Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Things to remember when parenting articles make you feel crap

I read one of those articles today that begins, "There is a silent tragedy occurring amongst... our children," and proceeds to explain how an ever increasing number of kids are growing up with terrible mental health issues, unable to cope with life's challenges because their parents are basically rubbish.

I'm sure you recognise the type. They are the bread and butter of many websites and publications aimed at parents, and while they may make very salient points, and in some cases be based on good evidence (of the problem, if not always the cause or the solution) they can also make perfectly decent parents feel like crap for occasionally looking at Facebook rather than actively engaging in little Calendula's colouring in sessions. I know, I've beaten myself up more times than I care to mention for similar crimes.

As I've become more au fait with motherhood however, and particularly since I've had my second child, the levels of guilt I feel after reading these articles have lessened. I still have moments of regret when Paw Patrol or Pom Bears have featured too heavily in Duckling's day, but the feeling that "I'm obviously just not doing this right" has definitely declined. Why? Partly my confidence has grown, but also, I have come to realise a number of important things about articles that critique "parents" en masse:

1) Generalisations about modern parenting habits are just that: generalisations. They are not directly targeted at you or your child, even if it sometimes feels like it. For example, many articles bemoan digital distraction, and parents who look at their phone while in the company of their kids. I am guilty of this. I am thus, apparently, contributing to the downfall of the next generation. Except I don't think I am. I'm an intelligent adult and like most other Mums I know, I understand the concept of balance. I use my phone, of course, just not all the time (mainly because I'm forever losing it). Phones are banned at meal times, while we're out and about, and when I'm actively playing with Duckling. And if he's playing on his own and I am looking at Twitter, he just has to ask and I will put my phone down and speak to him. You know, like our parents would have done while reading the newspaper, or a book, or watching TV. If we were lucky...

Many generalisations assume us all to be extreme in our behaviours: permanently glued to our phones, never setting boundaries, only ever giving our children beige freezer tapas and Haribos... If you are on the extreme end of the spectrum about anything then sure, you probably are going to 'ruin' your kids a little bit, and potentially muck up relationships with partners, friends and family too. Most of us are kind of in the middle though, adapting our approach to suit our kids' needs and personalities (and just as importantly, our own).

2) Many articles are riddled with contradictions. Either they contradict other articles, or there are contradictions in the article itself. So, you can never really be 100% sure what you're doing right is actually right, or what you're doing wrong is actually wrong. For instance, you must engage with your child at all times. But also step back and give them space to discover the world themselves and "be bored". Breast is allegedly best. Unless it makes you feel bad about not having breastfed in which case it's not. Because actually the evidence of benefit is overstated. Although it's also considered by many to be overwhelming and irrefutable. So you should breastfeed for at least 6 months. Or better still two years! But not more than three because that's just weird and there's no proof it's useful. Or maybe there is? You get the idea.

3) A lot of articles are written by child psychologists, pediatricians or similar professionals. Who do they see day in, day out? Children with physical or mental health issues. They see where parents are going 'wrong' (according to their particular pet theories). But they don't necessarily see all the parents who are getting it more or less right.

Claims about negative trends in childhood behaviour and experiences thus need to be carefully assessed. Is there longterm, objective evidence of a problem? The recent dramatic increase in autism diagnoses for example is most likely down to a change in how we diagnose the condition rather than environmental factors, or anything that we are doing differently as parents. In the case of childhood obesity, or anxiety and depression, there is however clear evidence of increase, as diagnosic criteria have remained identical for many years. What is less certain is exactly how we, as parents, are contributing to these issues beyond the obvious (feeding our children too much of the wrong thing, putting unreasonable amounts of pressure on them, or neglecting them). The problem is invariably more complex than some claim, and involves an interplay between shifting societal norms, current affairs, our children's innate personalities, their relationships with peers and our own relationships, parenting style, interactions and expectations. There is no one clear reason for rising mental and physical health issues, so no one clear solution - though having some common sense as parents and avoiding obviously damaging behaviour is a good start.

