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Mothering and Smothering

When did "natural" become a synonym for "good" or "better"? Advertisers tell us that everything from our food to our skincare is better when it's used in its most natural state.  But haven't the philosophers—Hobbes, Locke, and Kant (though not Rousseau)—tried hard to get us out of the state of nature?  Is it good that tornadoes destroy everything in their path or that bigger animals prey on smaller? No—it's just natural. And yet the up-and-coming trend in parenting is to birth and raise children the way nature planned.

Relevant Links
Grading Parents  Abby Wisse Schachter, Jewish Review of Books. In what is easily the most shocking suggestion in The Blessing of a B Minus, Wendy Mogel urges parents to refrain from talking to their teens about college until 11th grade.
"Unschooling"  Mayim Bialik, Our Jewish Homeschool Blog. Part of Bialik’s parenting method includes schooling her children at home and waiting to teach them numbers, colors, and letters until they show an interest. (Interview by “Mommzy”)
Why Do Men Write All the Baby Manuals?  Deborah Kolben, Forward. Baby manuals, written mostly by men, focus on how to do things correctly, whereas child-rearing books, written mostly by women these days, are self-lacerating chronicles of doing it wrong.

Mayim Bialik's first book is a salvo in this argument.  The former child star of Blossom has blossomed into an observant Jew with a family, and Beyond the Sling, geared to a general, rather than Jewish, audience, presents Bialik's happy family as an example of the philosophy of "Attachment Parenting" at work.  Bialik has ventured into this territory before; her blog on the Jewish parenting site offers readable, relatable accounts of contemporary family life and religious observance—albeit from the rather unique perspective of a famous vegan actress with a PhD in neuroscience.

Bialik insists that her parenting methods are feasible for the average parent, PhD or no PhD.  And what exactly are they?  "Attachment Parenting," a term coined by Dr. William Sears, is a parenting philosophy based on the principles of attachment theory—a theory of developmental psychology developed in the 1970s—with the aim of building a strong emotional bond between parent and child. Or, as Attachment Parenting International puts it, the goal is to "return to the instinctual parenting of our ancestors." Indeed, the first part of Bialik's book is called "Trust your instincts." She reassures us that what we need to be the best parents is already programmed in our DNA.  This sounds easy, but in practice Attachment Parenting can be a lot of hard work, time, and money. It can include breastfeeding your baby on demand and letting the baby self-wean, holding your baby as much as is possible (otherwise known as "babywearing"), and sleeping with your baby until he or she wishes to leave the family bed.

It goes without saying that most parents seek to bond emotionally with their children. And it's comforting to think that if we just dig deep enough within ourselves, we'll all have the best possible guide: nature itself. While we can all agree that the goal of Attachment Parenting is lofty, the underlying justification of this parenting philosophy—that if only parents follow their intuition, or what is most natural, they will be better parents—is up for debate.

Maybe there is something wrong with my parental instinct, but if I always listened to my first instinct, and impulses, I'd always give in to my one-year-old. I'd still never let him cry at night, thereby preventing him from learning how to sleep on his own. I would stay with him all the time, never get a babysitter (which is a practice among some Attachment Parenting parents), even though I've been amazed to see how social, playful, and adventurous my child has become since he's had to learn to have fun without me sometimes. Ironically, in trying to become a more "natural" mother, I would become a stereotypically overprotective Jewish mother.

But Judaism from the start has had a more nuanced relationship to the idea of nature, our instincts and our impulses.  Even in our most "natural" state, in the Garden of Eden, God commands Adam to rule over the earth (Genesis 1:28). This command puts us in charge of nature—meaning both the natural world and what we moderns call human nature. From there on in, God gives the Jews many commandments, a sure sign that we cannot just rely on nature, or our instincts (which may be good or bad) for a roadmap to life.  When practitioners of Attachment Parenting stand behind the anti-circumcision movement, as many do, we see the stark contrast between its underlying principles and Judaism's. 

A more "Jewish" philosophy is offered by parenting guru Wendy Mogel in her book on raising teens, The Blessing of a B Minus. Drawing on Jewish sources, Mogel preaches "compassionate detachment" that may at first feel painful and unnatural, but is ultimately best for the emerging adult. Drawing on the mystical idea of tzimtzum, parents, like God, must shrink themselves and relinquish control over their children for them to thrive. Take these practical examples from the book: when your teenage son asks for help on a school project he's left to complete at the last minute, your instinct will be to rush to his aid and fix it for him so he doesn't get a bad grade. But since he procrastinated, perhaps he needs the life lesson of discovering what happens when one doesn't complete one's work on time. Fight the impulse to make all his problems, big and small, disappear.

