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The Diabolical Genius of the Baby Advice Industry
Every baffled new parent goes searching for answers in baby manuals. But what they really offer is the reassuring fantasy that life’s most difficult questions have one right answer.
Human beings are born too soon. Within hours of arriving in the world, a baby antelope can clamber up to a wobbly standing position; a day-old zebra foal can run from hyenas; a sea-turtle, newly hatched in the sand, knows how to find its way to the ocean. Newborn humans, on the other hand, can’t hold up their own heads without someone to help them. They can’t even burp without assistance. Place a baby human on its stomach at one day old – or even three months old, the age at which lion cubs may be starting to learn to hunt – and it’s stranded in position until you decide to turn it over, or a sabre-toothed tiger strolls into the cave to claim it. The reason for this ineptitude is well-known: our huge brains, which make us the cleverest mammals on the planet, wouldn’t fit through the birth canal if they developed more fully in the womb. (Recently, cognitive scientists have speculated that babies may actually be getting more useless as evolution proceeds; if natural selection favours ever bigger brains, you’d expect humans to be born with more and more developing left to do.)
This is why humans have “parenting”: there is a uniquely enormous gap between the human infant and the mature animal. That gap must be bridged, and it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that there must be many specific things adults need to get right in order to bridge it. This, in turn, is why there are parenting advice manuals – hundreds and hundreds of them, serving as an index of the changing ways we have worried about how we might mess up our children.
When my son was born, 15 months ago, I was under no illusion that I had any idea what I was doing. But I did think I understood self-help books. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve written a weekly column about psychology and the happiness industry, in the course of which I have read stacks and stacks of books on popular psychology. I even wrote one myself, specifically aimed at readers who – like me – distrusted the hyperbolic promises of mainstream self-help. Midway through my partner’s pregnancy, when I first clicked “Bestsellers in Parenting: Early Childhood” on Amazon, I naively assumed it would be easy enough to pick up two or three titles, sift the science-backed wheat from the chaff, apply it where useful, and avoid getting too invested in any one book or parenting guru.
After all, I knew that advice books in other fields often contradicted each other, and indeed themselves, and so should never be taken too seriously. I understood that the search for One Right Answer to life’s biggest questions was futile, even self-exacerbating, leading only to a downward spiral in which attempting the perfect implementation of any one book’s recipe for happiness only generated further anxiety, necessitating the purchase of another book in an effort to allay it. (My own book, The Antidote, argues that trying to think positively reliably leads to more stress and misery.)
I knew all these things – but what I didn’t yet understand was the diabolical genius of the baby-advice industry, which targets people at their most sleep-deprived, at the beginning of what will surely be the weightiest responsibility of their lives, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, between the covers of this book, lies the morsel of information that will make the difference between their baby’s flourishing or floundering. The brilliance of this system is that it works on the most sceptical readers, too, because you don’t need to believe it’s likely such a morsel actually exists. You need only think it likely enough to justify spending another £10.99 on, oh, you know, the entire future happiness of your child, just in case. Assuming you’ve got £10.99 to spare, what kind of monster would refuse?
And so “two or three” books became six, and 10, and eventually 23, all with titles that, even before the sleep deprivation set in, had begun to blur into one other: The Baby Book and Secrets of the Baby Whisperer and The Happiest Baby on the Block and Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child and The Contented Little Baby Book. (Their cover designs blurred even more. It’s hard to imagine the jacket art meeting for most baby books lasting more than a few seconds: “How about … a photo of a baby?”) If there is a single secret of good parenting, it is surely to be found on the rickety, self-assembly bookcase in the little back bedroom of our flat.
A tone of overbearingly cheery confidence characterises almost all such books, which makes sense; half the hope in purchasing any one of them is that you might absorb some of the author’s breezy self-assurance. Yet for all this certitude, it rapidly became clear that the modern terrain of infant advice was starkly divided into two opposed camps, each in a permanent state of indignation at the very existence of the other. On one side were the gurus I came to think of as the Baby Trainers, who urged us to get our newborn on to a strict schedule as soon as possible, both because the absence of such structure would leave him existentially insecure, but also so he could be seamlessly integrated into the rhythms of the household, allowing everyone to get some sleep and enabling both parents swiftly to return to work. This is the busy, timetabled world in which we live, the Baby Trainers seemed to be saying; the challenge was to make life with an infant workable within it.
