On discussing parenting philosophies

I was talking with a good friend the other day, a fellow convert to Catholicism from atheism, who is expecting her fourth baby in five years. We were talking about how wonderfully crazy it is that our lives are where they are, how neither of us would have ever guessed that we’d be where we are today given our totally nonreligious backgrounds. One thing that came out is that we both agreed that one of the most difficult parts of having children spaced so closely together is simply dealing with the reactions of friends and family members who are baffled by our newfound religion and lifestyles. With each of our pregnancies, we have both gotten reactions that ranged from unsupportive to downright vitriolic. Frankly, we often feel attacked.

Then I came home to read of the blowup about parenting philosophies that was going around the Catholic blog world last week (Hope has a good summary here). I doubt that anybody involved in the debate meant to make other parents feel attacked by simply expressing their beliefs that certain parenting methods are what’s best for children…yet that was the effect. There is no more sensitive area than the subject of what makes a good mother. The mere whiff of implication that something a woman is doing may not be in her children’s best interest will cut straight to her heart like a knife, even if she disagrees with it.

That’s why I think we should be really, really careful in discussions about parenting philosophies, because the more strongly we advocate for one particular method, the more parents who don’t adhere to that method are going to feel attacked. Certainly in some cases this is warranted: it is a good thing to decry clear cases of neglect and abuse. Yet the lines between what is clearly abusive or neglectful, what is just less than ideal, and what is simply a matter of opinion, are not clear. They are for each person to discern on his or her own. And I think that we should be very careful where we draw those lines, and ask ourselves when advocating for certain practices as “best” or criticizing other practices: is it worth it?

I can speak with authority on this one because I used to be the worst of them all. When my first child was born I pretty much had it all figured out. I had read all the books and knew the proper way to parent. Unfortunately, however, there seemed to be a lot of people out there who had not read the books and did not know the harm they were doing to their children with their improper parenting. At the time I had a neighbor who violated pretty much every one of the parenting principles in which I believed. I was horrified as I heard her nonchalantly discuss the things she did and didn’t do. “I just cannot believe she’d do that to her baby,” I lamented to my husband one day after hearing about a choice my neighbor made that I strongly disagreed with. “I feel so bad for her children.”

Yet as I got to know her family better, at some point it occurred to me that for all my opinions about how detrimental her choices were for her children’s mental health, I had not a single observational data point to indicate that they were anything other than happy, well adjusted kids who had great relationships with their parents. From seeing their family day in and day out, hearing the giggling children yell “Hi, Miss Jennifer!” as I’d walk to my car, I started to wonder if maybe her kids were doing fine, if maybe kids can thrive under a variety of circumstances, even if some scientists say they’re wrong. Maybe all my opinions and raised eyebrows about her parenting choices were doing nothing more than adding one more voice to the attack on families.

The traditional family is under attack in our society; I might feel that more because of my nonreligious background, but it is undoubtedly so. Especially families who are involved in their religion, who homeschool, who have or are open to having larger-than-average families — even the parents who just want to raise their kids with some traditional Judeo-Christian values — we are under attack. And because of the sensitive nature of the subject of parenting, when we espouse one way as best, when we take a lecturing tone in discussions with other parents, when we imply that perhaps parents who make choices different from our own have not properly discerned God’s will for their lives…we’re adding to the attack. Again, there are cases when this is warranted, when the cons of wearing down other parents with direct (or indirect) criticism are outweighed by the pros of pointing out something truly dangerous or detrimental. But I think that we should put some serious thought and prayer into where to draw that line. (And I really do mean “we” here — I am as guilty as anyone.)

Now that some years have passed and the trials and tribulations of motherhood have left me realizing that my best effort is not enough to meet my own high bar, I sometimes think of that old neighbor. I run into her every now and then, and each year I see her children’s smiling faces beaming at me from their Christmas cards. She didn’t know about all the studies that proved that my way of parenting was superior to hers. But neither did her children. All they knew was that they had a mom, imperfect like the rest of us, who loved them dearly and was doing her best. And while her best may not have been good enough to meet my lofty standards, it was good enough for them.

