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Brazelton: Listening to Children — and Their Parents

May 10, 2007 (Morning Edition)

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Generations of moms and dads have taken advice from pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. His career spans six decades, and he's written dozens of books about children and infants, including his Touchpoints series.

Through it all, Brazelton has seen parenting change with time. In the early days of his practice, for instance, Brazelton felt strongly that women should stay at home with their kids as long as they could.

"But we're into an era now where women have to work in order to feed their families," he tells Steve Inskeep. "So I've begun to look for the positives, and I began to realize that maybe women today need a chance to feel useful and important, and maybe they pass that on to their children. And, sure enough, it's true."

His interest in working with children began at home.

"I hated my younger brother. My mother was so invested in my younger brother, and he was so cute. But my grandmother valued me, and she let me take care of all my younger cousins. And I found out that it was so much fun that I knew that by 9 years of age that I wanted to be just what I am, a pediatrician who works with parents."

As a young pediatrician in the late 1940s, Brazelton sensed that there was more going on in a child's head than most people realized. Some of the children he worked with were autistic; some had cerebral palsy. "And I thought, 'Gee, these kids function differently. We have to understand brains better than we do.' "

Brazelton had some basic parenting advice:

He started studying newborn babies and "began to realize how much the baby can see, can hear, can respond. None of those were really believed in at that point. And to me, that's the biggest gift I can give to each parent: Watch your baby and trust that baby to tell you when you're on the right track and when you're not."

Many parents now obsess over how much their children learn, even before they're 3 years old, but that may not be healthy, he says.

"One of my grandchildren read The New York Times when he was 3," Brazelton says. "His parents were so proud of it, they brought him to show me how he could read. He looked at me like, 'Can't you?' "

Brazelton says he would rather see a child dreaming — "dreaming about what might happen, about imaginary friends."

Brazelton, who turns 89 Thursday, is clinical professor of pediatrics emeritus at Harvard Medical School. He continues to meet with parents to discuss their toughest problems. They're asking essentially the same questions they did when Brazelton first began his career, though they have a lot more to deal with these days, he says.

"I think what I've learned over time [as a pediatrician] is not to ask questions, but to listen," Brazelton says. "Then, when the baby does something like tease his mother or be hyperactive, any of those things, you say, 'What does that mean to you?' And the second you do that, a parent just begins to unload. You've made a relationship with her."

"I think the biggest thing a parent can give a child today is resilience — helping them see they have the inner resources to overcome whatever they have to," he says.

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