When our firstborn daughter was 6 months old, she had her parents well-trained. Or so she thought.
The end-of-the-day drill went like this: suppietime, strained fruit (yum!) and cereal and milk; then bath time, splash-splash, Mommy playing with laughing baby’s toes, Daddy singing “Itty Bitty Pretty One” while he dries baby off; then oil and powder and diaper and nightie, into the crib, night-night.
Wait a minute. Where’d everybody go? thinks she in fluent Baby. Time to let out a tremendous yell that shakes the rafters and rattles the windows, and to keep it up until those obedient giants come running back to jolly up baby, who is happy once again. Repeat as needed until too sleepy to continue, some evenings until after nine o’clock.
Two weeks of these performances convinced us that there was nothing wrong with our otherwise healthy and delightful baby, that her cries were angry cries, that she was saying, in Baby, “Let the good times keep rolling, dammit!” Baby bedtime was at seven when, after a full day of being a baby, she was tired and ready for sleep, whether she knew it or not; but she would often keep up the protests until she was cranky-tired and we had too little of the evening left to do anything but fall into bed. I was an apprentice English teacher with grading and class preparation that often spilled over into the evening, and my wife needed some quiet time after a busy day of newborn-tending. And we both needed the time together, the quiet dinners and the talks that we’d enjoyed before Baby Sarah began setting the schedule.
So we made a pact. The following night, we would follow our usual bedtime routine, we would say night-night, we would leave the door open and the hall light on, and, no matter how hard she cried, we would not go to her rescue. There was nothing wrong with her; she wasn’t in pain, she wasn’t hungry, she’d had a full day — it’s hard work being a baby — and was tired. She needed to learn to put herself to sleep.
After our routine, as happy as ever, I laid her on her back in the crib and moved away toward the door, out of her sight. She was surprised, then indignant. She let out her first howl as I went out the door. She kept it up for five minutes, then 10, showing remarkable lung power. During her brief pauses, her mother and I talked loudly to one another, so that she would know we were still nearby. The howls resumed, louder than ever. I peeked into the room to see if she was really all right. She did not look frightened, or hungry, or in pain; she looked angry. Get back in here, she was saying; I don’t want the day to end. After a half-hour that seemed much longer, the howls finally subsided, and she fell asleep.
The next night was the same, and the night after that, and the night after that. Though her pediatrician had assured us that our daughter eventually would deal with this new situation, our resolution wavered. Just as we were about to give in, her periods of indignation began to grow shorter until finally, nearly two weeks after the beginning of Project Baby Bedtime, she let out a single angry yelp and then was silent. We tiptoed to the nursery door. She was playing with her toes, watching her butterfly mobile whirl above her crib, making happy noises. Baby business. Ten minutes later, she was sound asleep. She had done it.
Child psychologists call this process “sleep training,” and are sharply divided about it: some believe that babies’ cries should be constantly dealt with, their needs fully and immediately met; others assert that being alone and falling asleep alone are important life skills that can be taught by sleep training, if done with love. Our daughter’s pediatrician believed that sleep training was an important first step toward independence. Independent this kid was, and is: She attempted to walk at 7 months, succeeded at 11 months, was reading at grade-school level before she was 5 years old, and left home at 18 to conquer the world, which she’s still doing. Her sister, given the same training (though she had a big sis to keep her company, and awake), is now pursuing a successful career on the far side of the world. Strong and independent, both of them.
So sleep training gave our daughter’s mother and me some quality couple time at the end of the day, and better sleep for us and for her — research has borne this last item out, that infants sleep better and longer when they’ve learned how to fall asleep by themselves, and how to fall back asleep without help if they wake in the night. Even more important for the course of her future life was learning that her parents had lives of their own apart from her life, that they were not completely at her disposal, a first lesson in basic respect for her parents and, by extension as she grew older, for all other people.
Respect can be taught in many ways, of course, and I know of respectful grown-ups whose parents sat with them until they fell asleep, often until they were in grade school. And children can emerge strong and independent from almost any parenting regime we inflict upon them. Yet opposition to sleep training is usually accompanied by a kind of parental micromanagement that can be suffocating for the child and must be exhausting for the parents. Horrified by our “abandonment” of our infant daughter at bedtime, a friend announced her intention to meet all of her daughter’s needs immediately and overwhelmingly, so that she would encounter no frustrations in her life and would thus be free of “hang-ups.” This sounded like a recipe for smother-mothering to me, a strategy that would produce a child unable to deal with any of the inevitable frustrations that life apart from her mother would bring. In one extreme case that I know of, this smother-parenting produced a 5-year-old who had learned to run the household by screaming for what he wanted, which always got results from his parents, and who refused, when the time came, to go to school. Why go to a place where screaming doesn’t get an immediate and overwhelming response to your every need?
This immediate and overwhelming response to a child’s needs is one of the fundamental rules of “attachment parenting,” a collection of beliefs and techniques that represent a kind of left wing of helicopter parenting. Children are needy, say its proponents, and it is the job of parents, their only job, to meet these needs. Sleeping with the child; having the child’s body in constant contact with the parent’s body, almost always the mother’s body, to the extent of wearing the child in a sling; breast-feeding the child into toddlerhood and even beyond; supervising their child’s every activity and assuring their constant happiness; all these things strengthen the bond between parent and child and will produce a secure and happy adult.
Yet as critics of attachment parenting have pointed out, children have more than needs; they have desires. They want limits set to their behavior, but within these limits they want to find out for themselves, to do for themselves, to get what they want without a parent interfering. And they constantly test those limits, to see how much freedom they can get away with, how much they want or can handle. My wife and I believed that our children needed this freedom within limits to discover what they could do and couldn’t do, what they were old enough to handle and what they weren’t, who they were and how to be who they were. They sometimes fell — our oldest daughter’s forehead was a mass of small bruises when she fell while trying to walk at 7 months — and it was hard to watch them fall, but we were there to pick them up, dust them off, encourage them to try again.
As parents, my wife and I were no innovators: We raised our children the way we had been raised, the way most of the human race was raised in the days before the two-career family. On non-schooldays and when our chores were done, we were free to roam the neighborhood unsupervised, playing sandlot baseball and football and driveway basketball, or cowboys and Indians, or tag, or hide and seek, whatever the day might bring.
We weren’t entirely unsupervised, of course; there was a stay-at-home mom in nearly every house, a face at every kitchen window, and if I misbehaved far from home I would hear about it from my mother when I came home for supper. But supervision was distant, there if we really needed it, and we were left to solve our own problems, resolve our own disputes, referee our own games, deal with our own bullies. We children had our own culture, with its games and songs and rituals, separate from the grown-up culture we were gradually learning how to participate in.
Then the world changed. Grown-up culture, with its coaches and referees and close grown-up supervision and structured activities, all but completely displaced this children’s culture. Now parents are criticized for allowing their children to play unsupervised in their own yards, are being reported to child protection agencies for letting their children walk home unattended from a playground less than a mile away. College students are calling their parents several times a day for help in dealing with problems they’re unable to solve on their own.
The kind of “free-range” parenting that my parenting-partner and I experienced and practiced seems to be making a comeback: Utah has even passed a law granting immunity from prosecution to parents who allow their children to walk to school by themselves and to play unsupervised. And I believe, or at least hope, that most children of helicopter parents will eventually learn to solve their own problems and live their own lives. Yet I feel sorry for the many children who will pass through childhood, a parent ever at their elbow, and never know childhood’s frustrations and fleeting griefs and assorted inevitable difficulties, and the satisfaction of dealing with them all by yourself.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.