|When our children are young, we hold their lives in
our hands. This is a serious charge. It changes us. As our children
grow older, however, we begin to put ourselves in their hands. And
when we do, we are glad that the history we share is so deep.
I took a road trip recently with three of my kids to visit my son,
who is a whitewater river rafting guide for the summer. I knew as soon
as my son told me he was going to be a guide that I would have to go
on the river and face my fear of the rapids.
It was not the first time that parenthood has pushed me to go
beyond a limited sense of myself I've previously put myself in my
children's hands for other adventures. I believe my son if he tell me,
"It's all good, Mom." I know that I am truly accommodated,
that my weakness is tolerated, and that my fears are responded to with
My son, on the other hand, is friends with fear. He likes to
snowboard fast down frozen water in the winter and raft down
fast-moving water in the summer. As a one year old, he would lie with
his ear to the floor and listen to the water as it rushed down the
drain beneath the toilet. As he listened, he said his first word,
Chine! Chine!, short for machine. His first love was a lawn mower. He
walked at about the same age and never minded failing. This was also
the baby who spent the first six months of his life either in arms or
in the red Snugli baby carrier. He was very dependent before he became
This was a baby who liked contact, who demanded contact, who wanted
always to be in touch, who in every way is a very physical person. We
are often impatient with babies because they are so physical. The
popular media suggests we have to train our babies to control
themselves, to be independent, to sleep, and to obey, as if these were
not things that had intrinsic value and would be learned naturally, as
a matter of course, in human society.
How dangerous for our society that we distrust the very behavior
that is the most necessary for human survival. It is those babies who
demand to be attached who are the most evolved. And it is the most
securely attached babies who will have the best chance to be the most
resilient adults. Resiliency comes from having internalized the
functions of an empathic mother and father.
There is an inherent order in the nature of things, despite tests
of those who suggest that babies must be taught basic human instincts
and made compliant for the convenience of adults. Nature never
contradicts itself, and we can look to nature when we are confused
about how to respond to our children or about making difficult
Parents are faced with a myriad of decisions, and we are often torn
between the advice of the experts and our own inner voice. We
sometimes think that there must be an answer outside of ourselves,
that we can counter the anxiety of being totally responsible for
another human being by comforting ourselves with some
"dependable" solution. And while there are tried-and-true
solutions that parents have shared with each other from time
immemorial, it is really much simpler than that.
Today, or in any age, there is really only one decision that
underlies all other decisions concerning our children. This decision
is whether we will choose love or fear; whether we will accept or
resist the situations that happen with our children; whether we will
choose to cooperate or to be adversarial with our children; and
whether we will, see them as our equals or wield authority over them.
These are the qualities that form the underbelly of our parenting
decisions and the underpinnings of all actions that we take.
Sometimes we react with fear and authority inappropriately when we
are worried about our own self-image. At other times, we choose fear
and authority because of legitimate concerns over immoral, illegal, or
unsafe behavior. How we make our parenting decisions underscores what
we believe about human beings, about human nature, about the nature of
the child. Is' there inherent order and purpose in our child's
development, or must we as parents bring this order and purpose to our
It's funny, in a way, that we have so much trouble trusting our
loved ones. Every day we walk into rooms and buildings built by
strangers we'll never see and don't give a second thought to their
inherent integrity. We drive on highways with strangers, highways
built by other strangers, and daily we entrust our lives to them all.
Children are an easy excuse to indulge fear.
Our bodies have autonomic nervous systems whose functions are
automatic. They are not voluntary. This means that for the really
important things, nature has hardwired a system that cannot be
disrupted except under extraordinary circumstances. We cannot stop our
breathing no matter how hard we try without extraordinary devices. If
we hold our breath, we will simply pass out. We cannot will our heart
to stop, nor can we touch or hurt our heart without extraordinary
means. Nature never leaves the really important things to chance. What
is the source of our breathing and our heart rate? It's a mystery that
we trust every moment.
The English word trust comes from the Scandinavian for
"faithful, full of faith." To trust ourselves is to be true
to ourselves. Faith is, in itself, a leap. Our faith is not based on
evidence but exists regardless of the evidence. Faith is not a
conclusion, but an affirmation. We can have faith in ourselves as
parents, in our unique challenges and decisions, because we have faith
in our children as accurate barometers of the biological imperative.
