Alfie Kohn is right!

This morning I read a nice little article that you just might want to print out and stick on your fridge to read when you’re discouraged. It’s an interview with Alfie Kohn, published in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. I’ve been aware of Alfie Kohn’s work for years, primarily his criticism of the value of  homework and standardized testing. Now, he’s written a book that takes on the entrenched notion that today’s young people are a bunch of lazy, spoiled, narcissistic brats who have been coddled all their lives. I haven’t read the book (I just heard about it today), but every single thing he says in this short Q & A is absolutely bang on, and really needs to be said. Actually, it will need to be said over and over and over and over, because there is no shortage of people who seem bent on casting doom and gloom about the current generation of parents and kids. This older generation (I’m part of the “older” generation by the way) penchant for hand-wringing goes back at least as far as Socrates and Plato, and probably further. And, as Mr. Kohn points out, it’s amazing how quickly each generation forgets that most of what they are saying about the younger generation was said about their own generation 30 or 40 years ago.

That’s why there will always be a lineup of people eager to tell you that you’re being too nice to your kids, or that you aren’t firm enough with them, or that you shouldn’t let them into your bed, or that you must teach them to “self-soothe” or that the reason your young adult child is having trouble finding a job is that you didn’t let him fail enough.  Actually, I especially thank Mr. Kohn for attacking the cherished notion that failure teaches kids how to succeed.  My observation has been the opposite. For the most part failure tends to teach kids how to fail – that they are incapable, not very smart or that there is no point in trying.  Of course, it’s not black and white. Nothing is. There is a level at which people can learn from failure — or, more to the point, trying to do something and not doing it as well as you’d hoped to — but failing not nearly as great or reliable a teacher as many people make it out to be, especially for young children.

Anyway, print this column off  stick it on your fridge, and reread it every time someone tells you the parenting sky is falling. It may help you feel a little better. And, as I’ve said before, when parents feel a little better, they usually parent a  better.

If you want to know more about Alfie Kohn and his book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child, check out his website.

 

 

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Bringing some much needed levity to the discussion of how the media is “wrecking” parents

Someone was kind enough to forward me the link to a New Yorker article that may just put smiles on the faces of parents who are frustrated with the media. The study it references seems to be a hoax. But no matter, gotta love it!

This article may have the side effect of putting you in a better mood. And according to me, that makes you a better parent.

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It’s Not Parents Who Need to Relax. It’s The Hotheads Who Give Them Advice

I feel sorry for young parents today. I really do. There’s never been a time when the world was so full of advice givers, all competing for your attention, all trying to outdo each other with the alleged crucial importance of their counsel.

I’ve been concerned about this for years and I’ve written about it many times before, most often in the column I once had for a Canadian magazine called Today’s Parent. Sadly none of that did any good. The problem is getting worse not better.

I got so sick of deconstructing media parenting advice BS that I actually stopped blogging for six months.

What prompted me to write today? Oddly enough, it was a newspaper story that I mostly agree with… except for one sentence. And that one sentence in this largely bang-on article exemplifies the problem. The article in question was about the importance of teaching kids to cook – something I agree with. We could debate about exactly how and at what age this needs to happen, but I think that if all young people could cook several meals from scratch by the time they left home we’d have a healthy, leaner and possibly happier populace. One of the things I’m most proud of, as a father, is that all my (grown-up) boys like to cook. They even call me for advice sometimes, which is really cool. Sometimes they give me good cooking advice, which is even cooler.

But here’s the sentence that got me riled up in the story about the importance of teaching kids to cook: “Every day that we call our kids to dinner, rather than asking them to help get the meal on the table, we are failing them.”

Failing them. Come on. That’s a classic example of the kind of overblown statement thrown at parents pretty much every day.

A few months ago back to basics math pundits managed to create a media-induced moral panic because Canada had slipped a few notches in international math test scores. We were “failing” our kids because we weren’t making them memorize their times tables, or so they say.

