Spock and Needlman
Read an Excerpt from Dr. Spock’s Baby & Child Care 9th Edition
Chapter 1: Trust Yourself and Your Children
Presented courtesy of Pocket Books
You know more than you think you do. Your family is growing and changing. You want to be the best parent you can be, but it’s not always clear what’s best. Everywhere you turn there are experts telling you what to do. The problem is, they often don’t agree with each other. The world is different from how it was twenty years ago, and the old answers might not work anymore.
Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense. Bringing up your child won’t be a complicated job if you take it easy and trust your own instincts. The natural loving care that parents give their children is a hundred times more important than their knowing how to make a diaper fit tightly or just when to introduce solid foods. Every time you pick your baby up—even if you do it a little awkwardly at first—and change her, bathe her, feed her, smile at her, she’s getting the feeling that she belongs to you and that you belong to her.
The more people have studied different methods of bringing up children, the more they have come to the conclusion that what good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best after all. All parents do their best job when they have a natural, easy confidence in themselves. Better to relax and make a few mistakes than to try too hard to be perfect.
If you don’t always respond instantly when your baby cries, your baby has the opportunity to learn self-soothing. If you lose your patience with your toddler (and every parent does, sometimes), then your toddler learns that you have feelings, too, and has a chance to see how you get yourself back together. Children are driven from within themselves to grow, explore, experience, learn, and build relationships with other people. A lot of good parenting lies in simply allowing your child to go with these powerful drives. So, while you are trusting yourself, remember also to trust your child.
How you learn to be a parent. Fathers and mothers don’t really find out how to care for and manage children from books and lectures, though these may help by answering specific questions and doubts. They learn as children, from the way they themselves were brought up. That’s what they were always practicing when they played house and cared for their dolls. If a child is raised in an easygoing way, then he is likely to be the same kind of parent; likewise for a child raised by strict or controlling parents. We all end up at least somewhat like our parents, especially in the way we deal with our children. The moment will come when you are talking to your child and you hear your mother’s or father’s voice coming from your own lips with almost the same tone and maybe even the same words.
Think about your own parents. What did they do that you now see as positive and constructive? What did they do that you never want to repeat? Think about what made you the kind of person you are today and what kind of parent you would like to be. This sort of insight will help you understand and trust your own parenting instincts.
We learn how to be parents gradually, through the experience of caring for our children. With a baby, finding out that you can feed, change, and bathe successfully, and that your baby responds contentedly, builds confidence and familiarity. These feelings grow in time; you probably won’t feel this way right off the bat.
All parents expect to influence their children, but many are surprised to find that it’s a two-way street. You may find, as many others have, that being a parent becomes the most important step in your own growth as a person.
What Are Your Aims in Raising a Child?
Think about your goals. What kind of adults do you want your children to become? Is doing well in school your top objective for them? Is the ability to have close relationships important? Do you want them to be competitive in our dog-eat-dog society, or do you want them to learn to cooperate and sometimes defer to others?
Parenting is about choices. So many parents get so caught up in the difficult day-to-day issues of how they are parenting that they lose perspective about why they are parenting in the first place. I hope that raising your children will help you to clarify what’s truly important to you, and that these insights will guide the choices you make.
Parents Are Human
Parents have needs, too. Books about child care, including this one, put so much emphasis on the child’s needs—for love, for understanding, for patience, for consistency, for firmness, for protection, for comradeship—that parents sometimes feel physically and emotionally exhausted just from reading about what is expected of them. They get the impression that they are meant to have no life of their own apart from their children. They can’t help feeling that any book that seems to be standing up for children all the time is going to be critical of parents when anything goes wrong.
To really be fair, this book should have an equal number of pages about the genuine needs of parents: their frustrations (both inside and outside the home), how tired they get, and their need to hear once in a while that they are doing a good job. An enormous amount of hard work goes along with child care: preparing food, washing clothes, changing diapers, cleaning up messes, stopping fights and drying tears, listening to stories that are hard to understand, joining in games and reading books that aren’t very exciting to an adult, trudging around zoos and museums, responding to pleas for help with homework, being slowed down in housework and yard work by eager helpers, going to parent-teacher association meetings on evenings when you are tired, and so on.