On the other side were the Natural Parents, for whom all schedules – and, often enough, the very notion of mothers having jobs to return to – were further proof that modernity had corrupted the purity of parenthood, which could be recovered only by emulating the earthy practices of indigenous tribes in the developing world and/or prehistoric humans, these two groups being, according to this camp, for all practical purposes the same.
A handful of the books I bought resisted classification, but only by maddeningly insisting on the importance of both approaches at once: by the time he was 10 months old, I learned from What to Expect: The First Year, we’d need to be giving our son “¼ to ½ cup of dairy foods per day” and “¼ to ½ cup of protein foods per day”, while also not getting “caught up in measurements”. (There is also a subgenre of books aimed specifically at new fathers, but since they are an almost uninterrupted wasteland of jokes about breasts and beer, this article will give them the attention they deserve, which is none.)
It may be no coincidence that hostilities between camps seem to rage most furiously in those areas where there is the least scientific evidence to favour one or another technique. In online discussion forums, the battles reach their most frenzied over the question of whether letting your baby cry itself to sleep is sensible or tantamount to child abuse. At first glance, the sheer level of emotional investment confused me: why were all these people, presumably very busy looking after their own babies, so obsessed with how other people were caring for other babies they’d never meet?
But such mysteries begin to disperse when you realise that baby advice isn’t only, or perhaps even mainly, about raising children. Rather, it is a vehicle for the yearning – surely not unique to parents – that if we could only track down the correct information and apply the best techniques, it might be possible to bring the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control, and make life go right. It’s too late for us adults, of course. But a brand-new baby makes it possible to believe in the fantasy once more. Baby manuals seem to offer all the promise of self-help books, minus the challenges posed by the frustratingly intransigent obstacle of your existing self.
The essential challenge confronting any would-be parenting guru is this: nobody really knows what a baby is. This is obviously true of the panicked new parents, suddenly ejected from hospital to home, and faced with the responsibility of keeping the thing alive. But it is barely less true of the experts.
To begin with, thanks to the still mysterious phenomenon that Sigmund Freud labelled “infantile amnesia”, nobody can remember what it was like to be a baby. Furthermore, the experiments that could decisively distinguish the best from the worst ways to treat an infant, in terms of future flourishing, would be blatantly unethical; and in the real world, it’s virtually impossible to disentangle the innumerable variables acting upon any individual baby. Does being breastfed really confer lifelong benefits, or do those benefits come from being raised by the kind of mother – older, better educated, better-off – who’s far more likely to breastfeed? (Parenting experts who are childless, such as the “queen of routine” Gina Ford, author of the unavoidable Contented Little Baby series, attract a lot of sharp words for it, but this seems unfair. Where Ford has direct experience of parenting none of the 130 million babies born on Earth each year, most gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn’t much better as a sample size. The assumption that whatever worked for you will probably work for everyone, which is endemic in the self-help world, reaches an extreme in the pages of baby books.)
“Children are, at once, deeply familiar and profoundly alien,” writes the philosopher and developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – and babies are most alien of all. For example: are they clever or stupid? Clearly, they’re inept at pretty much everything; yet “science, and indeed common sense, tells us that in those early years they are learning more than they ever will again,” as Gopnik notes, which hardly sounds like ineptitude.
Nothing struck me more forcefully, in my early months as a parent, as the sheer strangeness of the new houseguest. Where had he come from? What was his business here? Sitting in our glider chair, rocking my son back to sleep at 3.30am, I’d often wonder what might be going on in there, but the question led straight to dumbfoundedness. It wasn’t just that I didn’t know what it was like to be him, but that I couldn’t imagine what it could be like, in his pre-linguistic world where every hour brought experiences of utter novelty. Perhaps it’s no wonder that philosophers have tended to deal with the puzzle of babies by ignoring them entirely: one mid-1960s edition of the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Gopnik points out, contained zero index references to babies, infants, mothers, fathers, parents or families, and only four to children. (There were many more references to angels.)
