How has parenting changed since our mothers’ days of parenting? Can research help defend our parenting choices?
A friend recently asked for my advice in dealing with her mother’s disapproval of her parenting. She asked if I knew of any good articles about why today’s parents do things differently than their own parents or research she could use to defend her parenting choices.
I was flattered by her request. I’m not typically the go-to girl for advice. My own children ask me to fact-check my answers to their questions on Google. Being approached for advice made me want to be worthy of the challenge.
But, the challenge wasn’t finding articles that addressed generational shifts in parenting paradigms or research to back up a particular parenting philosophy. The challenge was pointing out what my friend didn’t want to see—that articles and research would not provide the defense she was seeking against her mother’s criticism. Research is useful in convincing ourselves that we are making the right choices but there is, in my experience, little we can do to convince others to agree.
Today’s parents are raising kids in the shadow of an ever growing parenting industry. There are parenting books, seminars, magazines, and blogs. And marketing. Oh, the marketing. Like all good marketers, the marketers of parenting do their best to make us loyal to a particular brand—mindfulness, hands-free, emotional intelligence, natural consequences, etc. Our brand loyalty often manifests as a superiority complex. We dismiss other brands as outdated, gauche, or ruinous. For evidence of this phenomenon, just go to your neighborhood park and start a discussion with a stranger about the right approach to sleep training or the appropriate amount of supervision for first graders.
Yesterday’s parents have seen a lot of research come and go in their time. They have seen children flipped from front to back, suffered whiplash from the changes in formula vs. breast milk marketing, and seen a mom arrested for letting her kid walk to the neighborhood park alone. They are as comfortable scoffing at Dr. Sears as we are scoffing at Dr. Spock.
When strangers criticize our parenting, it gets our hackles up. It’s worse when our own mothers pass judgment on our parenting. So much worse. It’s personal—in both directions. Their disapproval of our best efforts is especially hurtful and our dismissal of their best efforts is equally so.
In these things, I think the best approach may be a heaping dose of gratitude for a job well-enough done, a sprinkling of empathy for just how hard of a job it is, and a bright red unconditional love and acceptance cherry on top. Our moms did their best. We are doing our best. They messed up. We mess up. The biggest difference between them and us is the verb tense in which we describe our efforts.
I grew up in a flawed family. My childhood marched to the irregular drummers of addiction and marital strife. There is plenty I want to leave behind and not repeat with my children. But, it wasn’t all bad. I’ve tried really hard to sort through the legacy of my family of origin and make sure I don’t throw out the good in my desperation to avoid the bad.
I want to throw out the harshness and judgment, but keep the high expectations. I want to throw out the violence, but keep the passion. I want to throw out the inconsistency, but keep the adventure. I want to throw out the fear, but keep the respect.
Today’s parents owe yesterday’s parents that level of analysis as we grow our families. Otherwise, we risk swinging the parenting paradigm pendulum too far just to be different, forgetting that different and better are not synonyms.
Illustration by Christine Juneau