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19 Responses to “On discussing parenting philosophies”
  1. Tienne says:

    Jen,

    I really appreciate the sentiments you’ve presented in this post. Discussing parenting techniques is one of the hardest things to do nicely; it’s as rife with judgment and rhetoric as politics or religion. I am as guilty as anyone else of all the sins you mention in your post: thinking badly of other parents, feeling defensive when my methods are questioned, feeling undue pride in having found all the answers, and caring more about winning the argument than the person I’m arguing with. I’m trying, though not often succeeding, to have these kind of discussions in a more charitable manner. Your point about putting thought and prayer into when we should speak really hit home with me.

    I do have to object to a couple things you said in your post, though. The first is where you write “Yet the lines between what is clearly abusive or neglectful, what is just less than ideal, and what is simply a matter of opinion, are not clear. They are for each person to discern on his or her own.

    I think there’s a danger in leaving the choice of what is beneficial or harmful up to the individual parent. That smacks of relativism to me. I don’t think we should jump on the bandwagon of every psychological study that comes out (they contradict each other all the time depending on who funds it and what methodology is used) and I agree that there are gray areas between, for instance, physical abuse and spanking. Things are rarely black and white. But I DO think there’s merit in objectively analyzing the different methods out there. I think it’s possible (and recommended) that parents know the pros and cons of the methods they choose to use. Frankly, an honest discussion is not possible if there is no way to evaluate the methods outside a family’s individual situation.

    The second objection I have is to your closing line, where you say that your neighbor’s parenting method (which you had previously eschewed) was good enough for the kids. I don’t doubt they are healthy, happy and loved. I don’t think they’re going to turn into serial killers once they hit puberty or have long-lasting psychological damage or anything like that. But your statement makes it sound like they had options for their upbringing and decided to accept what was offered. And if they chose to thrive in that environment, then how can anyone else speak out against it?

    Well, I don’t think it was necessarily “good enough” for them. It’s just “what was” for them. God chooses our parents and places us under their care for His particular purposes. We don’t have any say in it. We do, however, have choices as PARENTS.

    I think most Attached Parents believe their way is best, not just for them, but objectively. It’s very similar to how I feel about Catholicism. Of course there are other paths to heaven, but there is one best way and I wish everyone was following it. I don’t think it’s wrong to state that.

  2. Melanie B says:

    “The mere whiff of implication that something a woman is doing may not be in her children’s best interest will cut straight to her heart like a knife, even if she disagrees with it.”

    “when we espouse one way as best, when we take a lecturing tone in discussions with other parents, when we imply that perhaps parents who make choices different from our own have not properly discerned God’s will for their lives…we’re adding to the attack.”

    Thanks, Jen, I think you put your finger on exactly what’s been bugging me about the whole debate.
    I’ve struggled with and agonized over the parenting decisions I’ve made. I’ve second guessed myself and stared at the ceiling in the early morning hours wondering if I’ve done the wrong thing.

    When I first read Danielle Bean’s advice: to discard parenting philosophies and do what works best for your family, I felt such a weight lifted from my shoulders. I just needed one voice telling me that perhaps I and not some “expert” am the best judge of what is best for my family. I’m still going to make mistakes and not all of my decisions will be the right ones. But I have to trust my own best judgment and ignore all those attacking voices or I will become such a mess of self-doubt that I won’t be any good for anything.

    I’m sure I’ve been guilty of advocating too stridently for my own preferences and I think this is a great reminder to speak softly and be aware of the possible knives other mothers may feel in my well-meant words.

  3. Catholic Mom says:

    Jen,

    Without opening up the whole debate again in your com box, let me just link to my response to the Attachment Parenting brouhaha that erupted in the blogosphere. I am uncomfortable when AP advocates equate their choice of parenting philosophy with their commitment to the Faith revealed by Jesus Christ. There is an absolute truth when it comes to Faith. There is no absolutely one best way to raise children. I speak as both a mother and as a family practice physician. Parents are called to pray, discern, and then do their best, trusting that the Grace of God will make up for their human deficiencies.

  4. Jennifer F. says:

    Tienne -

    I think there’s a danger in leaving the choice of what is beneficial or harmful up to the individual parent. That smacks of relativism to me.

