Annie Keeling: Parenting myths that you can no longer afford to believe
March 14, 2018
Two moms sit in a car talking into the camera lens about the perils of motherhood. This YouTube episode of #MomTruth is titled, "What They Don't Tell You About Being a Mom."
There are quite a few of these shows that use humor to debunk popular parenting beliefs.
Some common myths that circulate throughout our culture are often harmful when it comes to building healthy families. Here's three:
Parenting should be instinctive
An inundation of parenting advice has many parents reverting to the idea that they should just trust their instincts to raise good kids. It worked for thousands of generations, didn't it?
While this makes it sound like parenting should be that simple, the world is increasingly more complex. Defining one's value system can feel complicated in a fast-paced world where the data keeps changing. New categories to consider, like technology and social media, make decisions more difficult.
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Often what we call instinctual parenting is really reflexive reactions, where personal prejudices and our own experiences of being parented affect our child-rearing.
In the highly acclaimed book, "Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children," by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, the authors draw on years of research that prove traditional reliance on instinct is unrealistic and unhelpful.
After three years of investigation they, "… discovered that parents' reactions were polluted by a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history, and old (disproven) psychology, … all at the expense of common sense."
This can make it even more difficult for two parents to meet on a united front of parenting when there are so many unconscious influences.
All a child needs is love
It's a great title for a Beatles song — and a beautiful sentiment. Of course, love and connection are essential. Yet, the amount of love we give a child is not always directly proportional to our level of parenting skills. And, there are often unhealthy ways that parents react "in the name of love."
Part of this myth includes the idea that pain or suffering are necessary elements for learning.
Common parenting techniques use threats, punishment, coercion, or yelling which create discomfort in the child to gain cooperation. These behaviors fall in line with a strong cultural voice: "Show love through discipline. Be stricter with your child. Spanking works."
Punishment almost always "works" by getting an immediate reaction. The child usually cooperates, even if defiantly.
There is a cost to this, even if not always directly relatable. Outcomes include self-criticism, disconnection from parents, or suppressing uncomfortable emotions that often resurface in unhealthy ways — either in a few days with another more escalated off-track behavior, or later in life when, for example, ingesting an addictive substance feels better than working through those concealed emotions.
I am well-educated. Why would I need parent education?
Many necessary skills needed for parenting and building healthy families are difficult to learn — and it's not because the parents aren't smart or successful in other areas of life.
In my parenting classes, I ask the participants if anyone has studied child development. Sometimes there will be a few teachers in class who raise their hands. Someone else may have had a class in college.
I ask how many have been around children, either employment with kids like a babysitting job or contact with young extended-family members. Occasionally, a hand will go up.
I estimate that in my classes, 10 percent of the parents have had a little experience with children previous to parenting — and out of that, about 5 percent have had significant experience. And of all those, 95 percent are female.
We can look to tribal communities of the past, like hunter-gatherers, in comparison with current nuclear families to gain some insight.
The "tribe" had close living quarters. Children, as well as each parent, could easily view varied parenting styles. As the kids grew, they interacted with smaller children, helping with childcare.
Jared Diamond cites a study of the Efe people, whose infants were passed around among nonparental adults an average of eight times per hour.
Male and female roles were virtually interchangeable, which also gave men experience with children. This way of living provided every tribe member an organic opportunity to understand child development and see it in action, well before having a child of one's own.
Combining instinct with intelligence
If we reconsider the instincts myth above, no wonder instincts aren't readily available in this area. Our culture has removed most of the integral ways to learn about kids.
When this level of interaction and knowledge of child development is lost, there are other repercussions on society as well. Jared Diamond, in his book, "The World Until Yesterday," describes how a common thread in most hunter-gatherer societies were leisurely childhoods where infants were constantly held by caretakers and where young children had enormous freedom to play.
Over the past 50 years, poor health in children — such as obesity, depression, ADHD and teen suicide — has increased dramatically in the U.S. Conversely, the importance of play is greatly diminished due to the discussed changes in family structure as well as technology, school policies, and academic pressure.
While the hunter-gatherer's child-centric system included cuddled babies and playful childhoods, responsibility and independence progressed as the child grew. Adolescents were expected to help run households or go out and hunt lions.
In contemporary culture, close nurturing of the infant can turn into hovering behavior by parents as the child grows. Exaggerated child-centered family systems without progression of responsibility can lead to entitled children who are not required to contribute or who develop unhealthy needs for elevated levels of significance.
What to do?
Busting these myths requires changing attitudes and taking action.
It will take greater community support of parents as everyone navigates uncharted territory of technology and media. This might be to start a parent or play group of like-minded families or find a supportive parenting partner.
It will take a conscious shift as parents rely less on their conditioned responses and instead work to uncover and bring to light any dysfunctional layers that affect their parenting. This could take the form of therapy or a meditation/mindfulness practice.
Above all, it will take a cultural shift to increase experiences that place emphasis on both sexes sharing child-care as well the opportunity to observe and interact with children throughout one's lifetime.
If we are to grow respectful, contributing humans who can maintain a healthy society and parent with love, then we need to start by acknowledging that a leap of priorities needs to be made. And then we need some folks to courageously take the leap.
Annie Keeling, MFA of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-210-1100.