This explains the unspoken promise detectable between the lines of almost every baby manual: that this book, this guru, might be able to turn the alien in the bassinet into something altogether less daunting and more manageable, reminiscent of all those complicated-but-doable projects you’ve handled at home or the office in the past. Sometimes this is little more than a matter of tone, as in the case of the bestselling parenting advice book in history, What to Expect When You’re Expecting – which has 18.5m copies in print, and has spawned more than 10 spin-off books and a mediocre 2012 romantic comedy starring Cameron Diaz. What to Expect tries to distract from the outlandishness of what’s approaching by means of a relentlessly upbeat tone, characterised by compulsive wordplay that makes you worry for the authors’ mental health: “With just weeks to go before D-Day, have you come to terms with your baby coming to term? Will you be ready when that big moment – and that little bundle – arrives?” It rarely failed to make me – or even my partner, far less perturbable despite being the one who was actually pregnant – more stressed.
Other authors promise to eliminate the uncertainty inherent in the situation by making inexcusably specific claims about how things will unfold. The Wonder Weeks, a popular book by the Dutch husband-and-wife child development experts Frans Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt, insists upon the existence of 10 predictable “magic leaps forward” in your baby’s neurological development, heralded in each case by bouts of fussiness, raising the prospect that you might be able to tick them off like milestones in a home-renovation project. For example: at 46 weeks old, the authors declare, you can expect your baby to start to understand sequences, such as the steps involved in fitting one object into another. (Typically for the genre, The Wonder Weeks tries to reassure readers these stages will unfold naturally, while strongly hinting there are specific things parents must do to make them go well.) But it’s not wholly astonishing to learn, from Dutch press reports, that when one of Plooij’s PhD students sought experimental evidence for these leaps, she found none, and Plooij tried to block the publication of her results, triggering a controversy that saw him dismissed from his university post.
Of course all babies don’t follow an extremely precise 10-stage schedule: the very idea, to anyone who is well-slept and thinking straight, is preposterous. But it is difficult to imagine anything more profoundly reassuring to the first-time parent of a one-week-old than the possibility that they might.
This same urge to recast a baby as something fundamentally mundane and familiar suffuses the debate over sleep, where hostilities between the Baby Trainers and the Natural Parents are most acute. From five or six months old, I learned, we could choose to let our baby cry himself to sleep for a few nights, which the Baby Trainers felt was essential if he were ever to learn to “self-soothe”, but which the Natural Parents swore would cause lasting neurological damage. (Besides, they argued, if the baby did stop crying as a result of such sleep training, it would only be because hundreds of thousands of years of evolution had hardwired him to assume that if his parents weren’t responding, they must have been eaten by wild animals, and remaining silent was his only hope of survival.)
Or we could respond within seconds to every cry, sharing our bed with our baby, resigning ourselves to years of multiple nighttime wakings for breastfeeding, all of which the Natural Parents felt was the least a loving mother ought to do, not to mention the instinctive thing all mothers had been hardwired to do – but which the Baby Trainers warned would lead to brain-dead parents unable to properly discharge their duties, plus a maladjusted child incapable of spending five minutes in a different room from them, and probably also divorce. (In reality, there is no persuasive scientific evidence of long-term harm from sleep training; I lost count of the number of times I followed a link or footnote provided by one of the Natural Parents, only to find a study about rats, or babies raised in environments of severe and chronic neglect, such as Romanian orphanages.)
At their worst, the Baby Trainers seemed to suggest that my son was best thought of as an unusually impressive dog, who could be trained, using behavioural tricks, to do what we wanted: if we stopped responding to his night-time cries, he’d learn that he could return to sleep without our assistance and would, as a consequence, stop crying. But the Natural Parents employed an even more outlandish analogy: that he was essentially an adult trapped in the body of a baby, so that letting him cry was equivalent to abandoning a distressed grown-up who’d lost the ability to speak. “Imagine being in an extreme panic attack but your best friend locks you in a room alone while saying ‘Never mind, you’ll be fine’,” as one Natural Parent blogger put it – which sounds awful, until you realise there’s no reason to believe this is what a baby’s experience is like. It was obvious to me that our son was neither a dog nor a miniature adult, yet each analogy had its appeal. If he wasn’t trainable at all, why were we agonising about the right way to do any of this in the first place? And if being inside his head wasn’t at least a little similar to being inside mine, why did the idea of letting him cry trouble me?
Eventually, around six months, after agonising over the question for several weeks, we decided to try sleep training. We re-read the relevant chapters, assembled the alcohol we planned to use to suppress our instinct to intervene during the inevitable hours of screaming that the books foretold – and steeled ourselves to feel like monstrous parents. But more strangeness was in store: the baby cried mildly for about four minutes, slept for 10 hours, and woke in a buoyant mood. I spent much of the night awake, convinced something must be terribly wrong. None of the books had suggested this turn of events; my son appeared to be following an entirely different manual of instructions.
