Friday, August 22, 2008

Parenting, Experts, and Advice

Let me make it clear: I don't really believe in parenting books. In baby books. In DVDs, CDs, consultants, or coaches. Children are different creatures. I was different from my sisters, who are in turn -even though they are twins- incredibly different from each other. My parents give every new parent "the instructions", or Dr. Spock's baby book, but that is more in reference to the Cohen Bros' Raising Arizona than the belief that those instructions are sacrosanct. My problem with the baby expert culture is that it is one in which there are vastly conflicting data over things as simple as picking up a crying baby; and people who have no problem dismissing expert opinions on things like global warming place all of their faith in this set of instructions and are made to feel as if they've failed if the baby doesn't respond accordingly -or if they come across someone who scoffs at that advice.

Some advice is good: the newest studies about how to prevent SIDS by placing babies to sleep on their backs is definitely a necessary. The research that has come afterward about making sure your baby gets "tummy time" in order to build up neck and arm muscles that have been neglected due to Baby sleeping on his or her back are also a good. But it doesn't surprise me in the least that even by doing everything ostensibly "right", children don't always react in the ways we have been conditioned to believe they would. That there are "outlier" children who won't learn by falling down and failing. That the gentle touch that works so well with one child doesn't begin to influence the other.

What I find especially interesting is that in a culture that tends to frown on specialized knowledge bases, in a culture that tends to disregard expert advice as relating to their field as being just another opinion on par with everyone else's, we are so quick to hand over the keys to our most individual and personalized of arenas -childcare. "American parents are desperate for direction", and they are going to the experts in greater and greater numbers. Which is confusing to me. Obviously, there are going to be people who need more help than others, but parenting seems to be an amalgam of different factors -the child's personality, the beliefs and ideals of the parents, the surrounding influencers- than most other things, and that amalgam would almost have to dictate a more personalized attempt than just a cookie-cutter fix-it. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Joyce Summers outs herself as being hopelessly over her head and out of touch when she first says, "I've read all about the dangers of overnurturing" and later comments, "The tapes all say I should get used to saying [no]". Willow's mother is held up for derision when she tells her daughter, "I have consulted with some of my colleagues, and they agree that this is a cry for disipline". At a certain point in time, parenting has to stem from what feels natural for the individual (or partners) and the child in question.

As strange as it seems, I think that the parenting book phenomenon is due in part to a passive parenting style. In a time when televisions are being used as babysitters and parents are reportedly more into being their child's friends than disciplinarians, it makes sense that parents would want to look to someone else to be the bad guy and to take some of the pressure off of developing an individualized style of parenting. "If it works for X-amount of parents, it should work for us", I suspect the thinking goes. And on the other side of the spectrum are people like Sheila Rosenberg -Willow's mom- in that they over think it. And that's alright. But I strongly believe that parenting shouldn't be something we look to in books but on our own decisions about what is important and what isn't.

My parents decided that it was important I not be dressed in pink or be given Barbie dolls on every holiday. They decided that it was more important to have a family dinner than a set time to eat. They decided to limit the amount of time I spent in front of the television and they decided what kind of television they would permit me to watch. And they were proactive in my life. We played together. They read to me. And they focused on what they could do to make me into the best person I could be. And they screwed me up too, as all parents do. Our parents screw up; they aren't perfect. And the sooner parents (and their kids) can accept that parents are people, that there is no such thing as the perfect parenting style, and that everyone's family is dysfunctional in some way or another, I think the sooner it will be that we can stop relying so heavily on parenting books as being the ultimate instructions on how to raise a happy, healthy,well-adjusted kid.


Habladora said...

My readers would like this post - mind if I link to it in the comments of one of our parenting series?

petpluto said...

No problem! I'm honored.

John said...

I still say your parents did you a great disservice by so severely limiting your television intake. Then again, I had no limits whatsoever, so perhaps my point of view is not as fair and unbiased as I might think.

It seems to me like people are forgetting one of the most important principles of raising children: If you pay careful attention, you should be able to build up a wealth of specific knowledge about YOUR children that makes you the expert on raising them. Obviously scientific studies about babies' physical health would trump your own hearth wisdom, but you should be able to figure out what sort of child you have in terms of social characteristics before long. After all, if my parents had only listened to the experts' theories instead of the evidence in front of them, they'd believe me to be a dangerously unstable sociopath who is only avoiding prison by dumb luck. But then again, who's to say I'm not? Muhuhahahahaha!

petpluto said...

I know that I certainly think you are a dangerously unstable sociopath!

Seriously though, I think the amount of television watched isn't a constant. I know that I floved how I was raised. I'm me because of it, and I'm a pretty big fan of me. I know that if I ever go crazy and have kids, I'll probably limit the amount of television they watch, and certainly the amount of commercial television they are exposed to. DVDs are and will be a god-send. Of course, my kids will also be exposed to Joss Whedon's work from a very young age, and so will probably be incredibly scarred from that. And also, from the Orange Oscar in the earliest seasons of Sesame Street.

And I think you make a very good point about being an expert in raising your own kids, and knowing what works best for those kids as opposed to what works for the Joneses down the street.