Breastfeeding and Bullying

To put things into perspective I want to first start by showing you a photo of what kind of ignorance and hate awaited kindergarten student Ruby Bridges at school:

Ruby was the first black student at the formerly all white public school. Her family was taking a stand.

… Mama had taught us about God, that he is always there to protect us. “Ruby Nell,” she said as we pulled up to my new school, “don’t be afraid. There might be some people upset outside, but I’ll be with you.”-Ruby Bridges

 

In light of the above story, the fear of breastfeeding children getting bullied is almost trivial. Ruby faced the most severe form of bullying to which a child could possibly be subjected. Adults and children alike took to attacking this little girl.

 

I want to focus on Ruby’s mother’s words, because to me they say so much about parenting in general. Our teaching surpasses all the hate and negativity that unfortunately all children will one day have directed at each one of them. That is life, but we are giving them the comfort, love, foundation, and tools they need from the time they are born up until that first encounter happens so they will be prepared to handle it.

 

However, it does not make it right. What it does mean is we should stand up proudly for what we believe in, even in the face of criticism. That is the only way it will ever be accepted. It does make a difference.

 

 a bullying culture

We live in a rape culture, which has been proven to extend much farther than rape and sexual violence. Victim blaming is an unfortunate reality due to the societal attitudes, norms, extending from individual views to mainstream media. Victim blaming is not only excused in our culture, it’s condoned in many cases.
Lately, bullying has been exposed as a huge problem in schools. We’ve looked the other way for so long, but now, finally, it is being acknowledged in certain cases.
The bullying issue is being addressed only for specific problems. Certain issues (homosexuality, body image, certain disabilities) have been cherry-picked by many members of society and mainstream media and have been presented as encompassing the entire hate problem. While they are all extremely important to fight against intolerance to, people are leaving out the idea of tolerance for all human beings. This is teaching children exactly what the campaign should be against- that socially accepted differences are okay, but people that are different by society’s standards should not be tolerated. Unfortunately, this is like being “a little bit pregnant”. You are either tolerant or intolerant- there is no middle-ground. You can either teach your kids tolerance towards people (all people) and if not you are essentially teaching intolerance.

 

where does intolerance start?

The media is to blame for much of the creation of social norms, but not entirely.

We also have to remember our bullying society is being perpetuated by parents teaching their child, mainly by example.

A lot of times, I think parents are unaware of the insidious ways they introduce bullying and intolerance for others to their children.

I’ve been diligent in trying not to link back to negative posts on this blog, but unfortunately to make my case I think it is important to do so. A few months ago someone shared this post with me. It was written by a mother, giving her opinion about the TIME cover, but more specifically directing bullying comments about breastfeeding at me, and even more so about Aram. Another one of the posts being promoted on her site was this post written about her disgust for bullying in our culture and how it will not be tolerated in her home. As hurtful as it was to read, I was thankful to have the perspective of seeing both posts. It was an important realization that we need to take action, because this hypocritical stance is the unfortunately common view in our culture, and a real problem.

**Update**  Read this post by Raven, the blogger/mom who wrote the original two posts linked above. She expresses her thoughts about breastfeeding and why she had initially written a post in response to the Time cover. This just proves to me the majority of judgement comes from misunderstanding, or personally feeling attacked.  It takes a very brave person to write the post she did, especially after being linked in this way on this blog, so make sure not to neglect this most recent post, especially if you are going to read the others linked here.

 

I think it is important that we make parents aware that while they  believe  other children are teaching their children negativity or hateful ideas,  it is really them who most of the time have introduced the idea first, and often completely unknowingly.

 

an anthropologic rebutal

When specifically speaking about breastfeeding and bullying, no one sums up the issue better than my friend (and fellow anthropology geek) Bridget. I’m going to let her finish out this post by specifically addressing the bullying of breastfeeding children.

 

“Can you imagine the flack that poor little boy will get when he and

his peers grow up to know better…?” -Yve (we’re using a real comment to respond to)

 

 

This comment reflects an inaccurate assumption commonly made about breastfeeding beyond infancy, and I thank this commenter for presenting us an opportunity to dispel it.

