Yesterday, I posted an excerpt from Nicholas Day’s new book, Baby Meets World. If you missed it, check it out to learn how modern hunter-gatherer societies raise children, and how that task is supported by not just by hard-working mothers but the entire culture. It’s good stuff.
After reading his book, I had lots of questions for author Nicholas Day. Today, I bring you our conversation about his book and on the roles of science, culture, and instinct in parenting.
Alice: Becoming a parent changes all of us. What was it about your particular transition to fatherhood that made you want to research and write this book, to dive into the history and the science of parenting in a way that extended beyond your own reality of parenting?
Nicholas: In a way, I think it was the part of me that wasn’t changed that led to this book: I had stupid questions about babies in the same way I have stupid questions about everything else. (It’s a personality flaw.) I didn’t see why I had to think of babies as simply problems to be solved. Most baby books have what I think of as the leaky faucet approach: if your baby is dripping, we recommend this socket wrench. And there were many, many times when all I wanted was that socket wrench. But I also thought babies were interesting subjects all on their own. I wanted a book that acknowledged that. And I wanted a book that was wide-angled. The study of infancy is highly compartmentalized: the different disciplines don’t talk to each other. The few good books about babies tend to be highly focused: they look at babies through the lens of a cognitive scientist, say, or a developmental psychologist. But there are so many lenses out there! It seemed a shame to only see a baby as like this or like that. There’s so much left outside the frame. So this book tries to show readers the many different versions of a baby that people have seen—and still see today.
It’s strange. You wouldn’t think that babies would be an obscure subject: they are everywhere. (In our highly fertile neighborhood, I sometimes feel like Hitchcock’s The Birds is being reenacted—but this time with babies.) But they’ve been weirdly neglected. This is sort of hard to believe: any book about babies has to clear the high hurdle of being another damn book about babies. (Right? Like that’s what we need. Also, we totally need more diet books.) But I concluded that we really did need that. Babies are still strangers in our midst.
Alice: Your book focuses on four basic facts of infancy: “suck, smile, touch, toddle.” How did you choose these topics? Why not “eat, sleep, poop, cry,” for example?
Nicholas: I joke about this at the end of the book—that there’s so much going on in infancy I could easily have chosen spitting, shitting, screaming, sharing.
Part of why I went with these topics was that I actually wanted answers about them: I really wanted to know where a smile comes from and what a first smile might mean, for example. But I also thought these subjects had been overlooked. There’s been an enormous amount written on sleep, for very obvious reasons: any new parent is obsessed with sleep. But there’s very little written about smiling or walking. It’s the leaky faucet problem: because a smile can’t be fixed, no one writes about it.
Alice: Your book is not at all intended to be a parenting advice book. It fact, it reads at times like a history of bad parenting advice. There are examples of medical authorities being horribly wrong in the advice that they gave to parents (such as the idea that newborns and sick babies should have little contact with their parents, to prevent the spread of germs). In hindsight, we can say that these crazy ideas were based more on opinion and personal theories than on any data. But after doing your research, what do you think is the role of science and medicine in guiding parents today?
Nicholas: This is a very hard question—I struggle with it even after writing the book. (I also have a soon-to-be-published piece about this in Motherlode over at the Times, and I don’t want to scoop myself.) It may seem like a cop out to quote you here! But I want to anyway—and don’t you dare delete it out of modesty—because I think your “what evidence-based parenting means to me” post is very sensible and nuanced in a way that discussions of science in parenting rarely are. You write:
“It is an attempt to understand the questions as well as the answers. It isn’t a search for the One Right Way so much as it is a quest to understand the variation, complexity, and bias inherent to real life. After all, no scientist will tell you that their research has answered all the questions; instead, they know that every new experiment uncovers both new knowledge and new questions. To me, it is this spirit of curiosity that defines evidence-based parenting.”
That’s wonderfully restrained. I rarely see that sort of humility in how people talk about the role of science in guiding parents, and I think this blog is a model for how to write about science and parenting: cautiously, rigorously, with a keen eye for the limitations of the research and an awareness of the role of culture. And a distaste for ringing pronouncements.
[Alice is totally blushing now.]
