Politics of Parenting

I recently made a comment on a great blog post by Perpetua about deciding whether or not to circumcise her son. In the post (go ahead and read it, I will be here when you get back) she brings up the issue of “right” and “wrong” in parenting. Perpetua points out “I’m not arguing for parenting relativism.  There are some things that are just WRONG.  See:  “don’t shake baby,” “don’t feed baby french fries and juicy juice, exclusively,” “don’t ask dog to watch baby when going out clubbing,” etc.”

Another great blogger, Accidents, commented on this post: “Isn’t it interesting that even if we don’t follow or even agree with the “good side” we can all kind of recognize where it is (organic, cloth, attachment, non-vax, non-circ, non-plastic, no tv, etc.). Not of course in an inherent/moral way, but in terms of what is most valued right now..”

What I think is particularly interesting is that we can identify this “right” side, even though the actually practice of it is still the minority. (Or is it? I am open to debate on this one. I only say this anecdotally.) Okay, so take a moment and think about the parenting style/theories/beliefs/decisions that you believe are most represented in society as being “right.”(Think during babies first year.)

Here is the list I am going to guess most of you came up with:

Babywearing, co-sleeping, breastfeeding, feeding on demand, cloth diapering, eco-friendly, organic, ‘slow parenting’, no sleep training, no nap schedule, making your own baby food, no vaccinations, no TV, no circumcision, ect..

Am I right?

Now think of how many things on that list you actually do. And how many things the parents you know of do. I am sure some things are more common then others: for example, I don’t know anyone who didn’t try really hard to breastfeed, even if they ended up formula feeding. But very few parents I can think of truly co-sleep (in that they believe co-sleeping is the best arrangement for their family and plan to do it into toddler-hood). A quick guesstimate suggest around 25% of the parents I know use cloth diapers. Although we think of these things as a ‘monolithic’ set of “right” parenting ideas, most of us pick and choose parts of this set and don’t follow others. Furthermore we usually decide on these for reasons beyond them simply being considered “good.”

So how do things get on the “good” list? How is it the minority seem to be monopolizing the “good” of parenting? (Not that I am against any of the things on the list. We practice at least 6/14 completely or partially.)


It seems to some extent that parenting decisions, like fashion, works on the principle of trends. So something not so common catches on with a few ‘cool’ parents and all of a sudden its the new big thing. Once enough people actually do it it becomes “so last year.” Except while trends seem to come and go in fashion in a matter of months, parenting trends seem to have a bit longer cycle. So does this mean that when enough parents use cloth diapers for their babies that the new “good” thing to do will be “elimination communication?” (google it)

These “good” choices do seem to follow trends in the larger societal discourse. Many of these parenting decisions go along with the ‘green movement’. Ideas that are not new but are becoming more mainstream. Yet while the ideas are becoming mainstream the practice lags behind. Just like in fashion! How many women do you still see going around with 80’s hair??


Similar to the ‘trend’ idea, does parenting philosophy just follow a natural cycle of popular to unpopular to popular again? The idea of ‘free range’ kids hearkens back to more old fashion models of parenting where Mom’s told the kids to go outside and play before dinner. The bigger kids in charge of the littler ones and out they go. It is reactionary- against the prevalence of parental fearfulness of the outside world and the resulting tendency to keep their kids within arms length at all times. Do we just want to do the opposite of what our parents did, thus perpetuating a generational cycle? Or moreover, maybe we just have a tendency to rebel against what society “tells” us to do? To be liberated from what “they” say?

New Research

An other part of the story could be ‘new’ research. Not necessarily a totally new discovery, but a trend of studies pointing to certain things. The now debunked Autism-vaccine study certainly impacted the prevalence of the the no-vaccine crowd. And it used to be that putting babies down to sleep on their stomachs was recommended. Now, given research into the causes of SIDS, most in the health care system recommend putting babies to sleep on their backs. Is there going to be an other study in a couple years telling us that back sleeping is a risk for something else and therefore lead to a different recommendation?

