Apodaca: Don't listen to parenting naysayers

There's nothing quite like the sight of a woman's breast to get the conversation rolling.

That, of course, is exactly what the publishers of Time magazine had in mind when they put a photo of a mother breastfeeding her nearly 4-year-old son on a recent cover. I'm sure it was also no accident that the mom pictured was young, pretty and model-slender, and both she and her boy gazed directly at the camera with expressions that could be construed as self-satisfied.

The photo was a provocative lead-in for an article on the latest controversy over the issue of child rearing, the practice of what's called attachment parenting. Now the subject is all over the news, providing fodder for talk shows, playground discussions and late-night comics.

And once again, mothers are on the defensive about their child-rearing choices.

Ever hear the saying that kids don't come with instruction manuals? It's not true. I'm starting to think there are far too many parenting how-to guides, and it's making many of us a little confused.

In the past year alone, we've had the Tiger Mother telling us we should stop coddling our kids, followed by an American mom living in Paris who tells us the French are better at raising children because they're, well, more French.

Now we're getting the message that we need to cuddle our kids more, breastfeed them longer, let them sleep with us, and not let them cry. These are some of the basic tenets of attachment parenting, a philosophy that has actually been around for some time and has a strong link to Orange County.

The so-called father of the movement is Dr. William Sears, a famous, media-savvy pediatrician based in Capistrano Beach.

The septuagenarian father of eight has written several books, including what's commonly known as the bible of attachment parenting, "The Baby Book," first published 20 years ago.

Many of Sears' assertions seem rooted in a common-sense, loving approach to bringing up babies: Breastfeeding is superior, kids benefit from physical contact, and a baby's cry is a means of communication, not manipulation.

But it is the extent to which attachment parenting takes these concepts that draws the controversy.

Breastfeeding isn't just better for kids, according to attachment-parenting theory; it should continue well past the age that many American moms would consider it practical or suitable.

Attachment parenting also calls for a 24-7 commitment to physical closeness, which means that baby sleeps with Mom and Dad, either in the same bed or in a bedside bassinet.

Another major point of attachment parenting addresses the practice of allowing babies to "cry it out," which Sears argues can be both physically and psychologically harmful. He believes parents should always attend to crying babies immediately.

Those views, along with the Time cover photo, have elicited strong reactions from supporters and critics alike. I couldn't help feeling a little sympathy for the good doctor when he could barely get a word in during a recent appearance on the TV talk show "The View."

During the segment, Sears was scolded by none other than Barbara Walters, who called attachment parenting "such a guilt trip on working women."

Sears countered that his child rearing principles were "tools, not rules." On his popular website, AskDrSears.com, he complained that attachment parenting was misunderstood.

"AP is not extreme," he wrote. "It's very natural and instinctual. It's the oldest parenting style in the world."

But what's most interesting about the current dust-up is not attachment parenting per se. It's the overheated reaction to it, and to all the other child-raising philosophies that have encountered their 15 minutes of notoriety.

It must say something about our culture that we get so worked up about parenting advice, and I suspect that something is a lack of confidence in ourselves. Even though many of the books, websites, lectures and publications we subject ourselves to tell us to trust our instincts, the message we take away is often quite the opposite.

My years as a journalist have taught me that it's easy enough to find research that supports conclusions we're predisposed to believe. That's likely how it is with parenting methods: We buy into the "evidence" supporting our own tendencies.

That leads many of us to cull our parenting styles from a variety of sources, as if we're ordering from a Chinese restaurant menu: one from column A, one from column B. We may not have a name for our methods, and we kind of make it up as we go along — but that doesn't mean we're not good parents.

So why are we so sensitive about this subject? Why do we hear in every parenting philosophy put forth an implicit criticism that if we aren't following the X, Y or Z method then we aren't doing right by our kids? Can we all just calm down a bit?

Many years ago, when I was a young mom and a full-time reporter, I'd often share my parenting worries with an older colleague. She would listen patiently, and when I'd finished venting, she'd ask, "Does your son torture small animals? No? Then everything will be fine."

A minimalist approach to parenting, to say the least, but she made her point: Relax Mom — just do your best, and it will all work out. So far, so good.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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