The AP ideal meets mainstream parenthood

I made a comment on Angela’s excellent blog, Cerebral Parenting, in which I stated that

While we all laugh at the women on MDC who take the “natural living” aspects to extremes (some would say, their logical extreme), almost all of modern parenting discourse, even the supposed mainstream, is informed by the AP/NFL ideal.


Pick up an issue of Parents magazine from the last 10 years. I don’t think anyone would deny that Parents is chief among parenting magazines which AP/NPers love to hate for being too ‘mainstream’; look, they advertise formula! and neglect-o-matics! Eeeeew!

Yet, it also seems that every issue also has ads for breastpumps, nursing aids, slings…not to mention the articles. Oooh, look, here’s a slideshow about various baby carriers (including slings) you might choose to “babywear” your baby with. Here’s an article about celebrity moms who had home births (‘celebrity moms’ being a code word for what the ‘in crowd’ is doing). Yet another touts the benefits of waterbirth. I won’t belabor you with yet more links, but if you search the website, you’ll find plenty about how to troubleshoot breastfeeding problems, women who co-sleep (though with appropriate safety caveats), and an absolute plethora of articles on how to bond with, stimulate and play with your baby.

All this in a decidedly mainstream American publication aimed at “parents” – which, overwhelmingly, means mothers. We won’t even discuss Parents‘ major competitor, which has none other than Dr. Sears himself on staff, or supposedly-mainstream website Babycenter’s Dr. Susan Markel. And just like women’s fashion magazines embody Wallis Simpson’s adage that “You never can be too rich or too thin”, thus parenting magazines, even the mainstream ones, often give one the impression that “You can never be too devoted”. Or maybe, “You will never be devoted enough, no matter how much you try. And you will screw up your kids”.

Popular and supposedly mainstream parenting manuals were speaking the language of bonding and attachment (also referring to ‘parents’, but really putting the onus upon Mom) long before Sears ever appeared on the scene. Both Sharon Hays (author of The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood) and Diane Eyer (in her excellent book, Motherguilt) fingered the mainstream triumvirate of Spock, Brazelton and Leach as the main purveyors of parenting guilt back in the mid-90s. The non-parenting media isn’t exactly free of such material either, in its almost gleeful rush to quote even unpublished, non peer-reviewed studies like the Baby Buggy nonsense in the previous post, or how daycare is evil and ‘experts’ who advise sleeping with your 5-year-old baby.

Now, most mainstream women can laugh and shrug the nonsense off…most of the time. But the steady drip-drip-drip does, at some point, leave many of us with “what ifs” and entirely unnecessary guilt. What if “they” were right and the meds I took during labor damaged her little brain? Are vaccines the reason he has ADHD? Would he have gotten into the select preschool if I’d only breastfed him for linger? Should I even be sending her to preschool, instead of quitting my job and playing all day with her on the floor?

It’s enough to drive a mother (and it’s almost always the mother) crazy. It really helps to remember, though, that generations upon generations of mentally and physically healthy human beings have been raised in a myriad of environments…something the books, magazines, and newspapers don’t emphasize nearly enough. Maybe a little historical perspective is in order. Maybe it’s more important to resurrect that old dinosaur, Winnicott, and his concept of the “Good Enough Mother” (emphases mine):

The good-enough mother tries to provide what the infant needs, but she instinctively leaves a time lag between the demands and their satisfaction and progressively increases it. As Winnicott states: “The good-enough mother…starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure” (Winnicott, 1953). The good enough mother stands in contrast with the “perfect” mother who satisfies all the needs of the infant on the spot, thus preventing him/her from developing.

…As the infant develops, the good-enough mother, unconsciously aware of her infant’s increasing ego-integration and capacity to survive, will gradually fail to be so empathic. She will unconsciously “dose” her failures to those that can be tolerated, and the infant’s developing ego is strengthened, the difference between “me” and “not-me” clarifies, omnipotence is relinquished, a sense of reality begins to emerge, mother can be increasingly seen as a separate person, and the capacity for concern can develop. This way the mother helps the child to develop a healthy sense of independence. Failure in this stage may result in the formation of a False self.

In a future post, we’ll be looking at an example of a society raised all “wrong” (in which even the mothers were, apparently, not good enough), which somehow managed to emerge with its psyche intact ;-).

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17 Responses

  1. You know it’s a really interesting point the passage you quote makes. I think a lot of people have a hard time figuring out that their toddlers, say, are not infants and, so, should not be treated like one.