While we are on that topic, I also find it interesting how the current set of ‘right’ theories impact how we parents talk. I have certainly noticed a certain amount of whispering Moms admitting to each other that they do something that may not be ‘right’ but works. I remember a Mom in my ‘baby and me’ class telling me, when I was whining about my daughter not napping well when she was 2 months old, “Don’t tell anyone, but I put my daughter down on her stomach for naps when I am in the room. She sleeps better. Try it!” I have also heard this whispered tone in regards to formula feeding and cry-it-out. We seem to know what to keep on the down-low.


Related to the impact of new research- it also seems our culture-o-fear plays a role. As new parents, we are very susceptible to anyone who tells us that a choice we make may be damaging our child. And a lot of competing theories out there claim this of both sides. The Cry-it-out versus No-cry sleep training advocates, for example. But it seems in current parental discourse the No-cry crowd has done a more effective job in making their case for the damaging impact of Cry-it-out. We have been scared by their claim that it hurts the bonding between baby and parents. Fear is an effective motivator, especially when they have such a strong image on their side- that of a crying baby, something no parent enjoys. I can tell you from experience that both the Cry-it-out and the No-cry methods involve crying (at least for my baby). So maybe once the Cry-it-out crowd gets a name change and some good PR they will make a come-back. (In my opinion, neither approach is ‘damaging,’ so long as you pick the method that works best for your child.)

I am not sure exactly what the main factor is in the politics of parental discourse. (Would love to hear everyone thoughts.) But it is certain that it changes over time. Just read any parenting book that your Mom had from when you were little! So we should accept and come to terms with the fact that when our kids grow up, at least some of the ideas of what is “good” in parenting will change.

How does this ‘good’ list impact your parenting decisions? Do you feel pressure to whisper in secret about your frowned upon parenting practices? Are their certain things on the “good” list that you think are here to stay? Which ones do you think will go the way of the dodo bird?


12 responses to “Politics of Parenting

  1. Fearless Formula Feeder February 12, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    Fantastic post as always. You are quickly becoming one of my favorite bloggers!

    What’s interesting to me in all of this is that while you and I see that aforementioned “right-way-to-parent-list” as what the majority believes to be true, the people who adhere to many of these parenting theories say that they feel marginalized. I think there is a “right” way to parent in certain communities (I don’t want to come off as an ass, but I expect these are the areas where more affluent, liberal, educated people congregate – NYC, Boston, Seattle, LA, DC, etc) which is quite opposite to what tends to be the norm in other areas. I’ve gotten into this debate with many lactivists about the breastfeeding issue, but I’ve seen it on Twitter/chatrooms/blogs with co-sleeping and the no-cry-it-out thing too.

    Anyway – not sure what my point is there; just that I find it interesting. It’s all in the perspective, I guess. Where I live, there is certainly a politics of parenting, and the reality tends to diverge from what people talk about in public. I love those “whispered” conversations. I’m usually the idiot shouting to the rooftops about what a bad parent I am. 🙂 But of course, that it b/c I think I’m a pretty damn good parent, and I just like to make self-righteous, judgmental people squirm. 🙂

    And incidentally… elimination communication is getting HUGE where I live (LA).

    • amoment2think February 12, 2010 at 10:23 pm

      That is a very very good point- a lot of those who adhere to most if not all of the list do often say they are marginalized. Maybe that is why they proclaim their views so loudly- to try and overturn the marginalization they feel. When enough of them do it then it becomes the “right-way” and the cycle starts all over again!

      I also agree that where you live and what your background/situation in life is seems to have an impact. Often it is the trendy boutique stores that support these new “right way” parenting styles with lots-o-stuff like cloth diapers and 25 000 baby wearing options.

      Yeah, I can totally see elimination communication getting big– and sure, if it works for some, go for it. But I personally can’t imagine those first couple months, when I was already trying to pay attention enough to make sure I fed the kid before she got to hungry and get the kid to sleep before she got to tired, also paying enough attention to know when the kid was about to pee!

  2. Kate February 12, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    What if you don’t think some of those things on the list ARE good ways of parenting? Does that make a me us bad parents because i can’t see them as being ‘right’, let alone do them?

