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Are Crunchy Parents Clueless?

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This post was originally published by The Grid.

Celebrity-parent news usually revolves around 'baby bumps,' ridiculous names, or the Brangelina Bunch, but a few weeks ago it took an even odder turn. Alicia Silverstone, star of Clueless and Aerosmith videos, went viral after posting a video to her book-promoting Kind Life website of herself pre-chewing food for her toddler and spitting it into his mouth as if they were birds. January Jones, meanwhile, did her part to promote the return of Mad Men by revealing she ate her own placenta after giving birth. (Betty Draper would not be amused.)

This comes on the heels of Mayim Bialik's book Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, in which the Big Bang Theory and Blossom star extols the virtues of co-sleeping, diaper-free "elimination communication," and breastfeeding toddlers, including her own three-and-a-half-year-old.

Maybe it's because I avoid mommy blogs and message boards, but I hadn't even heard of the term "crunchy parenting" before my wife suggested it for a column. But the aforementioned examples illustrate what she meant -- and celebs are bringing its fringe philosophy, also known as "attachment parenting," into the spotlight. (Though not entirely interchangeable terms, think of crunchy parenting and attachment parenting like hip-hop and rap -- the former includes the latter, but is also more expansive in scope.)

To this father of a two-year-old, many attachment parenting practices -- popularized by Dr. William Sears, who has written over 40 (!) parenting books since coining the term in the '80s -- do seem pretty shocking, not to mention counter-intuitive despite attachment adherents' claims that their philosophy is all about going with your instincts.

The Attachment Parenting International site boasts this style of parenting "isn't new. In many ways, it is a return to the instinctual behaviours of our ancestors." But this is precisely where I find the flaw.

We are not apes, Neanderthals nor birds. We have opposable thumbs, and food processors. There is no discernable reason to spit "premasticated" food from a mother's bacteria-ridden mouth into her 10-month-old's, even if, as an Ecorazzi blogger argues, the practice has been "around for as long as the human species has existed." January Jones had a similarly earthy explanation for her afterbirth-eating, telling People magazine that "we're the only mammals who don't do it." (We are also the only mammals to act on TV, but, I guess, whatevs.) Bialik, who also has a neuroscience Ph.D., bases part of her pro-attachment argument on "primate history," as if that matters.

When I wrote a column last fall about using a variation on the Ferber "cry-it-out" method to teach my son Emile to fall asleep on his own, I was called out by a commenter who wrote:

"Based on research of non-westernized tribes in Africa (example the !Kung bush people) history shows that actually babies were NEVER left to cry to sleep. This would have been fatal to the livelihood of the tribe as it would have attracted predators to the area, looking for easy targets."

Here's the thing: thumbs and food processors are but two of the countless ways we've evolved beyond other mammals and, in the west anyway, our hunter-gatherer ancestors. I wasn't too worried that teaching Emile how to sleep would risk us being eaten by lions, but I did want him to get a good night's rest after seven months of waking up every three hours.

Crunchy parents would argue in favour of co-sleeping (Bialik notes, of course, that, "Sleeping alone leaves you vulnerable and is rarely done by most animals in nature"), something that my wife and I decided against because the parents we knew who co-slept had kids who couldn't or wouldn't go to sleep on their own. We also had concerns about the controversial practice's safety hazards. (Due to risk of SIDS, the Canadian Pediatric Society and Health Canada recommend against bed-sharing, though they do support room-sharing for the first six months -- which we did. And this is not to say that my wife and son didn't occasionally doze off together on the bed during night feedings.)

As for breastfeeding toddlers, our experience with Emile was that he lost interest around 13 months. My wife was prepared to go longer, albeit not long enough for him to be able to verbally ask for the boob. Proponents argue the child should lead the weaning process but, after a certain point, "extended breastfeeding" seems like it could be more about the mom's needs than the child's. And should an infant or toddler really be in charge? It's kinda your job to teach them stuff.

Certainly, our parenting has not been without its own crunch. We borrowed my sister's baby sling when Emile was an infant, bought him wooden toys, only use paraben-free products, and feed him organic food when possible. We were also quite upset over being pressured (and succumbing to said pressure) to use formula in the maternity ward while waiting for my wife's milk to come in.

There can also be a holier-than-thou attitude that accompanies full-on crunchy parenting that is just as unpleasant as, say, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper writing a March Madness-style "Gross Moms Bracket." By titular implication, anyone who disagrees with attachment parenting must therefore be a detached parent.

Hence, another commenter on my Ferber-method column warning me that "probably your kid will hate you or resent you for ignoring them when all they needed was a little hug and cuddle" -- despite the fact that not only does E get more affection than he can handle, but, after about a half-hour, he figured out how to put himself to sleep and has happily gone to bed without crying ever since. In fact, after I read him stories and put him down, he even sings to himself for awhile. Not a lot of resentment in his coo, but there was a lot in that reader comment.

I'm generally opposed to any all-encompassing "parenting philosophy" on sheer principle, because the fear-mongering parent-industrial complex is designed, above all, to make money, and these so-called experts do not know your specific child. There are a lot of great ideas, but moderation is always key.

Look, I was raised by literal crunchy parents -- my mom taught yoga and made granola, my dad was in an environmental-theatre troupe called the Ozone Players; they brought me to folk festivals and protest marches, and we had egg chickens and a vegetable garden in the backyard. Their hippie worldview infused my childhood. But it also taught me that there's a difference between a natural style of child-rearing and a primal one.

This post was originally published by The Grid.