4) If the guilt trip article isn't written by a professional, it's probably written by a reformed "bad parent"; i.e.: "I used to shout at my kids all the time - then I discovered how to parent while sitting in the lotus position chanting 'ohm' and eating braised tofu. Now I'm practically perfect in every way!" Never trust anyone who claims to have all the answers. Their solution may suit them. It doesn't mean it will suit you.

5) There is always a cognitive bias towards both negativity and nostalgia, and many articles reflect this. I often pick up an underlying theme of "women have lost the basic skills of motherhood. They used to be better at it." Really? People used to routinely wallop their kids. Surely things are better now most don't? What about the modern children who are now benefiting from contemporary research findings relating to stress, love, nutrition, infant sleeping positions...?

6) Negative cognitive bias affects us as readers too. Parenthood is a thankless task, and praise is a rare commodity. It is easy to hear and dwell on criticism (even from generalised articles) and assume you're doing a terrible job because you once let your child watch twelve episodes of Peppa Pig in a row. Plus nobody ever says, "Wow, that was some awesome supermarket tantrum taming you did there!" or "Ha! Your Gruffalo voice is HILARIOUS!" so you often ignore all the times you got parenting right. If you love your kids and are thoughtful in the way you raise them (i.e. thoughtful enough to be reading parenting articles), you're probably doing just fine.

7) Many articles forget that we are human and our kids need to see us as such too. We should of course try keep our less desirable traits (short temper, bitchiness, nose picking etc.) in check, as kids are little spongey mirrors (and I know that's not a thing...) who both absorb and reflect. But children also need to see what to do when someone messes up - i.e. apologise and make things right.

8) In a similar vein, I am now wary of any article that suggests I entirely overhaul the way I speak to my kids. You know the sort: "Frangipane, I can see you are very upset with your sister. I understand you are feeling very angry but shall we think of better way to express that anger than ramming cheesy puffs in her ear?" The sentiment is great, but by the time you've got through that all, poor little Frangipane's sister has probably had a cheesy puff lobotomy.

I read an article about evaluative praise a while back, that suggested saying things like "Good Boy/Girl" and "Well Done" was actually terribly detrimental to our children as it cuts off further discussion and makes us, as adults, the determiners of their worth, rather than the child having an innate sense of where they'd got things right, tried hard or done well. I understood the point and tried not to 'praise' for a few weeks. I changed my speech patterns, and the things I said. I got the concept, but it just felt wrong, and Duckling (and Drake) kept looking at me like I was a bit bonkers every time I squeezed out an awkward "Gosh, that scribble is very, um, wiggly and, um, blue. You must have thought really hard about how to hold that crayon," rather than "What a great picture! What's this bit meant to be?". Sometimes I had to try so hard not to "pass judgement", I found I couldn't say anything at all, which is surely worse? I'm all for speaking to your children at an appropriate level for their understanding, remaining authoritative and reigning in the criticism, but I wonder how beneficial it is to constantly converse like an awkward robot stuck on "linguistic programming" mode. Your child will likely notice that you're not being genuine, and besides, second guessing and censoring everything you say sucks much of the joy out of the simple act of chatting with your child; and the fact you're communicating is almost as important as what you actually say sometimes.


The purpose of this minor rant is not to pretend all parents are brilliant and free of blame or to excuse us from any sense of responsibility for helping our kids to be kind, happy and healthy individuals. This is surely our most important job as Mums and Dads, and we should always strive to hone our technique and scale the inevitable obstacles we encounter along the way as our children develop and change. Whether it's discipline, healthy eating, confidence building or potty training, by all means identify the issue, search out good advice - even professional help - and make some consistent, realistic changes. Just don't feel guilty about getting it 'wrong' previously. Furthermore, any changes you make should be based on what will benefit you and your child at the present moment, and not on a sense that you need to fix every long term trend, societal problem or 'behavioural issue of the month' that you read about. It's only by recognising this that I have at last learned not to worry about the baggage I have saddled Duckling (and now Ducklingette) with due to my ignorance of a problem I only learned about five minutes previously on HuffPost Parents. I have enough issues to address - I definitely don't need to imagine new ones...

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