The assumption that “Yve” and many others make is that kids who are breastfed beyond infancy will inevitably end up getting made fun of by other kids/end up in therapy as adults/develop paraphilic infantism.

 

This concern is one that I hear all the time. I find Yve’s choice of the word “imagine” to be the most interesting, because that’s what it is — Imagined. That is to say, there is NO evidence that supports this assumption. There are precisely ZERO studies that associate any negative long-term effects of breastfeeding a 5 year-old or even an 8 year-old — that’s physical, emotional, or cognitive effects. Like, any at all. Really.

 

I have yet to meet anyone who remembers being breastfed as a child and wasn’t grateful for it. None of them have appeared to be weirded out or embarrassed by it. Nor do they feel like they were coerced into doing it or anything of that nature. Older children who still remember it vividly often speak fondly of that time in their lives and report feeling somewhat jealous of younger siblings who are still nursing.

 

So no long-term effects. But what about school friends?

 

Here’s where having been involved in or closely observed a breastfeeding relationship is really the only surefire way to understand, but I will try. A lot of it has to do with the nature of the breastfeeding relationship. In cases where the mother has chosen to allow the child to wean herself, the process *typically* goes a little like this: Mom adopts a “don’t offer; don’t refuse” policy that is just as it sounds like: The nursling asks for it when she wants it, but isn’t really offered it except perhaps in cases where there is an accident or illness and the child becomes too distraught to recognize that she may need to nurse to feel better. But the child is the dominant factor in determining the frequency and duration of nursing sessions, which precipitously peter out very gradually. Some days or weeks it may increase temporarily but the overall pattern is a downward trend.

 

So at age four, breastfeeding sessions are typically down to naptime and bedtime only. Some kids seem to need it more than others at this age, just like some kids are more cuddly than others, or more high strung than others. Towards the end of weaning, some kids may even go days or weeks without a nurse. But you can be fairly sure that by the time a kid gets to school, if he or she is still breastfeeding, it’s not happening in front of friends. So the chances are low that school friends will ever even know that he does/recently did it at all.

 

But just for giggles, let’s say they DID find out, and the nursling or ex-nursling in this very imaginary scenario does get bullied or teased by his peers. Well, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret about kids who were breastfed into childhood:

 

They have hidden super powers.

 

Okay, not exactly, but when I think about this part I get approximately that excited about it. You may have heard that mother’s bodies are constantly producing antibodies that are tailor-made for her child.

(Kind of like the ultimate designer drink, sans booze…Though if you’ve ever seen a baby pass out after a good nurse, you may suspect otherwise.) Well, breastfeeding long-term can also contribute to another sort of immunity. A kind of social immunity.

 

The mechanism behind this is rooted in multiple longitudinal studies in developmental psychology that indicate that a child who is parented sensitively and attentively will generally grow up to be more self-assured and adaptable to new situations. By “sensitive” I mean that the parent is very well attuned to her child’s needs before the child is able to verbalize them, and is *responsive* to them in a *consistent* matter.

 

Now, one of the best ways to achieve the optimal level of parental sensitivity is through the development of an initially exclusive, long-term breastfeeding relationship. It is not known if the breastfeeding causes the mother to be more sensitive to the child or if a natural sensitivity to children leads a mother to choose to allow breastfeeding to continue for longer, but when these “chicken vs. egg“ scenarios come up in scientific theories, it usually turns out to be a little of both. We know that it is at least partially the former because, through studies of both human and mammalian behavior in general, we are learning about how breastfeeding literally modifies maternal behavior via chemical rewards and other mechanisms.

 

I’m not saying that allowing a child to breastfeed until they are ready to stop automatically and always results in a self-assured and adaptable child. But I AM saying that it can play a role. A big one.

The key to understanding just how big of a role is to stop equating breastfeeding with the feeding of a meal. Scientists have long since moved beyond conceiving of breastfeeding as a merely nutritive behavior. In fact, they don’t even think of it as a behavior anymore.

