Simplified Parenting for Mental Health - A Framework
A vast amount of advice about parenting is available today. Some of it is contradictory because it arises from differing ideas about the nature of the child, the objectives of childrearing and the best ways to achieve them. As a doctor, a child and family psychiatrist, a parent and a grandparent, I have for many years been interested in preventive mental health. It is important for parents and society to ask: "What understandings and what social conditions can help to make mothering and fathering rewarding, and how can we make good parenting easier, so that parents' and children's built-in potentials can blossom and mature?"
I have outlined a brief framework of understandings that may help parents towards mutually satisfying, healthy outcomes for themselves and their children, preparing them for citizenship in a contemporary democratic society.
Some "givens" of being human - your pedigree for success
From your baby's birth you are building a love relationship with a unique new person. You have a chance to be creative, and to cooperate with Nature in nurturing this relationship, which, in some form, will last for the rest of your joint lives. One day this baby may love and care for you in your old age! An essential quality of healthy love is that it promotes the wellbeing of both people in the relationship.
As a mother, you may find it helpful to realise that, whatever your personal experiences of being mothered, you are likely, genetically, to be well-equipped to mother your baby. We can be sure of this because, so far as genes influence mothering, all women (like all female mammals) have a very long pedigree in which each woman was selected specifically for success in mothering.
If you bring to mind your mother and your grandmother, and now imagine each woman before them in the line of your maternal ancestors (whether as a woman or as a baby girl), you know that over thousands of years each of them, without fail, was successful in bearing a healthy baby girl, and that each little girl grew up and did likewise. In this, every one of your maternal ancestors succeeded! Sometimes the going was hard, and if a little girl's mother died, there must have been another caring woman to adopt her.
Throughout earlier ages, with rare exceptions, mothers traditionally carried their babies, slept, worked and played with them, breastfeeding them frequently, and usually well beyond the first year of life - a "nursing couple". By the same long process, breast milk has been exquisitely and specifically matched to the varying needs of human babies. Infant feeding with milk from other mammals is very recent in our species and significantly less healthy. Your maternal ancestors did all this under conditions that were in some ways less favorable than those we have today. Yet they all succeeded, mostly within a supportive family or tribal group, and in a natural environment such as continued in many pre-industrial societies well into the 20th Century.
This long process of selection (with a different emphasis for males) refined every detail of our basic biology to best fit the kind of environment in which they lived. It follows that unless they have some disorder, women today are all generally equipped by Nature to give healthy nurture to their infants, given a facilitating environment that includes the support and companionship of others.
If we follow the same logic, we can see that babies, too, are descended from an unbroken line of ancestors who, as babies and young children, all survived because each one of them was successful in appealing to their mothers to meet their needs. As infants they did this by "rewarding" them with pleasure, joy and many satisfactions to compensate them and their fathers for the burdens of caring for them. The genes of all infants who were not successful in doing this dropped out of the human race (and the human genome). This doesn't mean that our behavior is just determined by our genes, but it does imply that healthy babies are generally well-equipped to encourage good mothering, and that this can normally be natural and satisfying, if the mother's health and her environmental conditions are supportive.
A note on maladjustment. The downside of this is that humans, like all living things, have been selected for healthy survival within a certain range of environmental conditions. If the environment changes in any way beyond what an organism can adapt to, then a mismatch results. The organism becomes stressed, or maladjusted or unhealthy. If the mismatch is too great in areas of biological importance then the organism can become extinct. Humans vary in their resilience, but this process accounts for many physical, emotional and psychological disorders. Parenting can be adversely affected by the same process, contributing to much "maladjustment" in children and young people. For babies, the outcome depends on how much the environmental changes cut across the basic biological maternal-infant mechanisms.
Five P's for balance in life as a parent. Raising children today involves both mother and father in balancing five roles: partner, playmate, parent, protector, and provider - five P's. The pressure today is all on providing, because in materialist societies this is the one from which others make the most profit. This imbalance puts the other roles under strain.
Two conflicting drives
In its essentials, parenting may be seen as helping your infant and young child to manage two basic drives which are often in conflict as the infant develops. These drives are there because they have been selected by your pedigree as valuable for success in human survival. They are the drive for self-preservation and the social drive for acceptance and love - or at least approval and cooperation - from the people in the environment. Reproductive drives come later!
