CARTOONS; AND ROCKABYE, BABY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
CARTOONS; AND ROCKABYE, BABY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. A fond recollection I have from around the age of 5 was of my mother coming down the street, returning from work, and my calling out to her, loudly but lovingly, “Mammy Yoakum, Mammy Yoakum,” whom you might recall (age permitting) was the pipe-smoking mother to Al Capp’s “Little Abner.”

Cannot tell you how long that had gone on, nor how long it continued nor why. Someone smarter than I might use the word transference in a long sentence. All I know is that for several years she was my Mammy Yoakum.

A. And of course every little boy wanted to be her L’il Abner! I did. What a delightful memory! Why ruin it by psychoanalyzing it? Your mother sounds great, that she could accept the teasing of being called “Mammy Yoakum,” and that you remember her and your boisterous welcome the way you do.

I surely remember L’il Abner and the Al Capp comic strip, as will some of our readers. It is fun to have you respond to our other reader’s question with your own wonderful childhood memories. Sometimes comic strips seemed to carry so much meaning, and other times they didn’t seem to mean much — except that one could picture the whole country sharing the same experience every Sunday morning.

My grandchildren have replaced them with video games, and they aren’t the same. Their video games seem to be reflecting the ominous, dangerous world we have created for them. It makes me sad, and I’d like to return to Mammy Yoakum and Lil Abner and Daisy Mae! Wouldn’t you?

A recent column recommended a rocking chair as a parents’ helper at a child’s bedtime. Here a mother also endorses good rocking tonight.

Q. My younger daughter never had to be told to go to bed when very young: When tired, she would voluntarily go to their bedroom and fall asleep. The older was so tightly wound that she could not fall asleep unless held. Even by grade school she was still having difficulty falling asleep, and would keep her sister awake chatting.

It was at that point that I brought the rocker into their bedroom and began reading to myself while they fell asleep. I read quite a few books that way that otherwise I would never have gotten around to. Eventually they got the knack of relaxing and didn’t need help anymore. This worked very well for us.

A. It always amazes me that two children in the same family — same genetics and same environment — can be so different. I admire your restraint, and your ingenuity.

Instead of blowing up at the older, more tightly strung girl, you found a way to set quiet limits on her difficulty in falling asleep. Your quiet, unreactive presence was more impressive than words would have been. It said to her, “I’m here and I will stay with you until you can learn how to calm yourself down.’

Your measured response physical presence, without holding or rocking — signaled to her: “I can’t do it for you but I can keep you company.” Your quiet presence was just enough to encourage her to keep on trying as she struggled to find her own ways of calming herself.

Learning how to calm herself down is a difficult problem for such a high-geared little person. And yet, it is necessary, as an adjunct to learning how to sleep through the night. We all come up from deep sleep to light sleep every three to four hours through the night.

A child who is temperamentally so reactive is likely to come to full awakening every four hours. Unless she can learn how to help herself relax and find her own way back to sleep, she may grow up unable to sleep through the night. But your ability to leave it to her to find her own pattern of relaxing, will equip her to handle every rousing with her own way — rocking, hugging herself, shifting positions, sucking a thumb — of getting herself back down into deep sleep. Your rocking chair and books were a therapeutic way of letting her solve her own problems in getting to sleep.

One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is this delicate balance between doing just enough for the child and leaving the child just enough room for her to learn and reach new heights. What makes this even more complicated is that the balance is different from one child to the next, and within the same child it is always changing as the child develops. Bravo!

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.