Or, when your daughter tells you excitedly about her new desire to skydive, don't just blurt out that she will kill you with worry. Overcome your instinct to respond and chastise before you open your mouth, and be glad she wants to include you in her life and has come to confide in you.

At the beginning of the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explains that being created in the image of God means humans share God's intellectual apprehension—in other words, His rational form. Our reason and intellect, then, make us human and humane. While our natural instincts may lurk deep inside ourselves, they don't always make us better people, let alone better parents.

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N on March 20, 2012 at 9:45 am (Reply)
The two books do not give much conflicting advice. Rather, one is about how to care for an infant and the other is about how to care for a teen. These two types of individuals have vastly different needs; so, of course, the advice is very different. It would be much more interesting to see Bialik's book critiqued in light of another book on parenting an infants instead of comparing non-equivalents.
Independent Patriot on March 20, 2012 at 12:57 pm (Reply)
People should listen to their own common sense when it comes to raising children. You know what to do and when to do it. The so-called experts are generally idiots. Sometimes your child needs to sleep in your bed and sometimes not. Sometimes you get a babysitter and sometimes you stay home. Sometimes you give children Spaghetti-Os and at other times you buy everything organic. As long as your child is taught right from wrong, ethics, morals, independence, self-assuredness, and the ability to weather the roadblocks that life throws at them, you have done your job. The issues we worry about as parents are First World Worries. If we had to worry about our actual survival, the last thing we would be concerned about is whether our choice of "potty" promotes sexism or whether we have done enough to ensure our child's id and ego. We never do seem to count our blessings.
Brauna Doidge on March 20, 2012 at 1:55 pm (Reply)
Thanks for your comment, N. Yes, babies and teens have very different parenting needs. The purposes of my piece was to compare the philosophical underpinnings of "natural" parenting with those of Jewish parenting, which tries to channel the natural. If you know of any Jewish baby parenting books, I'd love to hear about them!
Polly on March 20, 2012 at 7:32 pm (Reply)
You are comparing apples and oranges. Wendy Mogel would have no problem with Mayim Bialik's writing (Mogel might not advocate all aspects of attachment parenting, but she believes it works for some families). Many attachment parenting folks are actually better than others at "letting go" when their children are older, honoring children for being themselves and allowing them to find their own path. More important, why does there have to be a Jewish way to parent? Isn't there room within Judaism and the Jewish community for a diversity of approaches to parenting?
Polly on March 20, 2012 at 8:56 pm (Reply)
Also, it seems unlikely that the only reason she presents to support her parenting philosophy is that it is "natural" (whatever that means). Doesn't Bialik also give reasons to the effect that her choices produce outcomes, perhaps long-term, that she considers desirable? A large body of research supports attachment parenting practices, unrelated to whether they are "natural" or not. It's not good journalism to reduce an entire movement to a straw-man.
Sarah on March 20, 2012 at 9:40 pm (Reply)
My sister always recommends this book. I don't share all its views, but it is an interesting read:
"Raising Children To Care"
Brauna Doidge on March 21, 2012 at 2:01 pm (Reply)
@Sarah: Thanks for the recommendation!

@Polly: I did not use either Attachment Parenting or Mayim Bialik as a straw man, nor was I claiming that Judaism offers only one approach to parenting. I don't attack Attachment Parenting or write that it doesn't work. I say only that it's not easy and that I find its relationship to nature simplistic. Attachment Parenting and parts of Bialik's book are but two examples in a much larger trend of justifying something by claiming it is "natural." My piece questions whether "natural" is always better, then looks at what one could call a Jewish approach to parenting, which wouldn't rely on "nature" as a justification for or by itself.
David on March 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm (Reply)
Thanks for writing the article. There was a discussion between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor. The Roman asked, "Which is better, the product of man or God?" The Roman wanted catch Rabbi Akiva in a contradiction: If God's product is better than man's, why would Jews circumcise? Rabbi Akiva responded, "man." To illustrate, he brought the Roman some wheat and a slice of bread and asked, "God made the wheat, but man made the bread; which would you rather eat?" (At least that is how I remember the story.) We are not merely to live with the "natural" world given to us but, rather, to improve and build on it. Too many things these days assume natural to be better; this is a philosophical underpinning of the Greco-Roman world view.
Polly on March 21, 2012 at 5:19 pm (Reply)
Yes, attachment parenting is time-consuming. But there's no need to justify things like unmedicated birth, child-led weaning, etc. by simply stating, "It's natural." There are more intrinsic reasons, which one is welcome to accept or not. In any case, Wendy Mogel's ideas about letting go of your teenager are not particularly un-natural. On the contrary, it seems very natural to foster increasing independence in a child as he or she matures. Is that not what the Torah says in Genesis--that it is the natural order of things for people to grow up, leave their parents, and cling to a spouse? It's perfectly normal, if difficult, for parents to let go as their children grow up.
Yael Resnick on March 23, 2012 at 3:50 am (Reply)
For a response, see