    Sorry, I should have clarified a bit more. I didn’t mean to say that there are no things within parenting that are objectively right and objectively wrong, just that that gray areas exist.

    The second objection I have is to your closing line, where you say that your neighbor’s parenting method (which you had previously eschewed) was good enough for the kids…

    That’s a fair point. The main point I was trying to make was simply that it’s good to think about whether the disadvantages of judging and criticizing other parents (or even just informing them of what we perceive to be the error of their ways) is worth it. I feel like since I had no evidence to indicate that my neighbor’s kids weren’t happy and thriving I might as well move on to other worries. A different person might have looked at the situation and come to a different conclusion, however.

    I think most Attached Parents believe their way is best, not just for them, but objectively.

    I am aware of that. :) From following the debates online and from living where I do (AP is *huge* here in Austin) I’m really familiar with it, and have a lot of respect for the care and thought that AP parents put into their parenting choices.

    Thank you for your comment, Tienne. You always write the most thought-provoking stuff!

  5. Robyn says:

    Being relatively new to this area of the blogosphere, I had no idea this kind of debate was raging among Catholic parents when I made my recent post about family planning.

    I am breastfeeding my younger son, but my main motivation is nutritional. I know from experience with my older son that there is no barrier to forming a close bond with a bottle-fed baby. You don’t even have to carry a baby in your uterus to form a close bond. I have not talked to many AP advocates (it doesn’t seem to be as big in Houston as you say it is in Austin), but I was surprised to hear it implied that bottle-fed infants might not bond as closely.

  6. SteveG says:

    Jennifer….you are brave to post this! :-P

    I’ll offer my own comments as someone who was a HUGE advocate of AP (ala Bill Sears), then ended up for a time resenting AP (ala Bill Sears) and looking more towards guys like Dr. Ray Gurendi for a period, and then has fallen back in love with AP…..but AP as it is rightly understood.

    And I think that rightly understood, any decent parent is an AP parent.

    One of the chief problems with this entire discussion is that the very term AP has been hijacked by the baby doctors in North America (again..primarily Bill Sears) to the point that AP has become synonymous with a set of methods and techniques. I think most people first encounter AP in the baby years and in many (most?) minds (including AP advocates more often than not) the formula looks something like …

    Attachment Parenting = co-sleeping, baby-wearing, extended/ecological nursing, and non-spanking (the list can vary slightly of course).

    That was my mind set as well….until my oldest came out of the baby/toddler stage. Then things started to get…more complicated. Somehow, just picking him up and hugging him, and continuing to co-sleep, etc. didn’t solve all our problems (surprise, surprise). And with a lack of good role models from our own parents, my wife and I were left confused and increasingly frustrated.

    What happened to the magic formula that had made doing these things so easy with one child under 3, but which was now nearly unbearable with a strong willed 4 year old, an even stronger willed 2 year old, and a newborn. Things were so much harder than we’d been led to believe.

    Why hadn’t all that nursing and co-sleeping fixed our eldest so that he was the perfect little 4 or 5 year old? We’d been duped! We actually had a period where we cursed and railed at Bill Sears for setting us up like this.

    We were so lost that we began opening our minds to other ways of thinking. We began to embrace what was considered a ‘stricter’ form of parenting. And honestly, in many ways, it worked…but in many other ways it was harder, and it didn’t answer all the questions either.
    Yes…in some ways we were ‘better parents than we thought.’ And in a lot of others…..we were far worse. All of these ‘philosophies’ and methods seemed to offer partial or incomplete answers.

    How could parenting be so hard? Why was everything such a trial we wondered?
    Then we rediscovered the concept of ‘Attachment’ parenting in its proper context…..stripped of all the ‘tools’ of how to parent babies.

    I probably sound like a broken record, but this is why Neufeld’s work is so profound. He puts all the pieces together and puts them all in their proper context.

    Parenting is about our relationships with our kids first and foremost. If we parent with that as our ‘context’, we are ‘attachment’ parenting.

    If Bill Sears’ strong advocacy of those baby practices has any benefit, it’s not because they are somehow magic, or even because they are strictly ‘better for baby, but because they do such a great job of building the relationship of parent and child. But it doesn’t infer such strength permanently, and it certainly can be done with some, all, or none of those particular techniques. And the battle to keep our kids closely connected to us continues well after weaning.

