How to Discipline Babies

I disciplined my 3-month-old today. You did, too, if you have a 3-month-old. Every time I held, fed, and changed my baby, I taught her that I can be depended on to take care of her; I taught her that she was important to me. When I responded to her cries, or cooed at her smile, I taught her that what she does has the power to change things.

I didn’t punish her or reprimand her. I will, when she’s older. I’ll also teach her that she isn’t the center of the universe; that she needs to do things for herself; that she has obligations to others. I’ll do a lot of what you typically think of as “discipline.” But that comes later, and it means nothing without a foundation of love and trust, rather than rules and consequnces.

When, as a child, I learned that we don’t form permanent memories before age 3 or so, I thought that those first few years were pointless. Before we carry memories with ourselves, nothing that happens to us matters. You don’t need to be a child development expert or even a parent to know how wrong this is, of course. You just have to read those news articles about children in Romanian orphanages, or see kids who never had a chance to learn what love and nurture mean. If I died today, my daughter wouldn’t remember me at all, but she’d be deeply affected by what I did for her and to her.

Disciplining your children is important. It’s giving them what they need to develop as human beings, and it begins the day they come into your arms. Luckily, for babies it’s as simple to do as loving them and taking care of them.

One Right Thing

Dear Mom,

You screwed up a lot with us. You know how, when speaking of how we kids turned out, you sometimes wail, “Where did I go wrong?” I could give you a list. Some of these errors were rather serious. But…


Let me tell you something you did right. Something important.

You loved us. A lot. So much so that I never thought about it.

So much that when I was small, and nestled in your lap, I suddenly became sad because I thought that someday I would grow too big to snuggle like this, and I couldn’t imagine a better, safer, more wonderful feeling than being snuggled.

So much that I was a loveable and engaging child; I was friendly to everyone, because I assumed that the world was a loving and friendly place, and people responded to my happiness and security.

So much that if you’d asked me as a child if I was loved, I would have been confused in the same way that a fish would be confused if you asked it if it were wet; love was my environment, so omnipresent that I took it for granted.

It’s true–love covers a multitude of sins. I’ll be honest: I look to a lot of other people besides you to raise my children. In many areas, you provide an example of what to avoid. This is painful to say, and would be painful for you to hear. But when I think of the childhood I want my kids to have, a happy childhood full of affection and joy, I think of my own–that given to me by Dad, and by you. Thank you for this great gift.

Enjoying Most Moments

“So, are you going to miss being pregnant?” my husband would cheerily ask as I was trying not to retch, or bent double with lumbago, or dragging myself blearily through the house after a sleep punctuated with bathroom trips, restless legs syndrome, leg cramps, back pain, and insomnia. My replies ranged from a sarcastic “Oh, you bet” on a good day to a mute look of misery on a bad one. I understand some women enjoy being pregnant, and that’s wonderful; I, on the other hand, would not at all mind spending the 9-month duration in a medically induced coma. Wake me when the baby’s out, pleaseandthankyou.

Indeed, I have written before that the newborn period is much easier for me than late pregnancy; I can move! I don’t have to pee every ten minutes! Whee! I’m as light as a feather and as giddy as a schoolboy, or whatever Scrooge says at the end of A Christmas Carol!

But the postpartum period has usually also been hard, especially with my firstborn. I read in a parenting book that one should not allow one’s child to spend more than 20 minutes per day in a swing and laughed bitterly. My oldest wouldn’t tolerate more than one minute at a time in said swing. She spent most of her day in a Moby wrap, not because I was into attachment parenting but because I could not put the damned baby down without a chorus of howls louder than those in Verdi’s Dies Irae.

It’s a cliché that mothers of babies inwardly scream when well-meaning, misty-eyed old ladies coo, “It goes so fast! Enjoy every moment.” Who enjoys spending three hours awake with a fussy baby instead of sleeping nights? Who enjoys evenings filled with colicky screaming? Diaper blowouts? The inability to get much done? Maybe those people who have partners with diaper fetishes?

