There is some information that worms its way inside your head and grows, like a lab culture, into self-doubt and judgment. For me, it ranges from blogging advice to how I’m supposed to give a rat’s ass about fashion (that advice dies a quick death, but it’s there). Parenting advice is the absolute worst, though. It made me feel both ineffectual and incompetent, doubting even the most minor lapses.
I commented on someone’s blog post yesterday regarding kids and food. I immediately wanted to delete it, because it felt wrong. Apparently, I was the milder of pompously commenting parents, who were both defensive and right. Any parent worth their salt knows that kids have a way of turning us into know-it-alls or angrily sensitive about our parenting choices (two sides of the insecurity coin, methinks).
When I started out as a parent, I was hungry for advice. I wanted to get it right. I went to classes, I talked enthusiastically with other mothers. I read books. I watched videos. I listened to CDs. I familiarized myself with Ferber, Sears, Faber & Mazlish and the five million other parenting advice gurus. I researched best methods for potty training and eating and even, I am embarrassed to say, how to play. My daughter had Baby Einstein playing when her biggest interest was waving her fingers in front of her face.
Getting it right had little or nothing to do with my actual child. It was a fear that I would be a bad parent. It was a fear that I would be an inconsistent misery to live with and that my child would be a reflection of that chaos. I put into practice all kinds of advice, 90% of which did nothing but make more work for me and I think, slightly bemuse her. Reward charts, potty celebrations, signing up for classes, reading yet more books and on and on and on.
About three years in, I stopped reading advice books. Incentive systems got tossed out the window. I was too tired. She was growing up in spite of my best efforts to turn her into a baby genius, super athlete and much better version of me. I started to just be amazed and curious about the person she was actually becoming.
Fortunately, once kids get older, people stop offering arbitrary advice. Old ladies stop telling you how all their children were potty-trained straight out of the womb and how a good swat will set the little miscreants right. Other parents learn to bite their tongues – in front of you – but you’re on trial when you’re out of earshot. I’m just as guilty of this – watching from afar and feeling smug that my child doesn’t like Cheetos or eat dirt. Until she does.
The things that I look back on, which were most valuable to our experience as a family, may be utterly different than someone else’s experience and yet our kids will be just as well-adjusted and happy. I ignored a lot of advice in favor of intuition about my child. I slept with her the first year, my arm outstretched above my head to avoid rolling over on her. I gave up trying to potty train her. A mere few months later (it felt like forever), she decided to do it on her own.
We are strict parents in some ways. Manners are always enforced. Fruits and vegetables required. School is first priority. TV watching is limited. But also lax in others. Mud is good. Hair combing is optional. Farts are funny. How she looks is her choice.
I am firmly against corporal punishment. I grew up with it and while many people like to say “I got hit as a kid and I grew up fine”, I didn’t grow up fine. I grew up struggling and fearful. I grew up wishing for nothing more than the power to strike back. She’s never been hit, but has occasionally gotten a retributive face lick or noogie. We’re barbarians.
We don’t insist on the best for her, but she is adept at making the best of every situation. We say no a lot, but are learning to pick our battles. We admit when we’re wrong and rarely use “because I said so” as a reason.
Parental self-righteousness is shaky at best and in its place, a truism remains strong. Just when you think you’ve got it right, you’ll be wrong. Nothing seems to put people up on their high horses faster than parenting advice. Enjoy your 8 seconds of “I would never…” because you will and then you will completely forget what a judgmental prick you were before you did.
There is no doubt that parenting advice has value when it leads you out of the tall grass. When it is about the best footwear or which path to take or what snacks to take along, sometimes it’s best to ignore advice and just enjoy the journey.