It is at least a group of related behaviors but is far better understood as a relationship.

That is to say that breastfeeding is social.

Breastfeeding is a dynamic, nurturing relationship based on reciprocity. Reciprocity is a hot term in the study of early infant social development. It refers to a constant call-and-response pattern of mother-infant exchanges. Baby cries and mom responds. Eye contact. Lots and lots of eye contact. Touching. Talking. Smiling. Moving with each other’s bodies. All of these things that we all just thought were fun — when we put them under the microscope of science, turn out to be things that literally grow baby brains. And the part of the brain we’re mostly talking about, here, is the social brain. The part that defines the child’s sense of self as differentiated from other people, her ability to trust, and to gauge the trustworthiness of others. The consistency in mom’s responsiveness and positive regard for her is what gives her the foundation she needs for a secure self, such that when she begins to take steps out into the big bad world, she is able to swing with the punches without losing her footing.

This is the sort of thing you want to concern yourself with when it comes to worrying about a child being bullied. Every child will be bullied on occasion throughout their childhood. What makes the difference between the children who experience mild, one-off incidents and the ones who become targeted victims is the child’s reaction to the bullies. A bully is looking for a reaction from his target. And the fact is that a secure child is simply not likely to react in any way that is interesting to a bully, and therefore the bully is unlikely to ever come back for more. All bullying is, is a form of public insult.

Think of it this way: Our conception of ourselves is shaped both by our parents and by outsiders. If a child has a secure attachment with their parents, formed by years of being held in such high regard that they respond to his needs consistently (no matter how much it sucked to do so), and he goes off to school one day and is insulted by some kid he hardly knows — which version of himself is going to hold more water for him? The one his parents have fostered or this new one?

Sure, it is possible to create this sense of security in a child outside of the context of a breastfeeding relationship. Plenty of people do it. All breastfeeding does is employ time-tested strategies developed over the course of the 4.5 million-year vetting process of human evolution.

—from Bridget McCann

 

Here is the way I look at it:

Brian and I would not bring our children into a controversial setting for entertainment purposes. That is not who we are and we don’t believe that teaches our children anything positive. However, if the controversy is aimed at education and standing up for others repressed, then we absolutely will be okay with our whole family (if it makes sense, like in this case) being involved.  We believe in teaching our children to be proud of who they are and what we stand for. We should never be ashamed of loving, healthy choices we have made that work for our family or ourselves.


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8 comments

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  1. Jessica 9 November, 2012, 08:16Reply this comment
  2. Shanna 9 November, 2012, 11:57

    Great post! I don’t know why people would think children remembering nursing would somehow be “damaging”. My 5 year old can still remember breastfeeding and weaning, but if anything it has made him better connected and more caring of his two younger brothers who are still nursing.

    Reply this comment
  3. Lara (australia) 12 November, 2012, 19:00

    Wow, I haven’t been by for a few weeks and this story really caught my heart like some barb-wire.
    Firstly, may I say “SORRY” to you Jamie for all the bullying and hurt that you and your family had to endure for simply agreeing to be part of what was meant to be a homage and tribute to a very gracious man.
    For all the mean things that people said and wrote, I am truly sorry for my brothers and sisters, they know not what they say.
    For the unending, uneducated comments and jeers, I am truly sorry Jamie, they have forgotten who they truly are.
    And for the beauty and knowledge that you actually have given and imparted on our world and society by putting your face and family forward, we thank you as a whole from the bottom of our hearts… even if not all of us understand right now. For one day, they will see the beauty and wisdom in your message. For one day they will too remember their highest truth, which is we are all one, and we are love. Anything that strays from this premise is purely lost, and to those lost one’s, we love you for you are family.
    Thank you for sharing Bridget’s voice, she sounds like a cool chick!
    Take care xox

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  4. Pauline 13 November, 2012, 05:20

    I guess this woman who wrote that post about the “PORN” cover didn’t took the time to read your blog before writing this.. I believe breastfeeding is a great experience to built a strong connexion with our children.
    I was bottle fed and I am breastfeeding so I am not against any of it. BUT, how were mothers doing before formula was invented??
    Some friends around me were breastfed until 6 years old (not for the sake of it but for a budget reason in the house), they are great parents, love to socialize and party, love sports and arts and can still talk tenderly about it.

