Would You Like Some Guilt With That Parenting Advice?

Thanks to friends and RSS feeds, I came across a few different articles over the weekend that all stayed with me. I wanted to blog about each of them, briefly, but now my thoughts about them seem connected so I thought I’d just lay them out together and see what you think. The common thread – at least in my head – is the way parenting advice seems so bound up with guilt, judgement and confusion.

First, a viral hit on the contradictory advice parents receive, passed on by Alex:

I went on amazon and bought all the top books on baby sleep and development. I read through them all, as well as several blogs and sleep websites. I gathered lots of advice.

You shouldn’t sleep train at all, before a year, before 6 months, or before 4 months, but if you wait too late, your baby will never be able to sleep without you. College-aged children never need to be nursed, rocked, helped to sleep, so don’t worry about any bad habits. Nursing, rocking, singing, swaddling, etc to sleep are all bad habits and should be stopped immediately. White noise will help them fall asleep. White noise, heartbeart sounds, etc, don’t work. Naps should only be taken in the bed, never in a swing, carseat, stroller, or when worn. Letting them sleep in the carseat or swing will damage their skulls. If your baby has trouble falling asleep in the bed, put them in a swing, carseat, stroller, or wear them.

Put the baby in a nursery, bed in your room, in your bed. Cosleeping is the best way to get sleep, except that it can kill your baby, so never, ever do it. If your baby doesn’t die, you will need to bedshare until college.

[Read more.]

You could write parallel versions of this for every aspect of parenting, right? Now that most of us don’t live in homogenous communities where we all just parent as our ancestors and neighbours always did, there’s contradictory advice to found on every subject. And precious little empirical research, when you move away from strictly medical matters.

Then Frank sent me this link to a slightly-misleadingly-titled Guardian article:

Cuddled, snuggled and tended, most infants, throughout most of history, have known the world unlonely. Among the Tojolabal-speaking Maya people of Chiapas in Mexico, children in the first two years of life are always close to their mothers, instantly appeased with toys or milk, to prevent them ever feeling unhappy. For infants under one year of age among the Aché people – forest nomads in Paraguay – most daylight time is spent in tactile contact with their mother or father, and they are never set down on the ground or left alone for more than a few seconds. In India and many other parts of the world, children may share a bed with their mother until they are five.

Many parents’ reasons for using controlled crying can be summed up in one word: work. Parents who want “routines” are keen on controlled crying, says Gina Ford, a famous British advocate of the system, and she comments that babies who have been forced into a routine will later adapt easily to a school routine and, one presumes, be more malleable to a workforce system.

Yet whenever I have spent time in indigenous communities, I have never heard anything like the shrieks of fear and rage of the controlled-crying child. If an infant is satiated with closeness, commented the writer Jean Liedloff, then as an older child he or she will need to return to that maternal contact only in emergencies. Such an infant will grow up to be more self-reliant, not because of the scarcity of early contact (as the controlled-crying advocates argue) but precisely the opposite: from its abundance. By the age of about eight, the Aché children, who as infants were never alone, have learned how to negotiate the trails in the forests and can be fairly independent of their parents. In West Papua, I have seen how infants are held close and grow into children who are fiercely, proudly independent.

[Read more at the Guardian.]

This is the kind of advice I like reading, purely because it backs up my current parenting style :).

It’s an edited extract from Jay Griffiths’ Kith: The Riddle Of The Childscape, which argues that the model of child-raising still prevalent in traditional communities – continual closeness during infancy, adult-like independence in childhood and adolescence – is how we should all be doing it.

As I say, this resonates with me, but it falls into the same category as the satire on sleep advice. There are plenty of experts arguing just the opposite, and given that we do live in an industrialised society, far different from those of our ancestors, they can credibly argue that these old ways are either not suited for modern life, or based on inferior knowledge of the world. Perhaps, like handwashing, controlled crying is a modern improvement on old ways. Whether it is or not, plenty of excellent parents employ it, and other routine-based parenting styles, and raise wonderful, secure, well-loved children. That’s not something that fits with a grand theory, so you won’t see many attachment parenting advocates say so.

You and I will have our own opinions on this stuff, but who’s to say what’s correct? It’s all but impossible to design a large-scale study to compare these methods of child-raising. You could get two cohorts of similar parents who have vastly different patterns of caring for their infants, and then see how the kids turn out at 25 years old, say. But by the time they’re five, let alone 25, there would be so many confounding variables that you would have know way of telling what what had made a difference, even if your judgement criteria stuck to the extremes like rates of imprisonment.

There’s a delicate dance parents like me do. I value evidence-based advice, but I’m aware that there’s very little out there that is robust enough to tell me how to parent. I have to put together my patchwork parenting quilt based on what I see in friends, family, books and studies. As I become more confident in my ability to mother SBJ, the bits I pick are the ones that go best with who I am and who he is revealing himself to be.

So I liked this third article, by Katie Galli Holden:

I am one of the first of my friends to have kids, so I didn’t realize what a Big Deal nurseries were. Turns out, they are a Big Deal. Pregnancy magazines offer tips for designing the perfect nursery, not to mention the “inspiring” design ideas on the web and Pinterest.

