Ineffable Infancy: Magda Gerber and the Existential Baby
One last brain-twister regarding crying, and I promise I'll talk about something else. I re-read some sections on crying in Magda Gerber's Your Self-Confident Baby, and found a sort of black hole of the unknowable baby-mind waiting for me that I had simply overlooked before Nuvy came.
First of all, Gerber makes the rather weird assertion that, since a baby's language is crying (this is one of the few points over which she and Sears might not come to blows), a (fed, dry, etc.) baby should never be stopped from crying. Seriously. Here's the quote:
I feel a baby should never be told not to cry
or be distracted from crying, even if listening to it is difficult for the
parent. I often say to parents that if you tell your child not to cry, you'd
better set aside lots of money to send her to Primal Scream Therapy when she
grows up. People go to therapy because they no longer trust how they feel,
thinking, "I feel desperate, but maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm okay after
Now, before I had my own baby, I read this passage without even a pause to ponder how deeply crackpot this advice might sound to a parent. Nothing but red onions will bring me to tears faster than not being able to comfort (read: quiet) my sweet little shrieking baby. I have heard a lot of babies, and have not had too much difficulty keeping my head around other people's crying children, but it's against my every instinct to sit over my own child and watch her cry without doing anything. I mean, I can do it, but I almost have to breathe through it as if I were in labor again--careful not to make any "shh" breaths that might be misinterpreted as a suggestion that the baby cut short her screaming jag.
Gerber has clearly heard this argument before. She goes on:
Parents have asked me, if crying is a
child's language, isn't she telling us to do something? My
answer is, not necessarily. It's different from when a grown-up
cries. It's the baby's mode of self-expression. Since an infant
cannot talk, crying is the only way she can express her feelings or
discomfort. Babies also cry to discharge energy. They don't run and
play as older children do.
So here we have a child who is using a mode of expression that, for an adult, indicates extreme negative emotion, but Gerber seems to assert that, since the child's expression is not codified according to learned meaning, her emotional state is unknowable to us. Therefore, we should not project our adult meaning onto the gesture the child is making--one of a very limited repertoire available to a very young infant. Lets assume she's not hungry, wet, sick or injured. Perhaps some crying doesn't indicate discomfort at all. She could be expressing anything, or nothing in particular--just letting off a little steam, or maybe conducting a little linguistic experiment by testing the parent's reaction.
But then, if we posit that expression is integral to experience, and the child has only two means of expression, crying or not, does that mean the child only experiences contentment or despair, and that nuances of expression become apparent alongside nuances of experience? Well, that doesn't seem so far fetched, does it? And supposing we do accept that, does it get us anywhere?
It's easy to fall off that particular precipice in either direction. You could say that, if the child is in apparent despair, with no apparent reason, you must treat it as real despair and relieve it in any way possible, trusting that experience and expression will become more modulated with time. I would call this "Attachment Parenting" or "Searsism". Alternatively, you could say that, if the child expresses despair in a situation that doesn't seem to call for despair, you must modulate your response in order to allow the child to discover nuances of experience and expression authentically. I would call this "RIE Parenting" or "Gerberism".
Either way we get to the same place, right? Listen to your child's unintelligible signals. Once you've interpreted those signals, respond to them according to our very-well-researched model. Otherwise you run the risk of raising a very damaged individual.
Great. Thanks. I should have gone into the head-shrinking business.