More recently came the breathless revelation that a new study had reportedly shown that breastfeeding didn’t make kids smarter after all (i.e. why are you knocking yourself to breastfeed and/or why are you feeling guilty if you didn’t,  you silly people).

I could go on. But my point here is not to deconstruct individual media stories. What I really want to talk about is parents’ anxiety. Anxiety seldom helps parents parent better. And there is way too much going on in our information society that makes parents anxious.

It’s not any one story that’s the problem. It’s the constant onslaught.   Take breastfeeding for example. Let’s say you think breastfeeding is important and good for your child. Well, one thing you can count on is a steady trickle of media pokes to tell you that some of those benefits may have been exaggerated, and that you’ve been duped into doing something you didn’t really need to do.

Of course, if you didn’t breastfeed, there will be even more articles that make you feel bad because of all the “benefits” your baby didn’t get. Not to mention the occasional article that exhorts you not to feel guilty, which probably makes you feel guilty for feeling guilty.

If your baby wakes at night you’ll be told it’s your fault because you didn’t teach your baby to “self-soothe.” And if you did try to teach your baby to sleep through the night via one of the methods which are often (and often unfairly) labeled CIO (Cry-it-out) it won’t be hard to find suggestions that you were cruel or harmed your baby in the process.

If you breastfeed your baby in bed and then you and the baby both fall asleep (which is entirely normal, even inevitable, biologically), you’ll be told you’re putting your baby at risk of SIDS (which is shite). If you don’t share a bed with your baby someone out there may tell you you’re not fully into attachment (which is also shite).

Child care pundits will tell you, on one hand, that quality child care builds better, smarter children. Then they’ll turn around and say that most of the child care in Canada is mediocre. In other words, you need something that most of you can’t get. Lovely.

Parents can’t win, not matter what side of any ideological equation they are on. So increasingly I find myself thinking that parents should stop reading parenting advice. I really don’t think it’s doing much good. I can’t say that parenting advice never does any good. But on balance, it’s doing more harm than good these days.

A big part of the problem is the way experts and media writers compete so desperately for your attention. So they have to make everything they say or write sound as if it’s the new, more important truth that you have ever read. That’s never true. It’s just hyperbole from people trying to sell their ideas in order to stand out from the crowd.

Then, every once in awhile, someone chirps in with, “Parents need to relax!” Well, I’d suggest that the people who give parents advice should try relaxing.

Thus,  information – much of it anyway – is not your friend. My best advice – oops here I am giving advice in an anti-advice blog – to new parents would be surround yourself with supportive people. Good support will help you be a good parent. Information, I’m afraid won’t always do that. I’ve written about this before.

This information thing is not going to change folks. Actually it will change in some way. Everything changes. But I don’t see it getting better So my conclusion is that today’s parents need to protect themselves from advice – especially parenting advice that comes from the news media. Take everything – everything – including this blog – with a major grain of salt. If you’re reading something that makes you feel bad stop, and go hang out with somebody who makes you feel good about yourself. Parents who can manage to feel good about themselves and enjoy their kids (not necessarily every minute) will usually parent pretty well on balance.

Fifteen or so years ago I wrote a column for Today’s Parent where I cheekily declared that the secret to being a good parent was being in a good mood. I still believe that. So ask yourself, does the parenting info you’re reading put you in a good mood? If not, I’d stay away from it.

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Bedsharing per se is not dangerous. The headline you didn’t read

As a writer, I’m really quite stunned at how easily many journalists, some members of the news media in particular, allow themselves to be manipulated by the spin wizards who write media releases for researchers and medical associations. And I have to say, these spin wizards really are very effective at dictating the way the news media covers medical issues.  Recent case in point. The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published data from the National Infant Sleep Position Study, which was launched 1992 to monitor the impact of the Back to Sleep Campaign. (ie. Are parents really putting infants one their backs as they are advised to do to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)?)

