Perceptions of pressure and blame.

One of the greatest challenges when writing about parenting is trying not to upset people.  Parenting seems to be a very touchy subject, an area where people will become fiercely defensive, easily offended.

In a recent article in the Guardian about the government’s proposals to provide free parenting classes for parents of under fives, a founder of one of the courses was reported to have said that “challenging someone’s parenting skills is one of the strongest challenges to their identity”. The article also talks about parents’ reluctance to sign up for courses due to a perception that they are being accused of being bad parents. “Providers have to avoid any suggestion that the courses are created to help bad parents; instead they need to persuade people it’s about “building on their good points”.”

Another article describes how parenting books “leave mothers feeling confused and inadequate.” Parenting authors are accused of “setting the bar too high”.

This perception, that too much is expected of parents, that parents are being accused of having poor parenting skills, was again apparent when I was reading, with some surprise, the comments made on Facebook in response to an article challenging the use of sticker charts, published as a guest post on the excellent Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond, and also shared by other bloggers who I follow, who in turn attracted some interesting comments.

I ‘m starting to see a bit of a theme here, but there’s something about it that bothers me. It somehow doesn’t ring quite true for me.  It seems (and here I’m going to risk upsetting people), to be a bit of a cop out.  It seems dismissive, a failure to take things on board.

“There are much worse things parents could do”, “Oh please, I’m doing my best”, “It’s unreasonable to expect parents to get everything right”, “There’s so much pressure on parents these days”, “It’s not fair to make parents feel guilty.” etc etc

All perfectly true, I’m sure, but is this an argument for using sticker charts, for example? I would have felt much better if readers had responded with comments as to why they think rewards are OK, pointed out evidence that disputes the research behind the case against rewards, or even, and here’s possibly the crux of it, simply said that they realised rewards were not OK, but that they still choose to use them for whatever reason. Fair enough.  Your choice. Just don’t play the ‘don’t make me feel guilty’ card.

I mean, really, where does it stop? At what point is a piece of writing acceptable and useful, and at what point is it “putting too much pressure on parents”? Where do we draw the line?

Articles and books about the negative effects of punishments, about the campaign against spanking, the campaign against the use of controlled crying, pressure groups seeking better childcare for under 3s, campaigns to promote breastfeeding – are these all to be dismissed as simply putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on parents and making them feel guilty?  It seems to me we can conveniently produce the “Don’t put pressure on me and make me feel guilty” defence whenever we find something too challenging.

But there’s another element here for me. We must all be mindful of accepting other people’s parenting choices, yet it sometimes seems to me that this acceptance is not always a two way thing. I once heard a parent comment about another parent’s use of a sling to carry her baby. “I always put my children in a pram and they’re not any less attached to me”. (How do you know? Have you done a comparison study?) But can you imagine the outcry if a sling-using parent made such a dismissive and disrespectful comment about a parent who chose a pram? There’s something kind of unfair to me here. Parents who choose to do things perceived to be ‘the hard way’ don’t seem to be getting their fair share of respect.

Parenting writers provide information and opinions, food for thought. Good ones provide evidence to back up their arguments, or have studied their subject extensively. But they don’t set out to call anyone a bad parent, anymore than mothers who use slings are calling  mothers with prams bad parents. Let’s not dismiss what writers and others have to offer. Let’s  make informed choices and be honest about our reasons for making them.

And so it is with the example of Kelly Bartlett’s article on sticker charts.  The information is there. It’s evidence based stuff. And yes, it challenges a popular parenting assumption, and probably makes life more difficult in the short term.  But if we’re really interested in being better parents, we need to take information such as this seriously, look further into it (there’s plenty more been written on the subject), think about, and not just dismiss it with the defensive “I’m doing my best, there’s too much pressure” stance. And OK, if we still feel unable or unwilling to change this aspect of our parenting that is our choice.

I’ll finish with a quote from Alfie Kohn. He writes in his book, “Unconditional Parenting”, about the different reactions he often gets from parents when he talks about the negative effects of too much praise.

“Some people…..brush off these criticisms, point out (with some justification) that in the larger scheme of things, we could do a lot worse to our kids than express enthusiasm about what they’ve done. Indeed, a lot worse is done to children every day. But that’s not a proper basis for comparison – at least, not for anyone who wants to be the best parent he or she can be. The point is that we can do better.”

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