How to bring up a child has always been a contentious issue where prevailing social norms have dictated the outcome. However, Dr Benjamin Spock, through his book on child rearing, opened up vistas that were yet new and original. His death recently at the age of 94 has once again brought into focus the dilemma for parents

 

Old v/s New

ParentingCurrent medical wisdom upholds some traditional Indian practices while rejecting others

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From the moment of conception, parenting is demanding, exhilarating, exhausting, ennobling. It brings out the best in us; it highlights the worst. It is the love of the child that makes both the parents strong as well as vulnerable. They become decisive in the middle of a muddle. They are also vaguely worried about almost everything.

The knowledge about parenting was revolutionized 50 years ago in the West when Dr Benjamin Spock, who became a pediatrician inspired by his mother’s love for children, wrote Baby and Child Care, a perennial bestseller. First published at the start of the World War II baby boom in the USA, it soon became an authoritative and reliable guide for parents.

Parenting Two of his ideas that appealed to people—both regarded as radical at that time—were demand-feeding the child, and treating children with respect and dignity, instead of spanking.

Both these ideas were later blamed for paving the way for a permissive society. Dr Spock, however refuted all such charges in the sixth edition of his book, arguing: ” I’ve always advised parents to respect children, but to remember to ask for respect for themselves.”

Dr Spock also disagreed with the earlier notion of letting the child be on its own to inculcate self-reliance in him. He opposed the use of infant seats and baby pens and advocated more cuddling and physical contact between parents and child to give the baby a sense of security and create a stronger parent-child bond.

Much of this was lost on the Indian mothers, who stuck to the bonds handed down from generation to generation. But, interestingly, these norms were not much different from what Dr Spock advocated. Mothers in India have kept the child at the breast, demand-feeding it. Physical contact is also maximum in India where mothers continue to carry their children even when they can walk. However, many child psychologists point out that in India, the awareness about is inadequate. The problem becomes acute in nuclear families.

ParentingObserves Bharat Kapur, publisher of Parenting magazine: “Parenting in India is moving from the old-fashioned to the new, from strong family ties to nuclear families. Modern, educated women are looking for more information, rather than just depending upon the traditional feedback from parents and families.”

Yes, Dr Spock is welcome.

Says Rahla Khan, a doctor who has taken up journalism: ” I was alone when my twin daughters were born. Even my pediatrician didn’t tell me how to breastfeed them. Dr Spock came to my rescue.”

Komal Bedi Sohal, creative consultant with an ad agency in Calcutta, found Dr Spock invaluable when ” unwanted and usually undesirable” advice was given to her. Her 16-month-old son Varun has only six teeth. Relatives told her that he has calcium deficiency or that he is slow. ” But Dr Spock told me that this was normal,” says Komal.

” And above all,” she continues, ” since I am a working parenting, his advice on how to handle a career and a baby, on how not to spoil the child to appease your guilt, on how to spend quality instead of quantity time with your child, goes a long way.”

Radhika Malhotra, a mother of two boys, however, feels that her knowledge of parenting came mostly from home. ” I used to ask my mother for advice. I never consulted a book. Even now I don’t know who Dr Spock is.”

For Kumkum Bhandari, a journalist, bringing up her two children was a matter of instinct, complemented by her extensive reading on the subject. ” I feel that each child is different and requires different kind of parenting. I consider my children as small persons instead of thoughtless babies and try to understand their personalities and needs.” She also pooh-poohs the idea of quality time. ” I tried it when I was working, but it seemed as though we were forcing ourselves to have fun at particular times. Children want to decide when and what kind of fun they would have.”

Instinct and discrimination are both called for particularly when confronted with contradictions between the age-old notions on parenting and medical advice which often gets revised.

Take breastfeeding. In the recent past, the advertising industry helped create the myth that infant food formulas were the best substitute for mother’s milk. And because breasts are usually considered sex symbols, it was believed that nursing spoilt a woman’s figure. But new research has shown that breastfeeding not only provides the best nourishment for the baby, but also prevents infections and some diseases, besides promoting intimacy between mother and child.

Bindu P., a teacher and a mother of an eight-month-old child, didn’t need telling. She looks forward to coming back home from work and breastfeeding the child since it creates a special bond: ” The only problem I have faced is juggling my time between my child and work,” says she.

Immunization and vaccination is another contentious issue. In many western countries there is a growing movement against compulsory immunization on the ground that since the vaccines are usually animal sera, many animal viruses like SV-40, a confirmed cancer-tumor promoter, might be passed to children.

In modern India, compulsory vaccination of children is taken for granted. Predictably, Dr Spock, who is from the mainstream of medicine, supports immunization, arguing: ” In the vast majority of cases the disease is much more dangerous to many more children than the rare bad reaction.”

Dr Dwarkadas Motiwala, director, National Pediatric Center, Delhi, believes that many traditional notions on child rearing can often be harmful. ” Ghuttis or gripe water, often suggested by elders, contain steroids and opoids that may make the child sleep well but can also cause respiratory failure,” he points out. However a spokesman of Dabur, a premier ayurvedic pharmaceutical company of India, denies this: ” Dabur Janam Ghutti is purely a herbal product, hence any question of steroids and opoids can be totally ruled out.”

Dr Motiwala also advises against keeping a child on breast milk alone after three months: ” The milk has no vitamin D or iron. Hence, it is necessary to give some solids. But bottle feeding should be totally avoided.”

Dr Poonam Jain, a homeopath, agrees: ” Bottles are often not boiled or dried properly and invite fungal growth.”She prescribes Cal Phos 6x to help with teething problems.

ParentingMedication for children is another problem area at a time when the side effects of allopathic medicine are too well known. Dr Jain advises against the excessive use of antibiotics since they reduce the immunity level. Says Uma Khosla, a teacher: ” Every time my first son was ill, I gave him modern medicines. But he grew to be a weak child. Now for my second son, I go to a homeopath or vaidya, a traditional ayurvedic healer.”

Toilet training has always been a tricky subject. Dr Spock argues that it can set the stage for a lifelong habit of cleanliness and order. He suggests that a child should not be forced to sit on the potty. Instead he should be allowed to sit on it with his clothes on for a few days before actually using it. But he cautions that toilet training should begin only when the child is at least 18 to 24 months old, otherwise he may later rebel through prolonged soiling or bed-wetting. But Dr Jain disagrees: ” A child can be toilet trained when he is as young as a year old.”

The child’s emotional and behavioral responses are determined by the environment he is brought up in. It depends entirely on the kind of attention he gets from his parents, and the relationships that the husband and wife have when the child is growing up.

Dr Spock wrote that the intense materialism of the modern society has ” convinced many people that getting ahead of their work is the most important thing in life and that personal happiness should be sacrificed if necessary. Parents transmit their extreme competitiveness to their children”.