Last week I published a long podcast episode on why we shouldn’t read Dr. Louise Bates Ames’ Your X-Year-Old child books any more, which got quite a big response from listeners. In this blog post I’ll briefly summarize the main points of that episode and then answer the question I received most often via email and in the free Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group, which was: “well, then, what should I read instead?”
Why we shouldn’t read the Your X-Year-Old child books
There seem to be two main reasons why people recommend the Your X-Year-Old child books:
- Because parents feel alone, and want to know that there are other parents out there who are in the same boat as them;
- Because parents want to know if their child’s seemingly incomprehensible behavior is ‘normal.’
When the books are recommended this most often comes with the caveat that the reader should ‘strip out the outdated gender roles crap’ but that the rest of the information in the books is still relevant today. That didn’t sit well with me but I couldn’t quite figure out why for a long time; I recently came back to the question after spending the better part of a year digging into these topics as I wrote my book, and suddenly the pieces clicked into place in a way they hadn’t before.
The Your X-Year-Old Child books are built on research conducted by Dr. Arnold Gesell that started in the 1920s, and aimed to find out how ‘normal’ children developed. There are a number of reasons why this is problematic:
- Gesell deliberately selected White parents who were considered to be in the middle class in the 1930s (so they had job titles like butcher, electrician, and factory operator – ‘unemployed’ was not a possible option). Dr. Gesell was trying to avoid the stressors that are often associated with poverty and racism, as well as the economic advantages that money can bring to education and housing, and say that the remaining middle class children are going to develop exactly ‘normally;’ in other words, as they would in the absence of cultural influence. But, as I’m sure we can now understand, there is nothing ‘normal’ about the way middle class White children were reared between 1927 and 1931.
- Gesell provides precise instructions for the 27 pieces of equipment to be used in the exam (e.g. a glass bottle 7cm in height and 2cm in diameter at the opening), and for the procedure itself as well (e.g. small objects are to be presented by being held between the index finger and thumb with the other fingers drawn back and advanced down the mid-line of the table in front of the child). This method provides a veneer of scientific neutrality, as if the research is value-neutral when in fact it is anything but value-neutral.
- Instead, the study’s methods were grounded in the cultural norms of the time. As an example, the protocol for testing a four-month-old child involves strapping the child upright in a chair while presenting them with the study objects.There’s also a protocol for what Dr. Gesell called the ‘pulled to sitting’ position, where the researcher trains the child to anticipate being pulled into a sitting position, even as he is looking to understand what constitutes normal development in the absence of cultural influences.The cultural influences are so baked into the study that Dr. Gesell doesn’t see them, and Dr. Gesell then rates the baby’s performance on the task that he has determine is the appropriate one – handling the ball or cube or whatever other object is placed on the table in front of them. Gesell apparently doesn’t notice when a child seems to be using their hands to hold themselves up and relieve pressure from the chest strap, and instead marks them down on their performance in handling the ball or the cube.
- Only the child’s interactions with the provided objects that happen in the ways Dr. Gesell expects are counted as ‘valid.’ If the child handled the object in an inappropriate way they would be trained to handle it in the right way. For example, the only acceptable response to having a ball rolled to you is to roll it back. Any attempt to look at it more closely or feel its texture or shake it to see if it made a sound would be considered ‘invalid’ actions, and the researcher would press the ball out of the baby’s hands to train them how to roll it back.There is no attempt to understand the child’s behavior outside of what the researcher has decided is the appropriate thing to do with the object – which the researcher considers to be ‘normal.’ Children’s own creativity and ways of exploring and understanding objects are completely ignored.
- Gesell apparently believed that because the babies’ performance was recorded on film, it represented a true and complete record not just of what physically happened, but inside the child’s mind as they interacted with the objects. He often begins books by looking back to the moment of conception and tracing the development and movement of viewable parts of the fetus. The analysis is then seamlessly continued, via filming, after the baby’s birth – as if watching the formation of mouth movements and the movement of a leg in response to touch in utero is the same as understanding a child’s brain development by recording them engaging with toys in a lab.
