NEW YORK CITY — Are you a parent of an infant, toddler, school age or adolescent child?
If you are, then you're doing it all wrong.
No matter what child-rearing technique you follow, there’s some expert out there who argues that it’s not the right way to raise a child.
Whether you are letting your infant cry it out, or never leaving them when they're upset, you're doing it wrong. Whether it's “helicoptering” over your school-aged child or practicing “free-range” parenting, they assure you, you are making the wrong choice.
Sound familiar? Parents are bombarded by conflicting and often unsolicited advice that leaves them feeling like failures.
How about a different way of thinking about parenting? Let’s get down to what you're doing right:
While this may sound a bit harsh, the most basic, fundamental job of a parent is to make sure their child doesn't die. That’s job one. This includes appropriately clothing, housing, feeding and medically caring for your child.
But often times, we as a society don't give ourselves enough credit for the job we are doing in keeping our children alive. Since 1980, the child mortality rate has steadily declined, and while that can always improve (especially when accounting for race and poverty), this is a major accomplishment.
When we, as individual parents, get caught up in the strategies about how to raise our children, we often overlook the fact that we are excelling in our most primary responsibility — keeping them healthy and around to see another day.
There Is No Consensus on How to Parent
While there are a few basic principles that are fairly well-researched, such as the avoidance of corporal punishment, when it comes to parenting, there is a lack of consensus and strong differences of opinion from pediatricians, researchers, psychologists, anthropologists and other caregivers.
Indeed, there is no “one” way to parent. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times discusses the book “The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings,” by David F. Lancy. In his book, Lancy illustrates that there are a wide variety of parenting philosophies spread throughout the world’s cultures. And, he concludes, they all work.
As a parent who is raising a child in New York City myself, I recognize that I will be influenced by the local culture and expectations of the people who surround me every day — from relying on subways for family excursions to applying for pre-school before a child is even born.
It is equally important to remind myself that there are billions of children being raised in very different ways all over the world, the vast majority of whom will survive childhood and become well-adjusted adults. There is no “one” way.
Specific Programs Work, But Not For All
We crave answers as parents, whether it’s from a friend, mentor, grandparent or health practitioner. It's often helpful to read material from a variety of books and websites that can offer suggestions on how to deal with specific issues.
Just as with diet programs, each parenting program works for at least some people — and some don’t work for others. There are people who swear by “The Baby Whisperer,” or Dr. William Sears, in helping figure out the “how-to’s” in parenting. However, those same programs may not be right for you or your child.
In my psychotherapy practice, I encourage parents to challenge a program anytime a “should” appears in the text, such as “all babies should be able to sleep for 12 hours by 12 weeks old.” There’s too much human and environmental variation for a statement like that to be true. Some of the skills required to get a child to sleep through the night may be valid, it just can’t be the expectation for every parenting situation.
Which leads me to encourage you to …
Resist the “All-in” Approach
Even if a parenting philosophy isn't 100 percent applicable to your situation, you can pick up a few pearls of wisdom to help you on your journey. Your family’s specific needs will rarely, if ever, be fulfilled exclusively by one book or overarching philosophy. If only life were that simple!
Conventional wisdom is fluid. Many of the concepts we hold as “absolutes” about childhood and parenting now were not always understood in these ways. It wasn't that long ago in human history that a 13-year-old was considered an adult and was expected to fulfill adult responsibilities such as earning a living. What we consider good practice today will no doubt be looked back on as just a step in our collective development.
The Heart Connection
I would argue that the key to finding your path as a parent begins with a focus on the bare essentials — food, clothing, shelter, education — and one of the most important things a parent and child share: a heart (or emotional) connection.
This bond, which can fuse between parents and their biological children at birth, or grow steadily between parents and adopted children of all ages, along with many other family structures, is essential in helping children become thriving adults.
The heart connection is present when a child feels safe to express their feelings and emotions, when they expect they will be heard and listened to, and when they believe their experiences will be recognized.
Just as in all other parenting techniques, there’s not just “one” way to achieve this. But like any parenting success worth striving for, this connection is a worthy struggle to figure out, as it can help with many of life’s hardships that a child may encounter, including any traumas along the way.