William Sears proposes a kinder, gentler parental model

Caring: The physician believes in forming a strong parent-child attachment.

June 20, 1999|By LAURA SAARI | LAURA SAARI,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

SAN CLEMENTE, Calif. -- On the one hand, there were children by the thousands. Sick children.

On the other, there were Jimmy, 4, and Bobby, 2, waiting up nights for the kachunk of the Pontiac LeMans in the driveway so Daddy could tuck them into bed.

Dr. William Sears was only 32 when his big break came along: He was offered the job of chief resident of the largest children's hospital in the world.

But he turned down Toronto Hospital for Sick Children to spend more time with his own children. "It was like: 'This is my decision to become an obscure doctor,' " he said. In fact, it might have been the best move of his life.

Today, Sears, 59, and his wife, Martha, 54, have eight children, ranging in age from 7 to 32. And this small-town doctor, awash every day in the ear infections and bed-wetting questions of his practice, has quietly risen to become one of the nation's leading child-care experts.

Some have dubbed him "the new Dr. Spock." Indeed, he has taken over Spock's monthly column slot in Parenting magazine. And his "The Baby Book," which has sold more than 328,000 copies, last year topped Internet bookseller Amazon.com's sales in the "parenting and families" category.

Like Spock in the early days, the affectionate Sears' approach to child rearing has stirred controversy among those who favor a more rigid method.

In a recent issue of a child magazine, for example, Sears clashed with Dr. Richard Ferber over the topic of getting babies to sleep. Ferber has gained a large number of followers for his "cry it out" approach. Sears cringes at the idea, believing that the baby loses trust in the parents.

Sears' method is based on his own experiences with parents and children: one part raising eight kids and another part doctoring. His wife, Martha, not only co-writes many of the books, she provides much of the substance. At the office, Sears listens carefully to his patients -- their problems, their solutions, what works, what doesn't.

At the core is what he calls "attachment parenting" -- forming a bond between parent and child as early as the womb and building on that bond for matters of discipline.

There are generous doses of that philosophy prescribed at his Southern California offices, which he shares with his son Bob, 30, a new pediatrician. Son Jim, 32, will join the practice next month.

Sears is the darling of that new breed of "career parents," parents who have given up career growth and incomes to focus on their kids. A few patients even fly in to see him.

On a recent office visit, Jill Eslick, 37, got tears in her eyes when she talked about how Sears has been willing to see her children with only five minutes' notice. More than medical advice, he has helped her with larger parenting questions -- such as how to get older children to accept a new baby in the house.

"When I went to another doctor, I'd have my list of questions, and they'd charge me extra 'counseling time' just for asking questions," she said.

On many of his patients' charts, Sears affixes a 3-by-5-inch index card. When a parent offers a tip that makes sense, Sears jots it down for later use in a book.

"The secret is to surround yourself with wise parents and to have the humility to learn from them," he said.

Sears keeps an office in his home for after-hours sick-child visits.

For a time, when he felt he was losing his connection with his kids, he moved the entire office home to his garage. His children took to calling it "Dr. Bill's Garage & Body Shop."

That garage had a large sign taped to it recently: Erin's Home!!! Hooray!!! Daughter Erin, 15, Sears explained, was returning from a trip to Russia.

The house is in Capistrano Beach, Calif., with a heart-stopping view of the Pacific, interrupted only by a sagging trampoline and a few brightly colored children's toys.

The Searses live their child-centered philosophy. Martha, who was trained as a nurse, has stayed home, raising the eight kids, although she has also been able to work on the books and do childbirth education on the side.

If parents spend the time at home with their children in the early years, forming attachments, Sears believes, the children will go on to become more empathetic and more connected with the human race. His ideas, he knows, don't always sync with the way people live their lives today.

"I think we need to tell the truth," Sears said. "I feel it's better for both the parents and the babies to have a full-time mom in the first year. But we don't live in an ideal world."

Including Erin, the Searses have only three children at home now. Son Stephen, 9, was born when Martha was 44, and has Down's syndrome. The Searses elected a few months ago to send him away to school. He comes home on weekends. They adopted their final child, Lauren, 7.

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