Brazelton: Listening to Children — and Their Parents Dr. T. Berry Brazelton's career as a pediatrician spans six decades. His basic advice hasn't changed: Trust your baby to tell you when you're on the right track — and when you're not.

Brazelton: Listening to Children — and Their Parents

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Generations of parents have changed the way they treated their kids because of T. Berry Brazelton. Brazelton, in turn, has changed his thinking because of parents and kids.

Dr. T. BERRY BRAZELTON (Pediatrician; Author, "Touchpoints" Series): I felt very strongly myself in my early practice in Cambridge that women should be 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. 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.


T. Berry Brazelton is author of the "Touchpoints" series of books, and today, he's our latest guest to give us the Long View - our conversations with people of long experience. Brazelton turns 89 years old today.

What got you interested in children in the first place?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Well, I hated my younger brother. And 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 by 9 years of age that I wanted to be just what I am - a pediatrician who works with parents.

INSKEEP: Do you remember one of the first sets of parents - or single parents, for that matter - that you helped?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Yes, I do. A lady named Mrs. Imbruglio(ph). And Ernie had kidney problems and was going to die. He did die. And Mrs. Imbruglio and I made this intense relationship, and I began to understand how much she cared and how deeply she was affected by Ernie's illness.

And it changed my whole attitude. Mrs. Imbruglio said is it all right for me to cry and to mourn? And I said, Mrs. Imbruglio, this is absolutely critical. And if you can do that, why, Ernie and you will have a better time.

INSKEEP: Well now, when you were a young pediatrician, was there a moment early in your career when you began to think there was more going on in a child's head than most people realized?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Oh, absolutely. And I tell you when it was, when I went to do my child psychiatry work and some of these kids were on the autistic spectrum. Some of them had cerebral palsy. And I thought, gee, you know, these kids function differently. We have to understand brains better than we do.

INSKEEP: Well, what sort of advice did you end up giving as a general framework for parents in bringing up their kids - basic rules?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Well, first of all, I wanted to give parents a feeling that they understood what they were doing right from the first. And so I 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.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's been a side effect to that in that a lot of parents now - you've taken a breath, you already know what I'm talking about -a lot of parents now obsess over how much their children learn before they're even three years old.

Dr. BRAZELTON: Yeah. One of my grandchildren read the New York Times when he was three. And my - his parents were so proud of it. They brought him to show me how he could read. And he looked at me like, can't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BRAZELTON: So he was already looking down on me.

INSKEEP: Do you think it was actually harmful then that that happens?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Well, I don't think it followed what a child needs. I would rather see a child dreaming - dreaming about what might happen about the imaginary friends. One of our older children had two friends - Happenorder(ph) and Gwessis(ph), I think was the other one. But Happenorder did all the bad things she did, and she would say Happenorder ruined your computer, dad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BRAZELTON: And, you know, I thought it was just wonderful that she had this enlarged vision of the world. And she's gone on to be a music composer. You could see that all that was right there in her way back, waiting to come out.

INSKEEP: Well now, what are some questions that parents asked you when you started out? And are the same questions being asked today?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Pretty much. I think what I've learned over time is not to ask questions but to listen. Then when the baby does something like teases 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.

INSKEEP: So a mother comes to you and says how do I help my child get to sleep? You may answer that question with a question.

Dr. BRAZELTON: I would watch with her about what kind of baby she's got. And then we'd talk about the fact that if you can help him learn to take over themselves every three to four hours, it becomes his doing, not our doing.

INSKEEP: Were your kids good sleepers?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Mm-hmm. But that was because I couldn't stand to get up and go them all at time. And I don't believe in letting them cry it out, but I do believe in going to them and sitting there, not taking him out. But you say, look, you've got your finger. You got your lovey I'm right here. You can do it yourself. You can do it yourself. And it's surprising how that will help a child learn how to sleep.

INSKEEP: Did you ever have trouble following your own advice as a parent?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Oh gosh, I don't think I ever did anything right. My kids'll be glad to tell you that. And so I really feel that learning to parent is learning from your mistakes, not from your success. You know, there are a lot of things I wish I'd done differently.

INSKEEP: Can you think of something?

Dr. BRAZELTON: Well, my wife and I had four different children. And we wrangled all the way through. We've been married 58 years now, so I can say this, but our kids think, gosh, wrangling must be the way you raise children. It isn't. And so I wish the heck we hadn't been so intense.

And it's led me in the research I do now to look at the kind of stresses that parents are under. Now I think parents have a lot more to deal with. And 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.

INSKEEP: T. Berry Brazelton is clinical professor of Pediatrics Emeritus at Harvard Medical School. And if you're looking for more of these Long View conversations or research on how babies communicate, just go to

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