Being a parent today requires almost complete cognitive dissonance.
We are asked to believe wholeheartedly in everything science pronounces — until tomorrow, when the sages of medicine and law announce a new set of guidelines.
Take crib bumpers, which look cute but could strangle a child. A state task force last week recommended banning their sale in Maryland. They will still be considered safe in 49 other states if the ban becomes law.
Two years ago, I wasn't supposed to give my then-9-month-old son fruit with seeds in it for fear he could die of an allergic reaction. The same rule held for nuts and peanut butter. Now, my new 9-month-old son is supposed to eat those same banned substances before age 1 in hopes of helping him build his immune system. Why? Peanut allergies have doubled in the past 10 years, and the number of children suffering from asthma has risen even more in recent decades, in part from a lack of early exposure to the chemicals in those foods, according to a number of studies.
After the birth of our first son almost three years ago, my husband brought a bottle of wine and huge plate of sushi — two outlawed delicacies for pregnant women — to the hospital. The nurses caught us imbibing and immediately recited a new finding of pediatric authorities that having even one glass of wine while breastfeeding was dangerous. The year prior it had been OK. My husband asked them humorously which pronouncement was right, and they repeated like automatons the same spiel. Meanwhile, my friends living in Europe have been enjoying wine throughout their pregnancies and months of nursing with medical imprimatur.
Other schizophrenic rulings have cropped up in recent years. My younger son is supposed to start diving into a hamburger or pork chop as soon as his teeth allow, instead of relying on breast milk or formula for protein through the first year. And contrary to every rule on the books, new studies suggest I should let my little munchkin wallow in mud and ingest it so that microbes enter his system and prevent asthma. Maybe I should install a sign in our powder room that says: "Wash hands at your own risk."
It makes sense. My husband, who grew up on a pig farm in Indiana, is never sick. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City in an immaculately kept house, wash my hands incessantly and enjoy brief respites from what seems like a permanent state of running nose, watery eyes and sinus infections. Despite new findings, the hand-washing mantra is so powerful that graduates of the Johns Hopkins University, a hotbed of medical research, must first rub a dollop of hand sanitizer in their palms before shaking the president's hand Thursday and grabbing their diplomas.
It never ends. The American Academy of Pediatrics sanctioned turning our older son around in his car seat to a front-facing position on his first birthday. As of March, new recommendations strongly encourage parents to flip a seat forward at two years or when a child reaches the height or weight limit of a safety seat to minimize the chance of injury in a car crash.
Add to the shifting safety and medical guidelines the cultural imperatives to buy organic, learn sign language at infancy, start a foreign language before kindergarten while also becoming a star athlete and piano player, and it's amazing middle-class American women have more than one child — if any at all.
As Bryan Caplan writes in "Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids," "Since our kids are almost five times as safe as they were in 1950, parents' angst should have mostly melted away. Instead, we've come down with a collective anxiety disorder."
He argues that genes play the overwhelmingly most significant role in how a child turns out. As a result, he suggests parents cut activities no one in the family enjoys, feel good about watching (in moderation) TV — and have more children than they originally thought doable with their new free time.
As for my family, my husband and I came to the same conclusion as the Maryland panel about bumpers a long time ago and removed ours from the crib once our sons could roll. We consider gourmet, full fat ice cream the most important food group for our otherwise nutrient-averse older son; I will continue to wash my hands regularly out of habit; and I will pour myself a second glass of wine and sit on the couch to watch a British murder mystery at every chance.
Marta H. Mossburg is a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a fellow at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. Her column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.