A recent article entitled “Why parents shouldn’t feel guilty if they can’t devote time to their toddlers” made me stop and think. Much of what the article said I agreed with, but some of it was, frankly, downright scary. The main argument of the article is that babies and toddlers don’t need so damn much love.
This article, and many of the scientists quoted in it, make it sound as if there are only two options: love your baby, make them watch “Baby Einstein” and “Your baby can read” and take them to all kinds of classes, etc. Or just treat them like the family dog, giving them love on occasion when it suits your schedule. The fact that they do this makes me doubt their intelligence. There is, clearly, a third option: love them and create healthy attachment while fostering independence and self-reliance.
The part that really scared me was the argument that nothing you do during your child’s first couple years really matters. As one psychologist argued, “Any deficiency that children may suffer due to the inadequacies of their early years can be addressed later in their lives.” Wow buddy, I hope you don’t have kids. He makes it sound as if we really shouldn’t do much for our children at all. As though we should just treat them the way they treated Russian orphans in the baby houses. Leave them alone in the crib most of the day, coming in on a schedule to feed them and, you know, every once in awhile changing their diapers. Because those babies turned out so well. In case this needs clarification: those babies did not turn out well at all. Many of them were incredibly damaged. Many of them have Reactive Attachment Disorder, a condition often associated with Russian orphans. They act out, have social problems, and have lifelong struggles with forming attachments and having loving relationships.
Consider the incredibly heartbreaking study of the baby monkeys. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. (These days, thank god, it would never pass ethics committee muster. And yet, it’s hard not to cite to it. Dilemmas.) The study took baby monkeys away from their mothers. They were given the choice of having no affection, but receiving milk. Or of having a stuffed animal “mama” who would provide some semblance of love and affection, but would give them no food. They choose love and affection. Even if it meant not getting enough to eat. Excuse me while I go cry my eyes out and kiss my baby girl.
Another article talks about the medicalization of baby care, both in the US in the early 20th century and in Russia to this day. Again, babies were put alone in nurseries with no love and affection at all. What scares me about the original “don’t worry if you can’t pay attention to your kid” article is that some of the scientists almost sound like they want to go back down this path. Parents are already overwhelmed with advice to let baby cry it out and to not hold baby too much because you’ll “spoil the baby”. Now this? Don’t love your baby too much? Gods. Make it stop.
To the extent that the article is saying that we don’t need to spend so much time trying to “educate” our babies, I agree. All of the Baby Einstein and Your Baby Can Read and similar things freak me out a little. And now we hear that some of these “educational” videos may be causing learning and attention problems. I understand that sometimes you need your kid to watch a cartoon while you get something done. But the idea that you should make them watch these videos in order to teach them something and make them more “advanced” is just bizarre. Kids need the freedom to explore, to develop a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world, to flex their muscles (both physical and mental) and to learn how to entertain themselves. It seems to me free play in a stimulating environment is the best way to do this. And even just the kitchen can be a stimulating environment if you leave some cabinets open and let baby play with tupperware and bang on cookie sheets. Let the babies play!
Of course, the original article does another thing: it talks about raising your baby or raising your toddler as if they were exactly the same thing. As if we should either give love and attachment to both or neither. But anyone who’s been around a newborn and a two year old should know that their needs are incredibly different. A newborn needs nothing more than his mother. A toddler needs his mother, but he also needs the chance to explore the world, to meet challenges on his own, to run and jump and be a little bit crazy. I still believe toddlers needs attachment, but I also agree that toddlers do NOT need “helicopter parents.”
I’m probably more of a hands off parent than many parents I know. Adeline’s latest thing is wanting to walk all the time. So I let her walk. We walk down the alley, around the block, wherever she wants to go. Yes, she’s only 10 months old. But she’s perfectly capable and she doesn’t need me holding her hand. Literally. She likes to walk ahead of me, boldly striking out on her own. But every so often she looks back to make sure I’m there. If I’ve fallen too far behind, she waits for me to catch up, then she turns around and she’s off on her own again. She’s becoming so independent and it’s wonderful. But she has to know that I’m there if she needs me. I always will be.