    Two anecdotes on that topic. Once on my BBC birth board, I asked about discipline. Tot was around 15 months and I was really hoping to get some safety issues resolved. Someone said something like, ‘why do you need to discipline, what are they doing, really, splashing in the dog bowl? big deal.’ Well, I don’t really care about splashing pet bowl water either. I was having issues around her holding my hand when crossing the street which I thought a really important battle to fight. I found the poster’s comment utterly oblivious to the fact that tot’s at this age were a.) smart and b.) asserting their independence, which is fine as long as they don’t end up as hood ornaments on someone’s Volvo, and I kind of see it as my job to get that point across.

    I was having a conversation with a mommy group friend about her decision to basically CIO with her daughter. She explained to me that her ped had explained that there is an appropriate age to do it and if you miss the window, then the tot is up a creek on sleep issues. Even though my friend was nervous about the idea, the ped said, ‘It’s time for your daughter to contribute to family harmony.’ I loved, loved, loved this framing, because it acknowledged that all family members (and their sanity) are important and it was respectful of the child’s intelligence to understand this on some level. Anyway, about a week later, at a mommy group meeting, I mentioned the family harmony thing (absent mindedly) in front of one of the bigger AP mommies in the group (someone I quite like, mind you) and she just rolled her eyes at the concept and kind of snorted. I quickly realized I’d flubbed and changed the subject, because she obviously was ready to hear a different take on things.

  2. Leach as purveyor of guilt? Seriously? How did Hays and Eyer get that?? It’s a long while since I’ve sat down to read Leach in detail (who has time to read books about bringing up children when they’re bringing up children?) but I remember her as being brilliant for pushing the idea that you as the mother actually knew what you were doing. I thought her book was a great one for encouraging you *really* to follow your own instincts – not with that awful subtext of “…because if you follow your instincts properly then that will of course lead you to realise how utterly right Our Side is about everything”, but quite genuinely presenting alternative ways of doing things with the message that the mother reading this was going to be quite smart enough to choose for herself what would work for her family.

    (Excuse any incoherence. In a rush here.)

  3. Interesting post, thanks. I’m curious about something – do you think it’s necessarily wrong, say, for a magazine like Parents to feature some aspects of AP, such as baby carriers? I think that if they present all sides of an issue (strollers and carriers, co-sleeping and cribs) that that’s actually pretty healthy. I know that I’ve adopted some aspects of various parenting styles (I love my slings, for exampe) and I think it’s nice to be informed about different things that might work. It’s just when one side is presented to the exclusion of the other that I get angry.

  4. Willa – love the ‘family harmony’ concept too! And why is 15 months too early to start discipline, anyway? And why is it only acceptable to some to discipline only when the child is in danger (as opposed to, say, the living room rug)?

    Sarah – I think Hays and Eyer (I have the latter book at home, will take up as bedside reading to confirm) were irked about Leach’s statements about early child care…which as I recall was something along the lines of (please correct me if I’m wrong), “babies need their mothers, and only they, to stay home with them for the first few years. And even then, you need to find a really first-rate daycare that costs a king’s ransom to ensure your child won’t turn out aggressive and/or depressed”. IIRC, Leach has somewhat mellowed on this issue over the years. Both Hays’ and Eyer’s books came out 12 years ago, before Sears made it to the big leagues….one can only imagine what they’d have to say about him. 😆 . Or what Sears would say about the fact that almost all Israeli kids are in preschools (with 25-35 kids, one teacher and one teacher’s helper per class, 30 hours/week) from age 3.

    Tricia – now that I think about it, the sling example was actually not a very good one. Yes, I do think it’s great that Parents shows different sides of an issue such as stollers/baby carriers…and not as an either/or proposition. Conversely, I’m not awfully happy about the ‘cool kidz homebirth’ article. But it’s more the subtle overall tone, not only in Parents, but in the media in general, of how the baby turns out is entirely a reflection of certain (IMO) trivial choices Mom, and only she, made along the way.( I realize I may not be explaining this awfully well).

  5. I agree that the AP and “natural” child birth philosophies have infiltrated (actually, I think “invaded” or even “settled in for the duration” might be better terms!) the “mainstream,” but it is really hard to convince AP/NCB proponents of that, and you’ve made a good start of it here. People like to portray the AP/NCB philosophy as a beleaguered, fringe movement, but I see these beliefs everywhere, in the same (and more) publications that you cite. They are very popular notions these days, whether or not most “everyday” people/mothers actually accept them. Media portrayals of women (girl-like thin, perfect skin, preferably under 35) aren’t reflective of most of us, either, but that doesn’t stop the popularity (and insidiousness) of that image. “Drip, drip, drip,” to be sure.

