To be or not to be … a parent
When I was on jury duty, we had a lot of downtime waiting on the benches outside the courtroom until our case resumed. In a previous post, I mentioned that the halls would reverberate with the anguished discussions of people involved in contentious divorces and child custody battles.
I often sat next to a fellow juror in his 50s, some sort of computer expert, married, with two children in their teens. He was a very quiet, soft-spoken and cheerful person. Clearly someone with maturity and, given the little I got to know of him, a thoughtful, kind human being.
When he found out that my field is child development, he asked me very seriously what I thought of a teenager who had severe ADHD and other behavioral problems, going to the local college, so she could be close to home. I wasn’t really sure what he wanted to know. I think community colleges are very good for many children, especially those without the grades or the financial means to go to demanding and highly selective schools. Often, for very little money and for easing the child into the college environment, two years at a local government-subsidized school can give the child time to prepare for transfer to a more strenuous program at a four year college. The curricula and instructors are often top notch at these local places.
In the course of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of College of the Canyons, this man told me that his daughter, now 18, was adopted from Romania. He seemed weary when discussing the process and the problems that unfolded as she grew up with his biological son. It was clear that he and his wife loved both their children and took pride in the accomplishments of their son who is attending college in another state. But it was also apparent from what he told me that they had no idea what they were getting into when they adopted their daughter, whom they do love equally. She does not return the affection they have lavished on her and may be autistic in addition to having other syndromes. It was sad and I was at a loss to give him any advice but, keep on doing what you think is best, showing patience and care.
He rightly fears that she will not be able to live independently, on her own. I thought about the fact that people take on both adoption and bearing their own children, without full understanding all its ramifications, both the good and perhaps the less than optimal.
Several literally painful stories over the past month about abusive and criminal parenting have prompted me to talk about this subject again. Among the extremely upsetting trends in the news lately is that there is a whole forum for people who want to get rid of their children by letting them perish in hot cars. This is what likely happened in the Casey Anthony event and again last week with a little boy in Georgia. Both his parents, if convicted, would face the death penalty. Some people have no right to have children in their care.
For hundreds, no, thousands of years, people have thought little of the importance of this role, as it has been just a matter of course that we grow up, marry and have children. What’s all the fuss? From a societal as well as personal point of view, it is the most important and difficult role anyone will ever take on.
Apparently it is also a Supremely significant issue. Just a few weeks ago the SCOTUS decided that contraception is a controversial practice that must be taken out of the hands of individuals, particularly those who are among the working poor, and be decided for the American public by four obviously partisan and un-justice-like aging men, for millions of American women.
What is being encouraged is supremely irresponsible. While I agree that actual abortion, that is, the deliberate termination of a fertilized egg — at any stage — is homicide (and I am not the one to tell any of you whether this homicide is murder, manslaughter or simply a medical procedure), contraception in all but a very few cases is simply the preventing of an unwanted pregnancy achieved by blocking an egg from dropping into the uterus.
Why would anyone in their right mind force a pregnancy on someone who doesn’t want or can’t have it? Imagine the life of an infant and child with a parent or parents who never sought or were unable to handle that responsibility. What kind of life do they have? What are the ramifications for their own adulthood and parenting roles, when raised in an atmosphere underlain by initial rejection. I can tell you anecdotally that my father’s mother told him she didn’t want most of her seven children. She felt it was her duty but had no life of her own. What can the effect of hearing that have been on my dad and his siblings?
Human beings are not animals and should not be governed by mere instinct. We have the ability to reason, be aware, and make informed decisions, using our full intellectual tool kit. Therefore, in my opinion, there is no excuse for getting pregnant and having a baby you don’t want — unless and perhaps even when you have been raped. Even then, considering the inadvertent second victim, the baby, is something that should be done deliberatively and then legislatively to protect and act fairly, if not wisely, on behalf of all parties involved. Having this philosophy would go a long way to minimizing the number of unwanted pregnancies carried to term. That was probably the initial intention of Roe vs Wade.
The information and ideas I am sharing here are not meant to be exhaustive or absolute. They are based on my training, experience, and analysis, founded as well on solid, empirical scientific research, experimental, observational and longitudinal studies included.
What is a child by definition?
Any human being from birth to their 18th birthday. Children become peri-adults at 18. Until then, they are children. They are to be treated as such, with respect at each moment, by every caregiver. They are not your ‘friends’, they are your ‘charges’ or offspring and need you to be the adult and their caring authority figure. Their peers can be their friends. And, while I am at it, be careful when any adult other than Mom and Dad, relations or not, makes overtures to them. Child molesters with emotional problems do not wear a sign and come in every form.
Who should and shouldn’t have kids?
In my opinion, and based on my training and a great deal of experience and analysis, the only people who should have children are those who spent some time looking into child development, have the financial means to give them decent food and shelter, and can arrange proper, adult, loving care for them for the entire period of zero to 18 years of age. That means, you must study the matter to know what is involved in every area of life from nutrition, to time requirements, to mental/emotional/and physical developmental health, to education requirements, to fostering productive citizenship in an increasingly crowded, complex and demanding internationally interdependent world.
