The internet is flooded with parenting advice, with influencers showing us how to do everything better. But just because a certain style works for some, it doesn’t mean it will work for you
Before when my children asked me for a toy my reaction was always a Thatcheresque “no.” It was a stoic one-word answer. It didn’t come with an explanation or appeals process. No meant no. That parenting style doesn’t have a soothing title, nor is it unique, a solid “No” has been around for decades.
But times are changing in the parenting world and there are gurus, experts, psychologists and regular parents flooding the internet, showing us how to do everything better. Recently, I came across Fritha Quinn, a social influencer and “respectful parent”, talking about how she approaches the same situation. She promotes engaging with her child about the toy. She shows interest in it and talks about the reasons they like it. Then she asks if they’d like to take a picture of the beloved toy so they can always remember it. This works to avoid tantrums 99pc of the time, she claims.
Avoiding 99pc of tantrums is an appealing, albeit arbitrary, statistic, so I copied her. The next time one of my children spotted a toy they wanted, I did exactly as she does. I inflected a cheerful tone and showed interest in their toy of choice. They held the plastic noisy thing aloft for a photo and put it back on the shelf. All was well until we moved away without it.
Prompted by hope, my other child joined in picking out a toy they wanted too. The longer we dithered in the aisles the worse it got. “No” wasn’t anywhere to be heard, both kids could taste victory. I stuck to the method but I ran out of script and the badgering kept going. I ad-libbed but my tone got sharper. They escalated and so did my anger. With a snap my gentle parenting mask fell off and the result was what would generously be described as “a scene.” We left in a blaze of tears, without a present for their friend.
I am not the only hopeful parent to turn online for advice. Videos with the hashtag #gentleparenting have amassed a staggering 2.7 billion views on TikTok. Once you add in other parenting labels such as attachment parenting (135.5 million), authoritative parenting (44 million) and permissive parenting (11.9million) the numbers are overwhelming. With so many parent tip clips out there, is it any wonder we get it wrong?
Rachel Rainey (mother of two) says she too seeks out help online. “I use Google for everything and use YouTube, or social media, for parenting advice. When our son started crawling he started invading our daughter’s space, which she didn’t appreciate. So she had started really acting out so we introduced the time-out and naughty step thing,” she says.
But Rachel’s daughter enjoyed time-out so much she found ways to get herself in trouble. “She came into the kitchen one morning and our son was in his high-chair having his breakfast and she just threw a toy in his direction and said, ‘Oh no, I go time-out okay? I think about it and I come back and say sorry when I ready, okay?’ and off she went skipping out the door as happy as could be to go sit on her step in the hallway all by herself and have a think about life.“
Unintended consequences happened to us both yet Rachel and I continue to seek advice online, because often it helps. Dr Malie Coyne, Clinical Psychologist, Adjunct Lecturer at NUI Galway, and author of parenting book Love in, Love Out, says: “In the sea of advice we are drowning in, it’s important for parents to learn to trust their gut instinct and what feels most comfortable for them and to kind of take a step back.”
Seeking out parenting tips online is not without its merits. “The benefits are there if it fits with your style of parenting. If you feel comfortable with it and you are trying to learn about parenting from a place of soothing rather than threat, then great,” she says.
So, what motivates people to seek out parenting strategies online? “Fear, guilt, threat, social comparisons: thinking that other people are doing it better than them or that they are screwing up,” Dr Coyne says. Many people “think I can get a lot of things perfect in my life. I need to do the same with parenting. That’s absolute BS, it’s not true. Parenting is really hard.”
“Parenting experts show when things worked out so well but a second ago they might have been having a big row with their husband or things didn’t work out so well, so I just think take it with a pinch of salt,” Dr Coyne adds.
Listening to her, it’s clear she guides people away from seeking an imagined perfection that we often see online. Instead, she encourages parents to be self-reflective and look at what is going on for them and tune into their own instincts.
“It doesn’t matter what approach you adopt if it’s not natural to you,” she says.
This rings true for me. I knew before I even tried the style that it wasn’t how I would naturally do things, but the difference also made it tempting. I was, and often am, looking for a quick-fix to solve a situation. The problem with this isn’t the influencer’s video, and it isn’t me either, it’s the fact that a short clip can’t make a parent. When I copied her words it turned me into a copycat caricature. It was inauthentic. Parenting is a long game, even a trip to Smyths can feel like an eternity, so the only way through it is as myself.
Dr Coyne offers a voice of reason and self-compassion on this topic.
“If we are able to maintain calm in a hot parenting moment and take a breath rather than join them in the chaos, I think that’s good enough.
“Good enough parenting, according to me, and according to attachment parenting, is a third of tuning into your child. When they know what you are communicating and you know what they are communicating. Another third is rupture, where things don’t go quite according to plan and you really aren’t hearing each other. And a third of the time is repair. That’s the beautiful fertile ground upon which the gorgeous brain connections are formed. Kids then expect repair in their future relationships… so I think if you are getting it right two thirds of the time, then that’s good enough.”
Rachel repaired by ditching the naugthy step. “We actually ended up doing a quiet corner, any area of a room where her brother couldn’t get at her, or her stuff. That worked better,” she says.
For my repair, I apologised for turning into a shouty monster and pledged to myself to always put a fiver in a birthday card from now on. If I ever do cross the threshold of a toy shop again they can rest assured that the iron lady of the toy aisles will be back with only one word, “No.” This mother is not for turning.