First, the drive for self-preservation. This lasts throughout life. For a baby and very young child it means powerful urges saying: "my needs must come first". This is not naughtiness in an infant - it's a survival imperative. A baby's wants are much the same as its needs.
For about the first nine or ten months after birth, human babies may be seen as being in a kind of "exterior gestation", as if they are continuing their gestation outside their mothers' bodies, like kangaroos and other marsupials. But as there is no pouch, they need holding in their mothers' arms; and it has been called the "in-arms" stage of human development. This happens because their enlarging brains require them to be born at an early stage when other primates, such as chimpanzees, continue to mature safely inside the womb. As the human birth canal could not deliver a bigger brain without other design problems, Nature settled on the best compromise. So babies are very vulnerable, and depend on someone else to tend every need and discomfort.
Built-in rewards. To encourage mothers to provide the tender loving care they need, and reward them when they do, babies signal their needs and feelings from the time they are born. A mother's feelings and intuitions are Nature's guide to help her understand her baby's needs and respond appropriately. If the "nursing couple" have this responsive, playful love relationship, babies and young children can, in return, give great joy and pleasure.
Nature's rewards can grow as the child grows. Attunement, developing from birth, means detailed responsive communication, and a playful "dance" which normally develops between a mother and her baby as they fit in together. The first 9 to 12 months involve providing for basic needs through breastfeeding, holding, cuddling, carrying, and talking, playing and tuning-in responsively to the baby's signals and feelings. These interactions make important contributions to babies' rapid brain growth and overall healthy development.
How the mother and father respond to the baby affects how an infant "rewards" his or her parents, now and as their relationships develop in the future. These interactions, and sleeping close to each other at night, strengthen bonding and attachment and help the infant to feel really loved, building the foundations of later love relationships. So preparation for marriage begins at birth. Separations of an infant from mother at an early age for long enough to seriously distress the infant may set in train powerful feelings, as it threatens the basic survival attachment and can lead to emotional disturbance (see references).
Second, the drive for social acceptance and approval. Often in conflict with the self-centered "me-first" drives is the fact that human infants are innately social creatures. Since they have needs that they cannot meet, babies are dependent on the goodwill of their mothers and other people. Development involves the gradual lesson: "I can't get my needs met without the acceptance, cooperation and love of my mother, my family and other people. Therefore I must behave in ways that people who are important to me will accept".
This is a slow lesson, developing with maturation. There can be many stumbles - as with learning to walk. It cannot be rushed without disrupting the built-in potentials for it to blossom. Consider the wisdom of the father who rejected suggestions that he should smack his child for misbehavior on a social visit, by saying: "Look, she's a two-year-old! If you can't behave like a two-year-old when you're two - when can you?" Childhood is not just a means of getting adults, but an integral period of life, which is of value in its own right. There's no need to rush it!
Emotional needs. Some emotional needs of children may be summarized under five A's: affection, acceptance, attachment, appreciation and approval. From the time speech develops, I like to add a sixth - the child's need sometimes for an apology. This can help to restore a relationship when you have made a mistake. Remember - a child needs not only to be loved, but also to feel loved.
Essential parenting tasks and roles. It follows that the essential parenting roles are:
- Create a safe, caring and healthy environment, having some contact with nature, and free from emotional or physical abuse, in which the needs of mother and infant, as described above, can be met and where both can comfortably flourish, as the child's maturation occurs of its own accord. You don't have to make it happen. This requirement includes attending to the chemical environment, both externally - as in the air, home chemicals etc - and also the child's internal environment in a healthy diet - avoiding, for example, excess salt, sugar, refined carbohydrate, fat, and food additives.
- Help your child gradually balance his or her conflicting drives - the self-centered survival drives and the drives for social acceptance by the family and larger group. The essence of successful "socialization" lies in developing the child's inborn potentials for empathy and sensitivity to the needs and feelings of others, so as to develop a willingness to be considerate of the needs and feelings of others, through experiencing this within family love relationships.
If a child achieves just this, then the rest of "socialization" can fall smoothly into place. Without it, any imposed socialization may be brittle. This development is something that parents and teachers can gradually guide - but there need be no more hurry than is required for the present situation to be comfortable. A child is not a little adult!
- "Civilize" the child. A further part of parenting comes later. To live a satisfactory life as they grow up, children need to be "civilized" in the sense of being civil, and learning age-appropriate social customs and courtesies. These derive from what is considerate of other people and make for social harmony. They vary with cultures, but the basics are becoming internationalized.