    I honestly do feel its a trend thing (just like the ‘green movement’.. its kinda like green is the new black). Sure there might be new research coming out but sure enough, sooner or later there will be research saying the opposite and it will all flip that way again.

    And funnily enough, in my country some of those things on the list are definitely not considered the ‘right’ way of doing things (such as co-sleeping which is a fairly big recommended no no here).

    • amoment2think February 12, 2010 at 10:38 pm

      No, I don’t think anyone is a bad parent if they don’t think some/any on the list are good. We all have our opinions about parenting choices and I think it matters more that we are trying to do our best then what we actually do. Sure, there are somethings I am willing to get on a soap box about- for example feeding kids more fresh healthy food and less junk food- but for the most part I think everyone should do what works for them.

      But it is the exact fact that we question if were are “bad” parents when we don’t follow ‘the list’ that I find interesting. If a lot of us don’t follow the list, at least in part, then we are all getting the message from popular parenting discourse that we are “bad” parents. Isn’t there something wrong with that?

      Yes, Co-sleeping is a tricky one here too- it is one that I have heard Mom’s whisper about doing. This is mostly because our health care system is very much against it. But it is so closely related to attachment parenting that it has become a part of the “right way” to parent. Yet one that some feel guilty about.

      • Kate February 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

        Its early and I’m already late for work but I wanted to say…This is exactly what I think and i do also think its interesting that we judge ourselves off “the list”.

        What i find amusing, is that most of the people who parent that way (“crunchy”) right down to the bare cores of it, tend to think they are the minority. And its weird that if they are the minority then why is it so ‘trendy’?

        I can’t make myself make sense, sorry 🙂

  3. Perpetua February 13, 2010 at 6:57 am

    I’m not really sure what drives the politics of parenting. There are so many factors: medical systems and their recommendations, consumer culture, individuals and trends. And like you pointed out before, there’s no clear moment when minority becomes majority opinion.

    I also have a question: does your pediatrician run you through a list of “best practices” questions at every check-up? We basically go through a whole “where does he sleep, breast or formula, pacifier” list, which at this point is SO annoying because: 1) I KNOW back to sleep is best, but we do what works. I’m not an idiot. And 2) If I didn’t breastfeed a 6-month-old, I am not breastfeeding a 9-month-old. Drives me nuts!

    • amoment2think February 13, 2010 at 9:10 am

      Here in Alberta we have two main interactions with the healthcare system during babies first year. One is regular 1/3/6/9/12 month checkups with her doctor and the other is 2/4/6/12month vaccinations and 1 day/4 weeks and 8 week checks on baby and Mom (mostly for breastfeeding) with the Public health nurses. Our doctor knows us pretty well (she calls me by my nick-name) and so she doesn’t ask the same questions over again (but she does fill out a “wellness check” form each time with various milestones). The health nurses always ask all of the questions, even though presumably they have our file. They are the ones that like to stuff “best practices” down your throat. Our doctor gives us advice, but usually not unsolicited. Although I have heard of other Moms with less then amazing doctors who also give them a lot of unsolicited advice.

  4. Julia February 13, 2010 at 9:13 am

    I have been keeping up on your blog, a lot to get a little insight into the ‘parenting stuff’ we never hear of – and yes, as being part of the ‘health care system’ and not yet myself part of the ‘parenting side’ of things. But this one I had to comment on, mostly because there was one mention that blew me away.

    I have agreed with a lot of your posts – mainly on how hard moms and parents are on each other – and most of the posts relate together the idea of letting parents raise their own children, with the exception of the things that are going to seriously harm them. We all have opinions on many of these things, and many of these should stay opinions – not become ‘rules’ or ‘rights vs wrong’. I firmly believe in medicine the big thing should be ‘don’t alienate people who do things differently, but accept as much as you can to prevent the few big things you don’t want to see’.

