Berry Brazelton: The Changing Family (Part One)

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When it comes to baby talk, Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has no equal. He spent a lifetime studying little children, and he learned that in all the “oohing” and “ahhing,” some serious messages are being sent back and forth. Brazelton’s books on child-raising can be found in American homes all across the country. Today’s parents call him the Dr. Spock of their generation. And so it is of particular significance when Dr. Brazelton turns his attention to the problems and challenges of working parents. Brazelton is worried about the way the marketplace is treating families; something precious, he says, is being compromised. 


BILL MOYERS: [to camera] Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. You would think from the campaign this year that the candidates have a new campaign symbol: the stars, stripes, and children. The politicians have been waving the diaper just about as often as they have waved the red flag; read any politician’s lips and you get “family values.” But the family is not what it used to be, and our society is struggling to come to terms with the changes. My guest tonight is one of America’s leading pediatricians. He’s been thinking about the stresses of family life in an era when bringing home the bacon can take priority over bringing up baby. Join me for a conversation with Dr. Berry Brazelton.

[voice-over] Meet Dr. Barry Brazelton, the dean of American pediatrics. When it comes to baby talk, he has no equal. He’s spent a lifetime studying little children, and he’s learned that in all the “oohing” and “ahhing,” some serious messages are being sent back and forth. Hospitals around the world use the Brazelton Behavioral Scale, a test for newborn babies which he invented. He is chief of the Child Development unit at Boston Children’s Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard. In forty years of practice he has helped to raise, by his own count, some 25,000 babies. But that number is actually much higher. Brazelton’s books on child raising — he’s written half a dozen — can be found in American homes all across the country. This generation of parents calls him the Dr. Spock of the eighties. And so it was of particular significance when Dr. Brazelton turned his attention to the problems and challenges of working parents. Brazelton is worried about the way the marketplace is treating families; something precious, he says, is being compromised. Here at his home in Cambridge, we talked about the American family, and how it has changed since we were boys in Texas.

[interviewing] When you were growing up in Central Texas and I was growing up in East Texas, the typical family was the father who went out every day and worked and the mother who was the housewife.


BILL MOYERS: Now, that family now is a minority, isn’t it?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Oh, yes, it’s practically nonexistent. It may exist in 20 percent of families or fifteen. But you know, we still have that myth in the back or our minds; we all think, “Oh, if we could only get back to that,” and this makes a bias. We have a very strong bias in this country that families ought to be self-sufficient and if they’re not they ought to be punished for it. And all of our legislation for families comes with a negative base.

BILL MOYERS: In what way?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: We’ll, you have to be poor or unwed or incompetent, then you get a hand-out from the government. Otherwise you get nothing. And to me that carries with it a kind of Rosenthal effect.

BILL MOYERS: Robert Rosenthal?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Yes. He says that if you label somebody and they know the label — and I think people always do — then they live up to that label. He did it with rats. He labeled a bunch of rats “dumb rats,” and “smart rats” and then he got his graduate students to put them through a maze. None of the “dumb rats” got through the maze and all of the “smart rats” did. But what he found, when he filmed his graduate students was that they picked up a “smart rat” like this (smooth hand movement), and they’d run right through. Picked up a “dumb rat” like this (abrupt hand movement) and the “dumb rat” couldn’t get through. Well, this is what we do to people.

BILL MOYERS: So not only the rat performed as expected, but the people handling the rat.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Performed this. And this is what our government’s doing. We’re treating families that are not able to make it on their own as if they were “dumb rats.” And of course they fall apart.

BILL MOYERS: And then the “smart rats,” the people that we think can make it, you’re saying, can’t make it alone anymore. That the old myth of the rugged individual; of the self-sufficient family, is just that, myth.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, our society is too stressed. We have a very seriously stressed society in this country.

BILL MOYERS: Stressed? What do you mean?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I think right now we know some things pretty clearly; that women are in the midst or a real tearing struggle. And the struggle is: Should I be at home? Should I not be at home? Should I work? Should I not? What am I not giving my children if I have to be away from them? And women’s roles right now are very much on the mat — And most women are torn in two, whether they’re staying at home or whether they’re working is not important.

