Monday, April 27, 2020

The Secret to Being a Parent

There is scant evidence that the little things we do as parents, be it co-sleeping or tiger mommy-ing, have much of a predictable impact on how our children turn out. I have my opinions about parenting trends and can't help but feel that some of them have the potential to do damage, while others have the potential to do good, but the truth is that the world is so large and complex and our children are so human and complex that we can simply never know. Most, I expect, have no impact one way or another.

When our daughter was around three months old, my wife and I had come to our wit's ends over her sleep, or lack thereof. She seemed to doze all day and wake all night. We tried every sleep technique we could find, including having her in bed with us, beside us, rocking her to sleep, nursing her to sleep, we even tried putting her bassinet on top of the running clothes dryer for a few days (which worked until the end of the cycle). We finally tried a version of "cry it out." I've never admitted this in public before because the technique has such a bad reputation amongst readers here, but for us, after about 15 minutes of fussing, she slept through the night on the first attempt. I'll never forget my wife and me lurching awake the following morning, panicked that we hadn't heard a peep from in her several hours, only to find her in her bed, eyes open, gurgling happily.

From that moment, she was a solid, even an eager sleeper. She never fought bedtime or nap time. In fact, she would often tell us, "It's time to go night night." Most mornings she would lie in bed singing for twenty minutes or so before she called us in to her room with a cheery, "I wanna wake up now!" It was a daily concert played over the baby monitor that made our mornings a joy. The only reason she stopped taking daily two hour naps was that her kindergarten schedule didn't permit it, otherwise I think she would have continued napping right through elementary school. For years, we credited this phenomenon to our use of "cry it out," but then I started hearing horror stories from other parents about how traumatic the technique was for them and their child, how they felt it was emotionally neglectful or even abusive. So our use of the technique became a secret I didn't share even though when we we tried it it had "worked" even better than the proponents said it would.

Did we get lucky? Maybe. No one really knows and I'm definitely not recommending this technique to anyone. Indeed, had it not "worked" on the first attempt, I expect we would have abandoned it, but like I said, we were at our wit's ends and trying everything. We twist ourselves into knots as parents, stewing, scheming, and anguishing over the little things we're doing, and we should because those little things make up the day-to-day substance of our relationship with our children. It's important for us to be the kinds of parents, the kinds of people, we want to be. I imagine that had my wife and I done nothing, however, had we not cast about for "solutions," had we not resorted to this version of "cry it out," our child would have slept through the night anyway because she was simply ready to start sleeping through the night.

As the parent of a young adult, I look around at the children of the parents who were my contemporaries. Most of their kids have turned out to be personable, self-motivated adults. Some, however, are struggling in life, one way or another, still casting about for who they are or what they want to be. A few seem to be headed for trouble. But when I look at those parents, those people around whom I spent a good part of the last couple decades, I judge some to have been "good parents" and some to have been "bad parents," yet I can see no consistent connection between their parenting and the kinds of young adults their children have become. The good and bad parenting simply doesn't seem to have come into play.

Contemporary parenting has become more stressful that it has ever been in the long, long history of parents. There are too many "shoulds," and those shoulds change with the publication of each new parenting book. There are too many prophecies (and that's really what they amount to) about how this parenting technique or that parenting technique will lead to this or that desirable trait. And through it all, children grow into the adults sometimes right in line with what the books promise, but just as often their path takes them to places not anticipated by the theories.

If I had one wish for every new parent it is that they would know that parenting is not a job, it's a relationship. If we love our children, if we tell them we love them through our words and deeds, if we do our best to keep them safe, and if we help them when they let us know they need help, then we will be doing everything we need to do as parents. In the metaphor of the developmental psychologist and author Alison Gopnik, we are gardeners: we plant the seed, we protect it, and make sure it gets enough sun and water, but the sprouting, the leafing, the growing, the budding, the flowering, and the fruiting is all up to the plant.

Being a parent is a relationship and it's not just the children who grow. We are plants in the garden as well, always growing according to the garden of love in which we find ourselves.

As Mister Rogers wrote: "When we love a person, we accept him or her exactly as is: the lovely with the unlovely, the strong along with the fearful, the true mixed in with the facade, and of course, the only way we can do it is by accepting ourselves that way." What makes a difference is the love.


This is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

. . . Or even better . . . 

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