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Ezzo and “Neoprimitivism”

Chapter 2 of Babywise is really dense.  Ezzo does a lot of work to confuse the issue, set up straw men, and create a fantasy scenario in which his method is a sane middle ground.  Unpacking all this may take some time.

First, he sets up two extremes of baby care philosophy – behaviorism and “the neoprimitivistic school of child care.”  Here’s how he helpfully “cites” the proponents of the latter: “That belief inspired the neoprimitivistic school of child care, supported by Ribble (1944); Aldrich (1945); Trainham, Pilafian, and Kraft (1945); and Frank (1945).”  Trying to unearth the actual writings he’s talking about is near impossible.  Google any permutation of “neoprimitivistic” and you get lots of interesting information about a school of painting that influenced Marc Chagall.  What you don’t get is anything about child care philosophy or psychology.  Search for “neoprimitivistic” and any of those names, and you get . . . Ezzo, and no other hits.

Now of course Wikipedia and Google are not the be-all and end-all of information.  I have little doubt that there’s at least one instance of at least one of those listed names being involved in a psychology movement labeled neoprimitivism.  But clearly this was not a highly influential group, at least under that name.  And given Ezzo’s previous disingenuousness, one wonders if he searched out and cherry-picked that term because it sounds pejorative.  Like he wanted to be able to say, “Do you want to follow a science-based, modern, enlightened philosophy, or a primitive way of life?”  To be fair, he says “The title “neoprimitivistic” is not name-calling, but a specific school of thought.” But he’s a tricksy one – I suspect by lampshading his word choice he’s really just trying to compound the impact of using an inflammatory word and thus leave a stronger impression with readers.  He’s all about constructing the appearance of sane moderation, while engineering all the information he delivers to paint any deviation from his edicts as a descent into laughable irrationality.

Anyway, believe it or not, I found some writings to which he might be referring.  And it’s interesting reading.  It’s true that these writings indicate an element of Freudian (or maybe Rankian) psychology.  The one paper I found by Frank et. al. includes some brief discussion of how an infant’s experience might influence the development of later problems such as thumb-sucking, elimination difficulties, and even “negativism and hostility.”  However, the main thrust of the discussion is refreshingly in tune with modern, mainstream medical understanding about the physiological needs of infants:

As a young mammal, the newborn has the same organic needs as other young mammals. He needs close tactual contact, cuddling, licking, nuzzling, mothering and needs the opportunity to suckle and use his lips and he needs frequent, if not almost continuous, nourishment. These needs arise from the lack of homeostatic capacity in the newborn so that he gets cold easily, and cannot keep warm; his skin is exquisitely sensitive and needs contact for relaxation. He gets hungry quickly since his blood sugar may go down rapidly and he is unable to endure prolonged hunger without discomfort and distress.

I was personally blown away that medical professionals were writing stuff like this 12 years before the founding of La Leche League, and decades before Sears coined the term “attachment parenting.”  I find it delightful to read about men and women in the 40s and 50s who were advocating for an understanding of infant needs that is only now becoming mainstream.  We tend to think of anything before the 60s or 70s as a wasteland of Victorian-inspired “detachment parenting,” but clearly the field of child-care philosophy was much more nuanced, and more advanced in some quarters, than I ever knew.

According to Ezzo, these proto-AP proponents claimed that

the separation at birth momentarily interrupts the mother-child in utero harmony. Therefore, the goal of early parenting is to reestablish that harmony. How is this supposed to be achieved? Only by the constant day-and-night presence and availability of the mother to the child. New mothers are instructed to do whatever it takes to neutralize the supposed trauma of birth and offset its effect. By 1949, the birth-trauma theory, lacking objective verifiable data, was dismissed as a nonsensical theory.

