Zelophehad’s Daughters

Parenting Theories, Love, and the Inevitability of Grief

Posted by Eve

[Recent reflections at FMH hereby prompt me to broadcast my own half-baked reflections on parenting theories. That said, this isn't a critique of either Stephanie's or Not Ophelia's approaches to parenting, both of which strike me as eminently reasonable; in any case, the content substantially predates their posts. Rather, this is my current take on parenting, such as it is, which is very clearly a result of my particular temperament and circumstances. Like all of my views, it's worth every red cent you paid for it, and I fully expect it to be substantially revised in three years, downright unrecognizable in five.]

I’m a chickenhearted, cautious moderate, inclined to fit in and escape notice, but I’m currently engaged in my most countercultural experiment to date; I’m attempting to raise my daughter without parenting theories, which I suspect may be more pernicious than either television or junk food. I tend to object more to the assumptions underlying such theories and the practices surrounding them than I do to the content of any particular theory. Here are some of my reasons, in ascending order of seriousness.

(1) In my observation, the actual experience of parenting tends to strip parents of all theories. So why not disencumber myself now and get it over with? When I was in my third trimester (and finding myself temperamentally incapable of writing up a birth plan), more than one woman told me that in spite of extensive preparation to go natural, she ended up getting an epidural, which I understand is the usual outcome of such plans. I realized that I certainly wasn’t any stronger or more courageous–or any more interested in pain–than these fine women, so why not just plan on the epidural? I so planned (virtually the only thing about my daughter’s birth I did plan), I so executed, and I highly recommend it. Now I’m experimenting with the same approach to parenting theories: early disavowal.

(2) I’m skeptical of our culture’s intense professionalization of our most intimate relationships. As a parent, I certainly need support, commiseration, and advice from more experienced parents, as well as from people who stand outside my immediate situation and who can sometimes see it more clearly than I can. And articles and books do sometimes furnish helpful, practical suggestions. Friends occasionally claim to have been inspired to try one method or another; who am I to doubt them? At the same time, I mistrust the one-size-fits-all nature and the salvific tone of parenting theories, and the frequency with which entire systems are overturned, only to be replaced by contradictory systems to which we sheeplike parent-consumers are evidently supposed to give our transferred but undiminished allegiance. The parenting industry, and the self-help industry in general, have made us children, tossed to and fro on every wind of doctrine, and the self-styled experts, whose only power is the power we confer on them with our anxious pocketbooks, are laughing all the way to the bank.

(3) Marinated in the tenets of behaviorism, most parenting theories regard children as machines. These theories are deeply manipulative in that they traffic in inputs and outputs. Much parenting debate can be reduced to squabbles about (a) which inputs result in which outputs; (b) which outputs (self-esteem? work ethic? empathy?) are most desirable; and (c) which well-intentioned inputs (e.g., praise and indulgence) result in unanticipated and unfortunate outputs (e.g., entitlement and narcissism).

(4) As a result of (3), parenting theories fetishize the act, measurable and observable and replicable as it allegedly is. So we’re treated to endless debates about breastfeeding, co-sleeping, cribs, crying it out, spanking, reasoning, counting, time-outs, tantrums, bedtimes, Santa Claus, homework, homeschooling, extracurricular activities, allowances, chores, carpooling, taxicabbing, and driver’s licenses. But the simple and  hard reality is that people, all people, exceed all systems and all attempts at codification. I propose that (excluding obviously unacceptable acts, like physical and emotional violence or neglect), what’s far more important–in all of our relationships–than precisely what we do is who we are in what we do. This is the great and difficult lesson of the Sermon on the Mount. It is not enough to act rightly; we must be rightly in our acts.

And so at the end of the day, I think we need to get past debates about methods and outcomes. We need to come to terms with the radical and terrifying fact that children are people, endowed with their own selves and their own agency. That means parenting is a terrible love, a love of total commitment coupled with a constantly decreasing control. I suspect that behaviorist models of parenting flourish partly to shield us from the terror of our own love. But if we are to consider our children people and not products–that is, if we are to love them–we cannot evade that terror. After all, in Mormon understanding that terror spares not even God, indeed spares God least of all.

32 Responses to “Parenting Theories, Love, and the Inevitability of Grief”

  1. 1.

    .

    I agree.

    We are laissez-faire parents and can subscribe for all your reasons for rejecting parenting theories.

    I was at someone’s house the other night and looked at the parenting books they kept over their toilet. Then I vomited and thus had to flush twice, wasting water.

  2. 2.

    Great thoughts, Eve! I particularly like your point here:

    parenting is a terrible love, a love of total commitment coupled with a constantly decreasing control. I suspect that behaviorist models of parenting flourish partly to shield us from the terror of our own love.

    I have a hard time giving parenting theories up, but I know reading The Nurture Assumption has certainly helped me to take them less seriously.

    Actually, somewhat tangentially, the very proliferation of parenting theories could be taken as evidence of their failure. After all, there aren’t lots of theories where there’s one that really works well. (How many theories do we have for how to power our appliances?) There are lots when nobody knows what they’re doing or where there’s not a lot of difference in their outcomes, or as you put it so well, when the theories just exist to shield us from hard truths.

  3. 3.

    Great post. And well-worded.

    “I’m skeptical of our culture’s intense professionalization of our most intimate relationships.”

    I’ll see your “skeptical” and raise you a “not-quite-openly hostile.”

    Ditto Ziff about the terror. I really liked this:

    “But if we are to consider our children people and not products–that is, if we are to love them–we cannot evade that terror. After all, in Mormon understanding that terror spares not even God, indeed spares God least of all.”

    That said, I suspect that for some temperaments a “plan” can respectively prod and shield a parent away from the Charybdis of apathy and the Scylla of terror-induced paralysis.

    Your emphasis on becoming is well-placed, I think. Observing that children mostly turn out like their parents, it seems parents ought to focus on becoming the type of people they want their children to become.

    PS I’ll have to remember this post so that if I every have children I can come back and giggle at my pre-parenthood pontification.

  4. 4.

    A lot of what you write here is easily adaptable to teaching, or managing employees, or any other endeavor where theories (usually multiple, usually conflicting) exist that treat human beings as manipulable components of an artificial system.

  5. 5.

    I’ll join the chorus and say that this is a very good and interesting post. It is also very deeply yet subtly Mormon, through and through. Thank you, Eve.

    Our kids are all out of the house now, so I can look at discussions about parenting with a sense of detachment and almost overwhelming relief. We never did figure it out very well, mostly because each of our children was so different from the others. What might have worked well with one child would have been disastrous with another, so we did a lot of improvising as we went along. To the extent we had a strategy at all, I think it was a reflection of the temperament of us as parents more than anything else.

    As I read the post, I thought of that line from Woody Allen: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” And I will heart Paul H. Dunn forever for making the observation that the only thing that is necessary to cure juvenile delinquency and to prevent our youth from leaving the church is for everybody to switch kids with the neighbors. After all, everybody knows exactly what needs to be done with the neighbors’ kids, it is only our own which puzzle us.

    Observing that children mostly turn out like their parents, it seems parents ought to focus on becoming the type of people they want their children to become.

    This statement from Edje is spot-on and reminds me of a rather intense conversation I once had with a woman who had all kinds of personal problems as well as the pressure and stress which are inevitable when four teenagers live under your roof. She believed in demanding strict obedience and physical punishment for disobedience. She was trying to defend her practice of beating kids with a belt when they broke the rules or defied her authority, and said “There’s nothing wrong with that. Look at me, my parents used a belt on me all the time and I turned out fine!” I would have laughed in her face if the whole situation weren’t so tragic.

  6. 6.

    I was just thinking about this yesterday. Our children are all grown and have children of their own, and though parenting never really stops, it changes, and I now have a more detached perspective.
    What made me think of this though is that my youngest daughter is expecting her second child in October and I was remembering my experience with her when the first one was born two years ago. The baby was three or four days old and doing very well. She and her husband are very well educated and in their late twenties. As successful as they have been in schooling and careers, they assumed they could just read parenting books and figure this out too. So I was there with them to fix meals and clean and be supportive, trying to let them take care of the baby in their own way. The inevitable happened, of course. One night, about 3:00 am, I heard the baby fussing for some length of time, so I went into their bedroom to see if they needed help. The baby was lying in the crib and there they were standing over him franticly leafing through a parenting book trying to figure out what to do. My son-in-law looked at me and said something to the effect of, “We’ve done everything the book says and he’s still crying.” I could see that these parents were beyond exhaustion, so I just picked up the baby and told them to go back to bed, stating that he was only four days old and had not yet read the book.
    I did read some parenting books when my children were young, especially if I was having some specific problem, but in the thick of parenting, I mostly relied on my gut.

  7. 7.

    I think in an ideal world, you could just throw all the books away and listen only to instinct. But are we really listening to instinct, or instead are we listening to years of culturally-ingrained traditions? There’s a huge difference!

    I think I’ve been a better parent for reading a variety of parenting books. In the beginning, yes, there was that tendency to take the author’s word as law. But that changes quickly for most parents. In general, if I hadn’t read anything, I would have most likely done just exactly what my parents had done or what all the moms around me were doing, which sometimes might have been on the mark, but often would not have. Reading about all the various theories has allowed me to question the status quo and truly make my OWN choices about parenting. It’s all a matter of being a discriminating reader.

  8. 8.

    I’m attempting to raise my daughter without parenting theories,

    Love it! Great post Eve. I can’t stand parenting books and theories–and can’t stand it even more when people think one way is the one and only true way.

  9. 9.

    On the one hand, I agree with the flaws of the behaviorist model utilized by many parenting books. My kids are not dogs, and I dont’ want to raise them that way.
    I very much listen to my gut/intuition about parenting things.
    HOWEVER…
    Is listening to friends any different than listening to book writers? Each person has their own take on what is best…some books I agree with and some I don’t, and some friends I agree with and some I don’t. But I have had my horizons broadened by listening to/reading a wide variety. Look at it this way: Imagine a salad bar with two aisles. If you only go up one side, then you’ll only see what is on that one side. Some things you’ll want and some you won’t, and you can make a pretty decent salad… but what if you checked out the other side as well? Sure, there would be more things that you didn’t want, but it’s almost certain that there would also be more things that you DID want. You never know if you refuse to look.

  10. 10.

    “Parenting Theories, Love, and the Inevitability of Grief”

    Ah, on this day especially, the title caught me.

    Did not go where I expected, the inevitability of grief is such a powerful thing.

    I’m pretty much a benign neglect sort of parent. But of the books I have read, I really think NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman was actually worth reading — and worth giving copies to some friends.

    Just a thought along the lines of your post rather that what I thought you were going to post about.

  11. 11.

    I’ll note I actually bought copies of that books for friends (none of whom had children younger than 50 or so, but still, friends who are seriously engaged in issues I consider important that impact children).

  12. 12.

    I agree with eljee, Mommy Bee, and Stephen M Ethesis.
    I listen to other parents, I read articles and books (Nurtureshock is pretty interesting). I take what makes sense for me, my family/situation/child/temperament and I use my own brain and my own experience.
    So, I parent according to MY theory. And I like my theory. I think my parenting theory is pretty good.
    So…..not having a theory IS your theory. If your theory works for you, great.
    I am a little more deliberate in how I live my life. I make decisions about my parenting choices (do I make them practice piano, or do I let them decide whether to practice) based on my overall ideas about what I am trying to accomplish.
    I don’t think I approach parenting like these children are machines and I am the factory. However, this is my JOB and I have goals and I use my intelligence and my creativity to raise my children it the way that makes sense to me…..my own theory (with compromises to accomodate my husband’s theories too of course).

  13. 13.

    I like how you bring out the fact that children are independent people, who can and will make their own choices. It took me a long time to learn that lesson.

    Of course, as you mention, Eve, this power frightens us, because we know the suffering they will endure when they make bad choices, and we also know that we will suffer right along with them. The vulnerability that comes with truly loving someone is really quite breathtaking when you step back and look at it.

    I think the most important thing a parent can do is be open to alternatives. If one approach doesn’t work, one has to be willing to accept that and move on to something different.

  14. 14.

    so I just picked up the baby and told them to go back to bed, stating that he was only four days old and had not yet read the book

    Read that to my wife and she laughed out loud.

    The comments here are as good as the post ;)

    (though when I made my comments the first time, not all of them were displayed).

  15. 15.

    In the end, I’m not so sure it’s about parenting practices or theories “working”, what does that mean anyway? What is the nature of success as a parent? I have hopes and dreams for my children, but I’m not sure if they will work out…I can hope they will, but it’s true – even the seemingly best parents have children who are not productive, independent citizens, and the very worst parents sometimes produce amazing children.

    While it’s true that there is a great deal of parenting information out there, and some of it is contradictory (particularly for babies) – I think it is great that I can read other parents’ experiences and theories. I may not agree with their choices, what they talk about may not be right for my family.

    I can then choose to follow my grandma’s advice (for example) to feed the baby cereal as soon as possible so that they sleep longer. OR I can follow my doctor’s advice (and the advice of the what to expect book) to wait until 4 – 6 months. Will either really matter in the end? Probably not. But at least I have a choice to evaluate different information.
    I don’t have to accept tradition and familial advice – or I can. It is true, some of that traditional care advice is harmless, but some of it has been found to be dangerous (like babies sleeping on their stomachs, which my mom did with us when we were babies). So I think it’s worth re-evaluating at different points.

    Someone once said that parenting is the toughest job you’ll ever love…I completely agree with that. It is very hard. I think it’s important that parents stay self-aware, that they ask for help and seek out information as they need to, throughout the process. I understand the point of the nuture shock book (I haven’t read it yet myself), but I think moderation in parenting is the key. And one practice or theory may work for one set of parents and children – and not for another.

  16. 16.

    I agree with Mark (#5) that this is a deeply but subtly Mormon approach. And I agree with Ardis (#4) that this is easily transferable to other areas in which humans are treated as systems affected by inputs to create certain outputs. And I want to pose a potentially threadjacking question.

    What does this mean about the Mormon church? Because it seems very, very clear to me that while what Eve is saying here is deeply but subtly Mormon in terms of its theory–perhaps we could say in doctrinal ways–, it is radically un-Mormon in practical ways. The church is, in my opinion, very fixated on the input and output model of creating good children of God. And Mormon culture is that way.

    I don’t think it’s right to think of the relationship between church and members as a parent-child relationship. But I think many Mormons do think of it that way. The church leaders know best. We, as members, are not supposed to thoughtfully challenge or question their guidance. We’re not supposed to listen and then go our own way. We’re supposed to do what we’re told (to such an extent that Elder Bednar can tell an asinine story about a young man wanting to marry a young woman but then not marrying her cause she didn’t remove a second earring as an example of obedience to be emulated). We like to quote that Joseph Smith line about correct principles and governing themselves but I call bullshit. The church absolutely does not teach correct principles and then allow people to govern themselves. And most Mormons don’t subscribe to that either. Not in practice. Instead the church/Mormonism is a deeply manipulative system in which you know what the emotional and social consequences of non-conformity will be. And you know that if your outputs aren’t quite right, something went wrong inside you–it wasn’t a problem with the inputs.

    Anyway. Like I said. Threadjack. And feel free not to respond if you’d like. But I am curious what y’all think about applying what Eve (and others) have said here (so very intelligent, by the way; I thoroughly enjoyed reading this discussion) to the church and Mormonism more broadly.

  17. 17.

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful discussion and the kind words.

    Th, I find myself intrigued that your hosts kept their parenting books over the toilet. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that fact, but it does seem significant somehow–if only to facilitate ease of vomiting.

    Ziff said,

    Actually, somewhat tangentially, the very proliferation of parenting theories could be taken as evidence of their failure. After all, there aren’t lots of theories where there’s one that really works well. (How many theories do we have for how to power our appliances?) There are lots when nobody knows what they’re doing or where there’s not a lot of difference in their outcomes, or as you put it so well, when the theories just exist to shield us from hard truths.

    Very good points, I think, that deserve much more play time in any discussion of parenting. You remind me of one of my favorite quotes from Chekhov to the effect that when a disease has many remedies, we may be sure it has no cure. And in any case (although I would question the input-output model on which any such tests are inevitably based) a cursory glance through the parenting literature reveals that much of it, like much self-help in general, rests on little or no evidence of effectiveness. Like so many other fields of human endeavor, the parenting literature is ruled by trends, fads, and factions far more than by any systematic review of the evidence.

    Thanks, Edje.

    That said, I suspect that for some temperaments a “plan” can respectively prod and shield a parent away from the Charybdis of apathy and the Scylla of terror-induced paralysis.

    Yeah, I’d agree. I tend to be far more comfortable with plans–especially individually tailored, flexible, responsive plans–than I am with theories.

    Your emphasis on becoming is well-placed, I think. Observing that children mostly turn out like their parents, it seems parents ought to focus on becoming the type of people they want their children to become.

    I’ve so often thought that since my daughter’s birth. Do I want her to be empathetic, kind, curious, patient, persistent, confident? Then I’d better be those things myself–surely that’s the single most important thing I can do to teach her to love anything good. Personally I’ve found that no other experience has revealed my own weaknesses to me as swiftly and pitilessly as parenting has. Sometimes the responsibility is simply terrifying. On the other hand, nothing has motivated me to work on my own shortcomings as intensely as realizing that my daughter is watching everything I do.

    PS I’ll have to remember this post so that if I every have children I can come back and giggle at my pre-parenthood pontification.

    Grin. In the long years before I had children I had an absolute phobia about having any parenting opinions at all. I was so afraid that to weigh in on another’s parenting was to risk the worst kind of karmic retribution. I still often feel that way–and I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily.

  18. 18.

    Ardis, very good point about the much broader implications of these issues. I suspect all of us have been the targets of one such motivational management system or another, whether at work or in elders’ quorum or on our missions. I’ve certainly endured a few in my time, and I suspect I’ve endured fewer than most.

    I’m particularly glad to see Mark Brown and CatherineWO weigh in, since they’re at the other end of this long, intense, fantastic, heartbreaking journey that I’m just beginning and have actually accumulated some wisdom. I really like Mark’s point about parental temperament–I suspect that’s the biggest factor in my parenting style (such as it is)–and his point about the varying temperaments of children, which seem almost designed to confound excessive parental loyalty to any given approach! And like Stephen, I loved Catherine’s story about the four-day-old baby who hadn’t read the book.

    I hadn’t thought about this in this context until just now, but when I was a kid I went through a phase of reading my mother’s parenting books (Why on earth? I have no idea. I think I had gotten bored of my library books and was looking for new stories. I really liked the little exemplary anecdotes that all such books include). I remember one all about natural consequences that I found myself convinced by–I was so righteously indignant that my parents were doing it all wrong! I also read Cleon Skousen’s _So You Want to Raise a Boy?_, and I reported all of the information I gleaned to my bemused and frazzled mother, who by then had at least five of us and therefore no time to read parenting books anymore.

  19. 19.

    eljee raises a question that’s often haunted me, and to which I think there’s no good answer:

    But are we really listening to instinct, or instead are we listening to years of culturally-ingrained traditions?

    I think that is precisely the huge risk that parenting by instinct runs–our instincts might be simply terrible, whether because we’ve experienced terrible parenting ourselves or because we’re surrounded by terrible parenting or maybe just because we’re all flawed fallen human beings riddled with blind spots. I do think that reflection on parenting, as on any vital human endeavor, is crucial if we’re to exceed mere instinct.

    On the other hand, part of my aversion to parenting books comes from my experience that more information is not always better. Sometimes it’s simply paralyzing and exhausting to consider too many perspectives–particularly when they’re presented in such hectoring and dire tones.

    Reading about all the various theories has allowed me to question the status quo and truly make my OWN choices about parenting. It’s all a matter of being a discriminating reader.

    I’d agree that discrimination is key. One of my favorite and most wonderfully opinionated friends reads parenting books this way, somewhat on the theory that even a cad can have a point and that even a flawed book can furnish a helpful suggestion or two.

  20. 20.

    Thanks, mmiles!

    Mommy Bee said,

    Is listening to friends any different than listening to book writers? Each person has their own take on what is best…some books I agree with and some I don’t, and some friends I agree with and some I don’t. But I have had my horizons broadened by listening to/reading a wide variety.

    Well, I think there are some important differences between conversations with friends or mentors and books. For one thing, friends can provide support and commiseration and comfort in a way that books cannot, and I find that social-emotional networking component of parenting is crucial, far more crucial than parenting theories are. (Although of course it’s equally crucial to be discriminating about the friends in whom one confides and the friends whose advice one takes seriously!) And an insightful friend or mentor (or, for that matter, a good therapist) can make observations that are specific to you and your children in a way that a book never can.

    To build somewhat facetiously on your metaphor: it’s not that I haven’t sampled the parenting-book side of the salad bar; it’s my very encounters with that side that make me question whether the sneeze guard over there is functioning correctly.

  21. 21.

    Stephen, thanks for the Nurture Shock recommendation. A number of people I respect have recommended it, so I’m curious to check it out.

    jks said,

    So…..not having a theory IS your theory. If your theory works for you, great.

    Well, not exactly. My rejection of parenting theories isn’t nearly systemic enough to constitute a theory in itself.

    I am a little more deliberate in how I live my life.

    Oh, I’m wholeheartedly, even excessively, in favor of a deliberate life. I just don’t see that allegiance to an overarching theory is necessary to such deliberation.

    I make decisions about my parenting choices…based on my overall ideas about what I am trying to accomplish. I don’t think I approach parenting like these children are machines and I am the factory. However, this is my JOB and I have goals

    This, I confess, is the sort of talk about parenting, and about relationships more generally, that makes me uneasy. We seem to have imported the language of task labor into the parenting realm, and in my view there are critical alignment failures. What, for example, does it mean to “accomplish” something in the context of a relationship? What does it mean to have “goals” in such a context? (How many of us have labored under the oppressive supervision of someone who has “goals” for us?) The very language takes no account of the other person’s agency–or of the love that constitutes the parenting relationship in the first place.

    I think there are good reasons not to see parenting as a job. It is, of course, very hard work, much harder work than many jobs, and it is, of course, an enormous responsibility. But to call it a job seems to me to reduce it drastically, to miss what it most essentially is.

    I use my intelligence and my creativity to raise my children it the way that makes sense to me.

    More power to you!

    Matt A. said,

    I like how you bring out the fact that children are independent people, who can and will make their own choices. It took me a long time to learn that lesson.

    I think what scares me is that I’m sure I haven’t learned that lesson, and I’m sure I won’t truly learn it until my children make choices that are really, really hard for me to accept. Intellectually I grasp the concept of agency, but undergoing the consequences of it can be so wrenching.

    The vulnerability that comes with truly loving someone is really quite breathtaking when you step back and look at it.

    Exactly.

  22. 22.

    Hmm. I’ve been trying to come up with a cogent comment for this ever since it went up.
    Here’s the thing, my sister in law is a child therapist, and has an absolutely amazing ability to communicate with children. Some of that is certainly natural talent, and empathy, but it is also the result of years and years of study, experience, and instruction. It took her all of 1 minute to get my terrified, clinging 4 year old (who had never really met her), to peel himself off of my neck and and start chatting with her. And all she did was tell a story about a lizard! The same is true of my friend who studied early childhood education. She was able to do things for my oldest kid that I was completely unable to do, simply because I never learned how.

    I’m the youngest in my family and the only kids I dealt with at all before I had my own were 3 nieces and nephews who lived in distant cities. As a teenager I babysat twice.

    So, yes, children are not vending machines who will dispense good behavior when we insert the correct amounts of dimes (love) nickels (food) and quarters (discipline). And it is absolutely terrifying to internalize the fact that I really have no control over my kids at all. The best I can hope for is influence and guidance. Something I learned with a vengeance while potty training. And I wholeheartedly agree that we would all be better served by trying harder to change ourselves, than going through some rigamarole with the goal of changing our kids.

    However, caring for children is skilled labor- and my feminist hackles go into overdrive when it is implied otherwise- because so often that is exactly how traditionally feminine work is denigrated; “It is so easy that anyone with a pulse can do it.”

    I know that wasn’t the intent of this post, but I think it veers dangerously close to the line. Most parenting books may be hogwash, and blindly following one method as if it were a recipe is really rather stupid. But researching, and learning how to care for children from experts and other more experienced people most certainly is not.

  23. 23.

    aerin asked,

    In the end, I’m not so sure it’s about parenting practices or theories “working”, what does that mean anyway? What is the nature of success as a parent?

    That’s the proverbial $64,0000 question, isn’t it? Something from our own theology that should give us pause is that by the very measurements we ourselves often employ Satan promised a higher rate of success (all souls returned guaranteed!) than God is ever going to be able to deliver precisely because of his respect for our agency.

    That said, I don’t know what it means to have succeeded–or failed–as a parent. As I said above, I think the whole language of success and failure, of tasks and goals and accomplishments, ultimately falters before the deeper realities of human relationships.

    Amelia poses an interesting question, one that’s beyond the scope of even my considerable long-windedness, about the tensions between our Mormon theology and our practice. I don’t have a lot to say in response, I’m afraid; it’s such a large issue I’d have to think a lot more about it. I suppose my short answer would be that human nature is fallen and that religious (and other) communities inevitably and constantly fail to live up to their most inspiring, most constitutive ideals. Maybe all we can keep doing is returning to those ideals–love, sacrifice, devotion, and in this case, respect for agency–and attempting, as best we can, to renew them in our own lives and our own corners of our communities. Maybe that’s just one reason that a private devotional religious life is so vital to maintain; it allows us to return to and experience and nurture those good things that come from God in ourselves and ultimately in the broader community.

  24. 24.

    I have to say that I agree with Starfoxy–I don’t really subscribe to any particular ‘theory’, but I have read a number of books that have given me good ideas that have worked well for my children. (I also liked NurtureShock a lot). I didn’t have any real experience caring for children before I had my own, so I do value the experience and suggestions of others that serve to make my life easier.

    The thing is, parenting is always evolving. My daughter is different now at almost-7 than she was at 1 or 4 or even 6. Our life situation is different. Each of my three children has different personalities. That’s why I’m hesitant to pick a particular approach and just stick to it no matter what. I try to ‘study it out in my mind’ by doing some research and talking to other experienced parents, and then ponder things before doing them. (In my ideal world; other days I just read or blog while ignoring the kids as much as possible until I break down and yell at them).

    My biggest issue with parenting is actually resolving differences with my husband. His ideas about children and how he wants to parent are very different from mine, and we’re both so stubborn that we unfortunately spend a lot of time working at cross purposes to each other. It’s been hard because we do agree on so many things I had no idea that figuring out how to be parents together would be so hard.

  25. 25.

    Thanks. I believe it is possible to be a failure, or at least do a really bad job as a parent. Usually this involves neglect or abuse – failing to feed, clothe or care for one’s child. So, in that sense, if a parent is able to do the bare minimum, that is a success of sorts.

    So any discussion of parenthood becomes complicated because parenting is the business/job of meeting the physical needs of a child (children). But there is so much more to it as well. The language of success and failure (and goals) does make this complicated. There is a lot of gray.

  26. 26.

    Each of my three children has different personalities.

    Isn’t that the truth. I had some friends, their first two kids were so well behaved they were asked to give talks at wards on how to raise kids. I can only say that they did not have the same luck with later kids.

    Of my two surviving children, they are polar opposites. Amazing to think they are sisters.

  27. 27.

    Why do I see parenting as a job with goals rather than just a “relationship”? Because I deal with things like this:
    1) Is it time for daughter to have cellphone? Pros, cons. Decision yes. Decide on rules for cellphone. Explain rules. Monitor use appropriately. Ditto for internet and computer use, email, etc. Sit with daughter to help her see the mistakes in her email ettiquette about what is rude or risky (danger) or risky (virus).
    2) Teach son signs to facilitate language. Requires learning signs. Requires thinking of what to learn next. 3)Follow him around and keep him from getting hurt while other kids are in swimming.
    4) Listen to daughter read out loud.
    5) Take daughter bra shopping.
    6) Have another conversation with a child about why they are required to do housework.
    7) Help children not speak rudely to each other when we get in the car.
    I think you should read the MOTHERSTYLES book. I’m sure there must have your style in there. I love that book because it helped me figure out why other mothers were so strange! You sound more like my SIL than me. Thinking about parenting as a relationship thing.
    “What, for example, does it mean to “accomplish” something in the context of a relationship? ”
    How are the things I do NOT goals or tasks that I accomplish? I don’t understand.
    Well, perhaps you can say that you can try to teach a child to talk and they have the agency (or the language disorder) not to. Well, I may have to work harder at it, spend more time, but there is much they can learn. I have enough experience to know that you can’t make a kid learn. I can, however, accomplish a lot.
    Nature vs. nurture. It is torture sometimes as I raise my 4th child, my second late talking child. This time I am an expert from day one. I look what I have accomplished in the past 12 months and he is still younger than my previous late talking child’s first word, yet the difficulty is still there so I can’t let up. It makes me wonder what earlier intervention could have done for my older son. Perhaps I wouldn’t be creating therapy for him at age 10.
    I just try to do what is right. Doing the right thing is always an accomplishment in my book. I seem to keep going on and on. I’ll stop now.

  28. 28.

    However, caring for children is skilled labor- and my feminist hackles go into overdrive when it is implied otherwise- because so often that is exactly how traditionally feminine work is denigrated; “It is so easy that anyone with a pulse can do it.”

    I wholeheartedly share your feminist hackles on this issue, Starfoxy. Where we may disagree is on the issue of how best to rehabilitate (in the sense of acknowledging and granting due dignity to) women’s work such as childcare. It is indeed skilled labor, but not in precisely the sense that high-prestige traditionally masculine fields such as neurosurgery are.

    The thing is, while anything but easy, motherhood and fatherhood are so ubiquitous that it’s not far off to say that they are being done by anyone with a pulse. Animals are mothers and fathers. Parenthood is as common as grass, although heaven knows good parenting is likely considerably rarer. But the expertise we gain from family life isn’t the kind to which our traditional status and prestige markers adhere that results from years and years of specialized, exclusive education. Rather, it’s an expertise in individual people (that is, as parents, we ideally become the world experts on our particular children, and as spouses, on our particular spouses).

    It’s an expertise almost completely without prestige in our culture, but it’s also the only realm of life in which we are truly unique and irreplaceable. If I died tomorrow, no one, no matter how loving and devoted, could take my place with my daughter and husband and siblings. (Or so I like to think. ;) ). If my husband remarried, a different set of relationships would form instead.

    There’s obviously no clear line between this kind of personal expertise and expertise in the helping professions, such as the examples you give of skilled therapists and experienced caregivers and teachers. (And the limitations of what we can do in the face of another’s agency carry over to these professions; those limitations are one of my husband’s greatest frustrations as a psychologist.) But it seems to me that the feminist effort to rehabilitate women’s work often buys into a whole set of assumptions about what makes labor skilled and dignified–remuneration and intellectual abstraction are honored; unpaid, repetitive, physical labor, particularly the labor done by women to care for children, is not. On the one hand, I think it’s important to unpack the intelligence and creativity careful parenthood demand; on the other, I also think it’s inadequate to simply try to move parenthood up the scale of prestige without engaging in a deeper dismantling of that scale. (Not to say that’s what you’re arguing for here, Starfoxy–just to explain some of my resistance to viewing parenthood as a job.)

    And so to address one of jks’s comments, understanding parenthood as a job seems like a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed move to me. It would be as if we considered God to have the “job” of raising all of us. Yes, there’s considerable overlap, of course, as jks’s list of her childcare tasks clearly demonstrates, but in the end the job paradigm is inadequate for our most intimate human relationships. That’s where I would disagree with jks’s opening sentence. In my view, it’s not the word “relationship” we should denigrate with the modifier “just”; it’s the word “job.” To the extent that don’t, we’re buying into (dare I say it?) a capitalist system of values that I think is deeply antithetical to the gospel.

    Apologies to my interlocutors and patient readers for the length of my comments! As I think Forster put it, I don’t seem to have the time to make them shorter.

  29. 29.

    I feel like there is some clear value in separating child care work from parenting. If we can’t separate the two then fathers who aren’t primary caregivers can’t claim to be parents.

    I guess, I feel that my priorities are most in order when I view it like this: my choice to be an at home parent means I have made child care my job (and that my kids benefit from having a more skilled care giver). I also see that, since someone else could be doing that job for me, I need to be doing something to build a relationship with my kids, since simply providing care does not make me a parent, let alone a good one.

    Certainly the sheer amount of time I spend with my kids makes that relationship building easier, and the relationship informs the way I perform the work of childcare, but I think the relationship is separate from the job. I agree with you in that we shouldn’t be turning to experts to teach us how to be good mothers and fathers, and have good relationships with our kids, but we certainly can turn to the experts to teach us that, say, babies need a lot of fat in their diet and so forth.

  30. 30.

    I feel like there is some clear value in separating child care work from parenting. If we can’t separate the two then fathers who aren’t primary caregivers can’t claim to be parents.

    Myself, I don’t know how separable they are, particularly for babies and young children–but even for teenagers. I don’t think it’s possible to parent (if I understand you correctly, here meaning to build a relationship with a child) without providing some form of care. I think the emotional, intellectual, and social end up being grounded in and inseparable from the physical–which is itself an interesting dismantling of the scale of prestige that values those things above the physical.

    I agree with you in that we shouldn’t be turning to experts to teach us how to be good mothers and fathers, and have good relationships with our kids, but we certainly can turn to the experts to teach us that, say, babies need a lot of fat in their diet and so forth.

    I think part of the problem with parenting expertise is that precisely because parenting is so common we have a plethora of self-styled experts making their claims far too general. (The situation is analogous to eating. We all eat, and so everyone considers herself a nutrition and weight-loss expert and many love to dispense advice, but most of us aren’t and most of the advice is simply the repetition of well-publicized fads.)

    I’d actually argue that what we need is more genuine research and a lot more critical thinking, not less–just with the caveat that given the state of the parenting field to find any genuine expertise we’re going to have to ignore a lot of the disinformation being propagated, which is why it’s actually possible to be better informed about parenting by reading less, and reading much more selectively.

    But I’m more comfortable trusting the genuine expertise of, say, a nutritionist who specializes in infants and children than someone who’s simply sold a lot of books or appeared on Oprah. Still, at the end of the day, even someone who’s spent years or decades studying children may be trumped in my particular situation by my particular expertise on my particular child. He or she may even be entirely right about some issue in general–just not right for my particular daughter.

  31. 31.

    [...] Eve on parenting theories and the inevitability of grief [...]

  32. 32.

    [...] Th., commenting on Eve’s post “Parenting Theories, Love, and the Inevitability of Grief” at ZD: I was at someone’s house the other night and looked at the parenting books they kept over their toilet. Then I vomited and thus had to flush twice, wasting water. [...]

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