There are few tricks easier than making parents doubt themselves. There is no doubt that guilt and doubt glands get installed and/or enlarged in both parents the minute a baby is conceived. Yesterday I was chatting with a friend who confessed that he and his wife were doing “the wrong thing” and allowing their nearly 4 year old to share their bed. My friend was somewhat startled when I pounced, and shouted “WHO SAYS??” Actually I think the rest of the restaurant may have been a little surprised, too.
The truth is we all do “wrong things” as parents. There are so many rules out there about what you can and can’t do that you can’t help but be doing the wrong thing according to some commentator, book, or newspaper article. It’s wrong to respond to a baby’s cries. It’s wrong to leave them to cry. It’s wrong to co-sleep. It’s wrong to make them sleep on their own. It’s wrong to breastfeed past 12 months. It’s wrong to wean your children before they choose to wean themselves.
What we forget is that most of these “rules” are not evidence based. There is no research to prove them right or wrong. They are theories. You can easily shape a convincing argument to back up your own personal theory, but it’s still just a theory. There are, of course, medical theories that are based on research, like the SIDS recommendations, but they are in the minority.
My own personal theory is that babies don’t cry to manipulate us. They are expressing their needs. Responding to their needs when they express them will give them confidence that their needs will be met, and lead to them being happier, more confident and more independent people later in life. Far from making them dependent on you, it will provide them a secure base from which they can happily fly when they are ready. Babies are physiologically incapable of independence, so pushing them to be independent before they are ready can only do harm.
But I can easily frame the counter argument convincingly, too. If you respond to babies the instant they cry, they will never learn to settle and soothe themselves. They will learn to cry to manipulate you into picking them up, and you will never get a moments’ peace. You are making a rod for your own back, and depriving your baby of the chance to learn to be independent. You will pay for it for the rest of your life.
Note that both arguments are emotive (” can only do harm” “depriving your baby” “manipulate you” “rod for your own back”) and they tap into our deepest fears as parents – we are somehow harming our children, and we are making life much harder for ourselves.
Becoming a parent makes you immensely vulnerable. Your desire to do what’s best for your children is overwhelming, and your fear of doing the wrong thing and inadvertently harming them can be intense. Anyone who comments negatively on your parenting can tap into those fears and create a whirling tornado of self-doubt in your soul.
It’s clear that there is only one thing to do. Listen to yourself. Do what feels right to you, your partner, and your children. If it feels right, your children are happy and healthy, and you’re happy and healthy, then it’s the right thing to do. Now that’s a theory you can bet your life on.