However, I’m not seeing any talk about birth trauma.  Rather, the hypothesis seems to be that when you deny the most basic physiological needs of newborn babies, starving them and failing to offer the touch that helps regulate their temperature and neurological processes, babies get pissed off.  And perhaps leaving babies to starve and shiver and fend largely for themselves might be bad for their psychological development, as well as their immediate bodily health.  They also thought maybe routinely withholding food from infants whose blood sugar was severely low might be a cause for later feeding problems.

The frequent pattern of newborn care, especially in hospitals, is that he is taken away from his mother, deprived of cuddling and soothing and of opportunity for sucking and the comfort of breast feeding. He is also prematurely subjected to prolonged fasting after having been continuously nourished during gestation and is subject to strong emotional provocation, allowed to cry uncomforted and to undergo prolonged fits of rage or of fear and anxiety. In consequence, eating, which should be a simple, pleasurable experience, may become an occasion for tension and emo-tional disturbances which may be the beginning of frequent feeding problems observed among pre-school children.

Given that the infants they’re talking about might be fed as few as 4 times a day, their concerns are hardly the whacky, discredited psychobabble Ezzo wants to paint them as.  In this article, we’re seeing the origins of modern pediatric understanding about the biological needs of infants, which is most definitely informed by the knowledge that we are mammals, and have needs closely tied to those of other mammal neonates.  Come to think of it, perhaps this is part of Ezzo’s problem with mainstream, evidence-based pediatric thinking: it’s based on acceptance of evolution.  I haven’t found any reference to Ezzo’s beliefs about evolution/creationism, but it would not surprise me to find that he rejects evolution, given that his whole parenting philosophy grows out of Biblical interpretation.

In any case, Ezzo is once again misrepresenting his opposition.  He of course does it in a convoluted way that makes it almost impossible for parents to check on his assertions.  First, he manufactures a semi-mythological school of thought, neoprimitivism, then he assigns silly-sounding, discredited beliefs to it that may or may not have influenced its members, then he assumes without proof that modern attachment parenting is really a resurgence of this school.  All this without proper citations of course.  Ezzo fervently wants to believe that anything but his approach is extreme, loopy, and contrary to evidence, and he’s very clever at creating that illusion, as long as the reader has little context to check his assertions against.

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About Christine

I'm a full-time mother to two kids, an ex-lawyer, a breastfeeding counselor, a skeptic, and (to steal a phase from Penn & Teller) a "science cheerleader." You can reach me through my Facebook page.

Posted on January 2, 2012, in Parenting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Christine, you are adept at figuring out much of what is behind Ezzo’s philosophy. I believe I can provide you with some helpful context if you will email me “off-line.”

    • Thanks Kathy! I’d love it if you would share some of your information right here. Or you can go to Skeptical Mothering on Facebook and send me a message there if you prefer.

      Looking forward to hearing what you’ve got to say!

  2. Brilliant as always, Christine. It does make me wonder though–if papers such as these were written in the parenting dark ages, so to speak, just how long HAS the battle for the “right” way to parent been going on?

    • Briar, I’m wondering too. I know we have documentation of all that horrible behaviorist advice from the late 1800s, about scheduling babies and not holding them too much, but I wonder how many mothers followed it, and how many just followed their instincts and did pretty much AP stuff. Of course, if the Frank article is any indication, a large hunk of the population did buy into scheduled feedings and physical separation by the 50s, so there’s that. But yeah, it makes you wonder if people were arguing about proper infant care in ancient Rome and stuff, doesn’t it?

  3. Excellent!! The internet needed a well-informed review of this book and you are providing it. Thank you!

  4. I have a degree in developmental psych and we started back in the 1800’s and went right up to the then current 80’s and 90’s and the term “neoprimitivism” was never mentioned. So either it was not used, or it wasn’t used much.

    There has always been a tug of war over how to raise children. I think that most people (mostly women) just didn’t read all of this literature written by men and raised their children as best as they could.

    When I first learned about Piaget and his “brilliant” observations of child development that he made watching his own children grow and learn, my response was that it was only brilliant because he was a man that wrote it all down… Women already knew all of this, they just didn’t think it was all that revolutionary.

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