- The mother (and it was always the mother who took the baby to the lab) sat outside the big photographic dome the experiments took place in, because removing her from view was intended to create a situation where only the baby’s performance is examined. But babies don’t exist in isolation at home!We have no idea how their performance in the lab was related to what they would have done at home, with the interactions of both parents and siblings, and with lots of other objects to draw their attention, and without Dr. Gesell’s running commentary whenever they did something.
- The information in the various books that Dr. Gesell and Dr. Bates Ames wrote is often contradictory. In one, Dr. Gesell concludes that “at 18 months a child has learned that certain objects must not be touch and he inhibits without command,” yet in the Your Two-Year-Old Child book Dr. Ames says that a two-year-old can’t be given the run of the house because “he [sic] still tends to produce his own kind of havoc.” No reason is given for this discrepancy, which is repeated on a variety of topics.
- Gesell and Dr. Bates Ames see maturation as a journey that the infant undergoes until they ‘arrive’ at the peak experience of adulthood. Anyone who isn’t able to contribute productively in a capitalist society is seen as a burden who is somehow less than fully human (Dr. Gesell draws on a paper published in Eugenics Review to make this point). This view of what constitutes a valuable human being is deeply steeped in cultural values, and is not ‘natural’ or inevitable.
The Your X-Year-Old Child book by Dr. Louise Bates Ames (she was Dr. Gesell’s research partner and later established the Institute at Yale University that was named for him) have a number of specific problems as well:
- One of the primary ideas in the books is that development proceeds in a certain pattern of equilibrium and disequilibrium, which is very attractive to parents as they seek explanations for their children’s difficult behavior. But she adds extensive caveats that not all children will behave this way all the time and in fact, “some will behave that way scarcely any of the time.”She says that the exact age is less important than that the sequence is followed…but then “each child gives his [sic] own individual twist to the sequence” because “each child is an individual, and that you must always keep in mind.” So what’s the point of naming the specific ages of equilibrium and disequilibrium?
- The advice in the books is really no more accurate than a horoscope. Some of it is always true, Some of it can be back-fitted and seen to be true in hindsight, and some of it you have to look past to find the stuff that does fit. A first-born child might be a genius, or they might be (excuse the outdated and offensive term) “retarded.” So why is birth order important?
- Then there’s that pesky outdated gender crap – in Dr. Bates Ames’ older, more academic books, Father comes home from work and “generously” offering to take over feeding, and when the child’s behavior doesn’t pass muster, Father insists that “it’s time the child learns to mind.”These ideas show up in a slightly gentler form in Your Two-Year-Old Child: “Without any parental pressure, most girls do prefer dolls; and most boys, stuffed animals, and when the parents have decided that they won’t acquiesce to the child’s demands, “Mother may be able to handle this herself, but father’s firm voice may need to be raised to stop these seemingly endless demands.”All of this reinforces the heteronormative patriarchal power structure: father at the top telling everyone else how it will be, and Mother as his emissary enforcing Father’s directives.
- Parents are taught to use tips and tricks to get their child to “mind” (we might now say “listen”, but either way we mean: “do what I want them to do”). These include keeping up a rapid patter to distract them, letting the child feel like he [sic] is making the choice, not giving choices in important situations, and making sure to ignore tantrums. All of this advice is designed to maintain the patriarchal order, overriding the child’s needs and threatening to withdraw the parent’s love and affection to get them to comply with our wishes.
Every single decision we make about our child’s life – from living in a single family home with a fenced yard to providing every opportunity enrich our child’s life to paying for hired help because we don’t have a ‘village’ to rely on happens in a cultural context. So it isn’t possible to simply ‘strip out’ the outdated cultural information in the Your X-Year-Old Child books because the cultural context and the child’s development continually affect and are affected by each other.
Dr. Gesell himself told us in one of his books that parenting ideas from 100 years before he wrote seemed outdated and shouldn’t be used. I believe the time has now come to consider the Your X-Year-Old child books, which were written on the 1980s based on research done in the 1930s, as outdated and no longer useful, so we shouldn’t read these books any more.
