I recently read this article in the Guardian, in which Jay Griffiths wonders whether modern parenting might be making our children miserable. Jay introduces the subject with that often demonised ‘sleep training’ method, controlled crying (or ‘Ferberisation’). She asks ‘why would such a thing be promoted? Why would it ever be accepted? What does it reveal about modernity’s priorities? And how does it suggest answers to the riddle of unhappy children?’ She goes on to give examples of different styles of parenting around the world, from India to West Papua, noting that in most indigenous communities, babies are allowed to be babies for much longer, being kept close to their mothers for at least the first two years and in some cultures even co-sleeping up until the age of five. In these countries, ‘controlled crying’ is unheard of and children’s needs are tended to as and when required rather than to a set routine. Despite this ‘extended’ babyhood, as these children grow older they are given much more freedom and, as a result, become more independent at any early age. So, have we got it all wrong?
I am undecided on this one. I think that the idea in the West that children ‘should’ be in some sort of routine, and need to be ‘trained’ to sleep through the night is, as Jay herself suggests, based on the fact that most of us work, and expect our children to eventually join the world of education, followed by some sort of workplace. It’s pretty much a 9 – 5 culture and as such, a good night’s sleep (some time between the hours of 7pm and 7am, depending on how much you need) is important to be able to function within this society. Some might say that as parents, we are more interested in meeting our own needs than those of our children by forcing them to stick to some sort of routine when it goes against their needs. I disagree with this. Unless you are forcing a child to sleep when they are not tired, or refusing to feed them when they are hungry, for example, setting a loose routine can be beneficial for the child as they know what to expect. If I were to let Mushroom eat and sleep when he wanted, he would eat most of the morning, sleep a few hours in the afternoon, and then spend half the night awake and the other half fighting sleep before finally giving in some time around 4am. I know this because I once tried ‘letting him sleep when he wants’ when when I felt guilty about having tried to ‘sleep train’ him. This would be fine if we had no reason to get up in the morning and could sleep as long as we wanted during the day but I work pat-time, my husband works full-time, and Mushroom goes to nursery part-time. On the days I am at home with Mushroom we are a bit more flexible but most child related activities happen between 9 and 5 so that’s when we’re out and about.
I imagine it’s quite a different story for most of the cultures Jay writes about. The children may not be ‘put’ on a routine but as they spend the best part of the day with their mothers, they would naturally follow this routine, waking at dawn and napping whenever they get tired, eating when they are hungry and going back to sleep in their mother’s arms at the end of the day. Here, we might call this ‘attachment parenting.’ There, it’s just parenting. Then, once the child is old enough, they are allowed to roam freely during the day, thus teaching them independence from an early age. I would love to let Mushroom roam free and eventually of course, I will – although the thought of this terrifies me at the moment – once he is old enough to understand that any limitations I put on this freedom are for his own safety. It’s this that makes it hard I think – finding the balance between freedom and safety… And let’s not forget the current culture that suggest we are terrible parents for letting our children play without being closely monitored 24/7. You may remember this post, in which one mother berates another (will we ever get over this?) for looking at her phone while her child plays a short distance away in the relative safety of a local playground. What then, of the mother who allows her young child to play outside of the house (while she watches unseen from inside to ensure safety), to encourage independence? A headline in the Daily Mail, I should imagine, and a visit from Social Services after a call from another ‘concerned parent.’
In the main, however, I do agree that babies should be allowed to be babies for longer than we truly let them. Mushroom is now two years old, and I know he’ll always be a baby to me but I honestly think that although we call them toddlers, these pre-schoolers are still babies really, and should be treated as such. I don’t have any childcare-related qualification that confirms this, it’s just a personal opinion based on my own experience.
So, are we getting it wrong? Well, I think that perhaps somewhere in between the two styles of parenting is probably about right. Allowing our children to be children for as long as possible, providing them with a secure environment (which may or may not involve some kind of routine) and preparing them for life to the best of our ability is all any of us can do. I don’t have the answer, that’s just my opinion. Let’s face it, if any one of us had the answer to the best approach to parenting, then there wouldn’t be so many blogs, books and TV programmes on the subject. My final word on this, though? The best approach to parenting is to love your children, as long as everything you do is based on this, then you’re probably doing it ‘right.’ Whatever that means.
What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please comment below and keep the conversation going.