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Aug 29 2012

Trusting your parental instincts

When our first child was born, we were naturally nervous about what to do. Most new parents will recognize the feeling that we had, of facing an enormous responsibility for which we were totally unprepared. Since this was in Sri Lanka and we had plenty of extended family and relatives and friends close by, you would think that we had a wealth of advice that we could draw upon. Actually this did not help because, as is the custom there, every one of them gave us plenty of unsolicited advice, with all manner of rules about what we should do in every situation that was often conflicting, confusing, and overwhelming.

Fortunately someone had given us a copy of Benjamin Spock’s book Baby and Child Care that gave what seemed like knowledgeable and down-to-Earth guidance on how to deal with specific situations and we read it diligently. The only thing I still remember from the book is that somewhere in it he had reassuring words to parents to trust their instincts. He said that even first-time parents have a lot of sound intuitive ideas about how to look after their babies and that they should pay attention to those inner voices.

This came as a great relief. We decided that Spock was the way to go and rather than being buffeted this way and that by conflicting advice, we trusted our instincts. For example, from almost the first week after she was born, our infant daughter cried through the day and could only be calmed by being carried and walked. Spock told us that this incessant crying was likely a symptom that the baby had colic, a digestive disorder that causes great discomfort in a small fraction of newborns but that goes away by itself at about three months. Facing three months of crying seemed like an eternity to us.

Our relatives warned us not to carry the baby because folklore had it that the baby would get ‘spoiled’ and would be well on the path to becoming a self-centered adult who would want all her wishes immediately satisfied. The consensus advice we got was that we should ignore the crying and leave the baby alone in her crib and she would learn the hard way that crying was bad behavior that would not be rewarded. (It is quite remarkable how much extreme Skinnerian psychology has permeated our way of thinking.)

But how can one ignore a crying baby? We simply couldn’t. Every bone in our bodies told us to pick her up and console her. So to general disapproval we took Spock’s advice, ignoring everyone and carried and walked the baby until at the end of the day both the baby and we fell into an exhausted sleep. And sure enough, at about ten weeks the crying abruptly stopped. She no longer needed nor wanted to be carried all the time and was not ‘spoiled’ in the least.

In the US where families are often widely dispersed, one usually has fewer busybody relatives to deal with but one does have news items, like this one, bombarding parents from all directions telling them what they must do to raise ‘successful children’, and one can well imagine that new parents here being as overwhelmed as we were.

It is not that the advice is bad and I am not saying that one should ignore all advice. After all, we depended on Spock. But I wonder if the proliferation of conflicting advice makes parents feel confused and inadequate, and not give their own parental instincts sufficient credit. It can also have them lurching from one pattern of parenting to another, depending on the latest trend, whereas if they followed their own instincts, they might achieve greater consistency over time.

Another potential problem in the US may be too much information and not enough understanding of how to interpret the information. All kinds of benchmarks are published that tell parents at what age their child should be able to sit, crawl, stand, walk, say their first words, and so on. But these benchmarks are merely averages and can also cause considerable worry for parents when their child does not do what they are supposed to be able to do at any given time. Some parents may not realize that there can be considerable variance in all these measures and that over time many of these ‘problems’ go away by themselves. Any parent with more than one child notices the variability in development even among siblings in the same family. Without knowledge of those variances, it is hard to distinguish between real problems in child development and those that are transient and will disappear with time.

If people were also given the standard deviations of measures and a better understanding of how to interpret these data, they might be better prepared to identify real problems and not get too anxious about transient ones.

The odd thing is that we treat probability and statistics as ‘advanced’ mathematics topics and many people never get to learn them as part of their school curriculum or learn them well, even though it is so valuable in everyday life. In actuality, there are many ways to teach statistics ideas using games and puzzles that are a lot of fun and can give even young children in elementary school an intuitive sense of how to interpret numbers.

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Jared A

    Mano, this is such a sweetly written article.

    I think that my parents are around the same age as you and had the roughly the same experiences and also came to the same conclusion. I’m not sure, but I think that the spock book might have also been a factor for them, too. As my mom puts it “How can you not care for this screaming child when all of your instincts tell you that you should? It’s traumatic for both parent and child.”

    Some of those scientific-ish guides about how to care for your child can be pretty counterproductive. A good example is recommendations based on something poorly understood like SIDS. There are many conflicting theories and a few statistical correlations, but not enough to actually prevent the syndrome. The various recommendations tend to be conflicting, based on unsound science, and bordering on the superstitious.

    As near as I can tell the net effect is that it shifts the responsibility of a tragic event from a statistical anomaly to the parents for not following the proper voodoo charm. It’s terrible.

  2. 2
    Jared A

    ps – I just looked at the NYT op-ed you linked to. Gee, I wonder what kind of parent Madeline Levine is. I wonder if she thinks he children are successful. I wonder how many people writing for the New York Times feel like their children are successful.

  3. 3
    mnb0

    I have raised my son with Spock as guidance as well. He doesn’t seem to regret it.
    My first and most important good resolution was that I did nót want my son to be successful. I wanted him to become happy. Sure enough he was successful now and then; he is better at maths and physics than I am. Because of him winning a price in a physics context I have visited the rocket base of Kourou. If he had put a little effort he would have participated in the Olympiad of Physics a few months ago. But he didn’t feel like.
    I also always trusted my instincts. For a few days he was a cry baby too. His mother and I ignored him for two nights; after that he stopped.
    Probability and statistics always have been the easiest part of math for me. If he had continued crying I would have visited a doctor again.

  4. 4
    smrnda

    I don’t have any kids, but I worked in child care a number of years and our approach was similar to Spock’s There’s quite a bit of literature out there to suggest that fears about ‘spoiling’ kids through ignoring their legitimate needs is a crack-pot idea. If babies didn’t cry all the time, parents would neglect them – babies are demanding because they are vulnerable and cannot survive on their own and need to get the attention of adults almost constantly.

    I always thought the punitive ideas about child-rearing and the idea of fearing to ‘spoil’ a child came from Protestant ideas about original sin, but it seems more widespread than that.

  5. 5
    stonyground

    I think that my mother only had her own mother pushing her nose into her parenting business. I get the feeling that her own childhood experiences meant that my mother saw her mother as a bad parent and, as a consequence, gave very little credence to her advice. Both myself and my two brothers grew up as productive and law abiding citizens.

    My own daughter, now fifteen, gave us hardly any trouble at all, so child rearing for us was never much of a challenge.

  6. 6
    Keith Harwood

    When my elder daughter was about two, I realised the big clue.

    If you don’t feel guilty about the way you are bringing up your child then you are doing it wrong.

    So I felt guilty all through their childhoods and in spite of my best efforts they turned into human beings, human beings, moreover, who are a pleasure to know and to love.

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