Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why I hate 'instinctive' parenting: claiming your parenting method is one, that is

A member of my mother's group posted this article: Why I HATE Attachment Parenting: the name, that is.  This is an article by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, an enterprising woman essentially rebranding AP using mainstream marketing techniques, so that she can sell it as BabyCalm® . 

Her insight into the parenting market is superb.  I agree with her that Attachment Parenting is a loaded and contested term that divides people into camps.  And her website could reassure even the most conservative mother that she was getting mainstream advice.  As a business strategy, it's great.

I agree with what Ockwell-Smith says for most of the article.  But I cannot in any way agree with her conclusion:
Do we need to just trust our instinct and do what feels right? yes.  Let’s drop this terminology, let’s drop the idea of viewing it as a choice of a way to parent and lets help new and expectant parents to understand the way our species is meant to be born and raised. The NORMAL way for humans to birth and parent.
For starters, I can't help thinking that there is something off about proclaiming you are all for 'instinctive' parenting behaviours and to throw away the parenting books as an advertisement for buying a parenting book.  Moreover, when the practices you are advocating are apparently so instinctive and intuitive, why is it that the majority of mothers will think they sound weird unless you employ sophisticated, contrived branding?

Now, let me say before I go any further that on a  spectrum of parenting practices, with Tizzie Hall at one end and Dr Sears at the other, I definitely fall closer to the Dr Sears end.  I breastfed until 17 months, I co-slept till 13 months, I held or wore my baby as much as I could manage, and I use a very gentle form of discipline with my toddler.  But one thing that drives me absolutely bonkers is people who claim that their Attachment Parenting techniques (by whatever name) are 'instinctive'.  And they don't just mean 'instinctive for me personally', but 'instinctive for each and every one of us if we could all just shed the rubbish parenting advice clogging up our brains and rediscover our true and natural selves'.  In order to make their case, they point to anthropological and archaeological evidence about the way people live in more 'natural' states.  For example, they point to statistics that show most of the world co-sleeps.  They give their own personal anecdotal evidence that they felt so much better once they ignored the baby trainers and trusted their instincts and their baby.

According to the 'instinctive' or 'natural' parents like BabyCalm®, this is your mind as corrupted by nasty baby-training ideas:

And this is what it would look like if you hadn't been indoctrinated:

Ah, Monet.  So beautiful.  (And in case you're wondering the first picture is a Banksy painting).

But looking at these pictures reminds me of when I got my first camera.  I was seven.  I was so excited to be able to finally get a chance to take my own photos and capture the world from my perspective.  I took photos of beautiful big trees near our house, and of the moon.

Only when I got the photos developed, the beautiful trees looked a bit like this:

And the moon photo looked quite a lot like this:

And then I was very angry at my camera, because it wasn't taking photos of what things really looked like.  I was angry at the power poles and the city lights for getting in the way when they weren't supposed to be there.  I knew what a photograph of the moon or a tree was supposed to look like and this was not it.    It didn't take me long to lose interest in photography and focus on writing.

But one day, many years later, the thought reluctantly occurred to me that the problem was not that the camera was distorting reality, it was that it was capturing reality more truthfully than I liked to admit.

'Instinctive' or 'natural' parenting advocates would say that they are just trying to promote what is natural, whereas baby-training methods are about trying to subdue or dominate a baby and mother's natural way of being.  But it seems to me that in making this argument the natural parents have bought into the human/nature dichotomy - the idea that humans are somehow above nature and outside of nature.  Because unless you think humans are outside of nature, how do you reach the conclusion that there is a 'natural' way of being and an 'unnatural' way of being created by humans?   If humans are part of nature, then how can any of our behaviour be unnatural?

Now, maybe you think there is a human/nature dichotomy.  Perhaps you believe that God created humans to rule over the natural world, or something similar.  If so, that's a whole other argument.  But if you believe in evolution, then you believe we evolved our sophisticated pre-frontal cortexes as a natural, evolutionary advantage that has allowed us to be unprecedentedly competitive in our natural environment.  If you believe in evolution, you can say our behaviour is 'disproportionately destructive to the pre-existing ecology' or 'conscious rather than instinctive' but you could not say that it's 'unnatural'.

I do believe in evolution, and so I think there is a fundamental problem with labelling some human behaviours to be 'natural' and some 'unnatural'.  