Still, I’m looking at my swaddled, sleeping daughter, who’s probably going to wake up and demand to be latched on for the dozenth time today as soon as I try to do anything useful, and who’s had me awake since before 5:00, and all I can think is, How is she already so big? Don’t grow up too fast, baby. I’m dreading the day she’s too big to tuck under my arm while I feed the guinea pigs, or to snooze in my lap sucking a phantom pacifier and wiggling her ears. I glance from her to my 7-year-old, who can ride a bike, make lunch, read Roald Dahl, ski, ask intelligent questions about God and cells, and tell you what an obtuse triangle is, and I realize how much I miss the days when this capable child was a screaming, incontinent blob. Some day, God willing, I’ll watch my adult children achieve great things according to their inclinations, and I’ll swell with pride; but I’ll wistfully think back to their babyhoods, too. For now, at least, I’m enjoying this one’s first weeks–not every moment, but most.

Varieties of Imagination

Perhaps it is foolish of me not to have realized the obvious, but I was surprised to learn that there are many kinds of imaginative play when I had children. I was the kind of child who loved to take characters from various books, movies, and other media and combine them all into one fantasy world, in which I was the Empress of Animaland; my Prime Minister was my teddy bear, and my coachman was the Quaker Oats guy, and I would often cross the black-and-gold sea to visit the fairies of the Neverland and the deities of Mt. Olympus.

My firstborn was very different, and for a long while I worried that she wasn’t able to engage in imaginative play at all. I then saw that, in fact, she can spend hours on it, but rather than creating the high-fantasy world of my childhood she prefers to immerse herself in relatively realistic situations, usually centering around some kind of school–regular school, flying school, magic school, Sunday school, school to learn how to be Wilders or some other made-up tribe or club or creature. She takes great delight in setting out the rules for her game and delineating the powers and limitations of its participants, making up codes and constitutions and special gestures.

My younger son enjoys pretending to be an animal or a superhero. His play is perhaps the most like mine as a child; he mashes up Marvel superheroes, Dragon Ball Z characters, and animals from various children’s book into a stew of crossover fantasies. (He shoots things a lot more than I did as a child, however.) I love hearing him loudly menacing a bad guy in the next room and providing said bad guy with dialogue.

His older brother happily follows the lead of his older sister and younger brother, and can move from one kind of imaginative play to another. He is also the only one who likes dolls (excuse me, action figures). He used to be quite the storyteller, but now seems content to participate in others’ creations rather than making his own; perhaps this is a function of his place as the middle child, aligning himself now with one sibling and now with another.

I’m fascinated to see what the baby’s imaginative play will be like when she’s old enough to start pretending. The world of the mind is such an important one to a child, and it’s lovely to learn more about it by watching my own children. Not only does it give me fond memories of my own childhood, but it expands my awareness of the different ways in which children can transform the mundane into the magical.

Bottles and Breasts

Three days after I gave birth to Kid 1, I called my obgyn. “I feel like I’m going to faint,” I said.

“How much sleep are you getting?”

“I dunno…she doesn’t sleep…she stays on my breast all the time…I think I’ve had a few hours, total.”

“You need to sleep,” said my obgyn firmly. “Pump some milk and hand off the baby.”

I nearly cried. Not a BOTTLE! What about nipple confusion? My daughter already didn’t seem to know how to breastfeed! How would she ever learn?

Well, she didn’t ever learn. I went to a lactation consultant, who suggested getting her tongue-tie fixed, but the pediatric dentist and ENT both thought it wouldn’t make a difference. But she got fed–breastmilk for 9 months, then formula. She grew quickly and thrived.

My second child never figured out breastfeeding, either, and after hours of him screaming with hunger and me screaming with bloody nipples, I gave him a bottle of formula. He sucked it down blissfully and went to sleep, and when my milk came in I pumped for him (and his sister, and a random baby whose mother asked for donor milk) for close to a year. He grew quickly and thrived.