    Coming to my point of this post – I was quite surprised with your ‘right’ list. I can see many of them being part of the ‘in’ or more ‘green’ parenting style as you called it, but there was one in particular that made me cringe… the no vaccine one. Now I know there are people who are in this camp, heck, we do see them on an off and on basis, but I was surprised this got lumped in with the other ‘right’ stuff as being the hot thing right now. I know a lot of medical ‘recommendations’ do change seemingly on a dime, and some people can be excruciatingly intense about wanting to ‘enforce’ them, but really, in many cases they do seem like a ‘potato/potahto’ kind of idea (ie. when to introduce solids being one of the big ones I’m thinking of, but even breast vs bottle). And some are all in the interest of ‘risk’ – we need to let people know the ‘risk factors’ that increase SIDS, if we didn’t we would be failing both parents and children, but in the end if they chose to let the kid sleep on their tummy while they are in the room, that’s their risk calculation (heck, go look at most of the kids in the NICU, given, they are on monitors with a nurse within 10 feet of them). But vaccines are different – they are really the ONLY effective way of almost eliminating a disease that can cause serious harm to a normal child, but it’s hard to get that across without doing the ‘if you had seen what I have seen, you wouldn’t even be thinking about this’ point, which is inappropriate in a professional setting. Some people may say this is risk too, but it’s a huge risk because you’re not saying “I’ll watch them closely and try to avoid them picking up meningitis”, most say “my kids have always been healthy and I don’t think it’s needed”. Well, I’m very happy for you that you haven’t had to deal with any of those diseases, but that doesn’t help protect any of your kids from this point on.

    Anyway, I’ll get off my soap box. I know this is maybe not the right forum… I just had to make a comment on this one. Mainly because it surprised me that this may be the thought by many parents who DO get their kids vaccinated, that it is in the ‘wrong’ camp. Are we going to be whispering about that someday too? I sure hope not…

    • amoment2think February 13, 2010 at 1:00 pm


      I am glad you commented. One of the things I think it so interesting about this list is how the health care system and our health care providers feel about this list. And which of them are agree with and which are not. (Co-sleeping is also a big no no I remember being told about by nurses.)

      First of all, in posting this I was not saying that I believe this list is actually the “right” way to parent. Rather that it seems in parenting discourse that this list is currently what seems to be valued. Maybe even “trendy” is the better word. I agree that most things on the list that are potato/patato and others aren’t.

      Vaccinations are a very controversial topic. It seems that now debunked study about the MMR vaccine and Autism has resulted in a resurgence of those diseases in the UK, which is horrible. I have my concerns about vaccinations, mostly the way they are made and the chemicals in them– but that doesn’t mean they have not saved millions of lives. Even many parents that are in the “no vaccinate” camp don’t actually want to eliminate vaccinations- they just want to slow down the schedule (we give babies way more vaccinations now then we did in the 80’s for example), do more studies on their impacts and “green” them by finding ways to make them with less chemicals. But I understand that to a lot of health care providers whom have seen kids really sick, the idea that you wouldn’t vaccinate would be crazy. (We decided the risks of not vaccinating were higher then the risk of vaccinating. So our little monkey has all her shots. Except only one dose each of the H1N1 and the Flu, rather then the recommended two doses.) I also think it is important for parents to have a choice and have a right to ask the health care system to address their concerns.

      Anyway, I am not sure what to say, except I didn’t write this post without excepting that parts of the list are problematic and controversial. I just wanted to engage in a discussion about how parenting discourse seems to favor certain ideas and how this changes over time.

      Please comment anytime, on or off your soap box. I appreciate your perspective.

      • Julia February 13, 2010 at 7:42 pm

        Thanks 🙂 I of course didn’t mean it in any way against any one in particular, and I do think parents have every right to ask for explanations, and challenge medical ‘thought’ on what we (as a collective) are telling people. There are just some that are more frustrating to go over again and again I find… but at least I know whenever I am explaining it that I’ve got a great deal of good science behind me on that one.