Polly - I agree with the points you made about the "natural" aspect being less important than the scientific facts about mother-baby bonding, as well as the actual results attachment parenting is intended to create, i.e., a happy, loved, secure child, and ultimately a self-reliant, emotionally healthy, and appropriately "detached" adult.
Tipper on March 23, 2012 at 10:37 am (Reply)
By using the most "extreme" examples of what attachment parenting looks like, you're demonstrating that you have an unclear idea of what attachment parenting can be. I am an attached parent. I breastfeed on demand. When I have to be away from my babies for work or a break from them, I leave a bottle of pumped milk for someone else to feed them. My babies bedshare with me until it doesn't work for us any more; sometimes the adults get tired of it, sometimes the babies do, and then we gradually transition to another sleeping arrangement. Sometimes we wear our babies and sometimes we use a stroller (babywearing is a lot more convenient than pushing a huge stroller through crowds). Neither of my two older kids has self-weaned; I weaned them at about two years of age. Those are just some examples of how flexible "attachment parenting" is. The Attachment Parenting International website principles give a better idea of how attachment parenting works. It doesn't enslave parents to their children or create children who are over-dependent or spoiled, unless whoever is doing the parenting cultivates that characteristic. Mayim Bialik circumcises her children in accordance with Jewish law. Not all attached parents are alike.
Anon on March 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm (Reply)
This article's arguments have no scientific research to back them up. Of course, parenting books for infants and for teens are different. And of course someone with a Ph.D. in neuroscience would choose to breastfeed on demand and co-sleep; that is what countless researchers have found is best for infants and their parents. If you are trying to show that Judaism doesn't respect the primal and instinctual needs--yes, needs, not desires--of babies and mothers, shame on you.
Brauna Doidge on March 23, 2012 at 2:35 pm (Reply)
Hi Yael,

I read your response to my article and I think you have misunderstood
it. I wish I could respond to your article on your blog, but I can't
seem to comment on it.

As I've mentioned above in these comments, my critique--which I stand
by--is that Attachment Parenting touts what is natural as a selling
point or a justification for itself. That doesn't mean it's the only
justification it has for itself or that I don't agree with its goals.
But this "natural is always better" line of reasoning is being used in
a lot of parenting literature and I wanted to draw attention to it and
question it.

This brings me to another point: You say that I think natural
parenting is new. I don't say that. I just say it's trendy now, which
it is.

You claim that I think Attachment Parenting means lax parenting that
gives in to our children. I didn't say that. I'm saying that if I only
listened to my instinct, I wouldn't be the best mother I could be,
which I know from experience. We co-slept with our baby until almost a
year. At that point, I was exhausted and consequently not parenting
him to the best of my abilities during the day. I realized that he was
still in our bed because I was afraid to say no to my child and to
ever hear him cry, rather than because it was in his best interest. As
you write, I had to find a balance, so we slowly transitioned him out
of our bed. Though my instinct told me to never let him cry, I needed
to fight that initial feeling so that he could learn to sleep on his
own and I could be a better parent. And, I'm happy to say, he is
thriving because of it!

Finally, you write that I don't distinguish between teenage and baby
parenting needs. Of course I do. I used Mogel's book as a contrast to
Bialik's not because I think all kids have the same parenting needs
but because of their contrasting approaches to nature. The point of
the article is to look at different philosophical responses to nature.

So, if you ever speak to Mayim Bialik, please tell her it's safe to
read my article. Though she writes on Facebook that I attack her, that
is certainly not the case. I just wish she'd read the article before
commenting on it.

Yael Resnick on March 23, 2012 at 4:32 pm (Reply)
Brauna, I hear you now. I think you've expressed yourself more clearly in your comment above than in your article. If you had spoken a bit about your personal experience with cosleeping, for example, I think readers would have had a more accurate understanding of where you're coming from (and would relate to you). I have never seen attachment parenting's justifying itself by its naturalness. Certainly, the fact of a mother's natural nurturing instinct is a big part of understanding attachment (or, really, any) parenting. Also, the fact that mothers and babies have an innate symbiotic bond that leads both to want to be physically (and of course emotionally) close during the early years is evidence that God has designed the mother-baby bond with that very closeness in mind. It's logical, then, that science supports what mothers know instinctively: Babies need a responsive parent to care for them, day and night. I don't think that's controversial (I know you agree). The title of your essay may well have slanted readers' reactions toward the negative. We probably agree more than our back-and-forth would suggest. I'm glad you took the time to comment here about what you were trying to convey.

Comments are closed for this article.

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