Babies 3 and 4 got bottles of formula before my milk came in, and I pumped thereafter in order to let my husband feed the kids while I got some evening shuteye, but both got the hang of breastfeeding quite quickly and ate readily from me or from the bottle. (“Eat,” I should say for my youngest, who is a month old.) They grew quickly and thrived.

“Nipple confusion,” I think, is a boogeyman about which fables are told in breastfeeding classes. Babies who can breastfeed don’t get “confused” by the bottle; babies who cannot breastfeed get fed. Both outcomes seem to me desirable. Furthermore, I know at least four women who started their babies on bottles, then switched to breastfeeding when the babies developed well enough (or had tongue-ties released) to feed successfully.

Various well-meaning doctors and organizations discourage the use of “artificial nipples” as an impediment to breastfeeding, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that sticking something besides a boob in a baby’s mouth actually confuses the baby–especially where pacifiers are concerned. And did giving bottles to my first two children screw up their chances of learning how to breastfeed–or were they simply unable to do it? Correlation doesn’t establish causation, and it is quite plausible that so-called “nipple confusion” might simply reflect an infant’s basic difficulty in feeding from the breast. My oldest kids weren’t confused by the breast; they were frustrated and starving. They weren’t confused by the bottle; they sucked down nourishment from it.

When breastfeeding works, it is a nice, convenient mode of feeding–no prep or washing necessary, no trips to the store needed. Just pop baby on Mommy. I like it much better than pumping, and it isn’t as expensive as formula (although the extra calories I need cost money, too, and if I were giving up paid work I’d have to count the cost of my lost labor). Pumping worked fine for us. Formula works, too. And none of these methods precludes using another. The slogan “Fed is best” has become a popular answer to “breast is best,” and I support it wholeheartedly. The important part of feeding the baby is making sure that the baby is fed; breast or bottle, milk or formula, the process isn’t important. “The baby grew and thrived” is, and the less we worry about nipple confusion and the more we focus on the baby’s wellbeing the better for us all.

Edit on March 2: Aaaaand now Baby 4 won’t drink from the bottle. Sigh. Nipple confusion, my eye.

Here’s Number 4

I haven’t posted for a while. The reason for this is three weeks old, and gorgeous. She’ll wake up shortly, but before she does, a few aimless observations:

  1. I’ve really enjoyed this newborn period. Yes, there’s the sleeplessness, and a couple of days after the baby’s birth I felt some very intense freefloating anxiety such as I’ve never experienced postpartum; mostly, however, this has been a nice, relaxed time. My husband was off work and the kids off school; he took the two oldest skiing and hiking, and we had several days of family games. It helps that this one has taken to breastfeeding very easily, and on some nights sleeps a fair number of hours in a row.
  2. I’m reminded that you can’t control newborns; they’re a force of nature. A newborn who wants to eat wants to eat. A newborn who wants to sleep will not be awakened by an atomic bomb or a very loud rendition of the 1812 Overture finale. You can start to create a rhythm and routine, and sort of nudge them toward something resembling a schedule, but it’s much better to relax and go with the flow than to worry about it. Baby’s cluster feeding? Oh well; let’s settle down for some extended nursing. Baby’s not going to sleep? Guess I’ll be tired tomorrow.
  3. Newborns don’t eat or sleep consistently. With my first kid, a few days postpartum she slept nearly round-the-clock, with some feeding. I called my pediatrician, who told me this is normal. The next day she hardly slept at all, except for quick catnaps. I called my pediatrician, who told me this is normal. Some days the kid will want more milk than other days.
  4. Newborns are so cute. I remembered how boring they were, but I forgot how much they resemble warm, squishy dollies, or just how euphoric it feels to nuzzle their soft little heads. In response to my husband blowing a raspberry at her, she produced a comically horrified face–eyes crossed and bugged out, brows raised, mouth open. Classic.
  5. People are really nice. I didn’t expect any meals this time around (except for casseroles from my marvelous mother-in-law), what with the pandemic and our switching churches, but my neighbors, old church members, and new church members have volunteered to make us lots of dinners. It’s so kind of them.

