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

October 14, 2013

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.

Perceptions of pressure and blame.

April 4, 2012

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.”

Another gem from Gina

March 9, 2012

After reading this and other articles about Gina Ford’s latest book, I’ve thought hard about where Ms Ford might be coming from, and have to come to the conclusion that she simply wants parents to pretend they don’t have babies.  Just try to forget about them.

Clearly this must be the overall view of a woman who advises us to ignore our baby’s cries, have nights out away from them when they’re just a few weeks old, don’t talk about them, and don’t let them affect our sex life.  Just act like nothing’s happened really.

This seems a very strange attitude. Dare I be so bold as to wonder why one would have a baby if one wishes to pretend it doesn’t exist, or at least, behave as much as possible as if it doesn’t exist? Extraordinary.

Yet Ford is popular. Parents are either unaware of the evidence and research that warns us in no uncertain terms against such methods as controlled crying, and are fooled by the apparent success of these methods, since any damage done is neither visible nor immediately apparent, or they are buying into the notion that you can ‘have it all’; that you can have a baby and still keep all the things in your life the same. Here, Ford tells many parents what they want to hear.

The problem is that life just isn’t the same after you have a baby.  It will never be the same again. And trying to make it the same not only means we’ll be fighting a losing battle (not a good recipe for being ‘contented’ I’d say), but we’ll be putting our own needs before that of our baby.

OK, OK, there is no perfect mother, we all have to put ourselves first at times, there has to be a balance, we can’t parent if we’re a mess etc etc, but to say Gina Ford takes this too far really is an understatement.

It is quite natural for parents to seek help and support and to want to do things ‘right’, and the simple fact of Ford’s reputation is enough for unsuspecting parents to feel they must live up to the standards set out in her books, to doubt their own instincts, and trust in this seemingly wiser philosophy. But parents deserve better than this. They deserve real support, help and information, from real experts, not childless celebrities more interested in success and popularity than in what’s best for children.

Gina Ford gives childcare writers a bad name. This might seem like a contradiction after I have just made reference to how influential Ford’s reputation makes her, but what I mean by this is that parents who are aware of the issues associated with Ford’s methods push her books aside, and too often push all other parenting books aside with them, having drawn the conclusion that parenting books are bad, throwing the baby out with the bath water as it were. I have heard this sentiment expressed numerous times, and this is a great loss for parents.

I know how much fantastic literature there is out there and the huge, positive difference it has made to my own parenting. Shame on Gina Ford, not just for her bogus advice, but for frightening off parents who are reaching out for genuine help and support.