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Susan Wise Bauer

No One Knows Best

Any parent of a newborn will tell you that an unbroken night is God's most underappreciated gift. Seven hours of uninterrupted sleep is far more precious than guaranteed college tuition. On this much, agreement is unanimous. But the debate about how to achieve this nirvana before the baby goes off to school is fragmented beyond repair.

Gary Ezzo, author of the much-loved and much-vilified parenting guides Babywise and Preparation for Parenting, suggests that babies can learn to sleep through the night by nine weeks; sociologist Amy Scott calls Ezzo's plan "misinformation, denial, and disguised child-hate." Sleep is always an emotional topic, especially for the deprived, but passionate discussions over infant training reach far beyond the crib. Ezzo suggests that toddlers can be trained to eat neatly; pediatric guru T. Berry Brazelton counters that a child must be allowed complete control of her food, even if this involves "tossing it to the dog. … We fed one of ours in the bathtub so she could play with her food, drop it and smear it at will!"

"Raising good children," says Gary Ezzo, "is not a matter of chance." Carol Rubenstein, Ph.D., writes, "A child's personality and temperament has little to do with his mother or her sacrifices, and a great deal to do with what she has passed on to him genetically." And the 1998 annual convention of the American Psychological Association was all abuzz over the contrarian theory of outsider-scholar Judith Rich Harris (The Nurture Assumption), who believes that peers are far more influential than parents in shaping a child's personality.

There is little prospect of peace talks between these warring child-care generals; but what do those of us in the trenches do? Enter Julia Grant with a different approach: the metadiscourse of parenthood. Grant's Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers doesn't offer any new answers to the perennial questions of parenthood, but instead tackles the assumptions that allow the debate to exist. Metadiscourse—the study of the rules and conditions of communication—never provides content to an ongoing discussion; Grant doesn't care whether or not you let your baby cry it out at night, but she is interested in why you think an expert's book (as opposed to your mother, or your church, or your own common sense) might give you a trustworthy answer.

Metadiscourse, like most academic pursuits, turns deadly in a hurry. If you're fighting with your spouse over whether or not to spank a rebellious toddler, you want an answer, not someone who's going to inform you that your argument takes the form D(p)M1: M(p). But good work in metadiscourse can allow the combatants to step back, view the debate in a new light, and reopen discussion in a way that might possibly lead to compromise (or conversion).

Contemporary evangelicalism suffers from a number of stalemated debates that could benefit from some good, accessible theory of metadiscourse: gender roles, translation issues, birth control. And, of course, parenting. Daycare or family care? Working or stay-at-home moms? Demand feeding or parent-directed feeding? How exactly do you get that baby to sleep through the night?

Raising Baby by the Book, like most examples of metadiscourse, isn't scintillating reading. But Julia Grant asks some new and fruitful questions about the ongoing relationship between parents, parenting books, and the experts who write them. Why do parents feel a need for expert reassurance? How does this expert advice interact with the common-sense insights provided by daily parenting? And what do you do when the experts disagree?

Grant's survey of parenting in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries suggests that parents began to feel inadequate largely because of a change in family makeup. Big extended families, living close together, gave way to small, isolated family units of mother, father, and two children; parents were deprived of the experienced help previously provided by older family members. This increased isolation of parents coincided with the growing availability of jobs that removed fathers from the home all day, and with a widespread social perception of women as less rational, less capable, and thus less competent than men. Mothers, left alone with children all day long without fathers or extended family to make up for their female shortcomings, became the target of child-study groups sponsored by such organizations as the Baby Hygiene Association of Boston, the U.S. Children's Bureau, and the Child Study Association of America. The "traditional kinship networks that supplied child-rearing knowledge," Grant suggests, were "no longer fully functional."

Within this framework, Grant surveys the major schools of parenting expertise: the behaviorism of the thirties, the democratic child-raising practices of the forties, the psychoanalytical fifties, and the Spock years. Although the rise and fall of these schools is presented in stultifying detail, the complex history of expert advice is worth plowing through.

For one thing, Grant's survey of the past reveals that many of the shibboleths we hear mouthed today are merely repetitions of past slogans. "The proper care and training of children," announced pediatrician Edith Jackson in a 1944 radio broadcast, "is as essential to true and final victory as the warfare on our fighting fronts"—a declaration that bears an eerie resemblance to evangelical rhetoric about building Christ's kingdom through the work of mothers at home.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, in A Mother's Place: Taking the Debate About Working Mothers Beyond Guilt and Blame (1997), Susan Chira writes that a mother can "enrich her children" by pursuing her own dreams (even if this involves a full-time nanny and a 60-hour work week). Grant finds this same rhetoric in the Freudian-focused groups of the past, which assumed that "the better we understand ourselves, the better we understand our children."