Today was a return to “real life”; my husband goes back to work, our homeschooling program resumes. So far it’s going fairly well. The child is napping and sleeping well–for the moment! It’s exciting to embark on life with four children.

Parenting the Fetus

I hope that Baby #4 won’t come this Wednesday, when we are expecting a foot of snow; anytime after that is fine with me. She’s full term and I’d love to meet her.

“Meet her,” I say, and yet, in a sense I already know her. She just nudged my ribs as if to remind me that she’s always with me, and sometimes she makes me quite uncomfortable with her enthusiastic kicking, flailing, and whatever else she’s doing that makes it seem as if she’s got eight limbs rather than the usual four. At times, she likes to shove my ribs; I’m not sure if she’s stretching out or exploring the boundaries of her world, my body.

Mothering a fetus is simple. (But not always easy.) You just don’t do anything to kill or hurt the kid, you take vitamins, iron, and medicine as needed, and you get checked out to make sure that the kid is doing okay. Unless you develop a nasty health condition requiring bedrest, you then go about your ordinary routine as best you can, within the limitations of whatever discomforts you’re experiencing. I guess you could play Mozart or something, but it isn’t really necessary for the health and development of your baby.

Being a father to a fetus is simple. (But not always easy.) You just have to put up with the inconveniences caused by the mother’s symptoms. My husband likes to talk to our babies and poke at them when they’re moving around, but he, like me, doesn’t really know what our baby looks like–ultrasounds aren’t exactly portraits–or how much she’ll cry, whether she’ll be a skinny or plump newborn, whether she’ll be high maintenance or easy.

In a matter of days, we’ll both know this, and be deep in the weeds of sleeplessness, diaper changes, feeding challenges, and that general loss of equilibrium that comes with a newborn. It’s when “parent” becomes a verb, not just a noun.

And yet we do parent our fetuses. The simple acceptance of them as human beings, as our children to nourish and protect, makes a first-time expecting couple truly parents, even if their lives haven’t been transformed in the radical way that will occur after the child is born. We think about our child. We buy things, wash things, fix things in preparation for the baby’s arrival. We feel and see the child move. This, too, is parenting; I cannot swaddle or kiss or feed my baby, but that is because my body is already embracing her and keeping her fed and healthy. She has a name and a personality already, even if she can only express herself with kicks and shifts.

I cannot wait to meet this stranger, whom I have so intimately known for months now. Nor can my husband and children, who are counting down the days until Baby Bluebird is born. She doesn’t know it, but she’s already part of a family that loves her and is waiting to welcome her to life outside the womb.

Counting the Homeschoolers

I am not the first to point out that problems with public education are being exposed with the COVID-19 situation. Many parents (including my husband and I) took a look at the disaster that was distance learning last spring and decided to homeschool; no data from this year so far make me believe that this was a mistake. Nearly overnight, homeschooling has become regarded with much less suspicion, and it has become much more accepted to criticize shortcomings in public schools. Notice that Elizabeth Bartholet is no longer being promoted in the news for alerting the world to the dangers of parents teaching their own children.

This is good. I believe that parents are responsible for their kids’ education, no matter which educational option they choose, and just as by default we trust parents to make health decisions for their kids so we should trust them to make educational decisions. It is abhorrent and illogical to assume a priori that parents are not fit educators for their children.

Unfortunately, it is also true that some parents abdicate their responsibilities and abuse or neglect their children, including neglecting them educationally. This is not limited to homeschooling, by the way–there are plenty of stories of parents who refuse to hold their public-schooled children accountable. But even in a bad public school, students have more opportunity to reach out to teachers if they are being severely abused or neglected, which is why some of the more hideous cases of abuse involve the child being “homeschooled.”