Our children are born hardwired for survival. Their needs and wants
are the same. They know what they need, and they demand it. In
hunter-gatherer societies, being in the arms of the mother meant that
the infant was safe from the tiger. In modern times, being held in
another's arms still means survival. The single most important factor
responsible for an infant's normal mental and social development is
physical holding and carrying. Infants need to be in arms. They know
it, and they let us know it.
Current fashions and customs conspire against these natural and
necessary needs of human infants. Devices such as the plastic infant
carrying tray, pacifiers, cribs, and bottles are ways to distance
ourselves from our babies, to gain a respite from the intimacy they
require for full human development. Trends in perceiving the life of
the home as servitude and drudgery, as well as lack of economic
support for the family, also conspire to separate us from our loved
ones, as these trends quite literally put physical distance between
Human infants don't like physical distance. They like constant
physical contact. They expect it. They need it. And they're totally
content when they have it. But how do we learn to surrender to this
fierce need when others warn us that we must teach our infants to
sleep, to be independent-and certainly not spoil them?
It's ridiculous to think that nature would leave a function as
important as sleep to foolish parents, some of whom would look at each
other on their child's eighth birthday and exclaim, "Oh, honey,
we forgot to teach Little Cindy to sleep!" Sleep is a need, not a
habit. It an instinct. It takes care of itself because in nature, all
essential functions take care of themselves.
Holding and carrying infants also take care of themselves because
nature gives babies such endearing qualities that they are
irresistible.,, Responding to their inherent needs develops qualities
necessary for our survival as adults, qualities like consciousness,
patience, generosity, kindness, and bravery. In Darwin's original
writings, "survival of the fittest" refers to those
individuals and societies who are the most sympathetic. A sympathetic
culture has the attributes necessary for survival. Nature itself is
Infants don't only like to be held during the day, they like to be
close at night, too. That's human nature. Yet, we treat our infants
worse than we treat any other humans, or even animals. Under no
circumstances would we leave a crying adult, friend or stranger, alone
in a room without extending our condolences and offers of help. We
pride ourselves on this kind of civility. We sleep with our pets. New
puppies or kitties get to come into the bedroom if they cry.
Just as it is perfectly natural for animals to sleep together in
groups, it is perfectly natural for human infants to want to sleep
with their parents. All animal babies sleep with their mothers. Over
time, human infants teach their parents to enjoy touch again.
Our infants are hardwired to bring their discomfort to their
parent. Crying is their language. The parent is their interpreter. The
infant's sense of discomfort is nonspecific and undefined. As they
mature, they learn to differentiate sensations and associate them with
certain experiences, so that in time they can specify and name their
discomfort. This takes months, even years. Nowhere in the animal
kingdom do we see intolerance of the dependency of infancy. In all of
nature, dependency is protected and indulged.
It is obvious that dependency is feared by many adults. Many are
hungry for intimacy but afraid to surrender. Yet, life with infants is
a surrender. When we just give up and give them what they need, it
becomes so easy. It reminds me of the true meaning of the Sabbath-a
day of leaving things just as they are, not trying to change them, and
not doing anything. With infants, we are but humble servants to what
This kind of surrender has three enemies. They are fear, denial,
and control. Whenever we have trouble trusting our infants, we are
usually in the grip of one of these visitors. They always accompany
actions of deep consequence. They are the guardians who hone our
self-esteem. For it is the difficulties of being a parent that forge
us into fuller human beings, with the track records and courage to
face new difficulties.
These difficulties are better faced when we tell ourselves the
truth and see things unclouded by fear, denial, or control.
What we fear, approach it. What we deny, say it. What we control,
release it. With fear, denial, and control aside, we can see things in
our own unique and authentic way.
It is our very innocence as parents, our freshness and
inexperience, that redeem us. With each new family, nature has another
chance. Another chance for happy accidents that change the course of
history. Another chance for amateurs to do something no one else has
ever done before. Another chance for genius.
Don't listen to the experts. Forget about them unless they come
over and help you put your baby to sleep. Forget about them unless
they'll remember your baby's name in 20 years. Don't give up your
authority as a parent to people who don't know your baby as well as
you do or who don't know your baby at all.
Don't stand unmoving outside the door of a crying baby whose only
desire is to touch you. Go to your baby. Go to your baby a million
times. Demonstrate to your baby that people can be trusted, that the
environment can be trusted, that we live in a benign universe. The
crisis of the first year of life is trust or mistrust. Which will your
Someday you'll need your grown-up baby to go to you. Someday you'll
be in the hands of your baby. Will your baby protect you in the
rapids, or will he be intolerant of your fears and weaknesses, of your
The way you give to your baby now is the beginning of all that.