Every baffled new parent goes searching for answers in baby manuals. But what they really offer is the reassuring fantasy that life’s most difficult questions have one right answer.
According to koodakpress، Human beings are born too soon. Within hours of arriving in the world, a baby antelope can clamber up to a wobbly standing position; a day-old zebra foal can run from hyenas; a sea-turtle, newly hatched in the sand, knows how to find its way to the ocean. Newborn humans, on the other hand, can’t hold up their own heads without someone to help them. They can’t even burp without assistance. Place a baby human on its stomach at one day old – or even three months old, the age at which lion cubs may be starting to learn to hunt – and it’s stranded in position until you decide to turn it over, or a sabre-toothed tiger strolls into the cave to claim it. The reason for this ineptitude is well-known: our huge brains, which make us the cleverest mammals on the planet, wouldn’t fit through the birth canal if they developed more fully in the womb. (Recently, cognitive scientists have speculated that babies may actually be getting more useless as evolution proceeds; if natural selection favours ever bigger brains, you’d expect humans to be born with more and more developing left to do.)
This is why humans have “parenting”: there is a uniquely enormous gap between the human infant and the mature animal. That gap must be bridged, and it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that there must be many specific things adults need to get right in order to bridge it. This, in turn, is why there are parenting advice manuals – hundreds and hundreds of them, serving as an index of the changing ways we have worried about how we might mess up our children.
When my son was born, 15 months ago, I was under no illusion that I had any idea what I was doing. But I did think I understood self-help books. For longer than I’d like to admit, I’ve written a weekly column about psychology and the happiness industry, in the course of which I have read stacks and stacks of books on popular psychology. I even wrote one myself, specifically aimed at readers who – like me – distrusted the hyperbolic promises of mainstream self-help. Midway through my partner’s pregnancy, when I first clicked “Bestsellers in Parenting: Early Childhood” on Amazon, I naively assumed it would be easy enough to pick up two or three titles, sift the science-backed wheat from the chaff, apply it where useful, and avoid getting too invested in any one book or parenting guru.
After all, I knew that advice books in other fields often contradicted each other, and indeed themselves, and so should never be taken too seriously. I understood that the search for One Right Answer to life’s biggest questions was futile, even self-exacerbating, leading only to a downward spiral in which attempting the perfect implementation of any one book’s recipe for happiness only generated further anxiety, necessitating the purchase of another book in an effort to allay it. (My own book, The Antidote, argues that trying to think positively reliably leads to more stress and misery.)