Messages and being a ‘good’ parent

Photo by John-Morgan via Flickr Creative Commons License

So I have been thinking about messages. You know, the short snippets of information that travels across all forms of media. Messages that convey what should be or what ought to be.

You see, I think most messages we are exposed to, as parents, citizens, consumers, ect, are short and black and white. They need to be. Let’s be honest, people get behind short, clear messages. People get excited or riled up or passionate or spurred to action, not by complex messages full of nuance and flexibility, but by very unquestionable statements. These messages can quickly travel from person to person with little explanation. The people that generate the messages may have done lots of research, but the people that spread the information and receive the information need not and may not have the same level of knowledge. The clearer, more engaging, more urgent the message, the faster and further it will spread.

Think about it.

Could you put “breastfeeding is normal and natural and most women can do it, though it can be difficult at first for some and it is important to get support and some women really can’t do it for a variety of reasons or they choose not to breastfeed for a variety of reasons and they can use formula, which although is not ideal, is a reasonable alternative” on a bumper sticker?

No. So instead we get:

Breast is best


Formula is poison

Formula is as good as breastmilk

Co-sleeping is dangerous

Cribs harm attachment

Babies need to learn independence

Crying causes brain damage

Don’t leave your baby alone to cry

If you don’t use CIO they will never sleep

Put your baby down

Pick your baby up

You can’t spoil a baby

Don’t spoil your baby

Don’t give your baby solid food till 6 months

Give your baby cereal at 4 months

Babies only need breastmilk until one year

Toddlers need boundaries

Toddlers need attachment

I could go on.

The world doesn’t operate in black and white. The world is full of circumstance, nuance, flexibility. The world is case by case.

And as parents, these messages seem (although I don’t think it is intentional) to imply that parents are not to be trusted to make decisions. That we need guidelines. That our instincts aren’t enough. Truth is, kids don’t come with manuals. I am sure you have heard the joke about how we need to pass a test to drive a car but not to raise a human being. In today’s society, with our fragmented communities and it being rare for multi-generations to live together, we crave the ‘right answer’. We crave those clear statements to just tell us what to do. Give us the answers. However, when we get those messages and try to apply them we realize that they aren’t quite enough. They don’t cover all the bases, all the circumstances. They aren’t written with your child in mind.

Eventually, many of us, find our own middle ground. I believe that the masses are stupid but individuals are smart. We puzzle through the black and white messages we hear and we work things out case by case, based on our own circumstances. Through that process we often have to wrestle with our believes, guilt, confusion. We have to wrestle with not being the parent that we imagined ourselves to be, the one that seems ideal to us, that fits all the messages we believe it. We instead realize that we are the best parent we can be for our child. And that those messages need wiggle room.

Messages with little to no nuance do well on the internet. Bold statements make good headlines and they spur people to take sides and spread the word. And many of those bold statements are valuable. Unique perspectives that are needed in our overall dialogue. They stir up our thoughts and make us reconsider things from new perspectives.

But in the end most of us take the middle road. Or at the very least, modify and flex the road we are on. Strong convictions are good and it is important to have an idea of the kind of parent you want to be. The type of relationship you want to have with your child, the values you want to instill in them. But in the middle of the night, when push comes to shove you go with your best gut instinct on what is right for your kid at that time. Period.

And we shouldn’t feel guilty for that. We shouldn’t feel like we failed, or didn’t live up to expectations, or compromised our beliefs. And quite frankly, I don’t think we should have to deal with being told we have harmed our child, when we know we have done the best we could at the time. But we can’t control what people say, so the best we can do is trust that when we love, care for and do the very best we can for our child we should trust that no harm has been done. Or we accept what a friend of mine told me, ‘No matter what, you will find new and inventive ways to screw up your kid. We all need therapy over something our parents did.’ Anyway, back to the point. We shouldn’t measure our success as parents based on what anyone else thinks. We measure our success as parents by the relationship we have with our kids and if it is what we want.

And can I just say. If you are reading blogs and articles on the internet about how to be a good parent and are engaged in the online community of parenting dialogue, even just a little, chances are you are a good parent. Because you obviously care to be the best you can be. (Parents who aren’t online are also great parents, they just have the good sense not to get drawn into the drama online. Ha!)

There is nothing wrong with having a philosophy to guide you. The great thing about philosophies is that they are complex, changing, dynamic and there is often debate within them. They are not just an accumulation of a bunch of black and white messages. Personally, I like to borrow from multiple philosophies. And then I like to assess, question myself and evaluate. I think a lot of the mistakes in parenting come from doing things with the best of intentions but not thinking through or reflecting on the consequences. Not from lack of knowledge or guidelines or not following the messages.

What has the impact of messages been on you as parent? Helpful? Not helpful?


4 responses to “Messages and being a ‘good’ parent

  1. Dhelenia January 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Great Post!

    I do however think that when it comes to children less is more …to some extent we have to let nature do its job. Now I am inspired to write again. Thanks

  2. Esperanza January 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I would say mostly they are confusing, because as your list pointed out, for every statement one way there is another from the other camp. But I guess they are good in that they direct your attention to the issue and the conflicting opinions force you to go out and find the answer for yourself. And while that can be infuriating, when you just find more and more conflicting information, your instinct will generally guide you in the “right” (for you) direction.

    Great post! Your topics are always so well though out and informative. I love reading your blog!

  3. Alexis January 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    I would say these messages have been helpful to me in that they inspire me to do some research. I am the kind of person who sees “crying causes brain damage” and reckons I better look into that one. Obviously some message prove to be more true than others…

    I think the problem is taking them at face value. To assume any absolute statement is entirely true, and then blindly believing that way to be the only right way, is playing a dangerous game, especially when dealing with childhood development since each kid is their own person and needs their own set of “rules.”

    I guess I share your point that messages should be a starting point for learning about topics and not the definitive word on the subject. I am just not sure how many people, in our American culture at any rate, get that. There is a certain comfort level with having a bumper-sticker that defines your plan and therein lies the road to fanatical theory parenting (bad) vs. theory parenting (good).

  4. janetlansbury January 7, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    @Dhelenia, I love what you said. It’s perfect and so true.

    @Kathleen, I also appreciate this so much: “I think a lot of the mistakes in parenting come from doing things with the best of intentions but not thinking through or reflecting on the consequences.”

    That has been my exact experience as a parent and educator. But the good news is that we learn from those mistakes. Parenting is a process. We’re never done learning. (And now with an 18 year old, I think I have a right to say that.) 🙂

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