These are, of course, the minority of homeschoolers. Most of the kids I know who are homeschooled (and I know quite a few) are receiving a generally excellent education, socializing appropriately, and being poster children for why homeschooling is awesome. Many young adults I know who were homeschooled are very pleased with their education and are functional members of society. Moreover, no one who has taught in or gone through public schools can deny that even under “normal” circumstances many children are being poorly educated, perhaps in dangerous environments. Whereas in states with homeschooling regulations the parents of children failing to demonstrate some benchmark of competence will be placed on probation and eventually forced (at least in theory) to send their kids to a credentialed program, no such compulsion exists for public schools; they may lose funding, but the students are not removed from the failing school and made to enroll elsewhere.

I still worry about the homeschooled kids who are abused or neglected. Sites like Homeschoolers Anonymous do not reflect the many adults who were satisfied with their home education experience, but I don’t believe that the stories contained therein are lies, either. I’m also not confident about any community policing itself, including the homeschooling community; people tend not to want to interfere in others’ parental decisions, and this is almost always correct, since outsiders are unlikely to know the family well enough to determine whether actual neglect is occurring. But this humility provides cover for those families who are, at best, setting their children up to fail as adults–and at worst killing them.

The Coalition for Responsible Home Education would like to see more uniform homeschool regulations throughout the United States. This site is much more pro-homeschooling than Homeschoolers Anonymous, but their page “The Case for Oversight” makes it clear that they believe children are harmed by lack of homeschooling regulation. Their “Policy Recommendations” include annual assessment of students by mandatory reporters, requiring the offering of the same range of subjects as those taught by public schools, good parental record-keeping, and that “student learning should show progress commensurate with their ability.” They do not believe that parents should be forced to use the same materials as public schools, nor that children should be at the same “grade level” as their counterparts in public school.

All very reasonable! The problem is that regulations become a hassle for those who weren’t going to commit neglect or abuse in the first place, and still let abuse or neglect occur. How many times has it happened that a child’s situation was reported to his state’s child protection agency, sometimes repeatedly, and still the child was left in the abusive situation until at last he was killed? Too often. The Banita Jacks case was a particularly horrifying example of numerous “protections” failing to offer any kind of protection to children who were mistreated over a period of months and then murdered. On the other hand, treating homeschooling parents likely abusers or neglecters of their children is wrong, too, especially since social workers sometimes abuse their power, and can lead to trauma for the child and whole family. Regulation is an axe where a scalpel is needed.

What is to be done, then? I am not sure, but a good first step might be to ensure that, at the very least, all homeschooled students should be counted. It is reasonable to require parents to notify the school district that they are homeschooling their children, but this is currently not required for all 50 states. I also would like to see “no stakes” standard testing in math, reading, and writing for children at various ages; this would help provide some good data on literacy and numeracy levels among children schooled in various ways. (See CRHE’s page on “Academic Achievement” for limitations to currently-available data on homeschooling achievement.)

Counting all homeschoolers would not stop abuse or neglect. It may stop speculation on how homeschooling, as a whole, matches up to other forms of schooling. It would have to be done right, correcting for confounders, which is not easy, especially since many children experience different kinds of schooling in their careers. I am confident that data from this year, especially, would muzzle people like Bartholet.

More About Faith: Confession Porn

The friend who introduced me to Christianity used to lament that she had no marvelous “conversion story.” Her parents were Christians, she was raised as a Christian, she is a Christian today, the end. God had no need to save her from alcoholism or prostitution or a life of crime.

In time, my friend came to realize that her story is indeed as marvelous and miraculous as those dramatic conversions, even if it doesn’t make for very good stage fodder. God worked through her parents and her own heart to make sure that she didn’t have to suffer the consequences of living outside His will; this is a good thing!

But during our junior high and high school years, lurid confessions were very much in vogue. I was alarmed to discover during a short-term missions trip that at least one quarter of the girls attending struggled with eating disorders, and both regular youth pastors and special guests often shared with us how God had saved them from lives of hopelessness and depravity.

