Sunday, September 15, 2013

On Parenting Advice

Baby Boomers' Bible,
or Why Gen X is in Therapy
In case you haven't heard, parenting can be hard. Faced with the need to not only keep a helpless creature alive, but then try to mold that creature into a kind and socially adept person (bonus points for polite, respectful, motivated and independent), we parents often look to others for advice. In my parents' time, that meant reading one of a few sacred tomes (my mom's choice was Dr. Spock and Emily Post) and talking to the pediatrician as if he were God. Now, we modern parents can read five bazillion parenting books, as well as peruse mommy blogs, attend parenting courses, join support groups, or scour those terrible collections of human suffering, parenting message boards.

I am a researcher at heart, so I've read a lot of blogs, clicked through the links to read original research, and checked in regularly with some parenting sites. There is...a lot. On the other hand, I have generally veered away from parenting advice books. Mainly, they just seemed like a lot of work (to both read and enact). Beyond the "how to keep a baby alive" books that I earmarked those first few months of the first kid's life, I have read exactly two parenting books (or skimmed, really). I picked up both from the library after particularly difficult weeks with my three-year-old.

The two books I read were complete opposites. One was all about emotionally supporting your delicate and fragile child. The other was about being the authority figure and establishing boundaries. Both cited extensive research justifying their strategies. Eager for help on sleep issues, I've read pediatrician-authored blogs extolling co-sleep and others passionately against such dangerous behavior, as well as those saying my kid needs to cry to learn to sleep, or that she'll lose all trust in me and be emotionally detached if I don't respond. I've been told that no one-year-old needs to nurse at night, or that many do, or that time-outs are the best punishment, or that all punishments are harmful and unnecessary. I've read that I should make my preschooler try all food on her plate, and that doing so will give her food issues. And I don't even know where to start on rewards or treats for good behavior or "good" eating.

I've come to realize that parenting advice is actually just parenting support. You find the books or blogs that support making the decision you were going to make anyway. Want to spank your kid? You'll find experts backing you up with statistics on why it works. Want to nurse until your child is three? You'll find communities of folks telling you that you're healthier and smarter than other moms. Want to make a star chart, use shame as punishment, give an allowance, let your kid choose all her clothes, pick your battles, or raise children as in Biblical times? You can find research and guidance to help you feel like you are making the best decision. Bravo for you - you're doing it right!

Parenting advice, it seems, is doled out much like the news these days. If you don't like President Obama, you can tune into Fox News and learn all the well researched, expertly argued reasons why he is a horrible leader. It will seem like The Truth, because it will be delivered by professionals who have found the research to support their opinions, who have then been given the platform to share those opinions as if they are fact. No news organization--just like no parenting advice book or blog I've come across--is going to say, "Hey, this is just how we see it, but really there's so much information out there that we really aren't sure what's right anymore." But that's what is happening: we live in an age of incredible amounts of data, research, and knowledge, in which everyone's an expert and we all have a platform to publish our findings (this blog included!).

So what's a confused parent to do? I've decided to stop reading the books and skimming the blogs. In fact, two nights ago, while trying to "sleep teach" (not "train," say the bloggers!) the baby, I read tons of blogs while listening to my kid cry, and I found myself reading only the ones that said it was OK for her to cry, and skipping over the ones that said I was cruel.* So I was seeking advice only to censor what I didn't want to hear. Again, what I was really craving was support, not wanting to be told what to do.

So, I'm done. I mean, I'm sure I'll still read some blogs--because who doesn't need some support sometimes [all the time]?--but I'm not reading them for instruction anymore. Instead, I'm going to stick with my favorite kind of advice: talking to other moms. I have friends out there raising some pretty fantastic kids, so I figure they must have a few tricks up their sleeves. I'll take in their ideas and use some, toss out others. I'll let them tell me about the research, the books they've read, the blogs they follow--but mainly, I'll just follow their examples. Because the most research I think I need is whether or not I think your kid is a good egg. Because in parenting, raising a good kid and surviving the process makes you the wisest expert I know.

*Turns out, it was cruel to me to listen to her cry so long, so I caved after two hours. And yes, I realize the irony of writing a blog about not wanting bloggers' advice, after having posted an entry giving sleeping advice, only to have a baby who now actually doesn't sleep. The interwebs are unforgiving.