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?
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?