I do not want to make light of these experiences. It is indeed great to see the healing of the broken, the finding of the lost, the resurrection of the dead. Jesus himself celebrates the repentant tax collector, the lost sheep returned to the fold, the prodigal son come back to his father’s house. And those who are raised in a household of faith, while experiencing many blessings, are at risk for joining the ranks of those proud Pharisees who thanked God that they weren’t sinners, which is quite as effective a path to damnation as is immersing oneself in orgies.

No, the issue that concerns me now is that for us foolish teenagers, the focus became sin rather than Savior. I mean, we rejoiced greatly to hear of the wayward being rescued, but this rejoicing was so intense because we’d been hearing tales of depravity leading to dire life circumstances.

For the past several years, I have not attended a church that puts up guest speakers giving their testimonies. I hope, however, for those churches that do–and such testimonies can be very inspiring–there will be the occasional “quiet” story. “God saved me from gossiping about others.” “God saved me from being lazy.” “God saved me from being unloving.” These confessions would not be titillating, not flashy, but they reflect the experience of a substantial portion of sinners.

“Credible Profession of Faith”

I have a problem with my own children that didn’t arise when I was a child: When can I be confident that their belief in Christianity is their own and not merely parroting back what their dad and I have taught them?

For me, it was easy. My parents weren’t Christians. When I was 6, my friend told me that I needed to say sorry to God for the bad things I’ve done and ask Jesus into my heart, and that I would then be a Christian. I believed what she’d said, prayed “the sinner’s prayer,” and tried to figure out from there on how I was supposed to live now that I was a Christian. I was pitifully ignorant about how to do this, and asked my dad to read me the Bible; we gave up in Genesis, but eventually I took up Bible reading on my own and attended church with my friend’s family. With age and (I hope) a bit more wisdom and maturity, I tried analyzing the tenets of Christianity with a truly open mind and positing that I was wrong, that atheism or another faith is correct, but I wasn’t able to rid myself of my faith and still have it today.

Most people would not consider a 6-year-old’s profession of faith “credible.” My friend’s (and then my) church was credo-baptist, meaning that you weren’t baptized until you were old enough to convince your pastor that you truly believed and understood Christianity; my friend and I were baptized when we were 11 and her younger brother was 8. Churches that baptize infants generally have some other ceremony that recognizes a child’s full induction into the Christian community, such as Confirmation or the public recital of membership vows, and this usually occurs some time between the ages of 8 and 12.

I understand the skepticism about a very young child’s declaration that she now believes in Jesus and His saving work on the cross. My husband and I have of course prayed with and for our children since their infancy, taught them Bible stories and songs and prayers as soon as they could verbalize, had regular family worship, and tried our very best to indoctrinate them into the Christian worldview. The 5- and 7-year-old certainly consider themselves to be Christians, and the almost-4-year-old believes in God and Jesus although his knowledge isn’t terribly complete. We have explained some other beliefs as well, always from the standpoint that they are incorrect, and we try to model a life pleasing to God as far as we can–which includes, of course, modeling asking forgiveness when we mess up.

But there is no clear, easy delineation between “child mimicking belief” and “believer.” Mind, there is no clear, easy delineation between “professed believer of any age” and “true believer”–but this issue is more prominent, I think, for children who have not yet been seriously confronted with doubt and trouble and an atmosphere of hostility toward Christianity. My 7-year-old would like to take Communion. She can explain the meaning of the Lord’s Supper; she reads her Bible; she asks us questions and seems satisfied with the answers we give her. Is she really ready to take vows/be confirmed/make a credible profession of faith?

I don’t know. She’s still so young, and very much influenced by her father and me. (Which is a good thing.)

On the other hand, I was even younger when God gave me the gift of faith, and it was real faith–it has persisted through hardship, experience, study, and even passing through a liberal Jesuit university. Mind you, I had several misconceptions about the nature of God, Jesus, and Christianity, but then again I’m not arrogant enough to believe that I’ve got everything right even now; I trust in God’s holiness and wisdom, not my own.

So, Christian parents: I ask you. If you do not have a formalized process by which a child is considered a full member of the faith community (i.e. going through catechism, etc), what made you believe that your child’s faith was true and genuine?