Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Problem with Natural Parenting

I imagine that many folks who come by this blog think of us, and themselves, as natural parents. It’s a popular category. At least two major parenting magazines use the term “Natural Parenting” or something like it. There’s Natural Parenting and Mothering Magazine: The Magazine of Natural Family Living. There’s also the term “Nature Mom,” which I associate with a mother who is against circumcision, vaccines, pesticide-laden food, and products that use synthetic scents. I also think of nature moms wearing their babies in slings, co-sleeping, breastfeeding at Starbucks, cloth diapering, staying at home, home schooling, hiking, and hiding their TVs in the closet. I’m very, very sympathetic with many of these positions and practices, but not all of them. One reason we have called this blog Green Parenting is to develop new kinds of language to explore some of the difficult decisions where we don’t end up falling in the natural parenting category.

Here’s an example of what I am talking about. An article about the effects of lavender, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, made it to the headlines of major US news outlets a couple of weeks ago. (See the WebMD article about it.) I think one reason the story got so much attention is because it exposes a problem with the idea of natural parenting. The article reported that three boys who used lavender products developed breasts and when they stopped using the products their breasts disappeared. Lavender apparently boosts or mimics estrogen while hampering androgens. The findings indicate that lavender, like certain plastics and cosmetics, disrupts the endocrine system.

I don’t think this report should be a huge surprise to people who use lavender products regularly. It’s well known that lavender has a soothing and relaxing effect, which must be because of a rather sophisticated chemical (i.e. hormonal) interaction with our bodies. And it’s also associated with sexuality. So the report basically confirms folk knowledge. I still drink lavender tea. I like to feel relaxed. I guess my testosterone levels need some readjustment on occasion. But I’m not a pubescent boy. My body is not growing rapidly. My cells are not responsive in the same way as a fifteen-year-old’s. Parents have to pay special attention to both natural and synthetic products because children’s bodies are constantly in a state of transformation. If some boy wants breasts, I'm fine with him drinking lots of lavender tea. But we shouldn't fool ourselves about "natural" products.

Going natural does not guarantee good health. Nature can be toxic. Nature includes poisonous plants. Nature includes diseases like polio that cripple thousands of children every year. Naturalness should not exempt products from our careful scrutiny. I know most natural parents know this already. Most readers of Mothering Magazine are not dogmatic or inflexible. We try to be thoughtful, consider multiple sources of information, and balance our decisions. I just would like to see more discussion of how the term “natural” has its limitations.


Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Oh, bravo, I like this.

At A Peek Inside the Fishbowl Andrea was talking about an article she read warning people that organic food is not low-fat. Well, no kidding! No one ever said it was healthy in *every* respect. -- Sounds like a similar argument.

Earwicker said...

You really ought to check your sources. Reports of that paper have had widespread circulation by the mainstream media, but is challenged by many who question the small sample size and the research methodology.
Check out for more information.

GreenDaddy said...

It's true that the number of children in the report is small. The New England Journal is highly reputed and they publish case reports so that further work can be done. The authors of the paper claim that the lavender products are the likely cause of the breasts, but not the only possibility. But I would think that aroma specialists would be the first to admit that lavender has a biological effect.

The post seemed to suggest we should focus on synthetic toxins like bisphenol. I agree with that. I also think we should use natural products with some caution, and not give certain things like lavender lotion to children at inappropriate times. We should have respect for the power of these age-old solutions, which is very different than being silent about their limitations or toxic dosages.

Henitsirk said...

You make a good point that all "natural" things are not necessarily beneficial in all situations and for all people. There are many examples of simple herbal teas causing serious problems, such as chamomile in the case of ragweed allergies.

I think we have to ask ourselves important questions: Does the substance work in this very specific situation? Is the substance being used in moderation, in fact only at the smallest effective dose? Will the substance do more harm than good? Have reported problems with the substance occurred in very small numbers and situations, or are the problems more widespread?

tAnYeTTa said...

just stopped by to say hello!
i couldn't figure out how to wean my son from our bed or the breast he was turning two, i got nervous, i caved in to peer pressure maybe i needed you in my life to encourage me to tell them to eff off huh???
well, what did i do to wean him??????------i did it cold turkey. i know, i know, my best mom award will NOT arrive in the mail. LOL

p.s. love your blog :)

Lulabelle said...

I have a question for you guys - a few years ago I bought some tea in Germany that was supposed to relieve symptoms of pms and I loved it. I don't remember what was in it because everything on the box was in German, but I've recently found the brand for sale in English. It was called Yogi tea and I think it may have had something called Don Quai - a Chinese herb - anyway, I'm hesitant to take herbal supplements these days if I don't know anything about them, so I did a tiny bit of research and didn't get much further. SO - do you guys know anything about Don Quai?