People have been dispensing baby-rearing guidance in written form almost since the beginning of writing, and it is a storehouse of absurd advice, testifying to the truth that babies have always been a source of bafflement. New mothers have been advised to smear their newborns daily in butter or lard, or to ensure that they were always put to sleep facing due north. In one 1920 book by a team of eugenicists, unearthed by the writer Therese O’Neill for an essay in the Atlantic, pregnant women are told to “avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease”. Whiskey and even morphine were frequently recommended as solutions to the pain of teething.
The genre expanded greatly during the 19th century, as urbanisation and industrialisation broke apart the extended families through which advice had previously been communicated, from grandmothers, mothers, and aunts – and as male paediatricians, who were starting to preside over a field traditionally dominated by midwives, sought to burnish their authority with parenting systems bearing the hallmarks of modern science. Today, their advice seems horrifyingly chilly: mothers and fathers alike were standardly exhorted to pick up their babies as infrequently as possible, to resist the urge to play with them, and to refrain from kissing them. Yet with child mortality so high – in 1900, 30% of deaths in the US were under-fives – this advice embodied a bleak wisdom. Less physical contact meant less chance of communicating dangerous diseases, and there was a psychological rationale for not getting too emotionally invested in any one child.
Child mortality began to decline precipitously from the turn of the century, and with it, the life-or-death justification for this kind of advice. But the result was not a new generation of experts urging parents to relax, on the grounds that everything would probably be fine. (Books informed by 20th-century psychoanalysis, such as those by Benjamin Spock and Donald Winnicott, would later advise a far less rigid approach, arguing that a “good enough mother”, who didn’t always follow the rules perfectly, was perhaps even better than one who did, since that helped babies gradually to learn to tolerate frustration. But they were still half a century away.)
Instead, the anxiety that had formerly attached itself to the risk of a child dying took a more modern form: the fear that a baby reared with too much indulgence might grow up “coddled”, unfit for the new era of high technology and increasing economic competition; or even, as at least one American paediatrician warned, ripe for conversion to socialism. “When you are tempted to pet your child,” wrote the psychologist John Watson in 1928, in his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which was hardly idiosyncratic for its time, “remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter’s vocational future and their chances for marital happiness.”
Thus began the transformation that would culminate in the contemporary baby-advice industry. With every passing year, there was less and less to worry about: in the developed world today, by any meaningful historical yardstick, your baby will almost certainly be fine, and if it isn’t, that will almost certainly be due to factors entirely beyond your control. Yet the anxiety remains – perhaps for no other reason than that becoming a parent is an inherently anxiety-inducing experience; or perhaps because modern life induces so much anxiety for other reasons, which we then project upon our babies. And so baby manuals became more and more fixated on questions that would have struck any 19th-century parent as trivial, such as for precisely how many minutes it’s acceptable to let babies cry; or how the shape of a pacifier might affect the alignment of their teeth; or whether their lifelong health might be damaged by traces of chemicals in the plastics used to make their bowls and spoons.
Perhaps it was inevitable that this process, made possible by the advance of medicine, should end with a crop of parenting philosophies rooted in the passionate conviction that the era of modern science and technology has led us astray. Before the baby arrived, I’d had the luxury of avoiding debates over parenting styles, and no sense of how vicious they could get; but now I felt I had no option but to plunge into the controversy over “attachment parenting”, the most extreme expression of the doctrine of the Natural Parents. After all, what if we ought to be doing it?
Admittedly, the story of its origins inspired little confidence. In the 1950s, I learned, a part-time model from Manhattan named Jean Liedloff met a beguiling European aristocrat who persuaded her to accompany him on a trip to Venezuela in search of diamonds. Instead, Liedloff had become entranced by the Ye’kuana tribespeople of the Venezuelan rainforest. Ye’kuana mothers, she found, carried their babies against their bodies, virtually without interruption, and these babies, she claimed later, were “uniformly well-behaved: never fought, were never punished, [and] always obeyed happily and instantly”. Far from “needing peace and quiet to go to sleep, [they] snoozed blissfully whenever they were tired, while the men, women, or children carrying them danced, walked, shouted, or paddled canoes”. By contrast, she lamented, westerners had learned “to overrule our natural response and follow the going fashion dictated by babycare ‘experts’.”
