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Babywise: Is it really best for baby?

QUESTION: I just finished reading an article in the Washington Post on the "Babywise" approach to discipline in child rearing. I have a newborn and I'm confused about what to do when it comes to raising her. I want to raise a good child, and I am worried that I could be too child-centered. Should I "train" her to my needs from the start, or accommodate to her needs?

ANSWER: Religious education can be useful in teaching our children moral values. However, we must be cautious of the underlying beliefs about any child rearing philosophy that claims to be backed by God. Basic beliefs in good and evil can be overly simplistic in their interpretation. Strategies that encourage good behavior in small children can also backfire in adolescence. Although we all want to raise "good" children, we must distinguish this from mere obedience. We have only to look at the holocaust to recognize that creating "good soldiers" rather than independent thinkers (capable of questioning authority) can result in vulnerability to malevolent leadership. If the evolvement of strong moral fiber in our children is the issue, we must take a much deeper look into our own beliefs.

Must parents "train" their children to be "good," or they will naturally go "bad"? Many clearly interpret the "Babywise" approach to reinforce their belief in their child's inherent "sinfulness." Early training, then, becomes necessary to ward off the basic evil in human nature, or at least in the particular child which presents a struggle to the parent. Why not believe in your child's inherent goodness from the start?

Beyond the morality question that "Babywise" invokes, love and discipline are the next important and interrelated issues to consider. Parents who fear loss of control over their lives may cleave to the Ezzos' approach before they have had the chance to develop love, patience and tolerance in their new role as parent.

Strict adherence to a schedule for newborn feedings may make the household run smoother in the short-run, but focusing on control from the beginning also runs the danger of circumventing early bonding and attachment, especially for new parents who have never experienced the development of their own parenting skills and intuition. Dealing with struggles is a part of bonding and attachment. The opportunity to develop our natural instincts and understand our child's personality and needs is necessary to make appropriate parental judgments.

Concentrating on control first is like putting the cart before the horse. How can a new parent know what their particular child needs without first observing the natural biological rhythms (schedules) already present? Accommodating to your baby is not a matter of being child-centered anymore than developing or encouraging a predictable schedule is adult-centered. A quite satisfactory schedule, which meets both the baby's and the adult's needs in a balanced, give and take fashion is what it means to be family centered.

Discipline is most effective when presented in the framework of consequences. Most behavioral and discipline problems in young children arise out of three things: the belief that the child is "bad" which contributes to the child's internalization of this message and consequent "bad" behavior, ineffectual consequences, or inconsistent delivery of consequences. A pattern of resistance and power struggle with your child can develop when any of these situations are prevalent. It is also true that a certain amount of "struggle" can represent a healthy aspect of your child's development. For more on discipline and development, refer to the links listed below.

The Ezzos' approach may be based on a type of behavioral conditioning rather than God's word. Behavioral conditioning is a proven model that works well in a variety of learning situations because of its consistent coupling of stimulus and response, or the use of adverse conditioning to discourage a behavior. It is likely that the "Bayberries" approach, when effective, is based more on consistency, which works whether you follow Dr. Spock or the Ezzos.

Resorting to discipline by hitting (with a rubber spatula) when your 18-month-old throws a toy at you may get the message across quite rapidly, just as a noxious stimuli like a mild electrical shock quickly conditions a dog to stay inside an electrical fence. It is called "one time learning." Still, it can also backfire if your child's spirit is strong and not easily broken. But even when successful, is obedience out of fear a desired outcome? And is adverse conditioning even necessary to teach morality and "good behavior" to your child? Or is it an attempt at a short-cut? I believe the latter.

Keep in mind, that the more noxious the stimuli, the greater the impact to the nervous system. It may take a slightly longer period of time for your toddler to learn that not having access to a toy is the consequence when it is thrown across a room, but your child will learn not to throw objects inappropriately, if the consequence is swift and consistent. This, too, is a kind of conditioned learning. Is allowing some extra time for learning in a less noxious manner really child-centered? Or is it merely a matter of developing patience? I believe the best teacher is a patient one.

Achieving a healthy and dynamic balance between your needs as an adult and your child's developing needs is a must for making a healthy family. No parent or child's needs should be overly compromised, but this does not mean that parenthood does not involve some sacrifice!

It is easy enough to swing from one extreme to another. What is harder, is to integrate seeming polarities into a sensible and unique blend of something that works for you and your child. The final interpretation and value of any method lies in the hands of the parents who use it. Seek to discover and define the balance between your needs and your child's needs.

Family life is a dance of compromise. Beware of any methods that assure the outcome of your child's morality. It is the quality of our family relationships and negotiations that provides the spiritual framework in which we learn a loving balance between caring for ourselves, and caring for others.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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