One thing I noticed when I became a parent was that a lot of people who have had children wanted to give me advice. Sometimes I wanted their advice and sometimes I even sought it out, but most of the time I didn’t. I should quickly add that this unwanted advice came from strangers not from family who were wonderfully supportive and caring of Eleanor and her nervous parents.
Being a first time parent I was particularly vulnerable to the advice of others as I didn’t have a damn idea what I was doing, and what I was doing seemed very important. Being confronted with a living being that is utterly dependent on you is, well, quite confronting, as are those first nappies, feeding times, etc, baths, etc…. At first it seems a great boon that there are so many people who are willing to tell you how to do something, and then it seems like a curse. Once I had survived the first few months of self doubt and crippling insecurity as a dad I began to realise that raising a baby was essentially quite straightforward (please notice that I didn’t say easy). A baby needs sleep, and warmth, and food, and baths and love. I think that’s about it (aside from nappy changes). The only people screwing this simplicity up are the experts. It doesn’t matter whether they are experts because they had five kids, or because they wrote a book about childcare, they are still messing up something simple, and this is what began to annoy me so much as I read the story of Truby King.
Truby King established himself internationally as an expert on raising children. He founded an organisation called Plunket (which thankfully bears little resemblance to its original form today). He had his face on a stamp, had a state funeral and was granted permission to be buried on private land. Quite recently he was in a book by Joseph Romanos about famous New Zealanders. And yet, increasingly, I have the feeling that he was a self-righteous prig who felt not only no shame, but an actual compulsion to tell mothers off. His advice is sometimes sound, often it is laughable, occasionally it is offensive.
While you read this please consider that Dr. King had no children of his own. In his late forties he and his wife adopted a girl. This was their solitary experience of being parents.
Every baby responds to wise sensible mothering, the reverse of capricious, fussy, anxious, over-stimulation, and meddling which too often usurp the place of the real thing nowadays, and may even do more harm than comparative indifference or even neglect…. Nervous and mental wrecks too frequently owe the origin of their disorder to want of repose in early infancy, due to injudicious stimulation. In this connection let it be understood that all evidences of mental precocity, called “smartness” should be regarded as danger signals, and call for repression rather than encouragement.
Here we have learned that an anxious mother is worse than a neglectful one, and that a precocious child must be repressed. One of the things that particularly offends me about King is his tone towards mothers.
Nature has specially marked out the first twelve months of life as the appointed time, for growing the body and even more emphatically for growing the brain of the human being. If the mother fritters away this one golden opportunity instead of making the most of it and doing the best possible for her baby, no after care can make up for her mistakes and neglect.
So you better get it right! Remember that Dr. King was well known as the boss of Seacliff, the country’s largest mental institution, and would have been considered an expert on mental health. Throughout his book on childcare there is a disturbing sub-text concerning mental illness. It is a sub-text that implies than failed citizens, the immoral and the deranged in society can be blamed on bad mothers.
Such children [children who won’t eat their crusts] merely exemplify the ineptitude of their parents – parents too sentimental, weakly emotional, careless or indifferent to fufill the primary laws of Nature.
This kind of talk makes me angry. I am not angry because of the advise itself which is consigned to the stack room of the Wellington Public Library, I am angry because Truby King still seems to maintain a very high, slightly saintly reputation in New Zealand when he strikes me as a misinformed, over-opinionated misogynist. Of course I am not really angry. To be really angry about this would be silly. After all Dr. King and the authority of his views have long since passed, but still, I do feel a residual resentment on behalf of all those parents who were made to feel inadequate and small by King and his acylotes for the forty or so years when his views held sway.
But we are not free of it; this double-edged blade of the expert opinion. Of course we need doctors and their advice is usually sound and useful. This makes it even harder to tell when they’re wrong. When Eleanor was a very new baby she had three injections for meningococcal. It was horrible for her because each time she was injected she couldn’t understand what had happened. One minute she was safe in daddy’s arms and the next there was this horrible sharp pain in her thigh. It was the first time I had seen a face crumple into tears. We did it though and steadfastly followed the course of three injections because we were told that it was the best thing to do; that the Ministry of Health advised it. We were given pamphlets. The pamphlets were friendly and useful, and quietly implied that you would be a pretty poor sort of a parent if you didn’t get your baby immunised. The Ministry of Health is running a very similar campaign right now for a vaccine against cervical cancer.
I think it was in November or December of last year that a small piece in the news announced that the meningococcal immunisation programme was being discontinued because the vaccine had been found to be almost entirely useless.