They f**k you up, your child-rearing columnists

Oliver James on why one should always respond to babies’ cries and never leave them to cry. (There are other bits of evidence in the article, but I want to focus on these.) You may be interested even if you’re not interested in the subject matter: great fodder for critical thinking classes.

(1): “Unresponsiveness has been proven to have long-term adverse consequences. To take an extreme example, a key indicator of personality disorder (called dissociation) is predicted 30 years later by unresponsiveness of care, aged 0-2”.

(2): “In one study, maternal negativity towards their four-week-old baby predicted insecurity 30-40 years later. This is a bad sign: the insecure are much more prone to mental illness.”

(3): “Severely neglected orphanage children are prone to indiscriminate friendliness, a people-pleasing false self.”

(4): “In 127 cultures surveyed around the contemporary world, 79% of the societies normally have their infants in the same room, 44% in the same bed.”

But James concedes: “If a parent-led routine is the only way a parent is going to stay sane, then that is ultimately best for the child – a depressed parent is even worse.”

So if you’re in such bad shape that you’re willing to risk severe mental illness for your child, it’s OK to leave them to cry.

I think of myself reading this when, after 12 weeks, Jender-Son was totally incapable of sleeping when not being held. As it turned out, all he needed was to be left– once– to cry for 15 minutes, then he learned to fall asleep on his own. But I found that so hard to do that my parents had to do it for me. If I’d read this article I would never have let them. But only because I was so sleep-deprived that I wouldn’t have been able to see how totally crap the arguments were.

(1) Unresponsiveness is clearly bad. But isn’t it a bit of a shift from occasionally leaving a baby to cry in order to help them sleep better?

(2) Maternal negativity is also clearly bad. But why should it be linked with any particular way of dealing with sleep problems? You can respond to your baby’s every cry and have a very negative attitude toward her (perhaps as a result!); and very loving mothers can leave their babies to cry. (And isn’t it nice for the men that *maternal* negativity is the issue?)

(3) What the hell are the orphanage children doing in this article? Find me a child-rearing book which suggests placing the baby in a neglectful orphanage and I’ll accept its relevance.

(4) Most people around the world don’t have lots of extra rooms in their houses. No shock, then, that folks put the babies in their rooms.

OK, rant over.

A note: I’ve got nothing against the idea of responding to a baby’s every cry. I have a whole lot against the general style of child-rearing advice exemplified by this article: You must do X or you will ruin your child’s life. So (unstated, but apparent to any reader) if you do otherwise (except for the most extreme of reasons) you are an unspeakably selfish and horrible person. (And this style is also present in the pro-routine arguments. Indeed, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that for almost any X you can find books saying you must do X and books saying you must do not-X.)

13 thoughts on “They f**k you up, your child-rearing columnists

  1. “the insecure are much more prone to mental illness”
    Admittingly, I don’t have children, but from what I read in the psychological literature in child development the insecure is not always or even most often a result of unresponsiveness but also overprotectiveness. So I guess to *never leave a baby cry* is not as ideal as James thinks. Funny that he advocates one extreme by arguing against another extreme.

    In many societies (and past societies) children are not brought up by the mother alone but the extended familiy, village members who all take responsability. From age 0 they have a variety of social contact – maybe that’s more relevant than motherly responsiveness 24/7

  2. TA – your comment got delayed by our spam filter; sorry!

    I like your analysis: argues for one extreme by arguing against another. I think that’s a form of the fallacy of the excluded middle.

    I think the article could make a great critical reasoning example.

  3. my children are screwed. -which is funny, because to me they seem like…well, like really good sleepers. and really good sleepers tend to look much more sane that sleepy people. to me, anyway. clearly, appearances can deceive. thank goodness for child-rearing experts.

