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Boot Camp for Babies

by Rebecca Prewett

There is a dated philosophy and practice of infant management that is being brushed off and modernized for the 1990's. Some advocates of this approach have described their own parenting practices as "tough love for babies", "boot camp for babies", and even--rather tongue in cheek--with much harsher language. These well-meaning parents don't want to fall into the trap of permissive parenting. They don't want to raise overly-indulged children who will grow up selfish, undisciplined, with lifelong eating disorders, and morally adrift. Thus, they scrupulously avoid any parenting practices that would seem "child-centered" or that would not communicate to the infant that it is the parents who are in control.

Such parents will, for example, steel themselves not to respond to their baby's every cry, lest the baby manipulate them. They will spend the early days and weeks of their baby's life "training" the baby and even "disciplining" the baby. The actual methods may vary, but usually the "boot camp" approach involves scheduling, early spankings, and an emphasis on training newborns from birth. Some advocates of this approach stress that sleeping through the night should begin.at six weeks of age; others stress potty-training at that age. Some stress limited contact with infants in order to train them to be independent; others stress using each contact as a training session.

Here are some rather typical statements made by those who practice various forms of "tough love for babies", followed by my own analysis and response.

"Discipline must begin at birth."

To evaluate this statement, we must first define discipline. I often consult Webster's 1828 Dictionary, because it offers a Biblical worldview of various concepts. In this case, I find discipline defined by such terms as "education, instruction, cultivation and improvement, due subordination to authority, correction, chastisement, etc." Especially pertinent to the discussion at hand is the definition of disciplinable: "Capable of instruction, and improvement in learning."

The "discipline must begin at birth" philosophy almost appears to be based on a belief that the early weeks of life are a time when humans are especially receptive to instruction and education; in fact, the fear of some parents seems to be that if discipline doesn't begin at birth, a valuable opportunity is lost...perhaps never to be regained.

One cannot help but wonder how disciplinable a newborn is. This is a matter of pure speculation, as there is no meaningful or accurate way of measuring whether a newborn shows "improvement in learning." Common sense would tell us that tiny infants are rather limited in their learning capabilities.

"From day one, babies need to learn that they aren't the center of the universe."

I question whether this needs to be learned from day one. If the child does not begin to learn this until day five or day twenty-five or even day three-hundred-sixty-five, will all be lost? Will he be incapable of learning this lesson? And, furthermore, does this lesson need to be taught directly through rather artificial means--won't children, as they grow up, gradually become aware that they are not the center of the universe?

Unless we buy into the theory that this lesson cannot be learned properly if we don't begin to teach it at birth, there are many opportunities for our children to learn that the planets and stars do not revolve around them. Life will teach them this quite well, provided we do not interfere and go out of our way to shield our children from this obvious truth in some ridiculous and misguided attempt to convince them that they are the center of everything. Our babies will learn that they can't have everything they see at the grocery store. They will learn that the church service is not the place to crawl around and make noise. They will learn that many things in our home are off limits to them. They will learn that they have to get their diapers changed even if they don't like the idea. They will learn that other children won't give up their toys just because they were asked or the toy was snatched. They will learn that our attention is often divided between caring for them and accomplishing the numerous tasks we undertake each day. They will learn all these lessons and more in the course of normal living and appropriate discipline.

I don't think that newborns need some special sort of training in order to make this lesson stick. Frankly, although I think newborns are wonderful and marvelous and miraculous, I question their ability to learn that they aren't the center of the universe. I just don't think they are aware or cognizant of the principles involved.

"My baby needs to learn from the beginning that I am in charge."

Again, I have to ask: are newborns really capable of understanding such concepts as authority? Are special training methods needed to teach them this? Won't they automatically learn this as they grow older and discover that you're the one who calls all the shots? Aren't you teaching them that you are "in charge" as you tend to their needs, minister to them, love them, nurture them, and treat them with compassion?

"But if I'm not in charge, doesn't that mean I'm putting the baby in charge? Isn't that sending the wrong message?"

