the girls could walk. In fact, my eldest never crawled at all, because she had developed the more efficient practice of sitting and yelling until she was picked up and carried to wherever she wanted to go. Both of my younger daughters, now ages six and eight, still regularly demand to be carried when they are tired of walking. A friend of mine, a tattoo artist, often has his girls with him in his studio all day long, surrounded by the instruments of his craft — precisely the sorts of “dangerous tools” Diamond believes only the children of hunter-gatherer societies are exposed to.

The same problem extends to Diamond’s overgeneralizations about how Western parents discipline and educate their children. He has done a fascinating job of studying how hunter-gatherer societies raise their children, but he doesn’t seem to have spent enough time observing how contemporary Westerners actually raise their children. It’s probably true that most of us wish our children would spend hours “playing with their plastic ready-made store-bought toys,” but the fact is that they don’t. They unwrap the damn things at Christmas, and within an hour they’re having more fun jumping on the bubble wrap than flying the $50 remote-control helicopter.

What I’m suggesting is that the difference between “their kids and our kids” is much smaller than Diamond argues, or perhaps that we would like to pretend. Even violent disciplinarians like my stepfather — the exception, not the rule, in our society — are found among hunter-gatherers: Diamond tells the frightening story of a mother who beats her child until, still unsatisfied by her tears, she rubs her face with stinging nettles.

I do see one key difference between how we parent in the West and in the societies Diamond describes: We WEIRD parents of WEIRD children worry far more about whether or not we’re parenting properly. We lie about how we parent or don’t parent; we’re hypocrites and judge other parents for not doing what we ourselves don’t do (or for doing what we ourselves also do). We spend millions of dollars on books, toys, manuals, tutors, and videos for our own and our children’s entertainment and education, and still we are freaked out about whether or not we are doing it properly. First “helicoptering” is necessary in the terrifying contemporary world, then it’s morally blameworthy; first laissez-faire parenting is the new way, then it’s for irresponsible slackers. We parent with “love and logic,” or whatever the latest bestseller prescribes.

“The lessons from all those experiments in child-rearing that lasted for such a long time,” Diamond writes, “are worth considering seriously.” But we don’t have to consider them; most of us are already practicing them. From the time they’re newborns, your kids are pretty clear about their needs, about what serves their flourishing and what interferes with it — and most of us, whether we admit it or not, get with the program quickly enough, just as I and both my wives did in the face of the popular moral conviction that the Ferber method was how all good parents would teach their newborns to sleep alone.

You new parents: your child-rearing instincts are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary programming. The one way you’ll mess it up is by overthinking it.

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