    It is to women’s credit that despite the bludgeoning over the heads we get about “birthing” more “naturally” and “bonding” with our children better than whatever it is we’re already doing (more! more! more! you’re not doing … or suffering … enough!), most women *don’t* follow the AP/NCB line so stridently—if at all. It just doesn’t reflect most people’s reality. Just as much that is fashionable does not. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t still worm its way in, though.

  6. You explained it well, esther.

    I was actually reading a discussion today on another board about how MDC types get upset when bits of their philosophy enter the mainstream. For example, they complain about Target selling Hotslings now, and then turn around and lament all the bad, detached mamas who don’t sling their kids.

  7. I don’t think that discipline should be limited to safety situations, it’s just that at the specific time I was asking those were my biggest challenges. Anyhoo, thought you would get a kick out of one of the links posted. I think we were specifically talking about ‘time out’ and someone wrote in to say that time out was too punitive and was merely a non-violent form of spanking. The thing to do is ‘time in’, read on: http://joanneaz_2.tripod.com/positivedisciplineresourcecenter/id26.html

  8. I think this AP thing can certainly teach children to become Immediate gratification freaks. Immediate grato is not a good thing to be hooked on.

    Life is tough and we don’t always get what we want when we want it. That is just the way it is.

    Both my children learned to entertain themselves at an early age. Why? Cause I was not their personal entertainment system. I told them this and they accepted it.

  9. WonderWilla, Thanks for the link! I really don’t want to see the results of a child raised with Time-in

    “Instead of a Time Out chair, the “Cuddle Corner” is a designated area in your home that is to be used for rejuvenation, reflection, lowering of intensity, regrouping and child-directed down time. It’s a place where comfort is available, and company, too, if requested.

    Let’s see, child misbehaves, so child is rewarded with extra attention, extra cuddling, extra reading. If I was a child I would misbehave just to go to time-in.

    There is something I still don’t know about AP. It all sounds lovely for infants, but how do they deal with toddlers? I’m assuming that they never ignore a tantrum.

  10. From the link:”(2) Time Out usually involves isolation, causing a child to experience stress and discomfort. Isolation teaches nothing of value and does not impart knowledge or experience. ”

    Oh noez!!! Not stress and discomfort! Not the Wave of Cortisol!

    Seriously though, I can’t imagine how the kid is learning much from this technique beyond “if I do something bad, Mommy will pay extra attention to me – in a good way”. He’s certainly not learning that whatever he did was bad and shouldn’t be repeated.

  11. That was pretty much my reaction when I first came across people who decried time-out and suggested these sorts of alternatives. Rewarding children for bad behaviour? Why, the fools! Didn’t they realise that that would just make it worse? And didn’t they know that the time-out (plus positive reinforcement) is the pinnacle of good disciplinary practice? The best possible way of doing things, the way towards which we have been evolving during all those misguided decades and centuries of spanking and other such evil practices? Thank goodness that now we’re enlightened enough to know that the OneTrueWay is time-outs according to the oneminuteforeveryyearofyourchild’slife rule. All disciplinary problems solved! Well, I pitied those poor fools who didn’t know that.

    Clever, wasn’t it? I’d found a group of parents to whom I could feel superior, and I didn’t even have to be AP to do it!

    Then I read ‘Unconditional Parenting’ by Alfie Kohn (largely so that I could scoff at what would clearly be his foolishness) and found it far more thought-provoking than I’d anticipated. He pointed out that we assume the only reason children do anything for us is because they know we’ll reward them for it and/or punish them in some way if they don’t do it. In other words, we tend to assume that subtler and less obvious rewards such as wanting our approval, or (as children get older) actually wanting to do things the ‘right’ way, don’t feature at all in their behaviour. What does this say about our view of children? And is it really true? He then goes on to back up his counter-argument with a highly impressive-looking array of research questioning the efficacy of this paradigm when it comes to raising moral beings, none of which I’ve actually read for myself, so I’m quite open to listening to any critiques of how he’s interpreted it. But what the book did do is get me thinking about the way I’d been thinking about this whole getting-children-to-behave business, and whether time-outs really were the sacred unquestionable Best Way that I’d been assuming, and whether, perhaps, people like the person who wrote this essay *might* have some ideas worth at least considering.

