Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Animal instincts.

I was chatting about child-rearing recently with a field biologist who studies mammals.

The conversation started with a discussion of practical decisions faced by human parents - eg, when if ever do you refuse to feed an apparently hungry child during the night? It might be when they have reached a certain age or weight that signifies readiness to be trained. Or when the parent is too exhausted to continue the practice and enforces a cessation. Etc.

The decisions one comes to about such things are often agonised over and judged in moralistic terms. Many of us like to justify ourselves using the latest research, some 'method' or ideological standpoint, a prediction of the impact our choices have on our child's future - or even the mistakes we have perceived in others' parenting.

This is fair enough, to some extent. But it can be rather haughty. My friend pointed out that every animal faces these sorts of choices. For other mammals, the decision is simpler: when the needs of myself and my young are in tension, what resources can I sensibly forgo for their sake? He observed that a mammal bearing few babies during its life, or having just one at a time, will usually devote more of its total energy to keeping that baby alive than its more prolific counterpart.

To return to the night feeding debate .... assuming a family is essentially loving and functional, which is of course not always the case, how is this choice made?

If your need for sleep is greater than your child's need to be fed, you will take the necessary steps. If you have the resources to deny yourself some sleep and your child is hungry, you will more than likely feed them. If you are someone who feels happier when life is predictable, chances are you will train your child to go through the night earlier in his/her life. If you are someone who enjoys the intimacy of night-time feeding and is easy with a lack of routine, you are likely to keep getting out of bed.

We give our children much. But not everything.