  4. Actually, no one ever advised parents to let their children cry habitually, or to neglect them as they would be in a bad orphanage. All that’s ever required is to let a baby cry for 15 mins at a time, no more than three nights. It’s hard, and many of us can’t do it (especially if you’ve got a small flat and another child trying to sleep nearby), but it’s hardly neglect and probably not the kind of thing that leaves long term marks. On the other hand, babies who are never left to cry will require our constant attention for much more than 3 nights (believe me, I know!) So I’m not sure what kind of evidence the research in question was based on…

  5. I just find the Oliver James style of ‘reasoning’ so infuriating – blaming everything on mothers. How reliable are these studies? After all, it’s turned out that many of the similar studies regarding breast-feeding really concern correlation, not causation. And even that I find problematic. If maternal strictness/parent-led routines/severity/indifference etc was so bad, then surely every single individual from before around 1960something – taking that to be roughly when ‘intensive’ parenting and small families came in – would have been suffering from dissociation, insecurity, mental illness, etc.? Yet strangely, most people seem to have always been mentally OK for most of the time…indeed, as far as I am aware, there seems to be as much mental illness around now as ever before, if not more (though this may be just more openness).
    So just what makes people like Oliver James think in this way? I mean, in terms of analysing it critically, what are the assumptions that make it appear to him that his reasoning hangs together?

  6. I’m liking this comments thread; several interesting points have been raised that will have me thinking for a while. I wonder if part of the problem with this sort of advice is that it in some sense it presupposes that parenting is not primarily an ethical activity but a technical one? That is, the key to good parenting becomes not primarily doing one’s best to make sure the children are raised in a loving environment, etc., but to follow some type of procedure that will somehow work on its own, for everyone, to get the one right result. Obviously there are technical aspects of parenting, things that will usually work better than other things, and studies can be done to clarify that, but with a presupposition that parenting is chiefly a matter of having the right technical skills (like managing a successful baseball team or running a business without going bankrupt), the role of experts is no longer to help parents have an easier time in what is fundamentally an ethical and interpersonal task but to lecture them on how to parent, as if parenting were primarily a matter organizing things in exactly the right way.

  7. Brandon– it always reads to me like they do think it’s ethical. But ethical like the issue of whether or not we should kill innocents for fun is ethical. It’s really important and weighty, there’s only one right answer, and you should feel horrible about yourself if you opt for the wrong answer.

  8. J-Bro and Jender: I sort of started on it; it’s pretty bad. And with a complete disregard for adequate evidence.

  9. I don’t think this is anti-feminism at all.

    “Real feminism requires us to reevaluate the roles of both men and women. Of course, that means women having careers as men do — but not at the expense of their role as mothers. Likewise, it entails men becoming much more involved in caring for their small children and investing less in their careers — at present, by far the most significant pillar of identity for both sexes in the English-speaking world.”

    Instead Oliver is pointing out that making women more like men is not feminism. Feminism is simply striving to achieve greater rights and legal protection for women as a distinct group of people. To my mind it raises thoughts around notions of gender superiority, voting, pay, treatment, education, health, social status etc.

    I refuse to believe that believe that my mother defied her sex to raise me as a full time mother. I think she acted because of her sex. The increase in the proportion of full-time women in work has only really increased the personal wealth of a small oligarchical group comprised primarily of men; the super rich.

    I was suprised to see feminism as it stands today defended here when frankly its a joke that removes choice from women when it comes to the most important activity any of us will ever enagage in, child-rearing. Before you scoff at that, ask yourself how important your childhood is/was to you.

    The rest of the comments were much better.

    Oh, and what evidence are you referring to?

  10. Gareth Newton-Williams: the post is criticising certain inferences made by Oliver James in the article linked to. The post is not a blanket criticism of everything said in the article. No-one here is ‘scoffing’ at child-rearing. If you look round the site, you will see that a central concern of all sorts of feminists is to make it easier for women to choose to have children, if that’s what they want to do, and to campaign for child-rearing to get taken more seriously. Also, to make it easier for men to take a bigger role in caring for their children. Notice that I said ‘all sorts of feminists’ – despite the popular image of feminism in certain sections of the media, there isn’t any one thing as ‘feminism as it stands today’. Instead, there are a variety of different positions and ideas that can be classed as ‘feminist’, and a range of different people and groups who identify themselves as ‘feminists’. It’s certainly a big mistake to think of ‘feminists today’ as claiming that no women should be mothers, and they should all concentrate on their careers.

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