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Still crazy... Why we are still waging the parenting wars (and who's winning)

 

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High stakes: parenting choices

High stakes: parenting choices

Bill and Melinda Gates

Bill and Melinda Gates

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Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos

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Brad and Angelina used to co-sleep with their brood

Brad and Angelina used to co-sleep with their brood

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Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell

Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell

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Elon Musk

Elon Musk

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Kourtney Kardashian

Kourtney Kardashian

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Richard Branson

Richard Branson

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High stakes: parenting choices

In the matter of child-rearing, I seem to have become a village elder. More and more, I get questions from younger friends, or, sometimes, cries for help: is it always going to be like this?

My image of wisdom and experience is ostensibly based on the fact that my three kids are older now - one teen, one pre-teen and one soon to enter double-digits. I have made it this far (no mean feat). Also, I did once write a book called How to Really Be a Mother. So, I get the village elderness. But, I also get that really, it's not that I'm any kind of expert - I'm just there. And they are desperate.

I am a long time out of the small-children zone, and when you're out, you're out. The world of newborns is a distant memory - mostly a lovely and loving one, shot through with intense recollections of some truly appalling moments.

But I had fondly imagined that somehow, the air had cleared in that boiling cauldron that is parenting new babies. I thought that the high-stakes dispensing of advice - "Do this or else!" - the judgment - "Oh, so that's your sleep-training plan?" - and the silent criticism, had all died down, meaning far less of the isolation, guilt and second-guessing that I remember from those early days. I left that world behind, thinking it was better fit for purpose. But it seems I was wrong.

There is no longer the same quantity of reality TV parenting shows any more - poor me had small children in the era of peak-Supernanny… - and the cultural obsession with sleep training and time-outs has waned, and yet, behind the headlines, it seems that the relentless cycle of advice/expectation/guilt goes on.

"I couldn't get over how invested everyone is," says one friend who had her first baby nearly a year ago. "The nice bit is older ladies smiling at me and Baby everywhere we go, and wanting to chat to her. But the other side is the advice that everyone wants to give me. About how to feed her, wean her, dress her - telling me she's too warm, too cold, hungry, tired…"

I remember that all too well. The advice came in a deluge: unasked for, often unwanted, contradictory, even nonsensical (no, linden tea doesn't settle a fractious baby, at least not in my experience, and home-made colic 'cures' made from liquorice never worked a jot) - but always fervent. And always conveyed as though this was the secret of the Lost Ark; invested in as though the giver's very life depended on it.

And in some funny way, it did. Or at least, not their life, but their sense of themselves.

The urgency was driven by their need to have their choice endorsed. This wasn't some bit of random advice they dispensed, it was a system they had applied to their own little darling, and therefore believed in as though it were sacred.

I get it. And I get the need for validation - bringing up children is a highly emotional business - but I question the urgency, and the leap to judgment.

Asked why she thinks people are so very dogmatic in their parenting advice, Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist, whose book Love in, Love out - A Compassionate Approach to Parenting your Anxious Child is published this month, says, "I think people are very black and white. And very invested. I think that's a very human thing. When you're getting married, everybody is invested in telling you where to get your dress, how to do your hair. It's the same - people are judgmental about child-rearing. I found when I was in hospital after my first child, it seemed every nurse had a different take and a strong opinion on what I should do in terms of breastfeeding, sleep and so on. As a new parent, you're desperately looking for advice all around you, and you're vulnerable to that advice because you don't know what you're doing."

And, she goes on to say, "I think new parents now are even more vulnerable because they don't have as much experience of looking after their own younger siblings or cousins as they might have in years gone by. When they become parents, it is truly the first time they have ever been in charge of a baby.

"There's a bombardment of information, and it's hard to trust your gut instinct because you haven't honed this yet. You don't know you can trust it; you don't even know what it is. So you're blown this way and that by the advice around you."

Says who?

