Saturday, July 10, 2010

So many parenting options, none of them wrong

The more I read mommy blogs and adoption blogs, the more immune I become to comparing myself unfavorably against them.

It's become normal for parents to look at other parents and see how they're raising their children; calling it "parenting styles," and puzzling over which style is the best. Maybe you think yours is best, and when you read about someone raising their kids differently, you feel compelled to correct them. Maybe you feel you're doing it all wrong and that other parents have the child-rearing secrets you lack.

Maybe you realize you're not perfect, but you hit upon a parenting technique that works. It really really works. And maybe you don't go trolling the internet as the Know-It-All Mommy commenter, but on this one issue, you know you're right. you are just soooo right.

I see that a lot on blogs.

We have a tendency to assume that if doing things one way is right, then doing things another way is wrong. This is not necessarily so. It's true in math - if your bill comes to $23.08, then you can be sure that it does not also come to $72.55.

But in parenting styles, not so much. Parenting styles rely on two variables that never affect math - the personalities of the parents and the personalities of the children. Statistics aren't the best parenting guide - if one approach is statistically favorable over another approach, that doesn't mean that your kid is doomed to fail if you do it differently.

For example, helicopter parents. Helicopter parents are supposed to be a phenomenon of our times, and one that's damaging to kids. It's every parenting blogger's favorite target. But I don't put much stock in helicopter parenting as a cohesive style. Some parents do some overprotective things sometimes. Or some overly permissive things, sometimes. There are some anecdotal extremes, there are some attention-getting statistics (like the one that says that violent child attacks on teachers in first grade in Texas rose 6%).

(See, parents are spoiling their kids to ridiculous levels. The kids don't learn boundaries, rules, or self-control. Some of them physically attack their teachers. The parenting style, therefore, must be the root of the problem.)

You know, actually, stories like that are pretty scary. The way the human mind works, next thing you know, you're wondering, "If I give in and give little Kylee a popsicle now, will she hit her teacher later?"

We hear claims that if kids are damaged, it must be the parents, and their parenting style, to blame. Therefore, if we use the wrong parenting style, won't we damage our kids?

I don't believe in such a strict correlation. Lots of kids grow up to be relatively okay, regardless of parenting style. In fact, some very successful people came from broken homes and had traumatic childhood experiences, neglectful or misguided parents, and difficult school experiences. How do those kids do it? It really depends on the kid. Some people rise above adversity. Some people become a product of their upbringings, reacting to little things like their parents' eating habits and something their teacher said to them at school, and never seeing beyond that level. You can't make them rise above. If they're going to stay small and reactive, they'll stay that way in spite of your best attempts. Likewise, the kids who do wish to rise above will survive all your parenting mistakes and limitations and will awe you with their incredible can-do attitudes.

Also, parenting style implies that there's an underlying parenting philosophy. For instance, we travel a lot with our son, because we have the philosophy that we want to introduce him to the world so he'll grow up to be worldly. We're starting small, and as he grows older, we'll travel with him more and more. That's a philosophy. If we have a parenting style, that's part of it.

We don't have TV and therefore our son doesn't watch any TV. That is not a philosophy. We're happy in our TVlessness, and we save money by not paying for cable or satellite, but we're not morally opposed to AwesomeCloud watching TV. He has shown himself to be uninterested in Disney movies and Sesame Street, and we are also uninterested, so we do other things with him instead.

But a lot of people mistake this quirk of our lifestyle for a parenting philosophy. Sometimes, people try to convince us to show him some Sesame Street, or defend their own habit of letting their kids watch TV, or both at the same time. I don't criticize them. I grew up watching lots and lots of TV, and I don't feel any regret over having been allowed to burn my brain on the boob tube. I doubt that I'd be a much better person if I'd had a TV-free childhood. But that doesn't mean I'm in a rush to go out and get cable.

Really, the TV is more inertia, finances, and lack of need than it is philosophy. There are times when I need Cloud to leave me alone for a while so I can do something. But TV doesn't accomplish that anyway, and I've actually found other ways to get stuff done. Or to not get stuff done and live with the consequences.

I think we parents are looking over each other's shoulders too much. If you really feel like you're doing things wrong and that there must be a better method, that's one thing. If you frequently lose your temper when you don't think you should have, or if you look into an empty cookie jar and worry about your child's diet, then there are probably methods you could learn that will help your family. But if you're satisfied with your child's cookie consumption until you meet someone whose child eats nothing but vegetables and whole grains, then you can feel free to continue with the cookies. Kudos to that other parent with her other dietary habits. Kudos to you, too, for doing well enough.

And all those sociological studies that say that kids do better with this much freedom and that much structure, or all those product studies that warn you against items that contain lead, BPA, or cadmium... it's a good idea to keep half an eye open for what they tell you. Look for consistencies in those studies rather than amazing breakthroughs. Use some common sense. Don't fret over advice that's too far removed from your experience.

But don't criticize the other person over it, if you can help it. Maybe the other idea does work, in someone else's family, with someone else's kids.

There are acts that are always bad, no matter who commits them. But if it's a matter of degrees, if it's just this percentage of kids thriving better than that percentage of kids, let it go.

I love the fact that my upbringing was different from my son's. And that there are positives and plusses to both child-rearing styles. And that the differences are all just nuance. If you look at the various ways children have been raised around the world and throughout history, the differences we bicker about are hardly different at all.

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