BILL MOYERS: They feel guilty either way.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Either way. And I think that means we’ve got to back women up. And I think men are going to be in that same role in a very few years. as they take more and more interest in their families and are more and more involved. So we’re into a personality struggle of trying to find identity; young people are. And I would like to back them up for whatever decision they make, and be sure that they can do a good job by themselves. And then they’ll bring that sense of power home to their kids and their kids’ll do well.


T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Power. Yes, as women get into the work force and find they’re competent, they come home feeling great and they can pick that baby up and say, “Ah, hi, I missed you all day long.” And sit there and rock these kids and get close to them. And to come home feeling, “Oh, I shouldn’t have been away from him all day, he’s missed me so much.” And then they’re going to pick him up, he’ll scream, they’ll feel, “Oh, my gosh,” put him down, walk away. And we’ve lost them, lost the mother and the baby.

BILL MOYERS: You used to believe that mothers should be there, at least for the first year with the newborn. Have you changed on that?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: No, have you?

BILL MOYERS: No. No, except that I have come to believe that I missed a great deal because I felt inadequate when my children were young and left that to my wife who seemed instinctively to know what to do.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Why don’t you try again?

BILL MOYERS: I think three took out of me all I had to give. I’ll tell you why I don’t do it again. I just don’t know how to be the best father I ought to be. I don’t know the art of it. I’m afraid of making mistakes one side or the other and if I’ve gotten through with luck, and thanks to the beneficence of my wife’s instinctual talents to raise children, I don’t think I want to try again. Three times, and I’ve come out well, they’ve come out well; but it’s too risky.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, you’re projecting, projecting onto your wife, you see. The only reason I say that is that you would get so much out of it this time. You know, I think what we’re missing is that people who aren’t participating in the marvelous miracle of having a baby and raising that baby in the first months and seeing that baby look back at you and say, “Hey, she’s looking at me, she’s smiling at me,” don’t ever reach another level of development themselves. And so I think, yes, I really believe parents — both parents — ought to be very involved with their babies and their small children. I don’t think the first year is even a possibility in this country any longer.


T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Because, well, I think financially, we’ve stressed people beyond that. I think psychologically women are really too torn right now to feel comfortable or happy about staying at home for the first year. I hope that any mother who watches this will realize that staying home the first year is like giving a big gift to your child. But most people don’t have that choice.

BILL MOYERS: I read just the other day that it now takes two full-time wage-earners to buy, essentially what one check would buy up until the early 1970s, so this is not altogether a matter of choice is it? There is an economic urge, an economic imperative that drives both parents out into the market now.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I think 50 percent of the women in this country haven’t a choice. They have to work. The other 20 to 30 percent might have a choice but there’s a very subtle thing going on right now in my practice at least, that young women say, “But I might be one of that statistic of being a single parent.” Fifty percent of families are breaking down. “I might be one of that 50 percent.”

BILL MOYERS: “I might have to make it on my own?”

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I have to make it. And for my children’s sake, I’ve got to keep my career going. That’s so subtle that I think there may be other things like that going on in women’s minds right now, that if I get out of the work force, I’ve lost something that I can’t repair. And I think rather than ignoring it or getting mad at it — which, you know, it’s easy for men to do — we’d better think what it is and help them see what it is so they can make appropriate choices.

BILL MOYERS: But let’s look at the contradiction you raised. You still believe, as you indicated, that women should be with their newborns for at least the first year. And yet you’ve just said, economically they have to get out into the marketplace. So that seems to be an irreconcilable contradiction.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, it is at this point. But I think if national government, state government, individual businesses, and individual families were willing to look at it they could triage the cost of that in a way.

BILL MOYERS: Triage meaning that?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, cut it into four pieces so it didn’t hurt anybody and then make it possible for women at least to stay home long enough to know that baby is my baby and I’m that baby’s mother, and do the same thing for fathers. Be sure they stayed home long enough to feel that.