So let's set aside trying to classify parenting as natural and unnatural and turn instead to 'instinctive' versus 'trained'.

This too is not without problems.  

In a nutshell, those arguing for 'instinctive parenting' have two hurdles to overcome:

1) that there is such a thing as 'instinctive universal parenting behaviour' for humans; and
2) that we'd be better, happier parents if we acted in accordance with it.

On the first point, unless someone decided the nature/nurture debate unequivocally in favour of nature when I wasn't looking, there is a problem with labelling some human behaviours to be 'instinctive' and some 'trained'.  Last time I checked, it was virtually impossible to isolate a behaviour that is entirely learned or entirely instinctive.  

Take language.  Learning language is instinctive in one sense, and you can see babies will instinctively babble and toddlers incessantly repeat what they think they hear.  There is some evidence that we are instinctively primed to pick up grammar.  But we do not instinctively know a particular language, nor do we develop language if we are isolated from all forms of human communication.  From studying children in rare but unfortunate circumstances that they are not exposed to language before a certain age can never be taught to speak any language fluently.  Our thought processes at as fundamental a level as language are partly instinctive, but they in order to develop in what we would think of as a 'normal' way they require the input of human culture.  And language itself plays a huge role in what we value and pay attention to.  If you learn the words 'keyboard', 'USB', 'iPad', 'phone', and 'TV', you are going to pay attention to very different things than if all those concepts are bound together under the term 'useless crap' and instead you learn ten different words to describe the different ways a kangaroo hops.  I wouldn't even notice, much less describe to you, a kangaroo's hopping pattern.  The notion that there is any pattern to how a kangaroo hops is alien to me, but it would seem entirely instinctive to an Indigenous person raised with a language that was aimed at conversing in intricate detail about the natural environment.

In another blog post, the author of BabyCalm® wrote: 
"Ask yourself this, why is it that humans are the only species in the world that need parenting help? Why is it that tiny creatures with even tinier brains can birth multiples, suckle them all, keep them safe and raise them into strong, healthy adults, all with no external input?"
Her answer was primarily that we have received too much advice that goes against our own instincts, and if people just cooked and cleaned for us while allowing us to do things the way we feel is best, everything would go swimmingly.  It sounds awesome.  A little too awesome.  The kind of 'it'll be perfect if I get to make all the choices' fantasy of our consumer culture, not like any actual traditional culture that really has actually ever existed.  Far from trusting mother instinct, many traditional and ancient cultures would remove the babies from their mothers to other older, more experienced women.  First-time mothers were considered far too naive and inexperienced to actually make decisions about the baby they gave birth to, and the community very much had a say in how the baby would be raised and what parenting practices would be adopted.

I think the answer is more pragmatic than BabyCalm would like to think.  We are the only species that needs parenting help because we are the only species that has evolved an advanced pre-frontal cortex that allows us conscious control over a large amount of our behaviour, and the price of that evolutionary development is that instincts (both good and bad) can be largely overridden or ignored.

There is a fascinating book called Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith Small, which is a laypersons introduction to the emerging field of ethnopediatrics.  Ethnopediatrics is a cross-disciplinary approach which looks at anthropological studies  together with evolutionary biology, neurology, psychology, and paediatrics generally to gain new insights into the nature of parent-child relationships, thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.  In the introduction, she writes:
The human infant is a perfectly designed organism; it knows when to sleep, when to eat, and how to cry out and signal its needs.  Although caretakers are hard-wired to respond in positive ways to a needy infant, they are also not automatons.  There is, in fact, an incredible amount of slack in the 'system'.  Every adult carries a suitcase of personal and cultural baggage that determines how he or she will parent.  And every society has developed traditions that guide how adults 'should' treat their offspring.
That's every society, not just 'Western societies' or 'societies with capitalism and baby monitors'.  Baby whisperers do not represent a new age of ignoring our instincts.  They're just the modern consumer society's alternative to getting advice from grandma.  And if you are under any illusion that 'traditional' advice is likely to be more accurate and in touch with a child's developmental needs, then you may be challenged by a number of the examples in Small's book.  Are you comfortable with infanticide?  Or with assigning a two year old chores almost to the exclusion of playtime?  There are many and diverse 'traditional' societies in the world, and I have difficulty accepting that Jean Liedloff's idyllic portrayal of a natural society in The Continuum Concept is the only true one.

