DR. KARISHMA STRETTON is a doctor and medical educator who has focused her attention on parenting. Here she speaks with ELIZABETH DENLEY about her new book, and the timeless wisdom that will help us to raise happy and well-adjusted children.
Q: Hi, Karishma, welcome to Heartfulness Magazine.
KS: Hello, Elizabeth. It’s lovely to be talking with you. Thanks for your time.
Q: We’re here to talk about your book, Parenting Homo Sapiens: The Seven Eternal Truths for Raising Happy Humans. A great title and a hot topic, so first tell us about yourself, and why you’re interested in this.
KS: I’m a wife and mother of two daughters, and we live in Sydney, Australia. After graduating with a medical degree, I worked at Nepean Hospital, and then moved to education at the University of Notre Dame, where I taught medical students. Right now, I spend most of my time with my children, and am very involved with their education.
Q: Tell us about your book, Karishma.
KS: The inspiration came after the birth of my eldest daughter. I was a young working mother. There was so much information available on parenting, and I was determined to distill the essence of it all.
At that time I worked long hours as a doctor at Nepean Hospital, with very few holidays. The environment required me to suppress the fact that I was also a mother, and commit my full attention to the job. I’m sure many women relate to a high-pressured work environment. Denying my role as a mother at work was very confronting. It made me question what I was doing, and what effect this would have on my children, my husband, my family, and myself.
Common Threads to Effective Parenting Methods
I began to read, and was not convinced that there needed to be so many, sometimes contradictory, ways of raising children. I wanted to find the common threads that bound all types of effective parenting.
As I read, the common themes emerged, and I wrote this book so that those parents who don’t have time to read all the literature could have a reference on their parenting journey. I was mainly interested in what enables us to raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted human beings. If children have those qualities, then happiness and enjoyment will result later in life.
Finally, I felt so much gratitude to the authors and mothers who had written blog pieces on parenting, and produced parenting and birthing videos, because that information was pivotal for me on my journey. I hope that my learning will also resonate with parents. I want to pay forward the amazing and inspirational help I received.
We may not be here
to see the impact of our parenting,
but when we raise well-adjusted,
kind, loving, intelligent,
compassionate human beings,
we bring meaningful,
long-lasting change to this world.
Developing Confidence as a Parent
Q: Why isn’t good parenting an innate function? Why do we need to learn?
KS: It seems like a simple question, but it really is the crux of the matter. J.W. Whitehead said, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see. ”We may not be here to see the impact of our parenting, but when we raise well-adjusted, kind, loving, intelligent, compassionate human beings, we bring meaningful, long-lasting change to this world.
The fact is, our children are going to take over the reins and steer humanity in the not-so-distant future. I read recently that our greatest contribution to the universe may not be something we do, but someone we raise. It was this epiphany that highlighted to me the importance of parenting.
Q: You also say that this is not new, and it’s universal. You talk about the 7 eternal truths for raising happy humans, not separate truths for raising them in Sydney or Colombo. What are these eternal truths?
KS: I use the term “eternal truths” to describe principles that have been tried and tested over time and have remained true. They are independent of rapid societal changes. Even though we are powering ahead technologically and socially, biologically we are the same as we were hundreds of thousands of years ago. If we can determine what these eternal truths are, we can fulfill them despite the rapid pace at which our society is traveling. What do our babies need biologically, and what do we need as parents?
A baby Homo sapiens today is genetically programmed with the same expectations as a baby born 300,000 years ago. The same is true for women undergoing the transformation from woman to mother.
After reading and processing decades worth of parenting knowledge, I began to discover some magnificent golden threads. Consistently and confidently applying these threads creates a bedrock for a satisfying and fulfilling parenting experience of raising our children with confidence.
Speaking from experience, it’s the confidence that a lot of us lack. We often feel we are not parenting correctly, or that we are depriving our children of what they need to develop thoroughly. The good news is that if we apply these eternal truths, then we’ll give our children exactly what they need, so they are assured of a fulfilling childhood.
I use the term “eternal truths”
to describe principles that have been
tried and tested over time and
have remained true.
They are independent of
rapid societal changes.
