“Don’t read any parenting books. Just follow your instincts.” Why I think this is bad advice.

I am surprised at how often I meet people who turn their noses up at the mention of parenting books. I can never quite understand why, or what their objections are. It seems to be based on an assumption that parenting books will lay out a set of rules that are impossible to follow, or that are wrong, or will put more pressure on you as a parent.

Yet reading parenting books has been life-changing for me, not to mention my child.

?????????????Let’s just clear one thing up: Gina Ford, since hers is usually the name mentioned to me by people objecting to parenting books generally, is not the only parenting author in existence, and not all books follow her approach. And by approach I don’t just mean the parenting methods themselves, but the idea that a book can give you a blanket set of rules to follow, with which one must succeed or fail.

Alfie Kohn puts this well in his book (which I would highly recommend), “Unconditional Parenting“;

“What follows will not be a step-by-step recipe for How to Raise Good Kids……. Very specific suggestions (“When your child says x, you should stand at location y and use z tone of voice to utter the following sentence…”) are disrespectful to parent and kids alike. Raising children is not like assembling a home theater system or preparing a casserole, such that you need only follow an expert’s instructions to the letter. No one-size-fits-all formula can possibly work for every family, nor can it anticipate an infinite number of situations. Indeed, books that claim to offer such formulas, while eagerly sought by moms and dads desperate for a miracle cure, usually do more harm than good.”

I think the assumption that all parenting books are indeed like the ones Kohn describes here has caused many parents to boycott them altogether. But in doing so we miss out on the one thing that can really make us better parents – knowledge. And books provide knowledge. Without knowledge, how can we make informed decisions? Parenting is the most important job we’ll ever do. Shouldn’t we read up a bit so we have some idea of what the heck we’re doing?

There are a lot of books out there, and some conflicting advice, I know. But I think it’s easy enough, once you get started, to become a discerning reader and separate the wheat from the chaff. I start by looking at who the author is, where they’re from, what they do, what they have studied. It gets pretty easy to read between the lines. Does the book give any insight into child development and psychology, or is the emphasis on quick fix solutions for parents? Is the book’s information backed up by any reference to research, evidence or studies, or the work of a particular psychologist? (here’s another hint about Gina Ford – she doesn’t measure up too well in any of these departments).

But why all this information, complicating things? Why not just follow our instincts?

What do we really mean by ‘instincts’? Some of our natural instincts can get us a long way as parents – responding to our baby’s cries, for example. But the thing is, we basically learn to parent from our own parents, so many of our ‘instincts’ are in fact merely behaviours and responses that we have learnt from them, that were hard-wired into us when we were children ourselves.

Now, we might think our parents did a great job. This may be so, but it’s a great assumption to think there’s nothing more to learn, nothing to improve on. That nothing more is known now that wasn’t known back then.

When my child cries and screams and makes a fuss about something I think is trivial, my instinct is to tell him to shut up and stop making such a silly noise or else. Yet reading has informed me that this is not a good response for many reasons.

When my child ‘misbehaves’ my instinct is to punish him. Yet reading has informed me that punishment is a bad idea.

These instinctive responses are so deeply ingrained in me from my childhood, I feel I’ve spent much of my parenting life fighting against them, holding my tongue when the words my mother used to say to me pop into my head. It’s very hard to change these in-built responses and without the knowledge I have gained from reading I would never even have known I needed to make changes, let alone how to make them. Parenting responses can actually be rather counter-intuitive, and a little knowledge about children and what might be going on in their heads is kind of necessary. Relying solely on our instincts is a bad idea.

Why be content to just carry on doing what our parents and grandparents did before us? To keep passing old methods down from one generation to the next? As with anything in life, how can we ever acquire new knowledge and improve things without paying attention to research, new information, new insights?

Perhaps our society wouldn’t be so stuck in the old conventional methods if more of us would read some of the many excellent parenting books available. There’s a wealth of information and knowledge out there. To ignore it is to bury our heads in the sand, to short-change our children, and to miss out on the one opportunity we have to be the best parents we can be.

2 Responses to “Don’t read any parenting books. Just follow your instincts.” Why I think this is bad advice.

  1. Bill Gelwick says:

    I can tell you why. It is the ideology that is promoted by most “experts” on the topic. Your comment, “Yet reading has informed me that punishment is a bad idea.” is a PERFECT example of this. children REQUIRE discipline. there have got to be consequences, or they will never learn that life has them. I agree that a lot of the disciplinary tactics of the past are NOT the way to go. Trust me, I have to choke back the nonsense I heard as a child too, but our society has gone so far in the other direction that children are becoming incapable of handling life.

    • Jo says:

      I agree that children need discipline. It is interesting that you use the words discipline and punishment as if they mean the same thing. (they don’t)
      It is also interesting and quite ironic that you find my comments a perfect example of someone who has been reading books by “experts” which you put in inverted commas as if to imply that they are not experts at all. I wonder if you consider yourself an expert in contrast, since you have written a parenting book yourself.

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