Today, being "civilized" needs to include awareness of, and consideration for, the needs of our planet and its biosphere, for its sustainable integrity and biodiversity. This may involve a whole new layer of sacrificing selfish demands, for the sake of the needs of our "mother earth", and also her other creatures for whom this planet was home before we arrived. This is the sine qua non for our own survival (Latin: without which - nothing).
- Survive happily yourselves. The essential role and privilege of parents is to ensure that you survive happily and more or less satisfied, while gently supporting, loving and guiding the child in learning to balance these conflicting aspects of human life. Emotional maturity eventually requires this balance.
Mothering and fathering an infant and child is a unique creative opportunity, but this doesn't mean that you have to sacrifice yourself or give way to your children every time. It's a matter of balance, judgement, fairness and experience. As they become able to understand speech and talk, children gradually become more resilient as they grow older. There is every reason why you should make your own needs known to your children from the time they are old enough to restrain themselves and want to be helpful - because they love you.
The fruits of good mothering and early nurture are among the greatest blessings a person can have in life. In offering these to their infants, mothers and fathers are setting patterns of relationships which can be creative, mutually rewarding and last for the rest of their lives.
Babies' latent abilities to communicate in cooperative early toileting, as a corollary of a sensitive parent-infant relationship, are documented by Ingrid Bauer in her book Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene (2001). While not generally known in the West, women in many non-Western societies have evidently practiced this for centuries.
Dr. Peter S. Cook MB, ChB, FRANZCP, MRCPsych, is a retired Sydney consultant child and family psychiatrist, who writes on preventive child and family mental health.
Copyright © Peter S. Cook, Sydney, 2005.
This article may be freely reproduced in whole or in part, with acknowledgement.
Some further reading:
American Academy of Pediatrics (2005). Policy Statement on Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Pediatrics 2: 496-506. Feb 2005.
Bauer I. Diaper Free! The Gentle Wisdom of Natural Infant Hygiene. Saltspring Island, B.C. Canada: Natural Wisdom Press, 2001.
Gordon, Thomas (1970). P.E.T.: Parent Effectiveness Training. New York: Wyden, 1970. This is the text for a parent education program that teaches the principles of cooperative, communicating parent-child relationships, more particularly for children after infancy.
Hunt J. (2001) The Natural Child:Parenting From the Heart, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada.
Liedloff J. (1975) The Continuum Concept. London, Duckworth. Also London: Futura, (1976), and Revised Edition (1986), Middlesex: Penguin.
Sears W. Attachment Parenting: A Style that Works. Excerpted from Nighttime Parenting -- How to Get Your Baby and Child to Sleep. ISBN 0-912500-19-0. On www.empathicparenting.org.
Some writings by Peter Cook relevant to this topic may be seen via the website of The Natural Child at www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/.
Cook PS. Attachment and separation: what everyone should know. www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/attachment.html
Cook PS. Childrearing, culture and mental health: exploring an ethological- evolutionary perspective in child psychiatry and preventive mental health, with particular reference to two contrasting approaches to early childrearing. Medical Journal of Australia. Special Supplement 1978; 2: 3-14. www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/childrearing.html
This paper describes some of the theory underlying this present article, including a brief historical perspective.
Cook PS. Early Child Care - Infants and Nations at Risk. Melbourne, News Weekly Books. Preferably see updated 2nd printing of May 1997. Chapter 1: "The Species-normal experience for human infants - a biological and cross-cultural perspective", is on www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/ecc_ch1.html
Cook PS. Rethinking the early child care agenda. Medical Journal of Australia 1999, 170: 29-31.
Cook PS. Make mothers matter: Childcare is just that - not parenting. The Australian July 24, 2002, Sydney. Available on the archives of the website of The Australian www.theaustralian.com.au and as Mothering Matters, with references, on www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/mothering_matters.html
Cook PS. Feminism, childcare, and family mental health: have women been misled by equality feminism? byronchild, Sept-Nov 2004, p28-31. May be seen at www.naturalchild.org/peter_cook/feminism.html
Cook PS. Antenatal education for parenthood as an aspect of preventive psychiatry: some suggestions for programme content and objectives. Medical Journal of Australia 1970; 1:676-681.