The fact is that child rearing is a long, hard job, the rewards are not always obvious, the work is often undervalued, and parents are just as human and almost as vulnerable as their children.
Of course, parents don’t have children because they want to be martyrs. They have them because they love children and want to raise their very own, especially when they remember being loved so much when they were little. Taking care of their children, seeing them grow and develop, gives most parents—despite the hard work—their greatest satisfaction in life. It is a creative and generative act on every level. Pride in other accomplishments usually pales in comparison.
Needless self-sacrifice and excessive preoccupation. Many people facing the new responsibility of parenthood feel that they are being called on to give up all their freedom and all their former pleasures, not as a matter of practicality but almost as a matter of principle. Others simply become obsessed with parenting, forgetting all their other interests. Even if they do occasionally sneak off to have some fun, they feel too guilty to get full enjoyment. They come to bore their friends and each other. In the long run, they chafe at the imprisonment and can’t help unconsciously resenting their babies.
Total absorption in a new baby is normal. But after a while, usually by two to four months, your focus needs to broaden again. In particular, pay attention to sustaining a loving intimate relationship with your partner. Carve out some quality time with your husband, wife, or significant other. Remember to look at each other, smile at each other, and express the love you feel. Make an effort to find enough privacy and energy to continue your sexual relationship. Remember that a close, loving relationship between parents is the best way children learn about how to be loving with others. One of the best things you can do for your child, as well as for yourself, is to let your children deepen, not inhibit, your relationship with your partner.
Nature and Nurture
How much control do you have? It’s easy to get the impression that how your child turns out is entirely up to you. Do a good job, and you’ll have a good child. If your child learns to talk later than other children or has more temper tantrums, then of course it’s all your fault.
Except that it isn’t. The truth is, some children are simply more difficult to soothe, more fearful, more reckless, more intense, or in other ways more challenging for parents. If you are lucky, your baby will have a temperament that fits well with your expectations and personal style. If not, then you may need to learn special skills in order to help your child thrive. For example, you may need to learn how to calm a colicky baby, or how to help an extracautious child begin to take small risks.
But special skills are not enough. First, you’ll need to accept your child for who he is. As a parent, you can shape your child’s developing personality, but you don’t have anything near total control. Children need to feel accepted. Only after that can they work together with their parents to handle themselves in more and more effective ways.
Accepting the child you have. One gentle couple might be ideally suited to raise a boy with a sensitive nature but unprepared for an energetic, assertive one. Another couple may handle a spunky daughter with joy, but feel disappointed with a quiet, thoughtful one.
It doesn’t really matter that the parents know they can’t order the kind of child they wanted most. Parents have well-formed personalities, too, which they can’t change overnight. Being human, they can’t help feeling let down if their real child doesn’t match the child of their dreams. What’s more, as children become a little older they may remind us, consciously or unconsciously, of a brother, sister, father, or mother who made life hard for us. A daughter may have traits like her mother’s younger sister, who used to be always in her hair, and yet the mother may not realize that this is the cause of a lot of her irritation. A father may be excessively bothered by timidity in his son and never connect it with the fact that he himself had a terrible time overcoming his shyness as a child.
How well your expectations and aspirations for your children fit with the talents and temperament they were born with affects how well things go for you and your children. If, for example, you are chronically disappointed that your child is not a math whiz or sport star, and if you push to make him what he is not, then trouble is brewing. On the other hand, if you accept your child for who he is, then your life together is bound to be a lot smoother, and your child will grow up accepting himself.
Can you make your baby smarter? The short answer is yes and no. Experts now agree that roughly half of a person’s intelligence is determined by genes and half by other factors, such as nutrition and early experiences. Here we’re talking about the kind of intelligence that is measured by standard IQ tests. There are other kinds of intelligence, such as interpersonal intelligence (for example, the ability to be a good listener), athletic intelligence, or musical intelligence. These, too, almost certainly depend on both genes and experience.
