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Bringing Up Baby, by Frances Bennett (Center City Workshop)

Trash your copies of Brazelton and Spock. Who needs their sage counsel when free advice is available for the taking? Just stand in any super market line with a squalling baby and someone is sure to tell you how to keep that child quiet. Often the advice starts even before the child is born.

When I was pregnant with our first child, we lived in an apartment near Columbia University. The building was filled with well-meaning but nosey people. I worked at the University and my husband was a graduate student. When my brother got accepted by the graduate school, he came to stay with us until he could find an apartment of his own. Now, you must understand that some people work late into the night and don't get started until mid-morning. That is my husband. Others are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed early in the day. That describes me and my brother. Consequently, brother and I would leave for Columbia together in the morning and return together in the evening. One evening a lady asked my brother when his baby was due. He was not about to explain that the pregnant woman was his sister and not his wife, so he simply said "I don’t know."

She persisted."What hospital is she going to?" to which my brother replied, "I don't know that either, but I'm sure the missus has taken care of it." She seemed a bit unsettled by that reply, so she said "Well, my name is Mrs. Miller and I live in Apartment 5A. If you need me when the time comes, please don't hesistate to ask."

My brother said "Thank you, ma'am" and continued in the elevator up to our place.

A few weeks later, my brother had found his own apartment and had all the paraphernalia of moving in the elevator. The elevator door stopped at the fifth floor and Mrs. Miller got on. If looks could kill! She was clearly ready to massacre my brother for being such a cad, walking out on his wife at a time like that. What could he do? Very patiently, he shrugged his shoulders and admitted "I can't help it, ma'am. She's taken up with that redhead." From that time on, Mrs. Miller remained totally unconcerned with our well-being. In fact, she cut us dead. What a blessing!

But that didn't keep other people in our building from offering suggestions after the baby was born. The woman who lived across the air shaft from us somehow found our phone number. She would call to tell us that we should really change the positions of our furniture. Worst of all, she found it ridiculous that I was feeding a three month old baby "who should be feeding herself."

Those were days when we were living on a graduate student stipend, so we belonged to a baby-sitting co-op along with other students. One afternoon I bundled up our second child, then a few months old, in the carriage, put his sister in the carriage too, sitting with her legs on either side of her brother, sat a friend's child in the carriage seat on the handlebars, and made the two other children of the neighbor clamp their hands on either side of the carriage. In this fashion we walked down Riverside Drive. The old folks sitting on the benches which line the walkway watched as we passed. And all I heard was "Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk. She ought to be ashamed of herself."

It would be one thing if the advice were useful, but invariably it was provided by old ladies who, if they had married, had long forgotten the rules of child-rearing. But their cluckings and vocal disapproval were quite daunting for a young mother. If you happened to complain to an old lady that your baby was colicky, watch out. As a rule, the main topic of conversation among older folk has to do with their bowels. Quickly someone will tell you that the thing to do for the poor little dear who is so stiff with pain and crying is to use a suppository. Don’t do it!

Those same know-it-alls will counsel that one should let a child cry, no matter how long. After all, long bouts of crying are good for the lungs.

And then there's the person who maintains that a child instinctively knows what she needs to eat. Why go to the trouble of buying baby food or keeping small, hard kernels out of reach so the child won't choke? Imagine taking such a child on an invigorating walk in the woods and letting her put sumac berries and other unknown delectables in her mouth. The real exercise would come in getting to the hospital in time.

Even official agencies can miss the mark. When our adventurous one-year-old daughter climbed to the top of a chest of drawers and ate some green oil paint, we immediately called the Bureau of Poison Control in New York. Their advice: "If she isn't dead already, she’s probably ok."

Listen to any of these busy-bodies and you are doomed. The best policy is to retrieve the books on child rearing from the trash and try to rely on native intelligence.