By all means, tell me that millions of babies round the world co-sleep and have done for millennia.  Use this to question Western assumptions that co-sleeping is dangerous or damaging.  But just because it's been the majority practice from a long-term world-view doesn't mean that it's instinctive.  It could just have easily been so common because it has typically been the most rational sleeping arrangement from a safety and resourcing perspective.  If you live in the jungle, you're going to keep your baby pretty close by.  If you live in London in the industrial revolution, you are hardly going to spend money you don't have on a separate room and bed for the baby.

If the majority of Western families, who can put their babies in another room without safety concerns and who have the space to spread a family out across multiple rooms, are choosing to co-sleep then you would have a more compelling argument that co-sleeping is instinctive.  But how do you explain the babies and parents who go happily into separate rooms (and they do exist), or the babies and parents who really want to do attachment parenting but just cannot seem to get their child to sleep if they are in the room (because they exist too)?

I believe co-sleeping for as long as your family wants is a perfectly valid choice.  I believe it was the right choice for our family for that first year.  I believe the vast majority of parents and children could co-sleep without much trouble if it was the social norm.  But to say it's the one and only instinctive sleeping arrangement seems to be overstating the case.

I think there probably are some parenting behaviours which are so deeply rooted in biology you could characterise them as instinctive.  It's just that they they probably aren't as complex as setting up a co-sleeping arrangement.  They are probably things like instinctively positioning yourself between your baby and a known danger, instinctively using a sing-song voice when speaking to your baby, or instinctively having part of your mind always thinking about the baby and searching for reassurance that the baby is ok.

I draw a distinction between the instinctive urge to know your baby is ok, and saying the one right solution to that urge is co-sleeping.  Indeed, I suspect that there are many people who resolutely don't co-sleep because they have an instinctive urge to know their baby is ok, and they have been told co-sleeping is dangerous.  Hence, they find the practice of co-sleeping is not instinctive at all, because they are constantly worried that they will wake to find their baby is not ok.

Now if you are a co-sleeping advocate, at this point you are probably thinking: But co-sleeping isn't dangerous.  Those people have been misled.

I agree.  In most cases co-sleeping is not dangerous or is not significantly dangerous (see my summary of research on co-sleeping or my TEDx talk on co-sleeping and safety).  But if this is what you're arguing, you have moved away from an argument that co-sleeping is 'instinctive' and are now evaluating whether co-sleeping is preferable.

Whether co-sleeping is preferable obviously depends on many things, including how a baby is likely to develop when co-sleeping as opposed to cot-sleeping, what kind of values and personality you are aiming to foster in your child, the parents resources and ability to co-sleep, the impact of co-sleeping vs cot-sleeping on the family as a whole etc.  There are so many variables here that I would suggest it is impossible to prescribe one right answer for every family.  So why do some AP/natural/instinctive parents feel that there is one right way, and that is the AP way (with some minor variations permitted).  There is a theoretical basis, consistent with what we know of psychology and neurology, that leaving a child to cry it out at an early age could be damaging but the likelihood of this risk is completely unknown.  There is simply no research whatsoever that shows a link between crying-it-out and adverse outcomes.  A very small correlation (which is not causation) between co-sleeping and long term pro-social behaviours has been shown in some studies.  This effect does not necessarily outweigh the negatives of co-sleeping for a given family, nor does the development of pro-social behaviour require co-sleeping.  So why do many people feel so strongly about it?

I think it goes a bit like this:

I feel the urge to know my baby is safe and well.
If I'm not with my baby or my baby is crying I feel distressed.
To minimise this distress I like to stay with my baby, including at night.
This ensures that my baby is safe and well.
Staying with my baby at night feels so good it must be instinctive.
The instinct to co-sleep ensures my baby is safe and well.
This is evidence that instincts generally ensure my baby is safe and well
For humans to follow their instincts is the only way to ensure babies are safe and well.
Not following our instincts is wrong and damaging.
Not co-sleeping is wrong and damaging.
When I hear about people leaving their babies alone at night, I'm distressed as this is damaging their babies.  It doesn't matter if they've reasoned it's the best thing in the circumstances.  They must have reasoned wrong, or been brain-washed by a baby trainer to not feel their instincts.