That is a huge aspect of successful parenting and pitifully few people consider, much less plan for these factors. Yes, you should read, take courses — a lot of this is available online. The minute you start thinking of adult life, that is when you should start putting together a file and building your arsenal of knowledge. The time to think about this is not just when you meet someone attractive and decide you also want to have kids.
You should also take active steps to know yourself, who you are, what are your strengths and weaknesses and what having a person who is almost totally dependent upon you for 18 years will do to your ability to function and cope with life’s stresses.
If you involve another person in rearing that child — as I recommend you do, single parenthood is very hard, especially on the child, but also on the parent — you need to do extensive soul-searching with that person first, before you bring a child into your relationship. And, it goes without saying that people who have children together, whether biological or otherwise, and then divorce or separate are doing irreparable harm to that child. If you can’t commit to the duration, don’t embark on the project. Both of you. You must put yourselves second to the well-being of that child.
Am I advocating abstinence? Maybe. At the very least, self-control and two forms of birth control to guard against inadvertent pregnancy. If you are adopting — perhaps the long and complicated adoption process will help you avoid making a hasty and disastrous mistake.
When should you have them?
My recommendation is that you wait until you have a partner of some sort that will help you raise that child. The science tells us that you don’t need that partner to be a man, a woman, a husband, a boyfriend or girlfriend. It should only be another adult who makes an 18 year commitment to help you raise that child. That person would also commit to learning everything you needed to learn, per the subtopic above.
What is the right age? Well, naturally that will differ from person to person, but I would recommend waiting until after the age of 25 and not having children, whether you are male or female, after the age of 45. There is a lot of research indicating that those twenty years are the best for predicting a successful outcome for all involved, including a stable home environment with ideally two or more loving adults providing complete nurture, shelter and care for the duration. Men having children later in life raise the risk of genetic anomalies. It is now being realized that it is more the older male contribution to these abnormalities or aberrations than female.
How much space between them
The research is very clear: 3 years or more. It doesn’t matter how many more, as long as it is no fewer than 3 years. When you have them closer together than that, everyone in the house suffers, especially the older child. There is a great deal of reliable scientific evidence to support this critical number, and that evidence has been available for the past 40 or so years.
When do you consider day care?
We live in a time when at least one or more household adults must have a steady income in order to meet the minimum cost of living requirements in North America. You need to plan for how you are going to care for that child, from 0 to 18, starting before the baby is a certainty.
In my opinion, if you are the right candidate to raise a reasonably happy and healthy child to maturity, and can keep yourself and your partner happy and healthy for 18 years doing so, you need to adjust your lifestyle so that baby and child get everything they need, at a minimum, for the 18 years. That may mean doing without a fancy house, two cars, five computers and a big screen TV. Or dinners out, Starbucks, and vacations. You have to decide if you can give that up for 18 years. If you cannot, or if it will make you and others miserable and recriminating, or put much stress on the household logistics and resources, you shouldn’t be a parent. Don’t be one, until you can afford it. It is unfair to everyone to do otherwise.
You may have to find paid daycare and those costs are steep, running somewhere around $1200 per child per month in some cities. There is a lot of research involved in identifying the right, safe place for newborns who must be cared for by others until they are of school age, so that time has to be spent early on. In some cases, you need to put a child’s name on the waiting list even before s/he is born. In my opinion, putting a child under the age of 12 months in daycare is risky and undesirable, even though it may be necessary in today’s economy.
What are the most critical times in a child’s development?
The first period, of course, is pre-natal, before birth. A woman needs to learn the dos and don’t of a healthy, optimum pregnancy. The birthing experience is extremely critical, so bringing a fetus to term and having as little peri-natal trauma is also key to the child’s success.
The first three years are vital. During that time the child should have a constant, close physical relationship with his or her birth mother or primary adoptive parent. S/he should be nursed for no less than 12 months and ideally longer, when possible. The child will signal when the time comes to wean herself. Careful attention should be paid to the next beverage administered, as formula and cows-milk based ‘drinks’ are not a proper substitute for human breast milk. In fact, cow’s milk is not a drink at all, it is a food and is meant for, naturally, baby cows. Think about it.
Diet and regular visits to a carefully screened and selected pediatrician are vital. Pediatricians (as all physicians you use) should be diplomates. Diplomates have to pass rigorous testing every year to keep their status and certification. A little extra research can lead you to an excellent physician. Not all physicians are good doctors. You want one with great training, some experience, diplomate status, Board certification, and a nature that lends itself to being a healer. I could write a book on just this last point alone. Not all doctors are natural healers. Find one that is for your precious baby and child and ask questions all the time, don’t assume they have all the right answers on every subject. Physicians in this country typically know very little about nutrition, for example.
The first seven years are also important. At 7, the child’s intellect and ego are largely formed and set. This is the ideal time to encourage mental exercises, including reading and other academic pursuits. I know this sounds late, but, a destructive trend is pushing this kind of activity on babies and toddlers prematurely. I am totally against introducing computers before the age of 5, and if I had my way, based on science, I would hold off until 7 or older at the earliest. This is for all kinds of reasons too numerous to discuss here, but could be the subject of a future post. Teachers for this age group should be older and more “parent-like”, more nurturing.
