Thursday, 6 November 2014


ToddlerCalmTM: A guide for calmer toddlers and happier parents 

by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Piatkus 2013.

I shouldn't have bought this book. My amazon app makes it far too easy to impulse buy.  If I'd looked at a big enough picture to have spotted the 'Foreword by Dr Oliver James' on the cover then I wouldn't have gone near it. Doh.

But it's too late, I bought it and I read (some of) it and now I have to have a rant. Not only because of the advice the book gives. Some of this is terrible and offensive, yes, although not all of it. Some bits seem quite nice. It *is* important to realise that children should not be treated in the same way we treat adults (though interestingly the popular parenting manual 'French children don't throw food' will encourage you to do exactly that).

Other bits manage to be at once silly, wrong and mean. Ockwell-Smith writes "Perhaps the most important question of all that a parent could ask (of controlled crying methods) would be 'Will it cause and long-term negative effects to my child's development and will the process cause them stress and trauma?' The answer here is a very loud 'Yes'." (40). She follows this up with the advice that parents should  instead use aromatherapy massage and a special ToddlerCalmTM cd to lull their little ones to sleep.

Just for the record, Orson didn't do controlled crying, only uncontrolled crying. But seriously, I didn't leave him to cry, I picked him up, sang him songs, jiggled him around, prayed sometimes. I did this because I didn't like hearing him cry. His crying upsets me as, I expect, it was exquisitely designed to do. Babies want us to attend to them. They want us to attend to them all of the time.

Most parents, I assume, have times when nothing but nothing will stop their child from crying. So what is the point of banging on about how damaging it is to children to cry? We feel guilty enough already! Parents everywhere have and always will leave their children to cry for shorter or longer periods and as far as I know, certainly as far as Ockwell-Smith's references reveal, there is no evidence that it causes long term damage of any kind, notwithstanding the evidence of damage done to the neglected orphanage children to which Ockwell-Smith unreasonably compares sleep trained or 'Ferberised' infants. Oliver James cheerfully throws in the opinion that anyone who utilises naughty steps is going to raise a "depressed, sad primary school child". (xiv).

So what else, apart from being wrong, and being cruelly guilt-inducing, is wrong with this book?

First of all, its sexist. "In case you're feeling a little wrung out with all of the science talk..." (28) There is about as much science talk as in the average shampoo advert Sarah, I think we can handle it. I don't hear men writing this way. They commit the same illegitimate claim to specialist secret knowledge, of course, but when they do it they just pretend to be omniscient. They don't do it in a fwuffy bunny wabbit voice while twirling their hair and confiding to the reader that they too find it all baffling but dont worry cos Dr-some-bloke said its true and he knows.

My primary beef, however, is with the patronising but also pernicious manner in which the author presents her work as having a special kind of authority. The 'about the author' blurb says "Sarah is concerned by the numbers of popular 'parenting experts' giving strong opinions with little or no scientific evidence to back up their claims" and she "is famed for her gentle, science-rich, yet easy-to-read books."

What are her credentials? According to the same blurb, Ockwell-Smith has an "undergrad degree in science, then trained as a homeopath, hypnotherapist and doula. Oh. That's not very sciencey at all then. Presumably this is less about Ockwell-Smith's personal expertise and more of a work of science journalism then. Except that there are just 30 references in the whole book. That's just one scientific research article for every 7.5 pages. Maybe I'm being unfair, because this isn't an academic publication so there's no reason it should be groaning with references. I am probably not her target audience, given that I have Oxford University's journal subscription service at my disposal.

The thing is, Ockwell-Smith wants you to believe that science says that the best parents are baby-led, don't do controlled crying or time outs and use aromatherapy. And that just is not reasonable.

There are plenty of things that we know are bad for children. Being shaken. Being fed salt. Receiving inadequate nutrition. Malaria. Let's focus on these instead of muddying everything up by dressing up arguments as scientific just as a rhetorical device to further your opinion.

Sarah is probably a very nice person,but all this science lite had me ripping out my pantene-coated hair in frustration.

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