BILL MOYERS: You’ve seen parents who never bonded with their children in those first few months?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Never dared.

BILL MOYERS: And what happened?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: A lot of young women today’ll say they don’t want to breast-feed because they have to go back to work too early. You’ll say, yes, but you can do it and go back to work, and it’s so neat to come home and put the baby to breast at the end of the day. And they’ll say, “I can’t do it.” Why not? “Well, I can’t stand to see him in somebody else’s arms.” And their eye’ll fill up with tears, and they’ll say, “I don’t want to breast-feed, it’s to painful.” So, what they’re talking about is how painful it is to separate if you’re that close and leave them with somebody else. Now we can take care of that, if we thought about it.

BILL MOYERS: In what way?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, we can provide decent day care where they felt safe about leaving their babies. And then when they came home we could provide them with enough information about how to get close again. And how to dare separate and come back and make it again.

BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that the family that bonds together early is more likely, as the years come and go, to stay together?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: If you learn to bond to a new baby, it’s a rare opportunity that you ever have that much energy ready to give to somebody else. If you learn what bonding’s all about and how hard it is to stay attached. Bonding is falling in love, but attachment is hard work. You stay attached. If you learn that you can get through those first three months and that baby still looks at you and smiles and vocalizes and says “Oooo,” and you say “Oooo” back and then he says “Oooo” a second time and then you say, “Yes.” And you see that baby, you know, coming right in every time to just grab you with his eyes or his mouth or everything else. You know what it’s like to be attached and you don’t want to give that up so much when the stresses come in a marriage or come later. So I think this is an opportunity for young people to learn what the work of attachment’s all about. The rewards of attachment. And there aren’t many chances like that in life.

BILL MOYERS: You make an interesting distinction, bonding is falling in love, the giving of oneself to a natural affection. And attachment is a choice, an act of will, a commitment.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: It’s learning. It’s a learning process. You learn what that person needs to give back to you, and what you have to give to get that person to give back to you. A baby that looks at you and says, “Oooo.” You have to imitate everything that baby’s doing. When the baby goes “Oooo” you sort of go “Oooo” with him, then you let down, then you go with him. We know from our work now that a mother and a baby get locked into this in-out, in-out, four times a minute, looking like this, looking like this. I call it “prostitute’s eyes,” because prostitutes use them. And what they’re doing all that time is saying to each other, “You are important. You are important.” And the baby —

BILL MOYERS: Prostitute’s eyes?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Yes, prostitutes use that, when they look at you like that, that’s saying, “Come on in.” Well, a baby does that. And if a mother’s tuned up, she does it with him, or a father when he looks at him. And they’re learning what it takes to get that baby to look at them that way.

BILL MOYERS: What happens to mothers who don’t bond in this early time? Later on, many years later, what happens to them? What do they think?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I think they always feel manqué, they feel like they’ve missed something. I think fathers do to.


T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Yes. Fathers who went off to the Korean War, for instance, and their wife had a baby; I could see when they got back they never quite understood that first child. And it wasn’t until the second child came along and they watched that baby come through everything and then you could see ’em sort of say “Hey, that’s what this kid’s all about, to.” So, missing out on that early on for either parent is like missing a whole part of your life.

BILL MOYERS: Are you convinced that fathers’ involvement makes a difference?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Oh, no question. Every bit of research we have shows that. Let me tell you why. By two weeks of age — well, by seven days of age a newborn will know its mother’s voice from another woman’s voice and will choose it every time. By fourteen days, if the father’s involved, that baby will choose his father’s voice and face from another male voice and face. So in fourteen days, he’s learned what his father’s all about. Now, by four weeks of age, if you put a baby in a baby chair and the mother comes into talk to him, the baby either needs to see her face or hear her voice and he gets like this, ready for the mother, and his eyes go like this. [facial expression] His fingers, his toes go out like this and he’s ready to talk to his mother. If his father looms in sight, or if he hears his father’s voice behind him, he’ll go like this, [facial expression] ready to play with the father. Because all fathers come in and pounce, what they call pounce. They come in and they say, “How are you doin’, kid?” And they stand at the bottom and poke to the top and then when they get a “Woo!” out of the four-week-old baby, they start again.