Between the ages of 8 and 12, another critical developmental stage is taking place, that of the development of gender identity and sexual maturation. Disturbances to this process at this time will handicap the child in these areas for life. Again, an enormous topic for future discussion.
Between 12 and 18, if not earlier, an adolescent is developing independence from parents and far more interaction and psycho-social interest and dependency on the peer group. The teachers for this age group should be young, as teenagers will relate to non-parental seeming figures best while they undergo the complex hormonal and social changes that come with physical development during these years.
What are the most critical needs of a baby and child?
The most important thing a parent or caregiver can provide is unconditional love. That first caregiver is the biological mother ideally, but any consistent, loving adult can take that role and in many cultures it is occupied by a grandmother, aunt or even uncle. After that, proper nutrition and a stable home environment with sufficient, regular, personal attention. Therefore, spacing between children is critical so you can give each child the undivided attention they need, during the first three years (above all, but not limited to).
Stimulative, age-appropriate, non-toxic toys that you either make or buy are naturally important as well. Personally, I would stick to toys made of natural wood, rubber, cotton, etc. and stay away from plastics and metals — especially those that come from areas of the world where the toxic content is not regulated.
Age appropriate books can be introduced immediately after birth. For the youngest child, these will be teething-resistant, with simple, large, objects in stark contrast colors (make sure some bold black and white pictures are among them). It is easy to get the right books as most stores and online sites suggest the age group for which the book is intended, and much of this is common sense.
Little children do not need playmates, they need loving adults. They do not need and should not be exposed to television or computer or electronics screens. They are usually not ready for arts and crafts or crayons until the latter part of that three to four year period, and I would start with naturally dyed flat, large, beeswax crayons in primary colors, because even up to 5 years of age, lots of materials go straight into the mouth. A typical assortment in the right size for their motor abilities would be red, blue, yellow, green, purple and orange.
Let me say something else that I think is very important for a prospective parent to know and subscribe to. Children should not be exposed or introduced to the “harsh” realities of life before the appropriate age. My recommendation is that disturbing content (and we can discuss what I mean by that, but, it is like many things, when you see it, you will know it) be held back, to the extent practicable, until the age of 12 or 13. Adults mistakenly think that you need to tell children the bald and ugly truths about the world around them. No, you don’t.
They will or may encounter death, injury, sickness, and, sadly, predators. There are dozens of resources telling parents how to prepare a child for these realities in the proper way for their age and developmental stage. And when it is done, it should be done verbally, with the parent sitting close to and holding the child and explaining it. No pictures, no taking them somewhere to see it in person. No graphic depictions of violence and sexual activities. Let the child hear the information or read it (an older child) in an age appropriate book, meant for them, not adults and filter that information through their own internal vision or imagery. Graphic pictures or illustrations or worse, films and videos, bypass a child’s natural defensive and protective filters and go straight into their psyches. This is very destructive and the damage can be forever. You cannot unring that bell.
Children also need boundaries, fair, firm, affectionately dictated rules and a consistent, patient, loving approach to enforcing them. One of the worst kinds of parenting is the “hands off” approach, letting children run their own show. If you think that is rare, think again. It is much easier to leave a child to its own devices than to get involved in every aspect of raising them, from overseeing homework, to teaching them skills, to chaperoning play dates and other events. The boundaries must be reasonable, flexible to a point and then inviolate. A child will understand and appreciate the stability and security that structure provides.
At no time should any child be disciplined corporally. I had a client once who asked me what to do about his child who was hitting other children with his toys. I asked the father to describe the incidents and how he handled it. He told me he took off his belt and spanked the little boy. He did not see that his child’s behavior was a direct outgrowth of his own. Never under any circumstance strike a child. Not even a slap. That is a failed practice and terrible parenting.
So, what to do, to put this important “project” on the right track from the very start?
Know yourself, your circumstances, your partner, if any. This is not something to gamble with. I know there are many good parents who had no idea what was involved until they had kids and found a way to make it work. There are just as many who get in over their heads and everyone, especially the child, suffers as a result. The information is out there. Find out who you are and are not and make sure you can do this for the duration.
Make a checklist and a plan and review it every year or more often, and adjust it.
If you have biological time, wait as long as you can and get ready so you can devote yourself to the newcomer, having already put yourself in a stable situation.
Join a group, one that includes study and discussion, preferably, that focuses on parenting. Learn all about pregnancy and especially about the three months postpartum. You may need support to get through this difficult time, if you don’t have your own parents or helpers nearby to assist you. Those are the most stressful from a parent/caregiver point of view. If you are prepared for what is coming, even partially, it will make the many sleepless and doubtful moments bearable and the joyous ones even more vivid.
If you have never had the responsibility for caring for or being around babies and children, then I would arrange to spend time, if possible, with children of various ages. If you enjoy doing that with other people’s kids, you are far more likely to appreciate and enjoy being a good parent.
Images: bigstock, dailymail.uk