In this information-rich society everyone seems to have an opinion on raising children. But is this advice helpful or confusing for new mothers? Here I ask, should we raise our children by the book or is instinct best when it comes to our kids?
Ask any mother and, most likely, she will have read at least one so-called ‘parenting bible’. Thinking she was helping, my best-mum-friend gave me the contents of her baby book shelf (Thanks Ali) when she found out I was pregnant.
I had an ignorance is bliss approach to the birth of Baby 1 but when sleep became an issue, I read these books desparately from cover to cover trying to find a solution.
Is she getting enough milk? Should I feed every three-four hours or feed on demand? Am I spoiling her with cuddles? Should I be employing self-settling techniques? She’s finally asleep, but it’s time for a feed…Should I wake her?
Which Routine Works?
I devoured these books, trying out the various routines. It was taking me an hour to feed, an hour to settle and then she would be up an hour later. This went on for the first few months and I was a zombie. But rather than reassuring me, reading these books, I felt more pressure to get my baby on a routine. Was my child abormal because she didn’t do what Gina Ford was telling me she should be doing?
I was not alone in these feelings. This is exactly what a study by the University of Warwick has found, rather than reassuring tired and stressed mothers, they were left to feel like failures when unattainably high standards weren’t achieved.
“Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare ‘bibles’ over the years, it’s interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice,” says Dr. Angela Davis, from the university’s Department of History. “Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order, and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers didn’t follow the methods of childrearing they advocated.”
Do We Need an Instruction Manual?
So while the advice may differ from book to book and over the years, the manner in which it is delivered remains the same. The books are written like instruction manuals and if you don’t follow them step-by-step, you’ll end up creating a rod for your very exhausted and painful back.
To add to the confusion, from Dr Spock to Gina Ford there isn’t a consensus amongst parenting experts. Probably because there isn’t one single right way to raise kids. Some draw up hourly schedules, others group babies by type or give generic ideas on how you should go about solving problems like sleep.
The Warwick University study found that the parenting advice given over the past 50 years were cyclical in nature. Dr Davis continues, “[There are] strict rules laid down by Frederick Truby King, whose influence is very much evident in the 1940s and following decades … We then find the advice becomes less authoritarian and regimented as we go through the decades with the influences of Bowlby, Winnicott, Spock and Leach.”
“However, when we reach the 1990s, when Gina Ford came to prominence, we come back to the strict regimented approach.”
To counter this regimented approach there is now a trend towards relaxed parenting with movements such as the Parent Manifesto program developed by Jodie Benveniste, a psychologist and director of Parent Wellbeing, The Idle Parent Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson (as seen in The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids) and The Learning Together handbook published by the Montessori movement.
The Learning Together handbook recommends ‘self discipline’ and says adults should ‘follow the child’s lead’ by giving them the freedom and support to do things for themselves.
I managed to relax a lot more when I stepped back from the books. I think if you follow the baby’s lead you’ll get there a bit quicker than trying to put an undue routine on yourself and your little baby.
The Idle Parent Manifesto has started a few heated debates some showing strong support for the idea, and others saying that it’s providing an excuse for lazy parents to spend more time on themselves instead of their kids.
But I think the Manifesto makes some very salient points:
- We pledge to leave our children alone
- That should mean that they leave us alone, too
- We lie in bed for as long as possible
- We push them into the garden and shut the door so that we can clean the house
- We both work as little as possible, particularly when the kids are small
- Happy mess is better than miserable tidiness
Hodgkinson says, “Paradoxically, the idle parent is a responsible parent because at the heart of idle parenting is a respect for the child, a trust in another human being.” Hodgkinson adocates spending quality time with your children and doing fun activities.
These new reinvented parenting method are all based on the principle of letting your children take more responsibilities at a young age to help them develop into a more self-sufficient confident individual. And where you come in as parents is where you draw the line: what lessons your child should learn on their own and where do you step in and guide them.
“The Parent Manifesto is about creating your own parenting approach based on what’s important to you and what kind of values you want to teach your kids,” says Benveniste
Instead of telling parents what they should do to solve a particular problem the Parent Manifesto builds their confidence by reiterating the fact that they know their child better than anyone else.
Here here! By all means, read the parenting advice, listen to your mum and ask friends. A good mother is someone who isn’t scared to ask for advice but then it’s up to the individual mum to decide what advice to take and board and what to reject based on instinct and values.
When I finally got some sleep and perspective, I realised that Gina Ford’s advice to wake a sleeping baby up was in conflict with my gut instinct.
To avoid feeling like a failure, Benveniste advises parents to work out if the routine and advice suggested in parenting manuals work for your family. If it doesn’t, there’s no need to feel disillusioned, as there’s no science that proves that any one way is the right way to raise a child.
By no means am I saying dismiss all books and advice. Perhaps I was being a lazy parent by just reading the books that were given to me and not going to the library and sourcing my own information. What I do know now, with experience of two babies, is what worked for one wouldn’t have worked for the other because they are very different personalities. Baby 2 fell asleep by himself from day one but Baby 1 still needs attention!
At the end of the day it’s up to you to make your own parenting descisions. It’s important to find your own way, borrowing bits and pieces of advice that work for you from different books, friends and family, eventually creating your own unwritten childcare ‘bible’ to help you navigate the new and scary world of parenthood. Good luck!
Source: In Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000.