Henry was two weeks old when we switched our speed dial from The Standard Grill reservationist to Park Avenue Pediatrics. I was a mere 28, and he was my first baby. I did what any new parent was supposed to do: Hit up Amazon to find as many parenting books I could possibly carry to my apartment. I was on four months' bed rest during the pregnancy, so needless to say, I had much time on my hands. To pass the time, I would watch TLC’s A Baby Story (I'd always been a fan of horror movies), read up on parenting skills, check out child-development calendars, and memorize every milestone.
My son was really the first infant I had ever held in my life. I was so afraid of messing up, not following the developmental plan, and basically breaking him. But, when he opened his tiny little eyes for the first time, he gave me this look of, Don’t worry Ma, I’ll show you how it’s done — as if he'd been on this earth before. So, what did I learn from those books? That we, as a society, are obsessed — with putting our kids on rigid schedules, with following their every emotional cue, and with (above all) sleep-training. The first lesson we are told to teach our kids is how to sleep. Sleep is the basis of all health issues.
In Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child, Dr. Marc Weissbluth, M.D. (who put the fear of God in me) explains that if a baby doesn’t follow healthy sleeping habits, (meaning he or she is on a schedule and has gone through the "cry it out" process) the child could be likely to develop A.D.D., injury, or emotional damage. Dr. Weissbluth is also adamant about ignoring your child at night, with no limit to how long you allow him or her to cry — ultimately, teaching the baby to self-soothe.
The next book that I was told would “change me” was Tracy Hogg’s Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate with Your Baby. When you refer to successful infant training situations as “ducky,” you have lost me, my friend. I appreciated Hogg's concept of creating an E.A.S.Y. schedule (which stands for Eat, Activity, Sleep, You Time). Again, another book obsessed with scheduling, more to calm the nerves of the parents — because we know our kids aren't keeping track of how many ounces of breast milk they just imbibed. The E.A.S.Y process definitely helped me organize my day (since I was beyond exhausted and it was beneficial to look down at a piece of paper to know when my kid was fed), but Hogg's method of changing bad habits in three days seemed like an infomercial ploy.
I was losing sleep over my son not following Weissbluth’s "three easy steps to sleeping through the night" or Hogg’s "how to break a bad habit by re-training your child at two weeks old." Both books documented examples of other families who were successful in the process, which only angered me more. Finally, after the umpteenth time calling the doctor — who, in so many words, told me to chill out — I threw out every book. My husband was elated.
And, then it happened: During my first Mommy and Me class, a woman asked what “method” I planned to use to raise my baby. "Method?" I responded, "Like, the maternal one, right?" What my naïve little brain didn’t know was that there are not only books on what to expect when you're expecting; there are also books on how to groom your child into the human being you so desire him or her to be. I was fascinated. I was intrigued. I bought more books.
The first book I heard of was about the French-centric method of raising a child. It sounded as close to roaming St. Germain as I could get. I could have a little Bastille baby, dressed to the nines, all polite and quiet and whatnot? Sign me up. The book was, of course, Bringing up Bebé, by American-born (and bred) author Pamela Druckerman.
Druckerman states that French parents have “an easy, calm authority with their kids that we can only envy.” The kids are not the center of the parent’s universe; rather, they understand they’re part of the family. Druckerman noticed that she was constantly bringing a bunch of toys to the playground and actively playing with her child, whereas her French counterparts would bring just one small toy and allow the children to play on their own. This ultimately allowed the French kids to appreciate their independence and learn how to play by themselves; French children know that parents and children lead separate lives. The French moms would tell Druckerman: “It's very important that no part of your life — not being a mom, not being a worker, not being a wife — overwhelms another part.” Similar to Weissbluth's and Hogg’s methods, the French believe in la pause, which means if the baby fusses, wait a bit and then react — instead of leaping in to fix the problem. Teaching a baby to self-soothe is supposedly crucial in helping him or her develop patience instead of barging in on every adult situation.
My family recently befriended a family who just moved here from France, and I watch the mother like a hawk. Her skin: flawless. Her clothes: always pressed and ethereal. Her boys: surprisingly, just as curious and loud as mine. Her parenting method allows her boys to be adventurous and boisterous — when the time is appropriate. Her calm authority is impressive; when I see my son acting up, I sometimes think, “What would Lorene do?”
Then, there was another method I noticed on the playground, from another foreign family. Their daughter is the cutest little Swedish girl you ever did see and is so confident, she could run for Mayor (which I would fully support). She is incredibly sweet and caring, and my son has a major crush on her (I would, too, with those blonde locks) — but she speaks to adults as equals, which intrigued me. After a bit of digging, I discovered that this little girl seems to have a bit of her other country's parenting methods mixed in with her Americanized ways.
In his book How Children Took Power, David Eberhard argues that Sweden's 1979 smacking-as-a-form-of-discipline ban changed the course of parenting — and not for the better. Now, the child is the center of the home and is included in all aspects of running the family; think of Eric Cartman and his mom on South Park. Eberhard states that parents “should listen to your children, but in Sweden, it’s gone too far. [Children] tend to decide everything in families: when to go to bed, what to eat, where to go on vacation, even what to watch on television.” Using this liberal approach leaves Swedish tots almost ill-equipped for adulthood. They're rowdy in the classroom, since they see the teacher as an equal. Chaos ensues when the adult loses control and, more importantly, respect. Sweden’s government has gone so far as to create a parenting course for the confused masses.
But, as much as this little Swedish girl is outspoken, she is also able to express her feelings and opinions quite eloquently. What an incredible trait to master at such a young age.
So, what is the American method? As much as we adhere to strict scheduling, sleep training, and following our infant’s cues, we also like to borrow from our foreign friends. During the day, our children are our centers. We make sure all parties are happy on the playground, we communicate, we give them a choice at mealtime, and we don’t mind if they interrupt adult conversations. But, at night we are told to ignore them and let them find their independence through "crying it out" alone. Perhaps we are Swedish in the a.m. and French in the p.m.? I am all for sending mixed signals and keeping things interesting (just ask my husband), but maybe not so much with our kids. If you give them 100% all day, they will obviously expect the same at night. Instead of dividing our time so harshly, I say we mix both methods throughout the day — taking a bit from column A, a dash from column B — to raise our future rock stars and politicians.
After all of these observations (and vowing to never open another method book or compare my children to other kids again), I came upon a book called Too Late Now, Your Child is an Asshole: A Guide for Parents Who are Most Likely Assholes. And, I thought it was brilliant! Then, after a quick Google search, I realized it was fake.
Yes, we are a bit overcome with the sense of trying to change, mold, and fix our kids into the images we so desire them to be, but ultimately, your kid has a sense of self right out of the womb. Asshole or not, he or she will be who he or she is. This can be gleaned during the first moments of life. Any parent can agree with me that children have the same personality on day one as they do now.
My son made me feel like he would guide me down the parenting path, and to this day, that little guy is a leader brimming with confidence. I was so fearful that my children would inherit all of my insecurities. But, it turns out they are full of their own strengths and weaknesses that have nothing to do with me — and no book, real or not, will help me deal with raising my unique babies. I know I will have future problems with my daughter (she thinks Darth Vader is the “good guy”). Add a dash of asshole here, a pinch of sweet/kind/caring there. Good news is, it all balances out.