    If Ray Gurendi’s ‘shut down’ tactic works, it’s not because it’s magic, but because it cuts off almost all competing attachments and usually drives the child (or teenager) into the arms of the only available attachment (relationship) left to fill the void…that of the parents. But the battle to keep that close connection goes on well after the privileges begin being reinstated.

    Spank vs. no Spank, extended nursing vs. not, strict discipline vs. ‘gentle’ discipline, these are all important, but ultimately secondary issues.
    The fundamental thing that AP and non-AP parents alike need to keep in mind, the thing they need to be constantly asking themselves is…..is this good, is the best for the relationships involved.

    That is the context under which any particular discussion (whether it be philosophy, tool, or method) needs to be taking place. If it’s not kept in context, we end up talking past each other.

    Personally, I still advocate most of the things that are associated with AP (co-sleeping, etc.), but with a very different mindset (and less judgement) than before. It’s objectively undeniable that breast-feeding is best for the baby. The debate on that is over.

    BUT, there can be a discussion about whether a particular practice surrounding breastfeeding is best for the RELATIONSHIP between mother and baby. And in this context what is best for the RELATIONSHIP is ultimately what’s best for each individual in the relationship.

    If a mother is doing nursing and at the same time the resentment is building because she’s pregnant with the next (this happens a lot), I think we can begin to weight things more fairly and say that maybe, even though the nursing might be best for the baby as an individual, it may need to stop lest it damage the relationship.
    It’s ideal when what we know about what is best for the child (whether baby or older) lines up nice and neat with the relationship. But as fallen human beings that doesn’t always happen.

    I do think that if we continually keep this context (the relationship) as the context of these discussion, maybe we can begin to move past the this vs. that mode it seems to be stuck in. If we can begin to explain to one another why we do what we do within this context we might see each others stance as more valid and we might move these discussions forward.

  7. mrsdarwin says:

    Dr. Popcak says:

    “…it is imperative to the bonding process and the health of the mother that children be spaced about 2.5 to 3 years apart (give or take).”

    This, frankly, is bullsh*t. A look around at the (many) families I know with children closely spaced belies this statement. I think that Dr. Popcak is absolutely right that one cannot practice AP in its most dogmatic form with closely spaced children, but his worries about the bonding process are ridiculous.

  8. Anonymous says:

    My mother who raised nine children used to say that there are ninety-five different good ways to bring up children and five bad ones.

    She had very little outside help for most of the kids but she never forgot the relative who came to help for her sixth baby. This lovely woman said to her, “How do You Want me to fold the diapers? I know fourteen different ways to do it.”

    Rare charity in this day and age.

    Jane M

  9. Anonymous says:

    Great point, Jennifer. When I had my first child (almost 13 years ago) I too had “all the answers” and sadly, none of the experience to know better. Now after four children I’ve learned that as a mother, I am not “forming” my child into a perfect being by doing XYZ, but I am reacting to their particular person, and hopefully, with much prayer, faith, humor and luck, the child will grow into a loving, responsible, faithful adult. It is a long process and it is fraught with mistakes and blessings.

    Erin

  10. Courageous Grace says:

    I remember clearly an argument I had with a VERY liberal family friend a few months ago. I was reading an inspiring article about a mother with nine children to his wife (he wasn’t even in the room at the time) and discussing it with her when he came in and started ranting about how people shouldn’t have that many children and they just filled up landfills and used up resources…he was SERIOUS.

    We got into quite a verbal debate about it and to this day I am still saddened by his reaction to what I had thought was an inspiring story of a mother’s love for her children. I’m amazed by how cruel people can be toward large families, especially those who CAN support each other and aren’t on welfare.

    There are big families, there are little families, there are medium-sized families…and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I grew up with a lot of cousins nearby and would LOVE to have lots of children myself, but I figure I’ll leave that up to God.