Nicholas: I’d add a caveat to your statement that no scientist will tell you that their research has answered all the questions. This is true. But scientists are often so deeply immersed in their work that they lose perspective. That’s not a bad thing: if you study something, you’d better believe that it is important. But it means that they are highly unreliable guides to the overall terrain. If you ask a geologist to lead you out of the wilderness, you’re going to hear an awful lot about rocks.
Parenting is a dizzyingly complex ecosystem: reducing it to single variables and then pronouncing on their rightness or wrongness, their goodness or badness, is really, really hard. Something is always being left out. The science has never been better, as you say, and the new evidence-based parenting promises a lot: for many years we have been told that “science” says things that science doesn’t actually say—and finally people are pointing this out. But we should be cautious about how much we think we know; we should be less certain about our certainties.
The promise and peril of science is that it can convince us that some things we feel are wrong are actually right. The power to convince someone against his or her better judgment is an awesome power.
Alice: Sometimes I think that modern Western parents are uniquely worried about parenting. We don’t feel like we have a strong parenting culture to guide us, so we’re all struggling to define our own philosophies about raising children. After your research on parenting through history and across cultures, do you think we really have it harder? Or are we just another in a long line of generations of parents full of angst?
Nicholas: My rough answer to this is twofold:
1) Most Western parents have lives that are easier, materially speaking, so to counterbalance that we’ve decided to make parenting harder. I’m halfway serious: the angst expands to fill the available space. We’re also around our children less, so we worry more about getting the most out of the time we have.
2) We live in a fractured age: at no point in human history has anyone had as many parenting choices as we have now. I think a lot of those choices are actually the illusion of choice—that we’re more influenced by the dominant culture, and less free to discard it, than we might believe—but there are still many real choices every parent is faced with. In a way, that’s what this blog is about: you’re trying to sort through, in an evidence-based way, all these choices. And that’s why this blog is so useful: we’re all paralyzed by these choices. There are too many yogurt brands in the yogurt case.
As I write in the book, the point of a culture, in a way, is to hand down the right answer to everyone in it: this is how you raise a baby. Many of these right answers weren’t actually right, of course. (Colostrum is semen!) But that didn’t matter. They were the answer. They kept parents from going crazy.
For us moderns, that’s no longer the case. And sometimes that’s good: the accumulation of knowledge and perspective has been hugely beneficial. (We are now pretty sure that colostrum is not semen.) But it also means that it is now a lot easier to go crazy: there are so many choices—so many potentially right answers—out there.
If you trawl through the diaries of parents past, you can certainly find lots of anxiety, lots of dread. But I think the core uncertainty that marks contemporary parenting is relatively new. Before this point, it simply wasn’t possible. And I as write in the book, it is profoundly ironic: never has having a baby been less perilous than it is now.
Alice: Is there such a thing as instinct when it comes to raising children?
Nicholas: Only when it comes to screaming at them. (Kidding! Mostly!)
So over the years a lot of people have thought about that question, looked at the past, and answered: NO. Reading through the history of childhood, you come across very serious, very rigorous researchers whose response to the parents of the past is basically: OMG. WTF.
But I think there is. I think the parents of the past, as monstrous as they might seem, almost always had really good reasons for doing what they did. And I also think there are really good evolutionary reasons for the existence of parental instinct. That said, if you talk about the evolutionary roots of that instinct, you don’t necessarily end up in a good place. (See Sarah Hrdy’s work on the adaptive logic of infanticide.)
So I’d argue that we have a tremendously powerful instinct when it comes to raising children. But that instinct is highly malleable. My book traces, in part, the many ways that culture and science have bent and deformed that instinct. As you say up above, approximately a century ago the conventional wisdom was that touching your baby was dangerous and should be avoided. Can you imagine how that affected the parents of the time—how wracked, how inside-out they must have felt? If we have any sort of parental instinct, it is surely to touch—to hold, to squeeze—our children. Many parents surely did just that. But it is clear that many didn’t: they obeyed the authorities. They withheld their affection.
Even now it is heartbreaking to think about. And it suggests that our instinct for raising children, as powerful as it may be, may not always matter all that much.
Thank you to Nicholas for sharing his time and thoughts on these fascinating topics. Check out Baby Meets World to learn more about the culture and science of parenting. It’s a thought-provoking and entertaining read. I think you’ll enjoy it.
What do you think about our conversation? How do culture, science, and instinct come together in your parenting?