Crunchy Conservative Parenting: On Co-Sleeping, and Actions vs. Ideology


Yesterday, Suzanne Venker had a post concerning co-sleeping that may have been well-intentioned, but spends a good deal of its time attacking the wrong target. We don’t disagree that our culture at large is too concerned with being PC, and often too sensitive to children’s self-esteem (see George Will’s excellent article in yesterday’s Washington Post). But we do take issue with some of her assertions and arguments.  In response to the Stephanopoulos’ sleep issues, she has only this advice to offer:

And there’s no greater loss of control than lying in one’s bed with one’s spouse with children who refuse to leave your space. The answer to the sleep problem is simple: Never let your children sleep in your bed in the first place.

With all due respect to Suzanne, this is the same kind of rigid, one-size-fits-all parenting approach that, on the flip side, also says “never spank your children” or “always put your child’s feelings first.” We understand her desire to fight against an ultra-permissive PC culture, but we believe she winds up throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak.

On one particular point concerning co-sleeping, we do agree with her. In the Mathison’s situation, yes, it is completely possible to get a 3 and 6 year old to sleep in their own beds. It might take a firm hand, but it might also just resolve itself as the kids grow out of the need to be close to their parents at night. (How many middle schoolers do you know who sleep with their parents?) In any event, we don’t think the problem is that they should have never allowed their children in their beds in the first place.

Co-sleeping works for many families, and to infer that those who choose to keep their children close to them at night are wishy-washy, no-backbone, ultra-permissive parents is insulting to those who have chosen co-sleeping for its many benefits, including easier breastfeeding at night, a close family bond, a reduced risk of SIDS in infants  and more sleep. We also fail to see how choosing to co-sleep with is the politically correct, socially accepted choice. In our experience, the culture at large was very hostile and ignorant about co-sleeping. We were often looked at like some kind of freaks for making a parenting choice that created a closer breastfeeding relationship between Alissa and our son.  Indeed, one only has to peruse the comment section of Suzanne’s to see that kind of hostility on display from commenters  who clearly have no understanding of co-sleeping. Additionally, it is extremely elitist to say that children should never sleep with their parents, and that their proper place is in the crib down the hall; not everyone has that kind of space. In many cultures around the world, co-sleeping is not only accepted, but the norm.

Co-sleeping worked for us for about 10 months; after that we transitioned our son to his crib and then into his own room, where he now sleeps (note that there is a large difference between moving a 10-month old to his own room and letting him cry for a while, and doing the same thing to a relative newborn). But if and when other Birkel children come along, we will definitely co-sleep with them in the beginning. We have seen the benefits — we have a little boy who is healthy and thriving, happy and secure.

And here’s the rub—just because we co-slept, doesn’t mean that we are permissive, anything-goes, hippie-dippy parents. We maintain discipline in the house—Sam gets his little bottom swatted when he tries to pull the lamp off the table, or throws his food on the floor when he’s done with dinner. The amazing thing about parenting choices is that they aren’t a package deal—you can pick and choose what works best for your family and your children while still maintaining an overall style that seems best to you.  There is a real danger here in the political blogosphere to assume that because a person is on the left politically, that every choice they make is therefore, wrong. We know that Stephanopolus is a political leftist. But assuming we didn’t know that, could we jump to that conclusion with sound logic simply by knowing he co-slept with his kids? No.  Even now, we have no evidence that he made that choice because he is liberal politically, or that he is struggling to get his kids to sleep in their own beds because he’s a leftist. Neither of those conclusions logically follow.

The problem in the Stephanopolous family seems to be (and we can’t say not being there) that they have a sleeping arrangement that no longer works for them. If co-sleeping makes everyone in the family happy, if both parents and the children are OK with it, then there’s nothing wrong with it. Co-sleeping in and of itself doesn’t make for unruly kids. Trust us, we know just as many spoiled, undisciplined children whose parents tiptoe around every their feeling and sniffle, but who put them to sleep in their own rooms at night.

Inherently leftist hobby, or healthy lifestyle choice?

Now, here’s our point. It may be true that more people who co-sleep are also more likely to make parenting choices that forgo necessary discipline, but that’s not a reason to condemn the practice. After all, more organic gardeners are leftist types, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying a good home-grown tomato or pepper. Many musicians hold to some out-there political beliefs, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Bob Dylan, the Clash or the Decemberists.

And isn’t the point of conservatism that we should be free to make our own choices? After all, there are plenty of us “crunchy cons” out there. Those who are quick dismiss anyone who makes a different parenting (or gardening, or musical, or literary) choice may find their list of political allies extraordinarily small.