Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why All Parenting Fads Are Wrong

Parenting is tough (how's that for the understatement of the century?).  You feel the weight of raising these helpless little babies into healthy, happy adults, knowing that at any moment you could say or do something that will later be recounted in your grown child's therapy sessions.  You might make a mistake that your child will use to blame you for all her flaws and failures - and what's worse, she could even be justified!  There's so much pressure to do everything just right.

Naturally, when there's such high stakes, we'll want to turn to experts for help.  Surely there's someone out there, smarter than us, who has figured this all out.  If we just find his program and follow it exactly, our kids will turn out perfectly.

I recently had a conversation where the new parenting fad called RIE came up.  I had never heard of it before, and for a moment, I got excited when I heard it explained as, "you respect babies and children, and treat them like adults."  But as we got further into the conversation, some of the ideas and advice started to sound wrong to me, so I looked it up for myself.  The RIE website actually sounds pretty good.  It touts "basic trust in the child," encouraging parents to give "time for uninterrupted play," "freedom to explore and interact," and that parents should "allow the child to become an active participant rather than a passive recipient."  The only problem I saw from the actual RIE website is that parents are called 'educarer' - which immediately makes me lose some respect for the philosophy.

Then I went further and read a Vanity Fair article about the parenting trend.  The article starts with advice I can fully get behind - talk to your children like adults.  Give them your undivided attention.  Stop paying attention to your phone and pay attention to your kids.  Yes!  I agree, totally.  But then it goes on to say, 
Bouncers are discouraged on the principle that they are disrespectful to a baby’s true emotions, as the object is to make him zone out and stop annoying you. RIE is philosophically opposed to anything that disrespects a baby, including not only sippy cups and high chairs but also baby gyms, baby carriers like Björns, baby swaddles, and baby walkers, which Gerber, who had quite a way with words, called “a moving prison."
Well - I can sort of see some of that, though I think the reasoning behind it is flawed.  Babies shouldn't be left alone for long periods of time in bouncers, swings, etc.  The the article also goes on to say,

 “Children don’t need toys,” says Solomon. “Almost all of the toys at RIE can be found in somebody’s cupboard.” No rattles either. According to Gerber, “Rattles are an adult idea: you pick up something, and it makes noise. Why does it make noise? Because some adult put something into something.” No mobiles. “Mobiles are intrusive—the infant has no choice. Who chose the mobile? An adult.” No pacifiers. “The pacifier is a plug,” Gerber once wrote. “It does stop a child from crying, but the question is, Does an infant have a right to cry?” 
And that's when a good premise (treat your children with respect) goes too far.  In trying so hard to treat children with respect, like adults.. they're forgetting that children aren't actually adults.  Babies have an actual need to suck, whether it's on a pacifier or a breast.  If you're not willing to let your infant use you as a pacifier, and you can't give him an actual pacifier when he needs one, how is that respecting his need?  I don't know anyone who has been able to make a child suck on a pacifier when he doesn't want to - at least, I never could with my kids.  If they didn't want to suck on the damn thing, they wouldn't.  Babies cry, yes, and they have that right.  But a cry is a sign of distress, and we have the right to try to figure out why our children are in distress - do they need to suck on something?  Give them a nipple - real or fake - or even a clean finger.  Is the baby bored, tired of looking at you all day?  Try a toy, or a bouncy seat, or a play gym.

Bouncy seats and play gyms are useful because babies need visual stimulation - but their eyesight isn't fully developed.  A young baby can't just sit in your lap and look all around a room, look at that fascinating painting you have hung up on the wall over there - they can't see that far.  A bouncy seat or a play gym puts interesting objects at the right distance for your baby to focus on.  Don't worry about them getting bored - they'll do this amazing thing to let you know they've had enough - they'll cry.  And that's when you pick them up and see what you can do to meet their needs.

But the fact that RIE parenting has some flaws isn't surprising or unexpected.  Every parenting style, fad, philosophy, etc has flaws.  It's inevitable, because not every parent, child, and combination thereof are alike.  Not everyone will respond to techniques or advise the same way.  Some of my favorite philosophies advise things that I just can't stand.  Montessori is wonderful, but what about the child who loves to dress-up and act out elaborate, creative imaginative stories?  Waldorf is beautiful and lovely, but what about the child who teaches himself to read 'too soon' and loves math and science, always asking for more?  Attachment parenting is so nurturing, but what about the mother who can't make enough milk - must she feel like a failure?  I think homeschooling is one of the best choices we've ever made - but would I refuse to let one of my kids go to school if he really wanted?  Of course not.

The problem here is when people choose a particular approach and follow it dogmatically.  They turn off their brains and give up their responsibility to be the best parent they can be - which means thinking critically about what works best in each circumstance, and also following their instincts.  Our instincts are there for a reason - for the survival of the species.  And yet we also have the responsibility to question our instincts - because sometimes they come from wrong place (a parent who was spanked as a child will instinctively do the same thing to their children).  Parenting is hard and the idea that someone out there will magically come up with the perfect way to do it that will work 100% of the time is just crazy.  It's tempting because it takes the responsibility and thus the blame off of us.  If something goes wrong, we can say, "It's not our fault!  We did it just how the book told us to!"  There is no easy answer.  We will make mistakes, it's inevitable - but using our heads and thinking for ourselves is a step in the right direction.  As is taking the one useful thing RIE parenting says - treat your children with respect, as people you care about, not as annoyances or burdens.

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