        The co-sleeping one was another one that I had a “little cringe” about, but I didn’t want to list it before. And I know that a lot of people do it. Personally, the thought that a completely overtired parent would fall asleep with their 5 kg kid beside them freaks me out just because I think of how oblivious myself or my husband are when we’re totally tired and crash (I’ve had quite a few elbows in the face from him without so much as a slight rouse on his part!) Again, I think it unfortunately comes to trying to make things safe without impeding the parent-child bonding. My favorite recommendation that I have heard for parents who like/want to try co-sleeping is to have a cradle or bassinet right beside the bed (preferably at bed level) that the baby can be moved into but still be immediately beside the parent. Again though, that doesn’t fit everyone’s bill. For me, the co-sleeping issue is only really ‘big’ until the kid is old enough to extricate him/herself from a tight spot (say, about 10-12 months generally) and then it becomes a completely “up to them” issue. Interestingly, co-sleeping (usually meaning in the same room, but if the kid is big enough, in the same bed) is actually recommended for parents who adopt somewhat older (over 9-12 month) kids, especially international adoptions, to help with the attachment phase. Again though, only if the kid is big/developmentally safe.

        Anyway, keep up the posts. I do like reading them and getting to hear a lot of stuff that parents usually won’t bring up with docs. Plus, it’s nice to get a glimpse into the parenting phase that hopefully we’ll be part of in the next few years…

      • amoment2think February 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm

        I can totally see how going over and over the vaccination issue would be frustrating. Especially when crappy science is out there telling parents not to vaccinate their kid (I am referring to MMR-Autism guy). But you know, we parents get all freaked out and stuff. 🙂

        Yeah, Co-sleeping is a tricky one. I know it is not recommended by Canadian or American authorities. We didn’t do it because I move a lot when I sleep and I don’t think having a wiggly kid beside me would have allowed either her nor I to actually sleep. We did exactly what you suggest- a bassinet at the beside until she was 3 months old. Then we moved her to her crib in her own room. But I also get the co-sleeping argument… it has been done for thousands and thousands of years. In many cultures whole families sleep together all the time. And it does help with bonding. It can be easier on some Moms (particularly breastfeeding ones) and for a lot of kids it is the only way they will sleep. We did co-nap for a while when our daughter was between 5-7 months old- when she wouldn’t go down for that third nap. Although I rarely actually slept during those naps– just rested. But I do believe there is a Mommy instinct that keeps baby safe- so long as you follow the right precautions. Not for us- but I don’t think as horrible as it is made out to be.

        Anyway- please keep commenting- it is great to have a doctor perspective!

      • Briana February 14, 2010 at 10:19 am

        Julia, I think that whether co-sleeping is right for you has a lot to do with how you sleep. I found I sleep very differently as a nursing mother than before. I started co-sleeping out of desperation with my first (an epic bad sleeper) but quickly found it a lovely (and pragmatic) choice. When I am co-sleeping, I am not overtired. My babies and I follow similar wake/sleep cycles. When they wake to nurse, I wake up only enough to nurse, and then we’re off again. I position them in the crook of my arm, and so I can’t move without feeling them move in the bed (waking me up again – I am a very light sleeper when nursing, and I also don’t move a lot). I actually find that older babies are more of a problem in the bed, because they do move away, and so I have a harder time keeping blankets away from faces and knowing where they are in the bed. There’s also more risk of them falling out of bed. My plan is to continue co-sleeping with my second (3 months old now) until she is nursing less frequently at night, and/or starts wriggling around more in bed. She is napping in the crib, and starting the night in the crib, but as I did with my first, after a certain point at night when being up with her would result in problematic sleep for me, she comes into our bed.

        Co-sleeping is one thing that is hard for non-breastfeeding mothers to picture sometimes. Fathers, for example, do sleep heavily. We always keep the babies next to me, and away from Dad for just that reason. We’re in a King bed, so we have lots of space for everyone.

        I was initially worried that co-sleeping would teach bad habits, and would cause problems getting the kids to sleep on their own, but that hasn’t been the case. My oldest, now a toddler, sleeps in his own bed until the wee morning hours, and we have ‘sleepy cuddles’ (half-awake) until the squirming becomes too much. He gradually transitioned from most of the night in bed, to most in the crib, to all in his own bed. It partially had to do with nursing I think. As he ate more solids and less breastmilk, he slept more on his own. We did have to do some intervention with him but I don’t think it was really effective. I learned from him that you really can’t make a kid sleep. We just had to wait for him to figure it out, and do what we could to encourage it.

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