For some reason the recently published paper focused on bedsharing rather than back, front or side sleeping. That a bit odd, given the alleged goals of the study. Mind you it’s not all that surprising given the single-minded, almost maniacal, obsession some American physicians have with trying to get mothers to stop taking infants into their beds at night.

Anyway, this study found that between 1992 and 2010 the percentage of parents who sleep with their babies actually increased. It pretty much doubled as a matter of fact. This, I would point out, happened during a time period when the rate of SIDS  went down. Now, some might think that headlines would read “Reduction in SIDS rate linked to increased bedsharing,” or “Bedsharing rate rises as SIDS rate deceases.”  But, no, the headlines, which were eerily similar, all said something to the effect of “More parents bedsharing in spite of the risk.” And they quoted the lead author’s opinion that medical professionals had to work harder to get parents to stop bedsharing.

We must ask why. Why did all the coverage spin this data into yet another indictment of the family bed?I can’t say for sure, but, based on my experience, I’ll just bet a media release was sent out by either JAMA or the American Medical Association itself. And I’d guess it contained a headline, or at least line or two, that read very much like the headlines that framed most of the news stories about the study. Then, as often happens, the uncurious, and perhaps very rushed, media did more cutting and pasting from the news release than real research and writing. I can’t tell you how many media stories I have seen on issues like this that have almost the same wording, because journalists basically parrotted the media release. That’s how the media allows spin doctors to determine what you read in the news.

What’s interesting is that at the same time JAMA posted the article about the increase in bedsharing they also posted an editorial, an opinion piece, by Dr. Abraham Bergman, a Seattle pediatrician who has been involved in SIDS research and advocacy for many years.  His editorial bore the headline: Bedsharing per se, is not dangerous. In it he questions not only the evidence supporting the campaign against bedsharing, but also the accuracy of SIDS statistics, given the way the definition of SIDS keeps shifting. In a lot of jurisdictions, if the baby dies in the parents’ bed, medical examiners won’t call it SIDS, even if there was no evidence that the baby suffocated. But if a baby dies in a crib, which, of course, is the “approved” place, they call it SIDS, unless there is evidence to the contrary.

I was happy to see that a fair number of the media stories mentioned Dr. Bergman’s editorial, however that was usually buried fairly far down in the story. Some people don’t get past the headlines. And headlines create impressions and memories. That is what they are designed to do. So influencing headline is important part of a spin wizards’ job. Just try to find news headlines that say,  “Respected, experienced pediatrician questions his colleagues’ nutty views on the supposed dangers of bedsharing.”

Back to the documented increase in bedsharing  that is alarming some pundits. According to the study, bedsharing, as a regular nightly practice, is still rare (about 11% of parents admit to doing this). Earlier data from the same study suggested that almost half of parents do it sometimes, if not nightly.  In other words, bedsharing is an entrenched practice, one kind of normal in American families. Hardly surprising, as I have said previously, in a society that actively encourages breastfeeding (although, we are far better at telling mothers to breastfeed than helping them to do it.). The link between breastfeeding and bedsharing is a biological reality.

So the real news is that bedsharing is increasing, not in spite of the risk, but in spite of the vendetta against it. Maybe some of the anti-bedsharing crowd should ask themselves why. Maybe they should try to understand the parents who do it, rather than acting like the parents are just plain stupid.

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Can (so-called) “self-soothers” turn into nightwakers? (Hint: Yes)

I don’t see myself as a nightwaking problem solver. Hardly, as my personal track record with our three children would clearly show) I’m more into detecting and debunking bad research and bad advice. But I wanted to respond to this one reader question, because it brings up an issue that is relevant to all parents. Here’s the question:

“My six month old slept through the night from week 7 on without any “training.” yes, i am blessed. however, in the past month or so, she wakes up about 1 or 2 every morning. i offer her a breast (for comfort since there is nothing left in there) and she easily falls asleep. however, when i put her back in her crib she starts moving around like crazy, and hits her head on the crib, rubs her eyes and can’t settle down. i have been taking her into my bed, where she can settle down, so i could get some sleep, but i do not want her in our bed. the pediatrician yesterday told me not to even offer her a breast, but to try patting her for a bit so she continues sleeping on her own. this was a huge fail last night. any ideas? is this maybe a phase?”

Dear Reader: The first thing you need to know is that you’re talking to someone whose three kids didn’t start “sleeping through through the night” consistently until age 3 1/2. In other words, I’m not the guy with easy as pie nightwaking solutions. Now, if you’re still interested…

The first thing I would say is that it is totally normal for babies’ sleep and waking patterns to change fairly suddenly. I’ve heard tales similar to yours numerous times.  I know someone whose baby was a legendary sleeper: slept more than most babies and never woke in the middle of the night — at least not in a way that disturbed his parents, and then suddenly started waking and crying out.

I was involved in an academic study where we surveyed close to 1000 parents on their nightwaking experiences. In that study 41% of the parents who reported nightwaking said there had been a time when their baby did sleep through the night. So what you’re experiencing is normal (if frustrating).

This is another one of the realities that many baby sleep experts won’t tell you (although some are getting better about this). Babies who sleep through the night, including those who have been “taught” to do so, often start waking again at some point.

There are lots or reasons why this might happen: illness (even just a little cold) teething (although experts continue to deny this) and probably a whole bunch of reasons we can only guess at.

Usually there is nothing wrong, except that the baby is awake and upset. And upset babies want to be comforted. And parents usually want to comfort them. (This is the way things work with babies and parents.) Sometimes the need for comfort at night might be a one-off or temporary thing that resolves on it’s own. But sometimes it can become habitual. It’s completely logical to me that babies would prefer to fall asleep in Mom or Dad’s arms, or nursing rather than falling asleep on their own. And they can come to expect it or at least get use to it as the normal course of events, in which case, falling asleep on their own won’t be easy for them. As I once read in a Penelope Leach book, falling sleep is partly about habits. So kids whose falling asleep habit includes physical contact with Mom or Dad are going to tend like that and want it to want to stay that way. And if parents feel OK about doing that, I see no problem. The parents might be doing it for a long time (believe me, I know), but although many experts have extolled the virtues on independent sleep for babies and toddlers, I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that non-independent sleep in the early years has any sort of negative affect on kids. In fact, I’ve seen a little evidence to the contrary.

But what “studies show” does not translate into what you ought to do. And I can’t tell you either. Regardless of what anyone says, you have to make a judgment call about a) what you think is best for your baby b) what you think is best for you as a parent, which includes what you think you are able to manage or cope with.

I’m not going to get into what’s best for your baby. I couldn’t possibly say. All I will say is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with a baby who wakes up and cries.  Well, there could be something wrong, but if there is, you’ll see other sign – symptoms of illness, behaviour or emotional problems (which, actually, may or may not have anything to do with the sleeping pattern). But, I repeat, most nightwaking babies are just fine, start sleeping through eventually no matter what their parents do or don’t do.

One of the mistakes I think experts make is that they position nightwaking as the baby’s problem, specifically a baby “sleep behaviour” problem.

Me, I think it’s the parents who have the problem. I don’t mean that their parenting is a problem. I mean that their nights are disturbed, they are going short of sleep, they are stressed about going short of sleep, they are stressed because so many people give them the message that they should be able to control their baby’s sleep. How parents feel about nightwaking matters and sometimes that in itself is the biggest source of stress, and is the “problem” that needs to be addressed.

I don’t mean to say, just control your own attitude and you’ll be fine. But, what I am saying is that how you feel should, in large part, guide how you decide to handle this at least as much, if not more, than the simple fact that your wonderful sleeper suddenly started waking.

If this situation becomes the new normal and you find a way to cope with it (many do this by having the baby in the parents bed) and you feel OK about that, that’s a perfectly OK way to handle it.

If you feel you can’t cope (and whether or not other people think you should be able to cope is irrelevant!), there are things you can try that are more gentle that the thing today’s parents refer to as cry-it-out. Google no-cry sleep solutions or gentle sleep solutions and see what you can find.

I don’t endorse any particular method. I think different parents need different options.

Just keep in mind that two of the biggest sources of distress for parents of nightwakers is the feeling that their baby is deficient in some way (because he doesn’t “self-soothe”, like some experts say he should be able to) and that the parent feels deficient because she/he is unable to control their baby’s sleep in the way experts seem to think they should.

If you can slay those two demons, you’ll have a much better chance of coping with the situation and figuring out what’s best for your family.

I wish you luck. And you, and all other parents of nightwakers, have my sympathy. I know what it’s like.

And keep one more thing in mind. As my family doc used to say, “Remember, I could be wrong.”

Does anyone else have any ideas for this mom?

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Words matter. A reader shares why she was confused about self-soothing

I wanted to share this reader comment on my original post about self-soothing. What she says about the struggles she went through trying to fit conventional expert wisdom with her own experience is a perfect example of why I feel so strongly that the notion of self-soothing (as it is used by most child sleep pundits) needs to be challenged. I could elaborate but I think this mom expresses it very well.

Here’s the comment:

“THANK YOU! I love love love this post. This makes so much sense. I’m a first time mum and a self-confessed geek and have spent insane amounts of time reading about everything baby on websites, books, articles, you name it. The concept of self-soothing is all too often mentioned but never explained, and I simply could not figure out how it all worked.

Example; for the first four weeks of my son’s life he was a very drowsy baby requiring no assistance to sleep at all. Then he went through a mental leap and suddenly he was a lot more awake and interested in the world around him – it was around this stage he started getting harder to put to sleep. He is now 12 weeks and will drift off to sleep with no help for his morning nap, but needs more and more assistance as the day goes on, with lots of cuddles, rocking and patting when going to sleep at night. I was totally confused. How can he be able to self-soothe in one instance and not another? Was he born with the ability to self-soothe and somehow lose it at 4 weeks? What???

The few details about what self-soothing really is are decidedly sparse and conflicting. Some books say babies develop this “ability” around six months, others say three, others 4.5 months, but the general consensus is 3-6 months. But then if you believe in this concept, the ability to self-soothe comes across as a natural developmental milestone, much like rolling over, walking, talking, etc. which everyone seems to agree that babies develop in their own time and the margins for normal are quite vast (eg. my nephew didn’t start talking till about 3-4 years of age). But then why are we putting so much pressure on babies to magically have it as soon as they turn six months?

I’ve also heard that thumb/fist/finger sucking is one of the ways that babies self-soothe. But some babies do this in utero and still can’t put themselves to sleep after they are born (I am thinking of one of my friend’s babies here).

Nothing I read about this before made any sense and couldn’t be applied to my son. This post actually resonates with my experiences and what I know, and it just simply makes sense. I feel like I get it now.”

……………………………………

I wish I could get the “sleep experts” who tell parents that six-month-old babies can “self-soothe” to read this post. Then they might understand that need to be a lot more careful about they say to parents about babies and sleep.

 

 

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Father and Baby Bonding. Not quite like Mom/baby bonding.

It’s odd that I’ve posted so little about fatherhood here. I cut my teeth writing for and about fathers and, over the course of my career I’ve written more about fatherhood than anything else.

But it’s research – bad research, bad media reporting of research and interesting research – that has driven this blog for the past year. And the other day I stumbled on the coolest research finding about fathers that I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen lots).  I know that most of you who read this blog are mothers, but I think this finding will be of interest to you too.