What should we read instead?
When I posted about the new episode in the free Your Parenting Mojo Facebook group, one parent said: “Oh no don’t take these away from me, I can’t find any better substitute.”
Another asked: “I had just put these on my Christmas list. What are alternatives?”
I did cover this topic briefly at the end of the episode, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail on that here.
Let’s go back to the two main reasons why I think people read these books that we opened this blog post with, and address them in turn:
- Parents feel alone, and want to know that there are other parents out there who are in the same boat as them.
I totally hear you on this. When your child is doing things that seem bizarre, you want to know you’re not the only one. You want to know that other parents have had similar experiences and they’ve made it out in one piece and with their sanity intact. I get it. But why are we looking to get this sense of solidarity from a book that’s written based on old research grounded in values that we don’t hold? It would be much more productive to build community with people who share our values; maybe even people we can interact with in real life. The people who live in our building and on our street and in our community.
It’s so tempting to think: there’s no time for that. I can’t leave the house. I don’t have a sitter.
Well, what if you traded house cleaning help? One week you clean a friend’s house, and the next week they come over and help you.
Or if you have a partner, trade partners for an evening catch-up – one member of each couple goes to the other’s house – no babysitter required, and any child who wakes up agitated has one of their own parents at home.
Or exchange meals with another family – it’s hardly any more work to cook a double recipe, and one night a week you get the night off from cooking.
This is where we can find real community.
- Parents want to know if their child’s seemingly incomprehensible behavior is ‘normal’
Children do a lot of things that can seem incomprehensible. I’ve worked with parents whose children have smeared poop all over their crib, peed in the HVAC vents, fought continuously with their siblings, hit their parent (repeatedly and regularly) for no apparent reason…the list goes on.
This behavior seems incomprehensible, but it isn’t.
It’s always an expression of a need.
Our job is to be the detective who looks for the need underlying the behavior – when we meet that need, the behavior we find so obnoxious very often goes away.
In my book I’ll help you to draw your child’s ‘needs cupcake’ – the needs they’re trying to meet over and over again that sit like a cherry on top of the ‘cupcake’ of all their other needs that pop up more intermittently.
For many children these cherry-on-top needs are things like autonomy, connection, and movement. And 90+% of the time it is possible to meet their need and meet your need as well.
But what if we can’t find the need? I argue that this is when we should look for professional help. Rather than comparing our child to an arbitrary average (that’s grounded in White supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist values from the 1930s), we can look to understand whether we’re able to meet the needs of the child in front of us and if we can’t, then we should look for more support. A professional may be able to identify unmet sensory needs that are overriding the more common needs for connection and autonomy that many children have, or needs for interacting with other people in ways that are less stressful than the ways we’ve been trying to get our child to interact with other people, or things they can do in school to quiet part of their mind so they can concentrate on what the teacher is saying.
But the key is that we’re looking at this child’s unmet needs, not at comparing them with a ‘normal’ child.
There are very, very few books that will help you to do this. Dr. Mona Delahooke’s book Beyond Behaviors is one; I interviewed her for a podcast episode (the title references anxiety but the ideas are useful whether or not your child is experiencing this).
The outstanding little book Parenting From Your Heart by Inbal Kashtan is another; she uses tools related to Non-Violent Communication that I looked at in this episode.
Hunter Clarke-Fields’ book Raising Good Humans and Carla Naumburg’s book How to Stop Losing Your Shit With Your Kids can help you to do the inner work to stay calm enough to do this work in difficult moments (my Taming Your Triggers workshop helps you to do this in community, which can help you to take on the ideas in your body and not just in your head, which is much more difficult when you’re doing the work by yourself).
And of course this is the entire purpose of my book (which is currently title-less! If you have ideas, please be in touch!), due out in August 2023. If you’d like to find out when I’ll be near you to do a book reading – and potentially a full-day workshop based on the ideas in the book as well, you can sign up to find out more at yourparentingmojo.com/book.
(Links to books are affiliate links.)