By Catherine L'Ecuyer, published in El País on March 16, 2018
Mothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, friends, experts, companies… In the world of parenting, everyone has an opinion to share with a self-assurance that is frightening.
It was two in the morning, twelve years ago. With mixed emotions, I was experiencing for the first time the miracle we call motherhood. Wonder, euphoria, but also guilt, pain, and fear. No one had told me that breastfeeding would be such an ordeal. As I struggled in the semi-darkness of the room, a woman wearing scrubs came up to me, and in a manner very lacking in delicacy, began to give me instructions on breastfeeding, introducing herself into the new experience of mother-daughter intimacy, without me having asked for assistance. She told me that I was doing it very badly and inundated me with advice on how to be an acceptable mother. “Thank you very much,” I told her, hoping that she would leave us alone. What a surprise when she walked away to continue her work and picked up a mop. She was part of the night shift of the hospital cleaning crew.
It’s strange how self-assured people can be when sharing their opinions. Why do so many people seem to feel some sort of irresistible urge to weigh in on everything to do with educating and raising children, sometimes even on what they do not know about? Mothers- and sisters-in-law, friends, educational experts, social media, companies selling products for children, education magazines. All of them opine with a boldness and self-assurance that is frightening. Fortunately, the truth of an opinion does not depend on the force with which it is uttered. But when one is inexperienced, there is so much that one must put up with….
What drives someone to give advice to anyone at any time? Of course, there are those with good intentions and authentic empathy who want to help at any cost, but who don’t realize how intrusive they are. They prefer to speak their mind on whatever it may be rather than remain silent in the face of a problem. I have a feeling that this was the case of the woman who approached me in the dark twelve years ago. Then there are the know-it-alls, who are experts on everything because they memorize all that the prepackaged advice industry preaches and always have the answer to every problem. Know-it-alls are not conscious of the fact that they are a pain, especially when they enlighten others in public. But without a doubt, the worst sort of advice we can receive is that of the opportunists. The market is replete with opportunistic recommendations—foreign to the scientific mentality—which base themselves on the educational trends of the day in order to generate the sympathy of their readers.
I would even go as far as saying that opportunistic advice is the greatest enemy of meaningful education. Why? If we pay close attention, we see that it uses such general language that it, aside from saying nothing concrete, ends up sowing absolute confusion. For example, it has become trendy to warn about overprotection. There are articles in many education magazines that “warn” of an “excessive preoccupation with satisfying children’s needs and keeping them from experiencing any pain.” In order to see how meaningless this opportunistic piece of advice really is, let’s take a moment to analyze it:
Is it considered an “excessive preoccupation with satisfying children’s needs” when one calms them down with a tablet in order to put them to sleep or buys them candy when they demand it with a tantrum at the age of three? Are tablets and candy then considered “needs”? Is it considered an “excessive preoccupation with satisfying children’s needs” when one breastfeeds a baby when it starts to cry, or when one has six cameras keeping watch while it sleeps? And what about checking the temperature of the bathwater for a one-month-old? And for a ten-year-old? Or what about taking care of them when they are cold soon after they are born, or because their crying demands a hug when they have a stomachache or are scared of a stranger at six months old, or when they cry inconsolably when they are put into daycare at eighteen months?
Is it considered an “excessive preoccupation with keeping them from experiencing any pain” when one prevents them from opening the knife drawer when they are four, or when one brings their forgotten lunch to work when they are twenty-two, or when one prevents them from climbing a 15-foot-tall tree? Or what about a 115-foot tree?
Such generic recommendations only serve to confuse. Perhaps this is why some mothers call other mothers “paranoid” when they don’t dare to leave their children in the hands of babysitters they don’t know. The former consider it a great accomplishment to instill “maturity” and autonomy as early as possible in their kids. And they call boys who cry when they go to school for the first time a “momma’s boy,” making a natural and healthy manifestation of the affective needs of a child sound like a disorder. But it’s no surprise, given the ease with which we label everything that we consider to not be “normal” a disorder. What defines normality? Nature? The tyranny of the majority? Or an opportunistic and pseudoscientific interest in a given standard?
The scientific literature, which finds itself in the antipodes of the prepackaged advice industry, says that secure attachment is key to the healthy development of the child. Thousands of studies agree that a secure attachment is established based on responsiveness to a child’s basic needs (biological, affective) in the first two years of his or her life. The scientific literature also gives practical guidelines on what this means. However, as things stand, it sounds good to say “one must not have an excessive preoccupation with satisfying the needs of our children,” without so much as even qualifying the age for which this applies. Because that’s the trend. And what’s trendy is considered authoritative. In our search for what is best for our children and because we lack experience and don’t want to make mistakes, we resign ourselves to the tyranny of the latest trend. When it comes to raising children, if we do not know and do not have the means to find out what we should do, it is better to follow our intuition and make a hundred mistakes before finally finding what works best for the child, rather than blindly following an opportunistic or pseudoscientific recommendation.
The natural laws of childhood will never be trendy. The difficulty in raising children, and paradoxically the key to successfully doing so, resides precisely in the ability to discern between what our children demand and what their nature demands, which do not always coincide. A parenting manual written by people who don’t know our children cannot do this; a computer program, however sophisticated its algorithms might be, cannot do this; nor can advice, however well-intentioned, give us the solution, and still less if it is opportunistic or pseudoscientific. This ability to discern is made easier for us by the academic literature. But let’s not fool ourselves. Ultimately, this ability comes from our sensitivity—a sort of empathy—which in turn comes from spending time with our children, observing them. It is no coincidence that the scientific literature has found that the main indicator of a child’s healthy development is the sensitivity of his or her principal caregiver, and that children with a secure attachment have more empathy.
And if once again someone drowns us with advice, well-intentioned or not, and assures us that we are not doing a good job, we should remind them that they can’t possibly know if we’ve done badly until our children are at least 90 years old.
(Translation Andrew Sheedy)