The thing is, most of this advice is seriously lacking in actual evidence. One science writer recently called parenting "a world the Enlightenment forgot". There is so much muddling between cause and correlation in the business of child-rearing - between what is a consequence of our actions, and what is simply a feature of the very broad backdrop of a child's upbringing: parenting decisions, birth order, environment, genetics, random happenings... To the point where it is well-nigh impossible to tell if your teenager's anger issues are as a result of your disciplinary methods, or something else entirely. Equally, is your 10-year-old's easy-going personality down to your excellent parenting, or their genetic make-up? Hard to say. Does little Janet excel at school because you breastfed her, or because breastfeeding was just one of the many ways in which you supported and encouraged her?

Frankly, you could go mad trying to sort it out. And still not succeed.

And yet, rarely is this reality admitted by parenting 'experts' (and in this hot-bed world, even the lady down the road who had one child, back in 1968, is an 'expert').

So let's look at some of the greatest sources of angst, what I like to call The Big Four: Breastfeeding, Sleep Training, the complex interplay of praise/discipline/ expectation that I'm going to call Motivation, and finally the world of pushing and shoving that comes via activities - everything from tennis to tai-chi - that we can shorthand as Improving.

Breast is Best

For a long time, breastfeeding was unassailable, the one 'must' that actually, apparently, had some scientific evidence behind it. In fact, even that is not so simple. Breastfeeding is known to protect against gastroenteritis - tummy bugs. Other than that, it is unclear what actual benefits it conveys. Breastfed babies generally do well in life; that, we can see. But whether this is down to the breast milk, or the middle-class setting in which it is mostly delivered, is impossible to tell.

For what it's worth, I fed my eldest for three years, the middle for about 16 months, the youngest for maybe nine months. My friends who had babies at the same time were a mixed bag: some did, some didn't; some did for a bit, then didn't; some combined; some tried and had to give up, with varying degrees of relief and guilt. Sixteen years later, I cannot see any difference whatsoever between these children, not in terms of health, sociability, physical or mental development. They are, all of them, smart, kind, funny, active and happy.

And yet the breastfeeding debate rages on. Though I'm not sure debate is really the right word. It's more of an assault.

There is also an unwillingness to admit that for some women, breastfeeding is difficult to the point of impossible, no matter what their convictions and preferences around it pre-baby were. A piece I read by a dietician recently made that very clear - this woman had spent years telling other mothers that breast was best. Then she had her first child, and found that offsetting the supposed benefits of breastmilk, was, for her, pain, misery, uncertainty. She gave up.

Dr Coyne has her own experience of something similar. "I prefer going with 'bonding is best' rather than 'breast is best,'" she says. "It's really good to try to bond with your baby, whether through breastfeeding or bottle feeding. Breastfeeding didn't work for me after a week or two, and my kids turned out fine. I don't know whether I didn't have enough support around me, or I wasn't made of strong enough stuff to wake up a million times a night, but it just did not happen naturally for me. I still feel 'how could it not have?' On the second baby, I was quicker to give up, because I thought, 'I just need to survive here. I have a newborn and a toddler who is toilet training'."

And, she emphasises: "You can't attune to their needs unless you're doing the eye contact, mirroring what they do, but I think you can still feed your baby and look into their eyes and bond, with a bottle. You could be sitting there, breastfeeding, but on your phone and not bonding."

Sleep Tight

If there is another topic guaranteed to divide parents, it's sleep training, or the lack thereof. And here again, the stakes are high. Those in favour will cite the benefits of babies learning to self-soothe, of a routine for both child and parents, the undoubted plus of a good night's sleep for all, and the fact that crying doesn't necessarily mean distress in small babies: It is simply what they do to get our attention.

On the other hand, those opposed will talk about the importance of a baby learning that his/her needs will be met, the fostering of the bond between mother and baby, the gradual growth in confidence in the world around them.

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Brad and Angelina used to co-sleep with their brood

Brad and Angelina used to co-sleep with their brood

FilmMagic

Brad and Angelina used to co-sleep with their brood

 

Probably there is a happy medium in there somewhere, but you wouldn't know it from the hostility with which devotees of either camp take sides. Fundamentally, this is about parents who want their baby to slot into their world and adapt to become part of it, versus those who are willing to let their world revolve around the new baby.