Our decision to forgo a nursery started out as a practical, maybe even slightly selfish one. We live in a two-bedroom condo, with a bedroom and an office/craft room/guest room. Not ready to give up the multipurpose second bedroom, we set up a changing table and Pack ‘N Play in our room and felt ready to go.

The more I thought about it, I realized that baby nurseries—like so many other seemingly insignificant aspects of life—symbolize certain cultural values we express and pass along to our children. Then I read Our Babies, Ourselves, by Meredith Small, an anthropologist who studies ethnopediatrics, child-rearing across cultures.

Before my baby was out of the womb I already felt tired of debates over the Right Way to parent. As she looks at cultures around the world, Small asserts that there is no Right Way. Instead, “Every act by parents, every goal that molds that act, has a foundation in what is appropriate for that particular culture. In this sense, no parenting style is ‘right’ and no style is ‘wrong.’ It is appropriate or inappropriate only according to the culture.”

[Read more at Her.meneutics.]

I think our culture is ripe for critique, so I’m not about to stop, for example, co-sleeping with SBJ merely because it’s counter-cultural. But I will happily cherry-pick the idea that there is no Right Way that transcends our individual and family situations. Most parenting choices require sacrifices of one sort or another, and within limits, only we are capable of deciding what is most important for us and our children.

If any of this resonates with you, you may like to re/visit the Patchwork Parenting Manifesto, where we share some of how we are raising our kids. The catchphrase there is ‘It Works For Us.’ Which is all anyone needs to know, whether you go for controlled crying or co-sleeping, time-outs or time-ins, school or the home/un variety.

Wrap up warm in your patchwork quilt, let the rest of us admire it, and let’s get on with this beautiful, hard business of growing humans.

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0 comments on “Would You Like Some Guilt With That Parenting Advice?”

  1. AHLondon (@AHLondonTX) Reply

    Quick but complicated thoughts because I’m short on time, but yes, there is a ton of room for “it works for us.” However, some things do work better than others and you’ve hit on something I’ve worried about for a while: we don’t know what those things are. You and many others lament that we can’t design empirical studies to determine what does but then towards the end mention that you get more comfortable confident with experience. THAT is what’s missing, experience not studies.
    These days we raise women, and men, to have little to do with children until they have their own. (Incidentally, that satirical parenting advice piece could easily have been written about pregnancy.) We all have a professional rĂ©sumĂ© to build and aren’t about to put babysitting on it. We’ve also largely killed the old authorities, elder family members both because we don’t stay close to home and tend to delay childbearing so that fewer of our grandparents are around. (Our own parents are a whole issue if their own. ) That’s why we grasp for the empirical evidence. We don’t have enough experience to judge what works and doesn’t, if our kid is a typical 2 year old or an outlier. And, I don’t know if this is down to intent or convenience, but we tend to look for advice, or really endorsement, from other parents with kids the same age. If there are typical problems with our parenting style, we wouldn’t know until we hit them ourselves.

  2. Caroline Reply

    Great advice. I think the only sensible thing to do is either to:
    – go with your instincts and avoid reading parenting advice or
    – go with your instincts and only read parenting advice that confirms your opinions and actions.

    It often strikes me that a lot of these parenting manuals work with the assumption that you have only one child. I’m not sure any of the suggested methods work in their most extreme forms if you have two or more children; when you are just trying to get from day-to-day as best you can and parent fairly randomly. If the parenting methods had any validity, then all first-born children should be “better” than their siblings, but I don’t think that’s borne out in reality.

    Still, I think our generation is generally better-informed about pregnancy, birth and child-rearing than our parents generation and that has benefits in that we can question authority and the medical profession when we don’t agree with what we are being told and we have the confidence to do so.

    • Alex Reply

      Agreed. Very well put. Particularly the point about siblings.

      Unfortunately, I seem to have developed a daft compulsion to read parenting advice, even when I know it is going to make me feel guilty and rubbish about my parenting. Which makes me grumpy and sad. Which makes me less pleasant to be around, particularly for my children. Which makes me feel guilty…

      I think I need to try harder to avoid it; and when I do read it, to hang on more firmly to Thalia’s previous observation that just because you come across an idea that you like or think might be helpful, it doesn’t mean you’ve been doing it hopelessly wrong or badly up to that point.

      And also to the fact that our children are forgiving and resilient. They are not going to be irrevocably damaged by the occasional shouty day, or inconsistent response, or whatever. At least, I sincerely hope they’re not.

  3. andrew Reply

    Anyone who writes a book on parenting will generally have an idea that could be conveyed in a half page. Two pages if you pad it out. to make it into a book that someone will pay $20 for you have to expand it and detail it up until it is the ONLY way to raise a child, and anyone who differs might as well be smoking crack. distilling it down to the kernel and deciding what if anything to incorporate is the hard thing.

    there is probably more charity shown between differing theological positions that are normally diametrically opposed than if you step away from someone else’s chosen parenting position. especially if antipathy towards vaccination or western medicine generally is the strongly held position.

    i tend to agree with caroline that we are better informed than previous generations, but the confusion that parents face in trying to find a way that works for their child is hard to navigate.

    YMMV (your mileage may vary) is probably the best thing to accompany any parenting advice. It might work for one family or one child in a family, but if there really was “one best way” to raise a child, there wouldn’t be entire sections of books on any given issue.

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