And so by four weeks of age the baby’s learned the modes of each parent. And gives back the fact that he knows them. Well, what father doesn’t recognize that when he goes in and the baby goes, [facial expression], he immediately says, “Hey, you know me.” So he stands in to poke. And to me this is so important, as an onion skin, a peeler-offer if you will. Because every adult is ready for this kind of involvement.

BILL MOYERS: And what do you see happening to fathers who don’t go through this when they’re young men?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I think there’s an anger that goes with it. This is what frightens me about young people who are having to leave their babies right now. That there’s an anger about being torn away from that experience — very unconscious anger for most part — but a kind of grieving that goes with it to. You know, feeling guilty, feeling like everything that happens bad is my fault. Even twelve years later, if something goes wrong, it’s my fault. I wasn’t there those first few months. Then they defend themselves with three defenses and these are universal, for my money, they’re right across the board. One is denial; denying that it matters, denying that anybody’s suffering. And it distorts your point of view. You don’t know how to handle denials, it’s very critical. Everybody has to have it. The second is projection; projecting onto other people all the good things and you take the bad, or vice versa, and it’s what makes people accuse day-care people of hurting their child or molesting their child. The third is detachment; detaching from the baby, not because you don’t care but because it hurts so much to care. So you pull away and this is what’s scary. This is what happens to fathers, and happened in our generation.

BILL MOYERS: Are there not studies that also show that women take some hope and strength from a husband who is involved as a father in those first few months?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: No question. All of the studies that we’ve got in this country so far about involving fathers show that they’re ready to be involved. We can show the baby, the newborn, to the father on the third day and we know that he’ll be significantly more sensitive to his baby at a month and significantly more involved in a year, with both the baby and his spouse. And also, at a year, the baby will have a higher I.Q. on Bailey, on the exam. But at seven, the studies show that if the father’s been involved in the first year, the baby will not only have a higher I.Q. and will perform better in school but will have a better sense of humor. How about that?

BILL MOYERS: A better sense of humor?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Better sense of humor. And to me that’s worth fighting for.

BILL MOYERS: How do you attribute that?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I think fathers bring something very special to babies, you know, this look [facial expression]. We call it a “pounce” look. The baby sits there ready to be pounced on and ready to play, ready to squeal. And fathers do that just automatically. So they’re very precious.

BILL MOYERS: What about the child? What does the child miss if he or she doesn’t bond with the mother and father?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, you know what a child needs is — every time they do something, somebody should be there to say, “Hey, that was great” Because a child has an inner sense of having achieved something, like learning to walk. You know, you watch a child trying to learn to walk. When he finally gets on his feet, he walks, walks, walks like, “Wow, isn’t this exciting? I just got where I always wanted to be.” And you can see on his face that he gets an inner sense of himself; but if somebody’s there to say, “You are great” then be gets a double barreled shot of, “Wow, I am important” Now you see that all the way through, you know, when he looks at the mother and says, “Oooo” and she says, “Oooo” back, he’s getting a sense, of “I can ‘Oooo’ but then I get a response.”

All of that contributes to a sense of competence in the child. What I call a sense of competence, that I feel good about myself, I know I can conquer the world. Now if he doesn’t have that through infancy, he never gets that later on. It’s hard to put it in later. And if he doesn’t have it, he grows up with a sense of, “Ah, it doesn’t matter what I do.” And these kids that never get it will run into furniture, they’ll nip, they’ll make you so angry you want to strangle ’em. And those kids are showing you they expect to fail. We can see a sense of failure in kids as early as nine months of age. And those kids, we can predict, will become difficult in school; they’ll never succeed in school; they’ll make everybody angry, they’ll become delinquents later and eventually they’ll be terrorists.

BILL MOYERS: Terrorists?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: That’s what I’m afraid of. I think we’re creating a generation of kids that are right open for terrorism.