    Reply this comment
  5. Paula 11 January, 2013, 10:02

    Dear Jamie, I’ve really appreciated your thoughtful blogging and insights with regard to all sorts of parenting issues. The breastfeeding ones are of particular interest because I cannot understand how society reacts so negatively to the feeding of a child. To toss out words like “gross, disgusting, and pornographic” shows just how ignorant some folks are. I am especially taken back when women spew such venom, like the mom-blogger whose hypocrisy with respect to bullying you highlighted in this post.

    I breastfed both my kids, and they are very happy and healthy. Though I do believe that the success of a child depends on the care and attention of the parent, no matter how the child is fed. I did notice though that throughout preschool, my kids were sick much less often than their classmates, so I do believe the idea that a mother’s milk helps beef up her child’s immune system. I was pretty discrete with breastfeeding, and though I frequently fed in public, I’d use a huge swaddling blanket to cover up (which worked until the age when they got curious, and would contantly pull the blanket off to check out the surroundings.) I didn’t feel too scrutinzed in public, but I live in Seattle, which in some respects, is pretty accepting of people coming as they are. My firstborn, a son, breastfed the longest, until almost two. My daughter weaned herself at about a year and a half. She was just done, always too busy to settle down for very long.

    But with respect to pressure within my family, I’m not going to call it bullying, but there were relatives that could not understand at all why I made the choice to breastfeed. And frankly it surprised me because my mom and my grandma were probably the most outspoken against it. Thankfully, my mother-in-law had breastfed in the years when formula was seen as advanced science and was the “preferred” method. But every time I’d settle down to nurse with my grandma present, she’d pester me… When was I going to stop? Didn’t I feel awkward doing this? Why did I want to exclude others from the chance to feed my son? etc, etc, etc. She pushed for me to introduce solids very early. She had feed her kids mashed potatoes from three months and they “turned out fine”, so who was I to counter that idea?

    I have to say, she learned her lesson, and God rest her soul, she was otherwise a lovely person, but wow, was she was very persistent on the pro-solids/anti-breastfeeding front. One day, she decided, enough is enough, she was going to “prove” to me that my son would like eating solid food better than nursing (and he really loved him nursing, by the way.) At a family party, without asking me, she fed my then five-month-old son some mashed-up sweet potatoes. Well, he accepted it, and she called me in and was just about ready to say, “See, he likes this better!” when he puked all over her, and all over everything else in the vicinity, too. It was not just a spit up, but a very violent and projectile expulsion. Wow, did she feel bad, and she never bugged me again (though I suspect my mom still bugged me on her behalf over the next year.)

    My mother never feed me anything but formula, and it turned out I was allergic to cow’s milk, so I kept her up for many sleepless nights, screaming in pain from the gastro issues. She switched to soy, which quieted me, but at the time, soy formula was far from nutritionally complete. And now as an adult, I can no longer tolerate soy. As a teenager, I experienced some serious thyroid problems, which I suspect had something to do with volume of my soy consumption and the compound within it that messes with your hormone levels; I was on the cusp of needing radiation treatment from hyperthyroidism, with symptoms like a racing heart, night sweats, and sudden weight loss. (As a kid, I had struggled with some obesity issues.) I just can’t help think that if she had gone against the extreme pressure not to breastfeed, I may have avoided those health issues for the most part.

    Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourselves folks! And thank you Jamie for your honestly and advocacy!

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  6. Stephanie 11 January, 2013, 10:07

    Lori McKenna, a folk/country singer wrote a song about Ruby and her children’s book and I LOVE it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-9qeYBnQMnA&playnext=1&list=PL6F6E2B7A26D282C4&feature=results_video

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