Again, most of us are probably somewhere in the middle, and possibly equally frustrated by the extremes of both sides. Yes, babies need us to compromise and put them first as much as we can. But, we also need to get through the day and keep the various other spinning plates up there and moving about. Again, what's fascinating isn't the different schools of thought - it's the vehemence of opposition. I have heard the very invested talk about 'psychological damage' in the context of a small child being left to 'cry it out'. And I have also heard allegations of 'lazy, self-indulgent, doormat'. Let's face it, 'Earth Mother' is not always a compliment - just read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, to see what kind of reaction a certain type of very involved mothering can provoke...

On both sides there is the assumption of smugness, which may indeed be accurate, as well as unfortunate suppositions made about character based on parenting choices.

What's Your Motivation?

Now let us turn to motivation, or the complex but often haphazard system of reward-punishment-incentive that most of us operate in order to coax, cajole and threaten our children into everything from putting their shoes on to getting good grades and being polite.

Right now, the hottest debate isn't around the Naughty Step versus Time-Out as it was when I was trying to figure this out - it's praise.

And this is probably where orthodoxy has changed most dramatically in the last 10-15 years. We've gone from over-praise to no praise. From effusive displays of "Darling, you are amazing!" to laconic comments: "You worked really hard at that".

The very latest Silicon Valley (Yes, they too are somehow 'experts') thinking, is - No Praise. Praising children apparently makes them focussed on approval and therefore achievement-obsessed; this, in turn, stilts their natural curiosity and willingness to try new things, and makes them scared of failure.

So now, instead of praising achievement, we praise process: "You tried really hard at that".

Recently, I had a visit from a woman I know who has lived in Silicon Valley for several years. Our children were drawing and at one point, her four-year-old brought over a picture to show her. Instead of saying "how lovely", as I would have done, this woman uttered no praise at all but made comments along the lines of, "I see you've used a lot of blue in this bit. Tell me about that?"

She was engaged, interested, open to the child telling her things, but not gushing 'beautiful', 'wonderful', 'genius' at her in the way the Baby Boomers (who bought into praise as a cure for low self-esteem, which they identified as the root of all social ills such as alcoholism, depression and under-achievement) would have been. It seemed a bit stilted, but definitely interesting, as was her child's response - the girl talked about what she had done and why she had picked certain things, because the conversation was open in a way that launching straight into 'you're amazing' quite possibly isn't. I mean, what's to say to that except 'thanks'?

And yet to those who haven't made the mental switch, there is something infuriating about this restrained, low-key approach. It can seem cold and unnatural, although it doesn't raise hackles in anything like the same way that the other 'choices' mentioned here do.

Always room To Improve

Finally, let us turn to Improving. This is the one where, on the one side are those whose children do every possible activity, from violin to Mandarin, on the basis that this allows them to develop every aspect of themselves and acquire skills that may be of later benefit to them, such as leadership qualities honed on the football pitch, performance poise from giving piano recitals, and so on. This is the world of activities that pretend to be fun, but are really education and 'character building' by another name.

Up against that are the parents who believe children should be left alone, their hours unfilled with scheduled stuff, to discover - at their leisure - their own inner creativity through making mud pies and scribbling on pavements with chalk.

And again, each side is vicious in its disregard for the other, unable to see beyond the accusations of 'helicoptering' and 'over-scheduling' on one side, and 'lazy' and 'unambitious' on the other. Both want the very same thing - happy children (although I suspect they have different interpretations of what happiness is) - but are locked in mortal combat over the best way to get that.

Here again, the jury is largely out. Yes, the opportunity to try everything from climbing walls to horse riding is amazing, but so too are childhood hours uncluttered with adult anything - no expectations, no supervision, no polite interactions.

Lessons on love

It's easy for me to look back on all this now with wry amusement. But actually, I remember very well feeling miserable, often, about what I was doing. I obsessively read baby books - 'How To' manuals, telling me that I could raise the perfect child as long as I followed their advice, and being torn every which way, always in the belief that what I did that day, that hour - whether I weaned at four months or five months, how well I did the nightly bath-boob-bed routine, how often I put the child down for tummy time - would all have an immense impact on his character and outcomes in life.

The truth is, the stakes are high. If you love someone as much as we all love our children, of course you want the best for them. The mistake we make is overstating our influence on this.