    If you read her whole article (which doesn’t look to me like anything more than a description of a way of doing things that she found to work, raised as a possible suggestion that others *might* like to try – quite refreshing after all that OneTrueWayism), she doesn’t use this technique in isolation and expect children to pick up good methods of behaviour magically. I’m guessing that that mention of ‘redirection’ probably means that she is actually telling her children how she wants them to behave. (The ‘Cuddle Corner’ seems to be aimed at those situations where kids are misbehaving repeatedly because they’re stressed or upset.) And she does, at the end, address the scepticism:

    “OK, OK! I can hear those readers unfamiliar with positive discipline saying: “Oh, this doesn’t make any sense. How can you reward bad behavior? You’ve got to be kidding!” I understand your reaction because I had the same one. I changed my mind when I tried it and saw that it consistently decreases unacceptable behavior and helps prevent the child from repeating the same problems.”

    In other words, according to her, the way her children responded to this *doesn’t* correspond to what our dogma says should happen. As far as I can see, this means one of two things: either she’s a poor deluded fool who can’t tell the difference between her children behaving worse and behaving better, or our dogmas are a tad too simplistic to cover every possible reaction of every child struggling with this whole learning-how-to-behave business. Personally, I know which of those two possibilities I’m going to take as my working hypothesis.

  12. Ummm, I read the whole article, I posted it. I still think it’s fruity (I also don’t care for the religion injected into all of it but that’s another story). If you like it, do it, just don’t pretend you get different or more meaningful results than I do.

  13. I do agree with what she said about time outs often being used in place of teaching. However, my solution for that is to only use time outs when there isn’t a natural consequence available. For example, if my son throws his bowl of cereal across the room, I don’t put him in time out, I make him clean it up. Now if he runs out into the street, I put him in a time out instead, because the natural consequence (getting run over by a car) just wouldn’t be a teaching opportunity…

  14. Sarah, I’m taking issue mainly with the idea that we are never allowed to cause our children to feel bad or stressed, under the assumption that would Damage Them Forever. I haven’t (yet) read Alfie Kohn, but I understand he claim children equate time-outs with love withdrawal..which is unmitigated rubbish IMO. Either kids are super-geniuses with complex reasoning and resulting behavior (which is why behavioristic techniques are bad!bad! bad! to use on them), or they’re such simpletons they assume Mommy doesn’t love them if she put them in time-out for 3 minutes. But it can’t be both of them at once.

    Yes, most small children want, in a general way, to please their parents. That said, they have no way of knowing what pleases and what doesn’t please us unless we tell them. And being humans (and not ones practiced in self-control), they sometimes push the limits of our approval so they can be really sure the parents don’t approve of something, or they just plain want whatever it is more than parental approval at the moment…which is when a punitive measure is in order. I’m seriously not getting how a child is going to learn something is bad if doing it gets him the parental attention he so craves. Not to mention what the other kid(s) will be thinking – “Danny did something bad, and that got him a half hours’ cuddle from Mommy just when I was about to show her my best drawing. Hmmm…how do *I* get Mommy’s undivided attention now?”

    BTW, I don’t know what happens in other houses, but time-outs in mine are (as the kids age, it’s more of a ‘were’) always followed with an age-appropriate analysis of what happened (e.g, “You hit your brother. That was a bad thing to do, and we had to put you in the corner to calm down” or something like that) followed by “Even when we’re angry at what you did, we never stop loving you”…something we repeat at intervals even when the kid’s not being punished (it comes up quite a bit during cuddle time, for example). AND the kid then needs to apologize to his brother, pick up the crayons he threw, etc. So IMO, ‘time outs being used instead of teaching’ is a good reason to use time-outs for teaching, not dispense with timeouts.

    Is it possible ‘time-in’ works with some children? Perhaps. I know a few families where the kids are naturally docile and need very little in the way of discipline altogether. I don’t think it’s a solution for most kids, though.

  15. I know this is an older post but I just had to comment.

    I was sitting in my OB’s waiting room today reading Fit Pregnancy when I realized- the Pediatric “Experts” who write the pediatric columns are none other than Dr. Jay Gordon and Dr. William Sears. Talk about invading the mainstream. I never noticed it with my first pregnancy but it was probably because I didn’t know any better. So lots of first time moms out there they are getting their earliest pediatric advice from Jay Gordon and William Sears. Great.

  16. I noticed that you use the acronym AP/NP a lot. What does this acronym mean?

  17. @Kfira: Attachment Parenting/Natural Parenting. And Janna, great point this stuff permeates the culture. Good to be aware of it.

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