I feel sorry for young parents today. I really do. There’s never been a time when the world was so full of advice givers, all competing for your attention, all trying to outdo each other with the alleged crucial importance of their counsel.
I’ve been concerned about this for years and I’ve written about it many times before, most often in the column I once had for a Canadian magazine called Today’s Parent. Sadly none of that did any good. The problem is getting worse not better.
I got so sick of deconstructing media parenting advice BS that I actually stopped blogging for six months.
What prompted me to write today? Oddly enough, it was a newspaper story that I mostly agree with… except for one sentence. And that one sentence in this largely bang-on article exemplifies the problem. The article in question was about the importance of teaching kids to cook – something I agree with. We could debate about exactly how and at what age this needs to happen, but I think that if all young people could cook several meals from scratch by the time they left home we’d have a healthy, leaner and possibly happier populace. One of the things I’m most proud of, as a father, is that all my (grown-up) boys like to cook. They even call me for advice sometimes, which is really cool. Sometimes they give me good cooking advice, which is even cooler.
But here’s the sentence that got me riled up in the story about the importance of teaching kids to cook: “Every day that we call our kids to dinner, rather than asking them to help get the meal on the table, we are failing them.”
Failing them. Come on. That’s a classic example of the kind of overblown statement thrown at parents pretty much every day.
A few months ago back to basics math pundits managed to create a media-induced moral panic because Canada had slipped a few notches in international math test scores. We were “failing” our kids because we weren’t making them memorize their times tables, or so they say.
More recently came the breathless revelation that a new study had reportedly shown that breastfeeding didn’t make kids smarter after all (i.e. why are you knocking yourself to breastfeed and/or why are you feeling guilty if you didn’t, you silly people).
I could go on. But my point here is not to deconstruct individual media stories. What I really want to talk about is parents’ anxiety. Anxiety seldom helps parents parent better. And there is way too much going on in our information society that makes parents anxious.
It’s not any one story that’s the problem. It’s the constant onslaught. Take breastfeeding for example. Let’s say you think breastfeeding is important and good for your child. Well, one thing you can count on is a steady trickle of media pokes to tell you that some of those benefits may have been exaggerated, and that you’ve been duped into doing something you didn’t really need to do.
Of course, if you didn’t breastfeed, there will be even more articles that make you feel bad because of all the “benefits” your baby didn’t get. Not to mention the occasional article that exhorts you not to feel guilty, which probably makes you feel guilty for feeling guilty.
If your baby wakes at night you’ll be told it’s your fault because you didn’t teach your baby to “self-soothe.” And if you did try to teach your baby to sleep through the night via one of the methods which are often (and often unfairly) labeled CIO (Cry-it-out) it won’t be hard to find suggestions that you were cruel or harmed your baby in the process.
If you breastfeed your baby in bed and then you and the baby both fall asleep (which is entirely normal, even inevitable, biologically), you’ll be told you’re putting your baby at risk of SIDS (which is shite). If you don’t share a bed with your baby someone out there may tell you you’re not fully into attachment (which is also shite).
Child care pundits will tell you, on one hand, that quality child care builds better, smarter children. Then they’ll turn around and say that most of the child care in Canada is mediocre. In other words, you need something that most of you can’t get. Lovely.
Parents can’t win, no matter what side of any ideological equation they are on. So increasingly I find myself thinking that parents should stop reading parenting advice. I really don’t think it’s doing much good. I can’t say that parenting advice never does any good. But on balance, it’s doing more harm than good these days.
A big part of the problem is the way experts and media writers compete so desperately for your attention. So they have to make everything they say or write sound as if it’s the new, more important truth that you have ever read. That’s never true. It’s just hyperbole from people trying to sell their ideas in order to stand out from the crowd.
Then, every once in awhile, someone chirps in with, “Parents need to relax!” Well, I’d suggest that the people who give parents advice should try relaxing.
Thus, information – much of it anyway – is not your friend. My best advice – oops here I am giving advice in an anti-advice blog – to new parents would be surround yourself with supportive people. Good support will help you be a good parent. Information, I’m afraid won’t always do that. I’ve written about this before.
This information thing is not going to change folks. Actually it will change in some way. Everything changes. But I don’t see it getting better So my conclusion is that today’s parents need to protect themselves from advice – especially parenting advice that comes from the news media. Take everything – everything – including this blog – with a major grain of salt. If you’re reading something that makes you feel bad stop, and go hang out with somebody who makes you feel good about yourself. Parents who can manage to feel good about themselves and enjoy their kids (not necessarily every minute) will usually parent pretty well on balance.
Fifteen or so years ago I wrote a column for Today’s Parent where I cheekily declared that the secret to being a good parent was being in a good mood. I still believe that. So ask yourself, does the parenting info you’re reading put you in a good mood? If not, I’d stay away from it.