    Sorry for my ramblings, Jennifer. Blame it on me being frustrated and anxious as hubby and I await the birth of our first….lol

  11. Sarahndipity says:

    Steve g, your comment was awesome. :) You really hit the nail on the head and articulated my feelings exactly. I absolutely believe in attachment theory, the theory behind AP. The important thing is to foster a strong attachment to our children. By all means, we should spend lots of time with our children, show them lots of affection, and really get to know them as individuals. But I think the ends – an attached relationship to your child – is more important than the means – breastfeeding, bottlefeeding, crib sleeping, co-sleeping, etc.

    For example, if co-sleeping is, say, making your child’s sleep problems worse and making everyone miserable (umm … hypothetically speaking :) ) then it’s probably best, in that situation, to stop co-sleeping. Another family may find that co-sleeping makes everyone sleep better, in which case, more power to them. Sleep isn’t a “want,” like going on vacation. It’s a real need. Parents aren’t stupid. We can tell the difference between our wants and our needs. And between our children’s wants and needs. Every child, every parent, every family, and every situation is different. It annoys me when people seem to imply “this worked for me, therefore it must work for everyone.” Or, conversely, “this didn’t work for me, therefore it can’t possibly work for anyone.”

    I think parents are naturally affectionate with their children and desire to spend time with them. I was surprised when Popcak said that many mothers don’t have maternal instincts. But we have to remember he’s seeing this from his own perspective. As a psychologist, he talks to people with all sorts of problems every day. I would imagine that the percentage of women who lack maternal instincts is higher among those who seek therapy than among the general population. I’m sure he’s also seen the effects of abuse and neglect firsthand. He’s closer to it than many of us ever will be. Maybe that’s why he tends to be dogmatic on AP.

  12. Tienne says:

    Steve G–

    No surprise to see that you have the best comment on this issue!

    You hit the nail right on the head: AP is not babywearing, cosleeping, breastfeeding, etc…It’s forming a relationship with your child and working through all issues with that as the priority. Discipline is an essential part of AP, as long as it doesn’t strip the child of his/her dignity and compromise the parenting relationship.

    Thanks for your wisdom. When’s that book we want coming out? :P

  13. Literacy-chic says:

    Part of the problem here might be too much philosophy and not enough parenting. A number of voices I’m hearing seem to have inadequate parenting role models in their own families for one reason or another, and so turn to books rather than to experience. I have not read a parenting book yet. Know why? I am the oldest of 6 children and had a large hand in caring for them from the time I was 11 or so until I had my own son at 20. SO most of what I feel about child rearing comes to me from my mom. I have read various parenting magazines and learned, as Tienne says, that parenting wisdom is often contradictory. I like some aspects of AP, but not to the extremes to which it’s always taken. I agonize over discipline a bit, but that’s in part because children are individuals and not case studies! I believe in a very few absolute truths of parenting, but acknowledge circumstances that might contraindicate the practice of these principles. It all comes down to the fact that books are too prescriptive–the goal, after all, is to sell books and receive professional credentials, both of which are accomplished by trashing the alternatives and discrediting what has gone before. If we look at parents of past generations whom we admire, their philosophies were likely, “Do what works”!! And I think it is always good to remember that children have an amazing capacity to endure and to thrive, and also to teach–us. And one thing they teach us is adaptability.

  14. Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) says:

    I’m someone else who missed the original debate, but this is something I’ve been thinking about lately– the not discussing parenting philosophies.

    I think the problem largely is that we invest so much in knowing our own minds, and knowing our families’ and our children’s needs, that we forget this isn’t as important as evangelism.

    We’re so excited/relieved to find what works for us, that we forget that (really) every family has to work this out for themselves.

    It is similar to the gospel– we’ve found truth that has impacted our lives, and we want others to skip the troubles we had (or else, we just want to be seen as “together”) and so we forget caution or sensitivity and “push” it at another person.

    But in the same way that *we* can’t save anyone else (RATS!), we can’t plant or fix anyone else’s parenting.

    Would to God we were as passionate and willing to “offend” with the gospel as we sometimes are with parenting ideas.

  15. lyrl says:

    Completely off topic from the parenting debate (lots of good comments here, though!), but I have long been confused by the statement “the traditional family is under attack in our society.”

    To me, our society has stopped attacking alternatives: single parents now get some societal support – or at least tolerance – where they were ostracized before, and legal divorce is available and socially tolerated where legal separation was inaccessible for most and divorcees were ostracized before.