Not for the last time in the history of the baby advice industry, Liedloff turned her disdain for parenting experts into a successful career as one, publishing a 1975 book, The Continuum Concept, which urged American and European parents to embrace the laid-back ways of the Ye’kuana. It sold healthily, but its greatest effect was undoubtedly in the influence it had on William Sears, a devout Christian paediatrician from Illinois who incorporated its message into his own childcare philosophy, coining the term “attachment parenting” and achieving breakthrough success in 1992 with The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know about Your Baby from Birth to Age Two, written with his wife, Martha. In it, they urge parents to shun experts and reconnect with their deepest instincts – provided, of course, that these instincts coincide with the Searses’ prescriptions. These include near-constant “baby-wearing”, sharing a bed with your baby, and round-the-clock breastfeeding until age two or beyond. This, they wrote, was “the way that parents for centuries have taken care of babies, until childcare advisers came on the scene and led parents to follow books instead of their babies”. (William and Martha Sears, and their paediatrician sons James, Robert and Peter, have now published more than 30 books between them.)
It isn’t difficult, even when you’ve been up since midnight with a restless four-month-old, to see that there may be some logical flaws in this approach. Why assume that childcare practices that predate modernity are inherently superior? Even if they were, why assume they still would be when transplanted into an environment for which they were not designed? Isn’t there something deeply condescending in the implication that contemporary Venezuelan tribespeople are closer to “human nature” than those of us with better access to cutting-edge medicine – which is, after all, no less a product of our evolved human brains? And isn’t it possible that people dwelling in the rainforest spurn strollers in favour of baby slings just because they lack paved roads?
Attachment parenting plays on a theme familiar in self-help: the idea that you should reject outside expertise in favour of your own instincts and inner resources – except in the case of the guru offering this advice, who demands your obedience to his or her expertise. Apart from being disingenuous, this fails to quell anxiety anyway. Attempting to care for an infant in accordance with one’s instincts isn’t automatically more relaxing than trying to make them comply with a schedule, since you’re liable to find yourself constantly questioning whether or not you’re following your instincts faithfully enough.
“As a scholar, I consider this kind of worshipful but patronising attitude toward indigenous peoples a serious error,” the American academic Cynthia Eller has written. And “as a parent, I resent having to measure my civilised, bookish, awkward approach to mothering against the supposedly effortless, natural perfection of ‘simpler’ women the world over … especially when these ‘simpler’ and more ‘natural’ women don’t actually exist.” For every indigenous tribe where babies purportedly never cry, she points out, there is another, such as the Munduruku of the Brazilian rainforest, who also carry their infants everywhere, yet whose children, to quote the anthropologists Yolanda and Robert Murphy, “do not have happy dispositions, and there is a heavy frequency of chronic crying and emotional upsets”.
The Searses, in any case, have another agenda: they have described attachment parenting as “the way God designed us to care for babies”. Many critics have pointed out that strict adherence to their advice is essentially impossible for mothers with jobs – which sends an implicit message that a working mother is not a good one. Advice literature is usually read by people looking to assuage their worries – but it might be better understood as an expression of an author’s anxieties about the ways society is changing.
Insofar as there is any main way in which “parents for centuries have taken care of babies”, the truth seems to be that for most of human history, they were largely ignored, until they were old enough to begin contributing to the survival of household or tribe. The really significant divide in approaches to parenting, according to the anthropologist David Lancy, isn’t between Baby Trainers and Natural Parents, or any similar disagreement about how to pay attention to your infant; it’s about whether to pay much attention at all. For much of history, and in many tribal societies today, he writes, young children have been viewed as “hardy plants that needed little close attention”.
In the cultures Lancy has labelled “pick when ripe”, babies are largely left to entertain themselves; it’s only in those he calls “pick when green”, such as ours, that they’re the centre of attention from day one. This is a relatively recent phenomenon: Lancy dates the emergence of what he wryly calls our “neontocracy” – a society organised around the interests of the youngest – to the emergence of the middle class in 17th-century Holland, which led Europe in urbanisation, the growth of commerce, and the liberalisation of culture, including towards children: “Among the growing [Dutch] middle class, children were no longer viewed merely as chattel but as having inherent value.” You need disposable income, and time, even to have the option of treating small children as valuable not only for the contribution they may one day make, but for what they already are.
