One of the things I learned when preparing to become a parent is that there are hundreds of personal choices you must make in this role. Because these choices are so personal and thus cast light on who you are as a person, people tend to approach these topics with an inordinate amount of faith and conviction, sometimes at the expense of rationality.
This conviction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is surprising to the uninitiated. I’ve remarked that if you’re in dire need of assistance in any public place in Seattle, the cry for help that’s most likely to get lots of people sprinting to your assistance is not, “I’m having a heart attack” but, “I’m having trouble breast-feeding my baby!”
I’m reminded of this by two articles in this week’s New York Times – a news article and an Op-Ed essay – on the topic of toilet-training infants without diapers, common in most of the world but rare in the U.S.
While I’m loath to criticize anyone’s choice of this practice – as I said, these choices are intensely personal – I can’t help but feel that there’s a degree of one-upmanship to all of this, a notion that you can distinguish yourself as a better parent by doing things that most others are unwilling or unable to do. With this implicit competition comes continual escalation, so every couple of years there is something new that allows parental strivers to set themselves apart. Private school surpasses public school, but then is surpassed by home schooling. Natural childbirth is surpassed by home birth. (For what it’s worth, I was an early Lamaze birth.) Co-sleeping, attachment parenting, the list goes on. And now cloth diapers, superior to disposable, are surpassed by the diaper-free movement.
What amuses me most about this is the inordinate romanticizing of traditional practices, as if something that’s been done a particular way for thousands of years or by people without means is innately superior, ignoring not only the remarkable progress in disease eradication over the past century but also cultural and economic factors. I mean, good for you for keeping a couple of thousand diapers out of landfills, but don’t forget that cholera is still a major worldwide public health problem.