A person’s genes provide a rough blueprint for the brain, but the details are filled in by experience. Genes determine the main pathways that link different brain regions. Experience influences how the individual nerve cells form the minicircuits that are the physical basis for ideas and skills. For example, when a child learns to speak English, certain nerve circuits grow stronger. At the same time, circuits that are unique to other languages (Chinese, say) fade away.
Genes influence how easily or quickly a person can pick up certain types of knowledge or skills. In this way, genes may point an individual’s talents in a particular direction (like being a “numbers person” or a “people person”). Genes also set limits for what a child can reasonably be expected to achieve. As a child, I spent a summer in Little League and never once hit a baseball. Maybe I could have learned with enough practice and coaching. But it would have taken a huge effort, and I doubt I’d ever have been really good. I had a much better time in music camp.
The experiences a child has (batting practice, for instance) determine the brain’s wiring, but the brain plays a large role in determining what experiences a child seeks and enjoys. Wise parents help their children nurture their talents and respect their limitations.
Superbabies? Learning changes the brain. But that does not mean that we can create superbabies by relentless stimulation, nor should we try. The best learning occurs when a child is happy, relaxed, and actively involved. Flash cards really have no place at all in an infant’s education.
The best experiences for infants are those that make sense to them. You can tell that an experience is making sense when your baby smiles, laughs, coos, or gazes with bright, sparkly eyes. Little babies don’t understand the words their parents are saying, but being talked to certainly makes sense to them!
Many products are marketed with the claim that they are “scientifically proven” to make babies smarter. These claims are all exaggerations, if not outright lies. Simple materials and human interactions are what truly nurture infant learning.
Different Families, Different Challenges
There is no one right way to raise children, and there is no one best kind of family. Children can thrive with a mother and father, with a mother or father alone, with grandparents or foster parents, with two mothers or two fathers, or as part of large extended families. I hope that this wonderful diversity is reflected throughout this book, although to save words I often just say “mother and father.”
Families that don’t fit the typical mom-and-pop mode may need to do some special planning. For example, in families with same-sex parents it may take planning to ensure that the children have a chance to develop close relationships with both men and women. In families with children adopted from overseas, parents may need to make special efforts to learn about their children’s cultures of origin. When parents embrace different religious beliefs, they need to figure out how their children can grow up with a connection to tradition and community. Good parenting means planning for your children’s needs; that’s true in all families.
Global mobility. Some parents find themselves in countries far from where they grew up. It’s stressful to leave behind everything familiar—family, language, culture, land—particularly when it comes to raising children. So many things that were important in a parent’s own childhood simply don’t exist in this new place, and all the rules seem different. What was good parenting at home might even be considered neglectful or abusive here. No wonder parents often feel unsure of themselves, worried, or angry.
The key to success is flexibility. Families need to hold on to their cultural values while at the same time taking part in mainstream society. Parents who cut off their cultural roots altogether often find themselves adrift without any values to anchor them. Parents who try to build a wall around their families may find that the larger culture breaks in or that their children break out. To be successful, children may need to learn to speak different languages at home and at school, and to switch back and forth between two sets of social rules. Parents need to find ways to support their children as they shuttle back and forth between worlds, to embrace tradition and newness at the same time.
Special challenges. Some children are more difficult to parent than others. Children with special health and developmental needs make special demands on parents (see page 929). Children who tend to react intensely and negatively require special parenting skills, as do children who have serious illnesses. Lack of money, safe housing, healthy food, and good schools certainly weighs on parents and children. The past can also be an obstacle. It’s natural to replay as adults the scenes we lived through as children. If you had a difficult time in your own childhood, if your parents were cruel or had to battle emotional problems or addiction, then you know how hard it is to learn a better way to parent.
You can make that choice. Parents from all kinds of backgrounds, facing all kinds of challenges, find the wisdom and courage to give their children what they need. In turn, their children give those qualities back to the world.