“The promise of [the contemporary concept of] parenting is that there is some set of techniques, some particular expertise, that parents could acquire that would help them accomplish the goal of shaping their children’s lives,” writes psychologist Alison Gopnik. That this should be their goal in the first place is itself a recent development; parents in an earlier era would have been unlikely to imagine they had such power over a child’s future personality. But in any case, the problem with this is hiding in plain sight: if there were a secret to raising happy or successful children, children whose parents didn’t know the secret wouldn’t end up happy or successful. Yet almost every human in history has been raised without the insights of almost every book of parenting advice ever published.
The anthropological literature is littered with contemporary examples of baby-rearing practices that would appal both Baby Trainers and Natural Parents: among the Hausa-Fulani of west Africa, for example, there is a taboo against mothers making eye contact with their children; the Swazi of southern Africa sometimes don’t even name a baby until it is several months old. Yet most children raised that way – presumably also like most of those babies smothered with butter or lard – turn out fine. It’s hard not to think of the search for the right techniques as a fuss over nothing – or, more to the point, the cause of added anxiety we’re at risk of transmitting to our children.
Our mistake, Gopnik argues, isn’t one of employing the wrong techniques, but of thinking in terms of techniques at all – in imagining that anything as complex as a relationship between humans could be reduced to a set of consciously manipulable variables. That’s an alluring thought, and one it might be natural to believe given how we’ve succeeded in using science and technology to control so much in our lives. But it’s for good reason that Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, the pioneering psychologists who studied the basis of “secure attachment” in children, made barely any mention of specific practices such as breastfeeding, baby-wearing or co-sleeping; secure attachment, they concluded, didn’t result from the use of any such techniques, but from the overall quality of relationship between infants and parents who were “fairly consistently available” to them, attuned to their children’s emotions at least some of the time and – notwithstanding inevitable moments of inattention or irritability – basically loving. (“Attachment parenting” perpetuates a confusion by taking “attachment” to mean physical attachment to one’s baby, when a critical dimension of secure attachment, in Ainsworth and Bowlby’s sense, is the child’s ability to withstand the absence of the parent. There remains no body of scientific evidence to suggest that the specific techniques of attachment parenting make secure attachment more likely.)
“It is very difficult to find any reliable, empirical relation between the small variations in what parents do – the variations that are the focus of parenting [advice] – and the resulting adult traits of their children,” Gopnik writes in her recent book The Gardener and the Carpenter. “There is very little evidence that conscious decisions about co-sleeping or not, letting your children ‘cry it out’ or holding them till they fall asleep, or forcing them to do extra homework or letting them play have reliable and predictable long-term effects on who those children become. From an empirical perspective, parenting is a mug’s game.” Her book’s title refers to the shift in mindset she advocates: we ought to stop thinking of children as construction projects, and instead think of ourselves as gardeners, providing a secure and stable environment in which our children will prove remarkably capable of raising themselves.
Last year, Amy Brown, a health researcher at Swansea University, conducted a study involving 354 new mothers, examining their use of parenting books “that encourage parents to try to put their babies into strict sleeping and feeding routines” – the manuals of the Baby Trainers. The more such books a mother read, Brown found, the more depressive symptoms and the lower self-confidence she reported. This isn’t surprising: rules create expectations from which a baby will almost inevitably diverge, triggering stress. (As the psychotherapist Naomi Stadlen has argued, rule-following also has the effect of making childcare more boring: the more you’re focused on the rules, the less you’re focused on getting to know your specific baby.) But the advice of the Natural Parents is hardly any better: their techniques are still techniques, with the added complication that you don’t even have a yardstick by which to judge if you’re implementing them properly.
But when I think hard about it, I’m not sure it’s truly possible to live according to Gopnik’s technique-free philosophy, either. It may be a matter of fact that I lack the influence I imagine myself to have over my son’s life, but it still feels as if I do. And whether or not they really matter, choices must be made: whether to call the doctor about that rash; when to start looking into pre-school; whether to try to make him read picture-books when he’d rather be playing with dustballs under the sofa. This, I suspect, may be the lasting lesson of the baby advice books that now sit largely unconsulted at the back of our flat. They failed to deliver on their promise to reveal the one right way to do things. Then again, they provided no firm reason to conclude it would be impossible to find the right way. Perhaps what you really learn from baby books is one important aspect of the predicament of parenthood: that while there might indeed be one right way to do things, you will never get to find out what it is.