For the sake of argument, let's ignore the arguments I made earlier and assume co-sleeping is instinctive to humans, and that everyone who has reservations about co-sleeping has just been brainwashed with rubbish parenting information.  Does it follow that it is better for humans to follow their instincts and intuition rather than a rational evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages of a particular parenting practice (eg. co-sleeping, smacking etc.) in a given situation? 

I say, not necessarily.

Sometimes intuition is great.  Sometimes it allows us to make decisions quickly, or gives a sense of peace and 'rightness' about our decisions that outweighs any disadvantages.  Intuition is powerful, and in terms of probabilities acting on intuition will often give a good outcome.  Intuition is, however, a loaded word.  It carries connotations of an inner epiphany of wisdom.  But we don't necessarily get one of these every time we switch off our rational brains and go with our guts.   Not all gut feelings are wise.  Acting on your gut feelings can mean acting on your prejudices, and making decisions blinkered by your worldview without even being aware that it has been blinkered by your worldview.  Sometimes the best course of action is actually counterintuitive.

I think that sometimes we should follow our instincts and sometimes we really, really shouldn't.  Instincts can be violent, aggressive, manipulative, and neglectful just as readily as they can be loving, caring, protective, and respectful.  Instincts and rationality can lead us to different behaviours, but neither approach is the one true, right way of being.
I have done a lot of AP stuff, but I have real trouble with the 'it's normal and instinctive' argument for parenting in a particular way.  Those so-called instinctive practices weren't at all instinctive for me.  They were complex, learned behaviours.  The breastfeeding in particular was painfully non instinctive.  Holding my baby for longer than 5 minutes at a time felt unnatural and it was only after watching hours of Youtube videos that I got the hang of babywearing.  And there were many, many sleepless nights of wanting to walk out and thinking: "Would leaving her to cry really do that much harm?  Really???  Such-and-such's kids seem just fine."  And yes, listening to her cry was distressing and that 'felt wrong' so I preferred to stay - but I'm sure that a huge part of that distress was having read about the potential damage of leaving her to cry.  Had I been told different things - had I been told that crying is normal and means nothing (or even, 'is good for their lungs'), I would have handled it pretty comfortably.   But had I read no books at all I probably would have been completely shell-shocked and dissolved into a blithering mess, driven by my urges to try to stop my baby's behaviour or withdraw... so I don't see that as a solution either.

I for one really needed guidelines and principles on how to parent.  I needed to understand what was normal and abnormal in a developing child - otherwise I would have spent a lot of time trying to change healthy behaviour, or teach my child things she didn't yet had the capacity to learn.  I have found principles like fostering attachment, setting boundaries, and following the child's pace useful.  I think it's great where there's information on particular parenting techniques and their effectiveness and side-effects.  Having principles, guidelines, and a general knowledge of parenting ideas and research is very different from having hard and fast rules.

So to return to Ockwell-Smith's conclusion.
Do we need to just trust our instinct and do what feels right? yes.  Let’s drop this terminology, let’s drop the idea of viewing it as a choice of a way to parent and lets help new and expectant parents to understand the way our species is meant to be born and raised. The NORMAL way for humans to birth and parent.
I disagree.  There is no 'normal' way for humans to birth and parent, no one way we're 'meant' to be born and raised.  Instinct and intuition are enormously valuable, but they are not a complete answer.

It is part of being human that we get to be individuals and create cultures.  We have multiple choices in how we parent, and the extent to which we use different parenting practices.  And there are many ways to be a happy, healthy family.

1 comment:

  1. OH. MY. GOD. I got to this page by googling "I hate Attachment Parenting" because lately I've been overwhelmed by the influx of women having babies, adopting, AP, and then talking endlessly about it. These women are my friends, and I don't think they mean to hurt me, but I had my child about 5 years before any of them started. I was a soph in college, poor as dirt, full time student part time waitress, scared and alone. I didn't babywear, breastfeed, or cosleep. I SURVIVED. I'm constantly confronted with the inference that my child is damaged because of these things. Never outright, or course, just a lot of: "Oh, you only nursed for 3 months? I couldn't imagine risking my litte one's health for the sake of convenience." The guilt is unimaginable. If I were to get pregnant now, with the money and information that I have at my disposal this go round, I would be inclined to do those things but I'm put off now by the atmosphere of smugness and superiority. No doubt, I'm bitter. Reading this was a huge breath of fresh air. My daughter is healthy and smart and beautiful. Maybe I didn't do things perfectly. But I did it well enough.