This is a common fear of new parents. They tend to forget that newborns are extremely helpless, incapable of being in charge of anyone or anything. Newborns aren't trying to take over the world; they aren't even trying to take over their homes. Parents are always in charge. Parents are always the ones who decide when to feed the baby, when to change the baby, when to put the baby down for a nap. (I have yet to hear of a case when a newborn ordered his parents around at gunpoint or wrestled them to the ground in order to get his way.) Your baby has no ability to force you to do these things. Your choice is whether you will adopt a servant attitude towards your baby and express a Christ-like authority by ministering to them sacrificially, or whether you will try to express an ungodly authority by "lording it over" your newborn and ignoring their cries of distress.

"My baby needs to learn servanthood."

Asking a helpless newborn to serve anyone is not only ridiculously impossible but insanely selfish. Since when do we ask the most helpless among us to serve the most capable? However, most parents who advocate this aren't really insisting that their newborns take on amazing capabilities and begin doing acts of service. Instead, they redefine servanthood as illustrated by the following anecdotes.

A woman wanted her newborn to learn servanthood, lest he grow up to be selfish. So she set up a training session by inviting over a number of people for dinner. She was still tired from childbirth, but set all her mind and energy to cleaning her house and preparing dinner. Except for regularly scheduled feedings and diaper changes, she largely ignored her baby, who wept in the crib between naps. Periodically she would go in and explain to him that he needed to set aside his own desires for comfort in order that she might provide for the comfort of their expected guests. Supposedly this was teaching him both servanthood and hospitality.

Another mother always fed her husband first, letting the hungry baby cry until her husband's meal had been served. This supposedly not only taught the baby servanthood but respect for his father as well.

This "teaching babies servanthood" approach seems a thinly veiled attempt to put one's own selfish desires (to entertain guests and impress them with a spotless home, to eat immediately upon arriving home) ahead of the needs of the babies. Such parental selfishness is then "sanctified" under the guise of character training.

We have a simple method of teaching servanthood to our children, when they are truly capable of actually doing acts of service, rather than merely being deprived of their needs. Our method? We have more babies. The older siblings learn to serve their younger, more helpless siblings, in a variety of different ways. This is true servanthood. They also learn that sometimes servanthood is fun and exciting and joyous...and sometimes it's just boring...and sometimes it's a real chore. All in all, valuable lessons.

"My baby needs to learn to be independent."

Sounds good and all-American, but is this a Biblical idea? Is independence a character trait that we find anywhere in Scripture? And, is it something we want to instill in our children?

I'll never forget the sight of an angry little boy telling his mother, "I don't need you!" He was asserting his independence with every fiber of his being. He had obviously learned this lesson all too well.

The idea of independent infants is silly to anyone who has been around babies very much. Self-sufficiency is an impossibility. However, as our children grow and mature, they will become more capable. Hopefully we will be teaching them the lessons of dependence: that they need to depend on us for their protection, nurture, and instruction for many years, and that they will do well to depend on us for our wisdom until the day we die. But, most of all, we need to teach our children that they are utterly and completely dependent on the Lord for everything.

One way in which we can teach our children to depend on us is by demonstrating consistently that we are dependable. This is a lesson that can be started at birth--as much for our benefit than for that of the baby. It takes a lot of practice to become dependable; the newborn period offers much opportunity for us.

As our children get older, we want to teach them to be dependable so that our family can learn the importance of depending on one another. We need to teach them the blessings of interdependence within the church. This is not some sort of clinging helplessness but an obedience to God's plan for the family and the church.

"I want my baby to be independent so he won't be devastated in case I die suddenly."

Losing a mother is devastating to a child at any age. Attempting to train some sort of premature self-sufficiency will not protect a child from trauma and intense grief. I question the wisdom of living in fear and making decisions based on the possibility of tragedy. While it is wise to plan for the future, it would make more sense to think of potential guardians for our children, rather than to distance ourselves from our infants and attempt to force them into an impossible maturity.

"If I nurse my baby for comfort, he will grow up wanting to eat whenever he is upset and will develop an eating disorder."

Isaiah 66 offers a beautiful picture of God comforting Israel as a mother comforts her child at the breast. We are painting a diminished picture of God if we insist that this means that His comfort consists only of providing physical nourishment. Since the Bible does not warn against comforting a baby at the breast but rather uses it as a beautiful analogy of God's relationship with His people, we need not fear acting in a manner that will demonstrate God's love and comfort to our babies.

