by Mary Jessica Hammes
February 28, 2013
Do you have a “good baby” or a “bad baby?”
We know your baby is good, of course. But how often have you heard, “Oh, is she a good baby?” “Oh, he’s so good—he sleeps through the night.” Or, “This one is wild—you only get one good baby!”
I’ve heard those things and I’ve probably said them too. We don’t really mean it, of course. It’s just a way to express admiration or frustration with pinnacle parenting moments—how well a baby sleeps, eats, and grows. But these quick-to-judge comments about our babies shows just how deeply ingrained this concept is—that children, even babies, can be good or bad, and in turn deserve rewards and punishment for such behavior.
Kiss Me! How To Raise Your Children With Love, a book by pediatrician Carlos Gonzalez, offers an alternative: “This book assumes all children are essentially good, that their emotional needs are important and that we as parents owe them love, respect and attention,” he writes.
Well, of course I love, respect, and pay attention to my child! You might think indignantly. But do you? Do we as a culture?
Gonzalez is coming from another culture, actually—he’s a renowned pediatrician and father of three in Barcelona (this edition, published by UK-based Pinter and Martin, is an English translation). Some American readers may find Gonzalez too indulgent or permissive, as when he lumps in corporal punishment with Cry-It-Out sleep training techniques. But whatever your parenting style is, his arguments become so clear, so reasonable, that it’s hard to argue. And even if you find yourself balking at his outlook, it’s fascinating to read a sensible childrearing book that differs so greatly from much of the fare you’ll read by American authors.
Why children are the way they are
The book has only three chapters. The first and shortest introduces his premise that, believe it or not, your child is good, and is in fact incapable of being otherwise. The third chapter, “Theories I do not share,” is exactly what it says—a (heartbreaking) list of parenting philosophies that seem even more cruel than usual by the time you’ve read the first and second chapters. It’s the second chapter, “Why children are the way we are,” that I find most interesting, as it reframes natural behaviors in children—crying, not wanting to sleep alone, or struggling with independence—from “issues” that need to be solved into “realities” that need to be understood and accepted. Gonzalez shows us how these behaviors are simply the way children are, and that we as parents must learn to adapt.
Sometimes, baby behavior is dictated by evolution, he writes. Once upon a time, the babies who cried, the ones who had tantrums, the ones who demanded to be kept close to their parents were the ones who survived.
“What would happen if a small child were left alone and naked in the jungle? After a few hours, the sun could scorch him or he could grow cold in the shade or be eaten by hyenas or simply by rats,” he writes. “Mothers who left their children alone for more than a few minutes soon had no children. Their genes were eliminated by natural selection. By contrast, the genes that compelled mothers to stay with their children were passed down to numerous descendents. You are one of those descendents. Modern women have a natural genetic inclination to stay with their children.”
It’s a pretty sobering example that may not feel very authentic to some modern women who don’t co-sleep or babywear and yet still feel protective of their children. And does it even matter how humans did things ages ago? After all, times change, people adapt, and so do parenting styles. Our ancestral mothers, for example, didn’t have to rise extra early to pump milk and get ready for another day at the office. That, however, doesn’t change the way babies come wired, Gonzalez argues. He admits that different parenting styles exist, but he isn’t going to validate yours with an encouraging pat on the back just because you’re doing your best.
Parents who co-sleep, parents who believe in Cry-it-Out, parents who tolerate tantrums and parents who use time-outs…all of them “believe they are doing the best for their child, otherwise they wouldn’t do it!” he writes. “And yet, regardless of what we have learned, read, seen, heard, believed or rejected throughout our life, our children are still born the same. They are born without having seen, heard, read, believed or rejected anything. At the moment they are born, their expectations aren’t affected by cultural evolution, only natural evolution, by their genes.”
And if it’s not their genes, it’s because they see the world differently. We know that, of course, but he gives a fresh outlook on this concept with his example on crying.
Music to your ears?
One reason children cry when you leave them is simply because they don’t know when you’ll be back. Gonzalez poses the following scenario: your teenaged daughter is at school, and you know she’ll be home at a certain time, so you don’t worry while she’s gone. Now imagine she is several hours late coming home from school. Or maybe she doesn’t come home at all and is missing for a few days. “It is easy to be patient when you are convinced your loved one will come back,” he writes. “But you wouldn’t be so patient if you were less sure. And when you are absolutely convinced your loved one isn’t coming back, then of course you wouldn’t show any patience at all.”
So, a baby left alone in a crib has no idea when you are coming back, and panics. “You know he is safe,” he writes, “But your child doesn’t know that… He will respond in exactly the same way a Paleolithic baby would have responded in the same situation…Babies cry when you leave them on their own, whether or not there is a threat of wolves.”
Understanding that you’re just living in your baby’s world gets in the way of putting said baby on a schedule, or otherwise conforming to a household built around the habits of adults. Gonzalez is unlikely to feel much sympathy; rather, he bluntly offers a message more along the lines of: “Deal with it.”
For instance: want to get some sleep, that most precious of commodities for new parents? You have to roll with nature and co-sleep, he says, and then offers safe ways to do just that. “Our children are genetically predisposed to sleep in the company of others,” he writes, and reports that sleep disturbances among children and adults are rare in cultures where co-sleeping is the norm.
“Remember you aren’t teaching your child something he needs to know, but something you want him to know for your convenience,” he writes, specifically writing about sleep training. “You aren’t doing him a favor, you are asking a favor of him. If your child does you that favor, you should be grateful to him. And if he doesn’t, well you will have to put up with it; the child is under no obligation.”
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