Grant doesn't bring her study up to the present, ending her survey sometime around 1978. And she ignores the most authoritative book of all. "In general," she says, in the only paragraph devoted to biblical standards for parenting, "people with a strong religious affiliation will develop child-rearing values that at least partially derive from their communities of belief."

In part, Grant's neglect of biblical influences seems to stem from Scripture's unsatisfactory character as a nuts-and-bolts parenting handbook. The Bible offers a few general instructions for parenting ("Fathers, do not exasperate your children") and plenty of ideals for adults, but specific prescriptions for the everyday raising of children are few and far between (which is why evangelicals can battle to the point of excommunication over the Ezzo method of sleep-training).

The most frequently quoted biblical text on parenting is Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." In some Christian circles, this declaration is read as a guarantee that children who are raised properly will "turn out" perfectly. Grant's history of parenting advice reveals this interpretation as an echo of behaviorism: supply the correct stimuli, and the desired response will mechanically follow. Yet behaviorism is in tension both with life as we know it (well-raised children do sometimes rebel) and with the God-created complexity and originality of each person.

At the other extreme, this affirmation of the wonderful individuality of each child has been corrupted into the shrug-of-the-shoulders philosophy that "nothing you really do changes the child anyway." Carol Rubenstein's recent dreadful book, The Sacrificial Mother, assures us that parents' actions "play little, if any, part in [their] children's overall development. It's much more likely that the genes a child is born with will have the greatest influence over his future personality."

This notion that character is biologically predetermined, popularized in recent years under the label "evolutionary psychology," makes odd bedfellows. Rubenstein uses it to encourage something she calls "selfism," putting parental wishes far ahead of childish needs, but Grant points out that a similar notion lies at the root of child-centered training methods: demand feeding, originally promoted by Arnold Gesell in the 1940s, grew out of the theory that "children's psychosocial development was guided by inherent biological mechanisms that were impervious to parental training."

Gesell's methods currently rule much of the secular parenting literature (think "meals in a bathtub"). A recent issue of Salon, the online magazine, contained a scathing article by Katie Allison Granju about the Ezzo methods. Most of Granju's righteous indignation seems centered on the chutzpah the Ezzos display in proposing an "ideal" pattern for training children. Granju objects to the Ezzos' "authoritative tone," to their nerve in "boldly" informing parents of their method, and to their goal of producing "obedient, respectful children." She writes, "Although the books do sprinkle warnings against 'legalism' and in favor of 'context' throughout their pages, the overall message remains one of rigid, uncompromising parental authoritarianism." Given a plethora of such Ezzo statements as "Flexibility is basic to your success," and "Neither of you should be enslaved to routine," Granju's assessment displays an almost pathological fear of any parental standards "imposed" on children (such as "Do not toss your dinner to the dog").

Once more, Raising Baby by the Book provides useful perspective. This complete rejection of any parental training, Julia Grant suggests, followed World War II; Gesell himself went so far as to suggest that "the seeds of fascism" were embedded in the very notion of parental training! In the immediate postwar years, popular child-rearing manuals "challenged parents to adopt democratic child-rearing strategies, using powerful political terminology . …Social scientists speculated on the authoritarian child-rearing patterns that had engendered a German populace susceptible to the temptations of fascism."

In the same way, Salon's Granju calls the Ezzo methods "rigid," "harsh," and unlikely to "produce emotionally healthy adults"; she labels the child-centered parenting she prefers as "hands-on, relaxed," and "increasingly popular."

Grant's work suggests that the reaction to Babywise (Granju is typical) has less to do with the Ezzos than with a general hatred of absolute moral declarations, (Indeed Salon tips its hand with the article's teaser: "Do parents who buy the controversial baby-care book know about its conservative Christian agenda?") Raising Baby by the Book also confirms that parents, even those who feel inadequate, tend to react strongly to expert advice. "White folks," comments one African American mother in 1933, "just naturally can't tell you nothing about raising children." "It may be that I am having interesting experiences with children," snaps another mother, fed up with cheerful experts who want to improve her parenting technique, "but I cannot tell you what they are. I do not see them."

Most parents are in this same boat. Perhaps the best thing the church can offer them is not yet another list of books by parenting experts but rather (in Grant's words) a network of child-rearing knowledge. "We learn to care for children," Grant concludes, "in the context of the families and the communities in which we live."

These communities—known as "interpretive communities" in the jargon of metadiscourse—help to interpret the dictates of the experts for individual parents and children. An interpretive community dedicated to discovering the wisdom of God can make sense of Babywise. Without an interpretive community, the conflicting dictates of the experts might never make sense. Get ready to face 18 years of broken sleep, and a whole lot of meals served in the bathtub.

Susan Wise Bauer is a novelist who successfully used the Ezzo method, modified by advice from other mothers (including her own), to teach her three boys to sleep through the night.

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