The 7 Eternal Truths
You must be wondering what these eternal truths are. I’ll give you three examples. You’ll find the others in my book.
Truth 1: Human babies and children have fundamental biological expectations.
Truth 2: What we inscribe in the child’s mind will echo throughout their lifetime.
Truth 3: Parents are epigenetic engineers – engineering the future.
They’re the main concepts we will cover here.
Q: Talk to us about the fundamental biological expectations. What are they? How important are they, especially during the early years?
KS: Biological expectations are the biological needs we are genetically designed to experience during childhood. The environment into which a baby was born 300,000 years ago may differ from the environment into which a baby is born today, but the biological expectations remain the same, just as our DNA is the same. These biological expectations provide a framework for children to grow, thrive, and meet their innate potential. They go beyond the survival needs of clean water, nutrition, shelter, basic human connection, etc.
What are these biological expectations? We can look at them within the context of Jean Liedloff’s The Continuum Concept, a book that many parents will know. She speaks about the most fundamental expectations being:
- The baby is placed on the mother after birth, skin-to-skin.
- Carrying the baby is extremely important, particularly in the first year of life. The mother is often most involved with this.
- The baby’s needs are responded to. This sounds basic, but it is not necessarily what happens. It is genetically programmed in the baby.
- The baby sleeps in close proximity to the mother, ideally in a safe co-sleeping environment. There is a lot of information now on how to co-sleep safely with children.
- The baby is breastfed or bottle-fed on demand, as a biological expectation.
These expectations are vital for the development of physically and psychologically sound children. If we fulfill these biological expectations, happiness will naturally become a normal condition of their existence. The more research I do, the more I feel that this is a basic truth.
Bonding and Attachment
Q: You also talk about bonding and attachment: when biological expectations are fulfilled, it automatically leads to bonding and attachment, which determines the way we form relationships as children and as adults. Can you talk about how that attachment develops?
KS: Attachment is the formation of a connection dependent on the closeness of two human beings. We’re well aware that attachment is vital for the survival of baby mammals and birds, but it is most important for baby humans, because they are the most helpless of any babies on the planet. For human babies, no attachment means no life. It is as simple as that.
It creates the sensory and emotional environment that shapes the way we experience relationships lifelong. Breaking this bond at the beginning of a baby’s life can be devastating, and it may set up potential cycles of sub optimal relationships. Human babies are genetically programmed to seek out attachment. You may be aware of the rooting reflex, where after birth the baby instantly seeks out the nipple of the mother. Also, babies align their breathing and heart rate to that of the parent they’re sleeping next to. These behaviors enhance attachment between parent and child.
There are a few key points that are vital for understanding attachment. First, you cannot over-attach with your child. Attachment does not create a child who is more needy or insecure; the opposite is true. The child who has attached well when they’re young will display independence and maturity when they’re older.
In the book, Hold On to Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté state that dependence and attachment foster independence and genuine separation later in life, contrary to what many parents believe and practice. In fact, in society today, there almost seems to be a pathological desire to make children mature beyond their years, as though this is another form of achievement. But in doing that the opposite is achieved. So, the time spent in attaching with your children when they are young will result in healthy independence when they’re older.
Second, you need to be present to attach to your child. This seems obvious, but a lot of children spend a high percentage of the working day away from their parents. This is in no way judging parents whose financial or social situation requires them both to work, but attachment does require physical presence.
If you’re not with your children, it is vital to ask: “Who is forming attachments with my children?” Children are hardwired to attach, and they will attach to those in their closest vicinity. How well do I know their values, beliefs, and mindsets? Am I comfortable with that person being a major influence in my child’s life during this extremely sensitive period of their development?
We cannot ignore the realities that many families face, and that’s why it’s vital that we provide support to parents to spend time with their children. When we see a lack of attachment between parents and children there is a loss of social structure and a breakdown of culture. Attachment is a hugely important subject when it comes to raising our children.
To be continued.
Karishma has an educational background in Medicine and Law. She has worked as a doctor in the Australian public hospital system, and taught medical students at the University of Notre Dame, Sydney. Her expertise in parenting integrates her experience as a medical professional and a parent.