Furthermore, our child training efforts with our children do not end in infancy. Comforting a child at the breast does not mean we must later offer him milk and cookies every time he stubs his toe. We have found, in our own family and in many other families, that comfort nursing does not train children to turn to food when upset. In fact, we have found the opposite to be true. Our children tend to lose their appetites when upset and regain them quickly when matters have been set right. However, they do often seek us out for comfort. Our toddlers will rush to us for kisses on bumps and scrapes. Our older children will seek out hugs for comfort. We encourage this as a godly demonstration of love and compassion, and are pleased to see that our children are learning to comfort each other with the same comfort they have received from us.

If comfort nursing predisposed babies to lifelong eating disorders, one would tend to find these disorders rampant in societies that practice comfort nursing. Instead, eating disorders are found almost exclusively in societies like ours, that generally practice only token breastfeeding and are predominantly bottle-feeding cultures.

"My baby needs to learn that our marriage comes first."

Interestingly enough, there isn't a strong Biblical case for placing the marriage relationship first. The epistles, for example, in their discussion of the roles within the family, never make any statements about the supremacy of the marriage relationship over all other relationships within the family. While it is clear that our marriage is to reflect the relationship between Christ and His Church, it is not clear that we are to give our marriage relationship some sort of exalted status over the rest of the family. In fact, one might argue that, just as the Church is to focus her efforts on making disciples, our marriages are to be focused on making disciples of our children and raising them to the glory of God.

My husband and I are growing more and more disenchanted with some of the fruit we see of the "our marriage comes first" mentality. Often, all sorts of selfish behavior is excused. Infants and babies are left with virtual strangers so that parents can attempt to recapture some sort of fantasy dating relationship. Grandparents are imposed upon to watch children for "weekend getaways" and even entire vacations. (Some grandparents have been emotionally manipulated: "You want our marriage to survive, don't you? Well, it won't if we have the children under foot every day.") The children are seen as hindrances to maintaining a good marriage relationship, rather than the fruit of the relationship and a natural part of that relationship.

Worst of all is that too many of those who put their marriage first are willing, when troubles come, to abandon the marriage. The idea of maintaining a healthy marriage for the sake of the children is horribly old-fashioned. Why, it's far too child-centered for today.

However, we are gratified and encouraged to discover that there are many parents who are unashamedly family-centered. One father wrote online that he and his wife had decided to include their children in their anniversary celebration because, "after all, our children are an important part of our marriage". This inspired us, on our last anniversary, to celebrate in a different way. We decided it was one of our most enjoyable anniversaries yet! We sat at a lovely table for two and were served by a bevy of small waiters and one cute little waitress. They had a wonderful time and we were continually reminded of the fact that our marriage and our children are all wrapped up together, just as God intended.

Having a good, strong marriage does not require us to act, periodically, as if our children don't exist. We don't need to get away from them once a week for date nights. We don't need to view our children as potential marriage-wreckers but rather should view them as marriage-enhancers. Our babies will grow to learn how important our marriage is to us by observing whether our husbands love us as Christ loves the Church and whether we submit to our husbands with respect. Dumping young children with babysitters or refusing to talk to them for the first twenty minutes that Daddy is home from work won't teach them much of anything, other than that we are rather selfish and rude.

Interestingly enough, I've never heard one advocate of the "boot camp for babies" approach ever say, "My baby needs to learn that God comes first in our family."

"My baby will grow up to rebel, disrespect me, disrespect others, steal toys, and fail at life if I don't put him on a schedule."

This smacks of behavioristic psycho-babble. The truth is that training our baby's eating and sleeping habits will not sanctify him and will have absolutely no effect whatsoever on his sin nature. Furthermore, the training opportunity for respect and discipline is not won or lost in the cradle. Following what many believe to be God's design for breastfeeding (feeding in response to the baby's needs) will not corrupt the child.