BILL MOYERS: And you think that goes back to the sense of failure, the sense of unworthiness that comes in this bonding period — or doesn’t come in this bonding period.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I saw it in Cambodia when I went over there, these kids that have been through that holocaust as adolescents sit there with vacant eyes, not looking. And if you hand them a gun and say, “Shoot there,” they’ll shoot there, there, there. They don’t have any past, they don’t have any future. Why should they care?

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t there also a danger, though, on the other side? The danger of saying to children, “You are so important,” so early, so uncritically that they become another generation of “me first,” another generation of “I’m all that matters”?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Right, yes there is. And I think that’s what we did last generation so we don’t need to repeat it. We didn’t say to them, at a certain point, “That’s enough. You stop right there and now you help me, you come back to the kitchen.” I’m telling young parents now who come home from work, that they’ve got to cheat on the work force first and save up enough energy so when they get home they walk in the door, they pick up all the kids, sit down in a rocking chair and rock. And everybody gets close again and at some point or other the kids squirm and want to get away. At that point the mother says to them, “Okay, now we’ve had our time together, now come on and help me in the kitchen.” And they come to help. They aren’t going to do it without yanking them or whatever you have to do but, they are going to come. And if you pass on that sense as well as that you’re wonderful, that because you’re wonderful, you can help.

You know, learning to parent is learning from mistakes, not from success. You don’t learn much when you’re successful, but you sure learn when you’re wrong. And if you start out early, ready to make mistakes but learning from them, kids can learn with you. And they learn from your mistakes too. So really parenting is made up of many, many failures. But we no longer have a set of values that people can really believe in. What we need are real belief systems; we have diluted the ones we had so much that people don’t know what they’re raising their kids for anymore.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example.

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, a mother will say, “Should I discipline him? Should I not? Should I teach him to help me in the kitchen? Should I not?” And, you know, where are our values? It’s easy for me to answer both of those things, but it isn’t easy for a mother.

BILL MOYERS: What is your answer? I think people know what you’re saying, the diagnosis is valid, but they’re not sure why it’s happened. Where are those values? What’s happened to them?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: Well, I think young people are very conflicted. They went through such a terrible time in the 60s and families went through such a terrible time that I don’t believe parents know any longer what they’re raising their children to become. And they’re afraid they’ll go through the same kind of drug acting out, all the acting out that went on in the 60s. And so they don’t know which way to go. Should I just nurture my children and give them positive reinforcement? Or should I put some limits? You’ve got to give kids a sense of themselves and a sense of yourself as strong and understanding what you’re up to, then you can expect that kid to have a sense of competence, sense of I’m impatient, and then they can face whatever they have to. This is where we’re really in danger right now; we are not doing that in any class, but certainly not in the middle class.

BILL MOYERS: But a society can’t declare that values shall exist, and they exist. How do you bring values back into the public place?

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: I think you have to start with the adults. You have to value them, and you have to value the struggles they’re into and say, “Hey, those are really important struggles you’re up to, and you’re doing a damned good job.” And be sure they are doing a good job.

BILL MOYERS: But that implies the hope of coherence and of consensus when, in fact, we’re a society where subcultures are warring with each other, fighting to invest those values with our own particular meaning.


BILL MOYERS: Right wing says, “Mother back in the home.” Left wing says, “Mother out there in the market place full-time, succeeding and competing like everybody else.”

T. BERRY BRAZELTON: You realize what you’re saying? We’re an either/or society, and we don’t ever look for what goes on in the middle. What’s the compromise? How do we pay for the compromise? And I think it’s because we still have left it up to the individual. We’ve said, “You’ve got to be competent And you’ve got to do this or you’ve got to do this.” And somewhere we’ve come to another era in which we’re going to have to look at our governments, our state, and local governments as supplementing families, not pushing them to do something.

BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Tomorrow night in Part 2 of our conversation, Dr. Brazelton discusses his ideas about what the country can do to back up families. From Cambridge Massachusetts, I’m Bill Moyers.

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