    I don’t know that ostracizing single parents and divorced people is the solution to our nuclear family problems, though, and I doubt anyone who makes the “attack on traditional families” statement does, either. So I’m obviously missing something important. Any attempts to explain it to me would be appreciated.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Lyrl,

    I think that most people who say that “the traditional family is under attack” mean something like this: “The traditional family (mom, dad married to each other with kids) is no longer considered or promoted as being the objectively ideal and best way of having a family; moreover, other ways of having a family (single mom, dad with or without live-in boyfriend or girlfriend or new spouse, gay or lesbian couples, etc.) are considered or promoted by at least some as being equally good ways of having a family.”

    Sorry, that is a very rambling explanation, but I think it is close to the mark.

    As a Christian I believe that charity is the rule to follow at all times. This means that it is wrong to heap shame upon a single mom trying to do her best, but it also means promoting traditional marriage as (objectively) the best way to do the famiy thing. Now, I know there are some married parents out there who are probably doing a terrible job as parents and there are some single parents out there doing a great job. But overall, kids do seem to do best in a loving, safe, two-parent environment. And there is nothing uncharitable about promoting this, so long as we also try to offer whatever help we can to those in less than ideal situations (often through no fault of their own).

    Just my two cents.

    –Elizabeth

  17. Anna says:

    Lyrl,

    I saw an advertisement – a billboard, I think – the other day that said “life is short; get a divorce.” This isn’t just failing to ostracize alternatives to the traditional family, this is attacking the traditional family. So are personal comments, sometimes: remember what Jen said at the beginning of her post: “With each of our pregnancies, we have both gotten reactions that ranged from unsupportive to downright vitriolic. Frankly, we often feel attacked.” This is such a common complaint, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it (albeit I usually hear it from parents of 5 or more kids, not from parents of 3).

    These are just some examples; probably others will give more.

  18. Abigail says:

    Our Pope had a wonderful quote on this “traditional family” issue at the feast of the Holy Family this past December. He described the family as the “priviledged environment” for appreciated life from conception to natural death. I liked that phrase “priviledged environment.” My single-mother friend in choir is doing an exemplerary job raising her five year old son. (She is Catholic homeschooling in addition to running a home-based business). Still, I was honored when she asked me to pray a novena for her to find a husband.

    A married couple is a priviledged environment for their children. I’m so grateful for my loving marriage. Being a life-long wife to my husband is a rare priviledge which seems to become more and more rare each day in the States.

  19. Kate says:

    Aarrgggghhh…I’m supposed to be getting more sleep, but I still haven’t made it through all your archives and I. Just. Can’t. Stop. :)

    I remember this whole debate. I was fairly new to blogging when I weighed in, but I just recently wrote something similar about moms judging other moms. In the post, I asked myself: Why is it that moms find themselves being so judgmental about others’ choices? To answer this question, I had to examine why I sometimes marble my own mommy philosophy into conversation with other mothers. I’m not trying to make other moms feel bad. On the contrary, I’m trying to make myself feel good (or at least a little better) about the choices I make for my children.

    Ultimately, motherhood is a job we all feel really passionate about and emotions run high when we talk about why we do the things we do. We’re all trying so hard to do our best that we may sometimes lose sight of the fact that what’s best for us may not be what’s best for someone else. But what we fail to see is that all those derisive zingers and even those more subtle, little comments can obviously be upsetting to the wounded party.

    Also, I’ve said this before on my blog, but the point of AP is to form a strong bond with your child. How you do that may vary somewhat. Many of the principles of AP simply help forge that bond, but doesn’t mean that a woman who doesn’t breastfeed their child can’t have a secure child. (What would that say to adoptive moms who can’t breastfeed?) I was a big believer in AP as a newbie mom and I still agree with a lot of what it says, but I’ve also learned that what works for one kiddo-mom duo might not work for another. My baby LOVES to cuddle and to be toted around. My oldest hated every carrier I tried. Should I have stuffed her in their and let her wail just to be a “good” AP mom? Don’t think so…

    Obviously, I could go on and on about this, but I must step away from your blog. Now.

    Love all your thoughts on NFP, too…

    God bless.