I will never forget the mother of a year-old baby (her first) who proudly stated, "Thank God that I don't have to worry about teenage rebellion!" I merely smiled indulgently. This mother insisted that she had already won the battle by having her baby on a schedule and by training him in first-time obedience. The truth of the matter is that this baby had barely begun walking and had not even learned to speak. I remember a similar feeling of absurd over-confidence when my first baby was the same age and was extremely compliant. I didn't even have to "train" him in first-time obedience--he happily did whatever I said, whenever I said it. However, in my case, I didn't credit a baby training regimen but rather what I perceived to be my wisdom and ability to nurture my baby. Since then, I've discovered that the real training begins at the age when I--and this inexperienced young mother--thought we'd already had it down pat.

While it may sound tempting to put our faith in the right infant training regimen, we must beware of this ungodly trap. Our faith must rest in Christ alone. We cannot sanctify our children nor can we prevent them from sinning as they get older. By the grace of God, we can instill in them a knowledge of God's standards as expressed in His Word. Following a schedule is not a shortcut for religious training. It's not even part of religious training.

"But if I don't teach my baby who's boss and if I don't discipline him from birth, when should I start? Won't I have to 're-parent' somewhere down the line?"

You start by truly being the authority, under your husband's authority and leadership, in your own home. Don't pattern yourself after the neighbors or the women at church or the ideal parents as described by "experts". Instead, search the Scriptures for yourself. Purpose to reflect, in a small way and yet to the best of your ability, the attributes of God as loving, just, benevolent, gracious, good, holy, righteous, true, faithful, merciful, etc. When your baby cries, comfort him. Attend lovingly to his needs, just as you would wish your needs to be met were you in his helpless state. Ask God to deliver you from selfishness. Love your baby as yourself. Lay down your life for your child.

When your baby grows in capabilities to the point that he reaches for something he shouldn't, gently--demonstrating patience and love--train him not to do so. My husband and I are provided with a wonderful early training opportunity in that we wear glasses. Eventually every baby tries to touch those glasses and smear the lenses. We don't like this. We also realize that our babies aren't doing this out of a premeditated desire to challenge our authority and annoy us. So, we gently and effectively train them not to touch our glasses. This is usually their first exposure to the word and concept of "no".

Life will provide many more training opportunities. You will teach your child what he can or cannot touch in your home. I have seen, in many families, that a responsive approach quite opposite from the "boot camp for babies" approach fits in very well with the training of toddlers and young children. My hypothesis for why this works so well is that the parents have trained themselves to be especially responsive to their children. It is as if the mothers are trained to be more vigilant, more willing to set aside their own activities in order to deal with an unruly child, more willing to take the time and effort required to teach and train children effectively. In addition, a more "baby-centered" or ministry-oriented approach to infancy is a wonderful opportunity for older siblings to learn compassion for those more helpless. They will learn so much by observing your sacrificial acts of joyful service on behalf of your newborn. And, as those of us from larger families know, they will often beat you to the baby in a happy rush to take care of him. However, all of this really starts before the baby's birth. This is when God's design for pregnancy causes us to focus inward on the baby. Many women become health- conscious for the first time--for the sake of the baby. As Christians, this is and the months ahead. It is a time to reflect on our hopes and dreams for ourselves and for our babies, and a time to bring these desires before the Lord. It is a time of renewal, of repentance, of meditation and study. It is a time to mature, a time to leave selfishness behind. It is a time to rely, more than ever, on the grace of God.

Discipline begins before birth. However, it is our own discipline that needs to concern us the most. We must discipline ourselves to be godly servants to our children, in the footsteps of Christ who came to serve us. We must discipline ourselves to recognize our children as blessings, not as burdens. We must discipline ourselves to believe that children are an important purpose of marriage. We must discipline ourselves to be uncomplaining in the face of temporal annoyances like lost sleep, baby messes, and postpartum figures that might never be quite the same. We must discipline ourselves in all these and many other areas, that we might--by the grace of God--grow in love and humility...that we might be godly examples for our children...that we might reflect as accurate a picture as possible of the true nature of God as our Father.

copyright 1996 by Rebecca Prewett
Used by permission

Rebecca Prewett is the mom of six children. She has written many wonderful articles on caring for children which you can read on her website on the Family Issues Page. Especially helpful to those with questions about the Ezzos is her article Some Concerns About The Ezzo Method of Parenting. Also, check out the rest of her website at http://www.fix.net/~rprewett/ for even more great information (including a great theological issues page).


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Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.

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