Clancy Martin in Harper:
In 1994, when my eldest daughter was born, “Ferber-izing” (after Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatrician who specializes in child sleep disorders) was all the rage. The idea was that very small children, indeed newborn babies, should learn to sleep in their own beds: they’d cry themselves to sleep for a few nights, so the theory went, and then they’d get used to it. I learned from Diamond that this practice was common in Germany for many years:
The magic words for German parents were that children should acquire Selbstständigkeit (meaning, approximately, “self-reliance”) and Ordnungsliebe (literally, “love of order,” including self-control and complying with the wishes of others) as quickly as possible. German parents considered American children spoiled, because American parents attended too quickly to a child’s crying.
My wife and I tried this once. I remember the night. She asked me to leave the house — I couldn’t take the screaming. When I came back, an hour later, our daughter was asleep in bed next to her, her infant mouth still attached to her mother’s breast. She “co-slept” with us — despite the strong moral disapproval of many of our friends, who thought we were coddling her and interfering with her independence — for years afterward.
When my next daughter was born, Ferberizing was still around, and my second wife, too, thought that our new baby would learn independence from crying herself to sleep. Then she changed her mind and decided that both of our daughters (a second quickly followed the first) would be allowed to sleep in bed with us for as long as they liked. All three of my daughters are what Diamond calls WEIRD children: children of a Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic society. Here, according to Diamond, is how they’re probably being raised:
We follow the rabbit-antelope pattern: the mother or someone else occasionally picks up and holds the infant in order to feed or play with it, but does not carry the infant constantly; the infant spends much or most of the time during the day in a crib or playpen; and at night the infant sleeps by itself, usually in a separate room from the parents.
Ha! I wish. During the first two years of my daughters’ lives, it was an open question whether or not the girls could walk. In fact, my eldest never crawled at all, because she had developed the more efficient practice of sitting and yelling until she was picked up and carried to wherever she wanted to go. Both of my younger daughters, now ages six and eight, still regularly demand to be carried when they are tired of walking. A friend of mine, a tattoo artist, often has his girls with him in his studio all day long, surrounded by the instruments of his craft — precisely the sorts of “dangerous tools” Diamond believes only the children of hunter-gatherer societies are exposed to. The same problem extends to Diamond’s overgeneralizations about how Western parents discipline and educate their children. He has done a fascinating job of studying how hunter-gatherer societies raise their children, but he doesn’t seem to have spent enough time observing how contemporary Westerners actually raise their children. It’s probably true that most of us wish our children would spend hours “playing with their plastic ready-made store-bought toys,” but the fact is that they don’t. They unwrap the damn things at Christmas, and within an hour they’re having more fun jumping on the bubble wrap than flying the $50 remote-control helicopter.
What I’m suggesting is that the difference between “their kids and our kids” is much smaller than Diamond argues, or perhaps that we would like to pretend. Even violent disciplinarians like my stepfather — the exception, not the rule, in our society — are found among hunter-gatherers: Diamond tells the frightening story of a mother who beats her child until, still unsatisfied by her tears, she rubs her face with stinging nettles. I do see one key difference between how we parent in the West and in the societies Diamond describes: We WEIRD parents of WEIRD children worry far more about whether or not we’re parenting properly. We lie about how we parent or don’t parent; we’re hypocrites and judge other parents for not doing what we ourselves don’t do (or for doing what we ourselves also do). We spend millions of dollars on books, toys, manuals, tutors, and videos for our own and our children’s entertainment and education, and still we are freaked out about whether or not we are doing it properly. First “helicoptering” is necessary in the terrifying contemporary world, then it’s morally blameworthy; first laissez-faire parenting is the new way, then it’s for irresponsible slackers. We parent with “love and logic,” or whatever the latest bestseller prescribes. “The lessons from all those experiments in child-rearing that lasted for such a long time,” Diamond writes, “are worth considering seriously.” But we don’t have to consider them; most of us are already practicing them. From the time they’re newborns, your kids are pretty clear about their needs, about what serves their flourishing and what interferes with it — and most of us, whether we admit it or not, get with the program quickly enough, just as I and both my wives did in the face of the popular moral conviction that the Ferber method was how all good parents would teach their newborns to sleep alone.
You new parents: your child-rearing instincts are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary programming. The one way you’ll mess it up is by overthinking it.