I recently had a very interesting email exchange with a fellow Kveller writer, Renee Septimus, in which we did some healthy debating on, among other things, my book, attachment parenting, science, and our experiences. We both thought that others might want to read our back and forth, so here you go!
I haven’t yet read your book but I think it would be helpful to tell us a little more about how your neuroscience background helped you develop your ideas about parenting, as you mentioned in a blog post. Did you have a lot of experience with children? I know yours are still quite young.
I sincerely mean this with all respect–and I, too, practiced “attachment parenting” (as I understand the term which seems similar to yours) with my four children, now all grown, married, three with children of their own. I am reluctant to ascribe their being self-actualized, well-adjusted adults with good relationships solely, or even substantially, to our parenting techniques when they were young. I think so much is God’s grace, or dumb luck, depending on your point of view, as well as the facts that the marriage they experienced (mine and my husband’s) created a loving, respectful atmosphere in the home, we were/are a good parenting team, and we tried very, very hard to do a good job, always putting the kids “first.” Until you see how your kids turn out decades from now, how can you really know what works? And even then, how can you pinpoint the particular elements that worked? Are there studies about AP? And how can one possibly have controls on those studies?
Thanks for your email and nice to “meet” you. I am happy to answer this a few ways.
1) You are right. There is no “formula” for raising kids. If there was we would have figured it out a long time ago and everyone would do it. That being said, the interplay for family dynamics, the tone, and the messages about love and communication from parents are profoundly important in forming a child.
2) I am a student of neuroscience which includes training in (for example) neurobiology, embryology, and neuropsychology. My thesis focused on the human hormones of attachment and their role in obsessive compulsive disorder. In addition, my 300-page thesis included an extensive literature and research review of those hormones and how they relate to bonding, nurturance, and things like birth, breastfeeding, and even co-sleeping. Working out of the NPI (Neuropsychiatric Institute) placed me in a training environment to learn about children especially with psychiatric challenges. My experience as a scientist, then, is one of understanding the mammalian brain and body: how it develops in utero, what hormones affect it, and how parenting shifts it. In science, mind you, we work in statistics and proportions, so what “we” find is not true 110% of the time!
3) There is no evidence that mammals should not act like mammals. The shifts in parenting in the past 200 years have come about largely for convenience and to support notions of progress such as encouraging early independence, an emphasis on parent-centered rather than child-centered philosophy, and shifts relating to the “liberation” of women
Mammals are made to be near their young, to birth quietly and peacefully, to breastfeed, to sleep together, and to be inseparable pretty much for YEARS
4) The research on any human behavior is complex. As you pointed out, there are no controlled studies and not even an ethical set of controls to use!
5) Some people don’t care about studies. They want to do what they want. Or they don’t care about science because they want results. They want good, quiet, obedient children. They want to sleep all night and not be bothered. Those people I can’t really speak to.
6) The “it’s all relative” argument doesn’t hold here. Of course everyone does their own thing and “who knows?” how kids will turn out. But you hit it on the head. It does matter how you love. It matters how you communicate. And I argue for a relationship-building style of parenting. What builds up trust? What builds up a child wanting to come to you MORE and not less? What makes a child feel they matter even if it’s seemingly trivial? That stuff matters. It’s not just about putting kids first. It’s about not invalidating feelings, reflective listening; all the stuff we should do with other adults! Those are the principles of human behavior that do matter, and that’s what AP is truly about. The way we get there varies, but I’ll be gosh darned if I’m wrong that behaving in accordance with our hormones isn’t a good place to start.
I really want to know if this helps answer your questions. I promise I am not talking out of my tushie. Let me know your thoughts on this mini-thesis!
My goodness! That is a mini-thesis! And nice to “meet” you, too!
Mayim, although I am a generation older than you, I agree with everything you said and parented precisely as you described–I breastfed, held the kids a lot, slept with them, still get nuts when people say you can spoil a baby, did not let my babies cry. I was philosophically opposed to yelling and hitting (and didn’t do either) and kept a calm, loving home with my husband (something that is, I believe, very, very important for kids.)
It intrigues me, though, that you, who certainly must spend lots and lots of time away from your kids doing other things, like most mothers today, can still insist that things have to be done a certain way, the way “nature” intended. It’s a different world than “200 years ago”–women just can’t do everything. If they tried, they could not possibly stay sane. How can you realistically expect moms and babies, given the culture and economic realities, to be “inseparable,” as you put it? “Biology” and “reality” are not so easy to reconcile here.