This finding comes from the research of Ruth Feldman, an Israeli psychologist who is one of the world’s leading attachment researchers, who did the first study that made the connection between oxytocin and human mothering. Well, the recent Feldman study that caught my eye was about mother and fathers. The purpose was to find out how playing and interacting with babies affects mothers’ and fathers’ levels of oxytocin, a hormone that plays an important role in human (and animal) parent-child bonding.

First of all, they found that men’s and women’s baseline hormone levels were the same, which is kind of interesting in itself because we tend to associate oxytocin with things like breastfeeding. But the fascinating finding from this study was that the kinds of interaction that boosted fathers’ and mothers’ hormone were very different.

Mothers’ oxytocin levels were tiggered by high levels of affectionate touch (cradling, kissing, caressing etc.). But what got the oxytocin flowing in dads was high levels of what the researchers called stimulatory touch – moving the baby around, more vigorous pats and strokes, playfully poking the baby with a toy or other object. That kind of touch did not affect mothers’ oxytocin levels and, likewise, affectionate touch did not affect fathers’ hormone levels.

I actually find it a little odd that affectionate touch didn’t turn on oxytocin in guys. When my kids were babies, holding them a lot really helped me to feel connected to them (obviously it helped them too). That was how we got comfortable and felt like we belonged together.

Of course more gentle kinds of touch, particularly holding or carrying a baby, are more central in the first few months of life. This study was done with 4 to 6 month old babies, who are much more able to respond to stimulating play than newborns and three-month-olds. Plus, the fathers in this study did way, way more of the stimulating kind of contact than the affectionate kind. I’d be interested to know what the researchers might have have found if they had measured oxytocin in fathers after holding, say,  2- month- old babies for at least 15 minutes.

But anyway, we have this finding that very different types of physical contact get the oxytocin flowing in men in women. What do we make of it? On one hand the study seems to reinforce gender stereotypes – mommies care and daddies play.

Ick.

Even though there is some truth to the idea of gender differences in parenting styles (quite a bit of truth, actually), I’m not a fan of promoting gender stereotypes in parenting. All the mothers I’ve ever known played with their babies, often in fairly stimulating ways. Mind you, anyone who has hung around with parents and babies can see that when fathers interact with babies they do tend to be more stimulating than mothers. In one of Feldman’s earlier studies they graphed the peaks and valleys of mothers’ and fathers’ interactions with babies. The mothers graphs looked sort of like gentle undulating waves. But the father’s graphs looked more stormy – high peaks and deep valleys. That rings true. I started rolling around on a bed with my firstborn when he was two months old. I was very careful about it and I would have stopped if he didn’t seem to like it. But he did seem to like it – in short bits at first. And that kind of play helped me learn about him – what he responded to, what he liked, what he didn’t like.

However, fathers are perfectly capable of being sensitive, affectionate caregivers. And in today’s world, where grandmothers, aunties and female neighbours are less available to help out with baby care, fathers need to become skilled, comfortable caregivers of babies.

But the real take home lesson from this study is that all that funnin’ around fathers do with older babies and toddlers is more than just fun and games (although it is fun and games). I’ve often heard mothers say, “Well, all he does with them is play.” While fathers do need to take on their share of the caregiving, playing should not be dismissed as frivolous. It is a really important part of fathers’ and kids ongoing bonding process. Bonding, attachment or whatever you want to call it, is not just something that happens one day and then becomes more or less set. It’s an ongoing process. And for (most) fathers and kids (because attachment is a two way street) play is a huge part of that. I’m sure play is important for mother/baby relationships too. It’s just that it seems more central to fathers.

But again, I don’t want to suggest that the only way for fathers and kids to connect is through play. Quiet snuggling, using a baby carrier and even changing diapers is part of it too. Bottom line, whatever kind of interaction helps you and your kid get to know each other and feel connected is a good thing. And, if we didn’t already know (I think we did know), Dr. Feldman’s study tells us that play is a really important part of father-child connections.

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