Everyone loves a good controversy. As a teacher, it was one of my favorite “hooks” for a lesson: throw out a provocative statement or question, and then sit back and let the students fight it out (after a carefully constructed lesson on “how to argue properly in the classroom,” which, of course, will be largely ignored by the students). It teaches critical thinking and requires them to interact with their peers in a (it-is-to-be-hoped*) meaningful way. At its best, it even forces the students to justify their position from the text, one of the hardest things to get high school students to do.
A good thing can be overdone, however. Perhaps our society is overindulging itself in this love of controversy. Everything, from advertisements to politics, is now presented in terms of the most controversial, most extreme, worst-case-scenario/best-case-scenario. Ideas and issues are framed as arguments, as zero-sum games, painted with a palette on which black and white do not mix together to create shades of grey. This is very poor logic, and leads away from productive solutions by putting the emphasis on the extremes, away from the “golden mean” which is where the answer usually resides.
All this is by way of introducing a recent topic of much controversy: the cover of TIME magazine ( http://lightbox.time.com/2012/05/10/parenting/#1 ) I have not read the article yet, and while I would like to, I am actually more interested in the wake it has left behind it than in the article itself. The title itself is a challenge: “Are You Mom Enough?” Since its appearance, the article has spawned numerous blog posts and commentary, attacking and defening Attachment Parenting and extended breastfeeding, and in general adding more fuel to the fire raging over various issues of parenthood.
What I would like to call attention to here is not the issue of extended breastfeeding, but the manner in which TIME magazine has chosen to frame the debate over those issues. I have seen many women breastfeeding toddlers and preschoolers, and this photograph seems (deliberately or not) misleading in a number of ways:
1) The child appears older than 3 years old, and is dressed to look older. Would the image be as shocking if he were in, say, overalls? Also it is interesting that a male child was chosen, and dressed in clothing (camos) that often has particularly male/manly associations. All of these things contribute to the shock value of the picture.
2) The position seems strained, not natural. Standing on a chair , I imagine, would be a difficult and tiring position for both mother and child. In what situation would this be a normal stance for both of them?
3) Extended breastfeeding is as much about emotional as physical nourishment. It is a special, shared bond between the mother and child. The camera in this photograph is an interloper, and both mother and child are staring directly into the camera instead of gazing at one another.
Now, having said all that, perhaps these choices were deliberately made in framing this shot to send a particular message. That’s fine; but it should be understood that this is a posed studio shot, and the image should not be used as evidence in a debate over attachment parenting and breastfeeding. These are important, even vital, topics; they deserve to be treated in a thoughtful, serious discussion — not manipulated in order to sell copies of a magazine or to fuel an ongoing and unnecessary fire.
*Technically, according to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, “hopefully” means “in a hopeful manner,” not “it is to be hoped.”