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‘Natural’ Not Naturally The Best Choice

Mon., June 23, 1997

Q. In one of your books you say young children, even babies, should sleep in their own beds. What law or reason, other than “society,” demands that children sleep alone? You are obviously unaware that before the present century, children and parents sleeping together was the norm and that in most primitive societies this is still the case. It would seem, therefore, that this is the more natural arrangement.

A. The fact that a certain practice was typical of our ancestors or is today common to agrarian and nomadic tribal cultures may qualify it as more “natural,” but let us not confuse “natural” with most desirable or healthy.

If the two were synonymous, our expected life spans would not have more than doubled over the course of historical time. Consider the purification of drinking water, centralized sewage disposal and sanitary methods of food preparation, to name but a few “modern” practices that would hardly qualify - by your definition, at least - as “natural.”

Furthermore, by using aboriginal cultures as the standard of right and proper child-rearing, logic (in short supply these days, it would seem) would then dictate that we embrace genital mutilation of young girls - still practiced by some African tribes - and the killing of female newborns - still practiced in some rural Asian cultures - as “natural.” In the words of today’s teen, I don’t think so.

Regarding historical antecedents, where, in other cultures and in other times, children have slept with their parents, there were no other options. It would have been impractical, perhaps even deadly, for the prehistoric family to hold out for nothing less than a two-bedroom cave. Nor does it make sense for nomadic peoples to lug two-bedroom tents from site to site or Eskimos to waste valuable time and energy building two-bedroom igloos. In America’s past, furthermore, where one found parents and children sleeping together, it was out of necessity (i.e. to keep warm) rather than out of choice.

The characteristics of the particular culture dictate how this issue will be handled. Perhaps in cultures where children usually sleep with their parents, they have evolved other ways of “cutting the cord.” The adolescent puberty rites of some native cultures would be a prime example. In Western cultures, however, the separation of child and parents at bedtime is, I am convinced, crucial to the development of autonomy.

Sleeping in his or her own bed helps establish that the child is an individual with a clear identity. In addition, parents sleeping together and separate from the child strengthens the child’s view of the marriage as the most important relationship within the family. A child who sleeps with his or her parents is in danger of not achieving these understandings, of coming to the inexpressible conclusion that the marriage is a threesome.

Having said all that, I would (as I said in the same book) under certain circumstances bend the general rule. For example, I find nothing wrong with having newborns sleep in their parents’ bedrooms (albeit not in their parents’ beds) for a few months, or letting children come temporarily into their parents’ beds during illness or periods of stress such as might follow a significant death or a house fire. But aside from exceptions such as these, I say “Children to their own beds at an early hour!”

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