The Trouble With Absolutes


I used to think I was an “attachment parent.” I have kept my babies, all four of them, close by me, never put them on a schedule, never fed them a bottle, responded to their needs and always proceeded on the belief that we have to learn to be parent and child together.

I don’t believe in letting them cry.


When Alex was about four months old, it became impossible to put him down. He could not transition from breastfeeding to the crib without waking. Couldn’t do it. For a while I laid down with him to nurse, and that way when he finally conked out (45 minutes later), I could cautiously slide away, leave him on the bed, and go on with life.

It worked. I listened to my baby and met his needs.

But 45 minutes takes a real chunk out of married couple time. After a few weeks I realized I wasn’t leaving the house, because if he needed to nap and we weren’t somewhere I could lie down with him and leave him there, we were in trouble. Before long, I was falling apart.

Finally I gave in. We let him cry. Of course, we went in and soothed him every five minutes, then ten, but oh my goodness, it felt wrong. I was a mess. But then–Hallelujah! In less than a week, he learned to put himself to sleep.

Fast forward three children. At 4 1/2 months, Michael is in a totally different environment than Alex was. With big siblings grabbing him by the head and yelling in his face, picking him up, playing with him, he’s perpetually stimulated. All last week, he refused to nap. He would nurse to sleep on the breast and wake up the instant I put him down. If I got lucky, he’d sleep twenty minutes. At night, sometimes he would go down at 8, but often he’d get a six-minute snooze at 7:30, only to be zinged awake again by the chaos of three other kids getting ready for bed, and then he’d be up until 9:30 or 9:45 with us–wiggly, hyper, and wearing us out.

I’m no baby whisperer, but after four kids, I can intuit a lot more of what’s wrong with a child than I could seven years ago. Michael was tired, and he couldn’t get to sleep. He was too dependent on me. That much I knew. What I didn’t know was what to do about it. I was trying to avoid the “let him cry” solution. But when I started to fall apart, it was clear what had to be done.

I believe in attachment parenting. But these days it seems there’s never enough of me to go around, and everything’s getting broken (the baby swing, the CD player, etc.). I raise my voice far more often than I would like–another thing attachment parents DO NOT DO. You never, ever yell at your children. You find ways to discipline positively, without shaming them. So between losing my temper and letting my baby cry, I feel I’m betraying my convictions.

But that’s the trouble with absolutes. They become codified and inflexible, and life involves too many variables. I totally believe in teaching children good behavior by reason and by empathy. And with Alex, that’s primarily what I do. But you can’t reason with a two year old–or a three year old, for that matter–and you can’t have your eyes on your kid at every moment, especially if you have several children. Sure, it’s a worthy goal to distract them before they get in trouble, but when they go around hitting their sisters, or taking toys from their brothers, a calm, reasoned approach is like taking a Rembrandt and throwing it in a blender. Sometimes, they need to see Mommy and Daddy angry, because it’s the only thing that sinks in. I wish that wasn’t the case, but in my experience, it is.

And when a baby’s showing you he needs to sleep, and every other possible solution has been tried without success, is it reasonable to take crying himself to sleep off the table? Is it better to let him teach himself to go to sleep by crying for a few days, or is it better to let him drive himself to utter exhaustion because he can’t sleep at all?

(That’s a rhetorical question, by the way.)

As much as I hate the process, I don’t believe I’m damaging my children. As I have said before, some of the most important lessons of my life were learned, not in joy, but in suffering; not in affirmation, but in shame. Sometimes a good parent has to allow her child to suffer; that truth isn’t going anywhere. As kids grow, they’ll have to suffer through broken friendships, heartbreaks, failures of all kinds, academic and personal. If I try to shield them from all pain, I’ll deprive them of the richness of life.

I don’t ignore my children’s needs for my own convenience, but there are lessons they need in order to become healthy adults. Yes, I fail sometimes, and when I do, I apologize. And I hope from that, they learn another important lesson.


8 thoughts on “The Trouble With Absolutes

  1. It makes me feel so much better to read things like this. I also identify so much with attachment parenting, but Miriam has definitely cried at night (at my chagrin) and I think people can get carried away with the affirm-affirm-affirm! It’s nice to know people who are farther down this path (and not limiting themselves to 1-2 kids) to get a good reality check 🙂

    • Honestly, I can’t see how you can possibly do the full AP thing with more than 1-2 kids, simply because it requires so much time (trying to get them to sleep, in particular).

  2. Jean

    I agree completely that with more than 1 kid, you can’t be available at all times to both (the first thing to go is that “sleep when the baby sleeps” business, which goes out the window when you have more than 1 kiddo to take care of!). Sometimes, logistically, somebody just has to cry. But someone sent me the following article I found intriguing. It’s a little condescending (I don’t think people let kids cry as a matter of convenience) but again reminds us not to overdo anything.

    • I’ve seen this article before. Ferber’s quote in there is important–“he never intended parents to completely ignore their babies’ nighttime tears.” Crying does have a purpose, always–and I would never suggest that I don’t have a reponsibility to help my child through whatever problem he’s communicating. I’ll still be nursing Michael in the night for several months to come, and we never just toss him in bed regardless of his state of hunger/alertness. Crying is the last effort taken when he–HE, not me–has been unsuccessful with other attempts. I’m always analyzing: Is he really tired? Has he had a nap? How long was it, and how long ago? Did he eat properly before he fell asleep?

      I think I’m just developing an allergy to the one-size-fits-all solution, when I’ve seen in each of my children that every day is different from the next.

  3. I read a book by a pediatrician (not a parenting book) and she made a comment about questions new parents asked her about child-rearing, often brought up by things they had read in books. Her comment was “Have all the grandmothers gone on strike?” meaning that most moms who had btdt could have answered their questions. As a mom of four you have a lot more experience than most readers of those one size fits all parenting books and as you noted, AP works a lot better with one or two young kids than it does with a houseful, which makes me wonder how “natural” it is, given that naturally our kids would be spaced about two years apart.

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to articulate. I was sitting at the pediatrician’s office the other day trying to ignore an annoying video that was talking about how to keep your older child from resenting his/her new baby brother/sister, and I thought, “Why didn’t we ever have resentment?” Then I realized it was b/c we consciously pursued having Child #2 before Child #1 would ever remember a time without a sibling. So much of advice is aimed toward families who have kids four and five years apart.

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