The reality is that genetics are hugely important, and become more and more so as life goes on. You can definitely affect a child's performance in the early years by hot-housing and optimising, but somewhere around the late teens, genetics begin to reassert themselves and the 'artificial' gains become less and less noticeable. The further we go in life, the less important parenting is (by which I mean the general run of well-intentioned, non-pathological parenting). Even happiness has a strong genetic component.

As for me, I gradually learned (the hard way) two things - one, everything is a phase; this is as true now with teenagers and pre-teens as it was with a six-month-old. And two - that being a little bit selfish was of far more use to all of us, baby included, than being the model of maternal self-sacrifice.

As parenting expert, Sheila O'Malley, founder of Practical Parenting, says, "You can't give what you haven't got. You can't give kindness, space, tolerance and so on to the child, if you don't give it to yourself. If you have realistic expectations of yourself as a parent, you will have realistic expectations of them as children."

She also points out: "There is a level of competitiveness that has come into parenting that wasn't there before. Kids don't have a bit of a play and kick a ball around, or splash in a pool, any more. There's much more pushing, private training, expectation of performance. This is to the detriment of the child. It's not what kids want or what kids need. In doing this, parents put pressure on the child, unknowingly. Kids want to do things that are fun."

The thing is, we cannot smooth every step of their paths. We cannot optimise their entire existence. Disappointment is part of life. So is failure. In fact, it is the ability to absorb and recover from these things that builds that most desirable quality - resilience.

And, according to Dr Coyne, our parenting failures have a huge role to play: "Parenting is a continual string of rupture and repair," she says. "Secure attachment - which is a predictor of good things happening for your child in every domain of their lives as they get older - is made up one-third of tuning in to your child, one-third rupture (not going to them when they are crying for example, or feeling overwhelmed and snapping at them), and one-third repair. That is the conscious, beautiful opportunity for parents to be able to build on the attachment bond with their child by being able to repair it. It's not about steady perfection. Resilience is built by facing a challenge or threat with a loving presence by your side. If you aren't given a chance to do that, you won't build it."

 

How the other half parent

Elon Musk goes well beyond the scope of “decent dad”. In fact, he’s so invested in his five children that he started his very own super exclusive school, Ad Astra, in order to foster the geniuses of the future.

The emphasis is critical thinking and problem-solving rather than rote learning and grade competition.

Bill and Melinda Gates were always hot on giving back, insisting that their three children save one-third of their allowance from a young age, to donate to charity.

Cheryl Sandberg favours the daily edit, a round-table dinner discussion in which she and her two children all share their best and worst moments of the day.

Kourtney Kardashian goes for attachment parenting, including co-sleeping, with Mason and Penelope. Angelina Jolie did the same; at one point, she and Brad Pitt had a custom-made bed that could fit all six kids.

Alicia Silverstone slightly freaked people out with her adoption of pre-mastication. This is when you chew up food and then spit it into your baby’s mouth, like a bird. It’s an ancient technique that probably made sense in Stone Age times. Less so now when we have cutlery.

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Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos

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Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos

 

Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, favour play and experimentation for their four kids, including with knives and power tools at relatively young ages. Apparently MacKenzie has said: “I’d much rather have a kid with nine fingers than a resourceless kid”.

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Richard Branson

Richard Branson

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Richard Branson

 

For Richard Branson, it’s about doing what they do. Asked about parenting advice in 2017, he said, “If they’re going to have a joint, do it with them. Don’t let them sneak off and do it on their own,” later qualifying that he regards drugs as a health problem, not a criminal one.

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Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell

Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell

WireImage

Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell

 

Actor Kristen Bell, who started couples therapy with now-husband Dax Shepard even before they got married, caused a spot of controversy when she admitted to locking daughter Delta in her bedroom at night, to stop the relentless antics so many parents will be familiar with. “I’m sorry, I know that’s controversial,” Bell said. “But we lock it when she gets in there, and we stand outside and say, ‘We love you, we will talk to you in the morning, but now, it’s time for sleep.” And after about 10 minutes, she’ll wind herself down. And then, before we go to bed, obviously, we unlock it.”

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