Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ineffable Infancy

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.


Amy said...

Amanda, I agree w/ Magda Gerber. Back when Millie and Holden were wee I had such a loss of control over every aspect of their arrival. When they were discharged from the hospital after 3 months, I had this idea that I was in charge and our home would run like a well oiled machine. Poor MS & HIP cried a LOT. I was young and thought I knew it all. Now I know better.I know NOTHING. Angus cries so little right now that things are okay... but I do think that a little cry won't hurt anyone. I read an interesting article once in Brainchild magazine that Americans( as a rule) don't like any kind of conflict... and exhibit this profoundly in their parenting styles. As it makes the parent uncomfortable to hear their child upset... they hush away the sound and get back to business. The article argued that Americans should simply say to their children, " I understand that you are upset/crying/happy and the like... and would you like to talk about why you are feeling this way?" Obviously this works better with bigger kids,( Millie and Holden really respond to this reaction)but I have noticed that even with Gus who is just shy of 2 weeks old... when he is really flustered if I talk very quietly to him explaining that I know he is upset... I guess the sound of my voice settles him from a howler monkey down to a quiet whine. I never want to hush him.. just let him know that he is not alone. Call me what you will... I don;t think I fit a category.. but I find that just reassuring them that you are there is reassuring enough. Am I crazy? Does this stream of consiouness make any sense??

Mama C-ta said...

First want to say love your site. I came here by way of the fabulous Amy P. She knew I'd love it especially since my husband and I would love for Julian to go to Montessori someday.

Amy has a great point, I actually agree although I don't follow through if that makes sense. I don't want to hush my child, I would like him to express what he's feeling. I want him to know he's not alone, he can express himself, I'll try to remedy the situation for him but then I find myself shushing him. Not for my sake for his which may or may not be the best choice. I don't do it solely so I can go about my business in peace or anything.

But this part "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" is a bunch of crapola to me. I feel babies cry b/c they have a need..if my baby is crying b/c he happens to be bored and I get down on the floor and dangle a toy in front of him and he stops crying, did I meet his needs or did I distract him from crying only to land him in Primal Scream therapy?? I don't doubt my kid will end up in therapy someday ;) but I doubt that will be the reason. I go w/my instincts and whatever my initial reaction is. I rather be the reason my kid is in therapy than b/c I listend to some jerk off making money from a book :)

testdriver said...

Amy, I think you might have given me that issue of Brainchild. Is it the one with the French parents who can't believe American goofy parenting? Anyway, that story dealt with this, too. I have to admit that I tend to come down on Gerber's side, too, rather than the "pipe down" method. I think kids, even babies are entitled to feel how they feel, and further, that everyone has to own their feelings. Shielding kids from unpleasant feelings is a losing battle for sure, especially as they get bigger. It's just that I love, LOVE to hear people's extrapolations on the experience of newborn babies, which to me, seems a little like speculating on the experience of being dead, but with greater potential consequences. The only people who really know--aren't telling :-)

Mama c-ta, I think yours is absolutely the only logical answer there is. No wonder it's every theorist's caveat...go with your gut.