In the early weeks and months after my first child was born, sleep deprived though I was, I felt a lot of certainty in the parenting theories and strategies I would use. Sure, the job was difficult, but I knew how to do it. Sleep, routines, attachment, feeding, child care, I knew where I stood on all these issues. But the more experienced I become at parenting the less sure I become. And the more I practice at parenting, the less time I have for what should work in theory.
We have never been more overwhelmed than we are today with information and advice on every aspect of our parenting. In any moment of uncertainty a slew of confusing and often contradictory advice is only a click away. For example, we are advised that to ensure successful breastfeeding we should respond immediately to subtle signs of hunger, picking up babies even before they cry. But we also need to allow them to self-soothe and get into a predictable routine. Then there are the sleep training wars. We are assured that letting a baby cry it out causes lasting damage, but so does the sleep deprivation, for both them and us. By co-sleeping we are either providing an essential primordial bonding experience that will lead to emotional stability, or promoting poor sleep habits and risking sids. Possibly both simultaneously. We are constantly reminded that what we feed our children, especially for the first five years, will affect their health and well being for the rest of their lives. So we should try to keep in mind and follow all 20+ pages of advice in most weaning guidelines, but also not forget to relax and make food fun! Or else meal times will become a battle ground with lasting negative associations. Keep your kids active everyday, but don’t over schedule them with sporting activities. You will need to limit that screen time to promote their physical and emotional well being, but best to foster a love of computers whilst you do or your child may not have a job. It’s not always a Catch 22 as a parent, however. You can follow recommendations to protect your skin from the sun AND the recommendations to get adequate vitamin D at the same time as these researchers suggest by exposing your kids to a carefully timed 30 minute dose of sunlight each day. In between school, work, music lessons, homework, all important free-play time and this amazing well-balanced, home-made, tasty and nutritious masterpiece you are no doubt about to whip up for dinner this shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?
Of all the pieces of parenting advice I have read my favourite has to be the reminder that we should not strive after perfection in our parenting after all. Not just because it makes for a miserable existence, you understand, but because pursuit of perfection may also be a formula for sub-standard parenting. Whew! I was just starting to think we can’t win at this parenting game.
Not to say that the dissemination of knowledge and information on safe and effective parenting has not been completely unhelpful. I don’t want to appear ungrateful. For example, we have lower than ever infant and child mortality, and despite concerns around cyber bullying and sedentary lifestyles, worldwide more of our children enjoy a higher quality of life than ever before on concrete measures like mortality and poverty. A great example of the success of an informational campaign aimed at parents is the ‘back to sleep’ campaign which significantly reduced SIDS. But if a little information is a good thing, it does not necessarily follow than a lot of information is even better. Perhaps there is a balance to be struck between being informed enough to avoid behaviours that confer high risk to our children, and not having our lives taken over by the desire to achieve optimal development with complete avoidance of risk.
As someone with a PhD in behavioural analysis and many years of training in interpreting conflicting or unclear research evidence I find myself completely out of my depth at managing, assimilating and constructively using the available information on how to be a good parent. There is just too much of it. Trying to interpret it all and assess its scientific credibility would be a full time job, and I already have one of those (or two, if you count parenting). My accumulated learning and experience boils down to this: try something, and if it doesn’t work, try something else. As regards making use of all the useful advice out there in internet land, I turn to Oscar Wilde “I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself”