[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.