I keep wondering what you will think in 10 , 20, 30 years, when you look back at this time, re-read what you wrote, and see the human beings you produced who, by their teens, twenties, and thirties, will have had so many, many influences other than yours. I hope I’ll be around to read about it!
Look, I’ve done my job raising my children and I am very proud of the adults they have become. My “AP” parenting? Who even knew there would be such a phrase back in the day! But what I’ve read in your e-mail does, it seems to be, lay a real trip on those who can’t live up to your standards. It’s very rigid and uncompromising, not allowing for real, rather than ideal, situations. It’s interesting that you note that you mostly observed children with “psychiatric” challenges, not a representative group of American kids. We are more than our neurons and hormones. I think you think you have more control over the ultimate “product” than you really do.
I issue a universal call for more kindness to moms!
Thanks again for more thoughtful responses. I will note a few things.
1) You CAN’T do it all. When I had my kids and they were breastfeeding on demand and needing me all the time, I stayed home. End of story for me. If you want to have a big house, fancy cars, expensive vacations, and lots of perks and time away, I guess staying home will not work for you because two salaries will be what you want. Period. I know people who leave large cities and comfortable lives because they want to live off of one salary to parent this way. The “I have to work” situation is not what I am asked about by and large. I am most often asked about women who simply are not motivated to stay home because it’s not “productive” or they have been raised to think it’s boring and lame or they simply don’t feel fulfilled at home. That’s valid for some women and it’s not for me to tell them they have to stay home.
2) As for other influences, I studied 12 years to get this degree. I know people like to think we are very complicated and elaborate elevated beings, but we are in fact… pretty much neurons and neurotransmitters
Kids will have many influences, but it does matter what their earliest expectations are for receiving love and giving it. Babies are wide open and they close up very quickly when mistreated. Everything in between is very curious and mysterious, and we all do our best to “guess” right. As for “representative American kids,” I guarantee you that the behavior you see at your average mall or park on any given day (people hitting their kids, yelling at them for not sharing toys, chastising them for not saying please and thank you, giving kids time-outs for normal age-appropriate behavior) is enough to make this neuroscientist’s head spin.
3) I don’t know that I am “rigid and uncompromising,” especially when I only advocate for what works for my family and the thousands and thousands of non-wealthy, non-celebrity, non-upper class parents who choose this style of parenting. I hope you read my book, because it is chock full of “this may not work for you” and “I can’t tell you to breastfeed, I can only tell you why I do” and other such sincere proclamations of my belief in your right to be your own woman. The “reality” is that parenting is a journey, and decisions about lifestyle and salary are not my business. I live a real life, not an ideal one.
And thank you, Mayim.
I am so surprised that you seem to believe that most moms are working so they can have “big houses, fancy cars, expensive vacations, and lots of perks and time away.” The moms I meet need a second salary to pay rent or buy a home and provide essentials as well as a 529K plan for their kids’ college educations. My own kids hope each year that Yeshiva day school tuition won’t keep going up, wonder how they will send their kids to the summer camps they themselves enjoyed, and save for the rising costs of the excellent universities they attended and want their kids to be able to attend (if they wish) when the time comes. They also need to pay for (expensive) kosher food and to live in a community that supports an observant Jewish life style. They are not driving fancy cars and enjoying lots of perks, believe me.
You are a neuroscientist who “studied 12 years” for your degree. As a scientist, you believe that “we are in fact pretty much neurons and neurotransmitters.” You see things in black and white, in terms of cause and effect. My own background in philosophy and social work, allows, I think, for a more nuanced approach and accepts (rather than rejects as I suspect you would) spontaneity, contradictions, and randomness as inherent to the human condition.
In any event, I’ve enjoyed this exchange with the intelligent, self-aware, sincere woman you clearly are. I wish you lots of luck as you raise your kids, enjoy your career, and tour with your book. Remember–I hope to read the follow up in 25 years when you have a different perspective, looking back, rather than forward!
And please look for my own book, “Out of the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children by Trying Really, Really Hard, Hoping for the Best, and Praying A Lot!”
LOL. I can only speak to my experience
I think we have simply hit a generation gap in understanding each other and I am glad your experience has been so positive when many of ours simply is not. I am a very grey person, I promise you. And my kids are very complicated and grey too…I don’t only see things in black and white, but I can’t deny thousands of years of evolution of primates simply because the economy and popular parenting books and magazines of a fractured materialistic capitalist culture tell me to!