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Parenting philosophies: Is *anyone* right?

Broadway_medical_clinic_me I've been thinking, studying, and discussing a lot lately about one very important topic: parenting. Not just parenting in general, but how to parent, and how to parent right. But even more troubling than the realization that I haven't been parenting entirely perfectly is the growing conviction that no one knows what they're doing. And I'm not judging you guys, the parents: no, I'm judging the experts, the parenting authors, the pediatricians, the teachers.

Everett's temporarily in a special education program and we're finding that the teachers, "coaches," and other great staff are -- despite their commendable patience and amazing energy -- frequently guilty of inconsistence. Are they right when they ignore bad behavior, or right when they provide consequences? I was all ready to embrace Love & Logic without question when I discovered some of the more punitive examples proffered by its creators. I love my children's pediatrician unreservedly, but occasionally her behavioral advice seems half-cooked. Another mama was raving about Alfie Kohn's speech, but admitted she had trouble putting much of his advice into practice after she got home.

While it's somewhat comforting to conclude that no one knows what they're doing, it's also terrifying -- how can I get it right if I can't even decide what right, is? I wonder -- has anyone come across a philosophy you embrace whole-heartedly? And why is this parenting gig so darned hard?


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Personally, I think if you find a philosophy you can embrace wholeheartedly as the RIGHT way, you're missing the boat. I don't think it's possible. Some philosophies work better for some parents and some better for some kids. I imagine purists will disagree, but it's been my experience. I'm a mental health person and have led parenting groups and done therapy using one curriculum over another. My main purpose in doing it that way has been to provide something concrete to folks who want that exposure and to develop some common language for learning something new. To me, a particular philosophy is just a jumping off point and is a great place to start. But I can't say I use one over another in my home.

That said, I have some consistent truths that I find important, and that seem to weave themselves through so many of the canned parenting books out there. Pay attention to the emotions, respect child development concepts, and provide a clear boundary within which children can move around and experience the world for themselves are my top three. For me, those three concepts cover pretty much everything.

The book Taking Charge by JoAnne Nordling has made the most sense to me. It gave me a framework for thinking about parenting. One thing that made a big difference is that I took a six week class based on the book offered by the Parent Support Center, a Portland based group connected with the book's author. I actually took the class twice, three years apart and it really seemed to sink in the second time. Getting to talk about the concepts with other parents really helped me internalize them and apply them.

I haven't come up with any philosophy's to embrace yet. My husband and I kind of work sticking to our own values as far as what works best. I think you should give yourself a break though. You are a good parent and doing a good job! We all know that its not easy, but I have personally noticed that when I second guess myself too much, then I have a harder time parenting. I hope that you can find what works best for you and that you feel better about this soon.

I don't know if it's a philosophy, but Harvey Karp sure seems to know what he's doing with little kids.

I believe that what's "right" for one parent/child combo, may not be what's "right" for another. You have to go with your instincts...what feels right to you and your child is the ultimate goal.
You're a mother, and you know your child better than anyone. Accept the advise & knowledge you receive, and then shape it into what fits YOU and your situation.

I've been thinking about this topic all morning. (I love how that happens sometimes!) The idea of doing what's right for you is good overall, but I think we cruise parenting books when what's feeling right to us doesn't seem to be getting the results we want. I say get all the ideas you want from books, don't reject everything outright if you don't like one tenet or example, but keep true to your own values. I may find all kinds of things helpful in a book that says spanking is a good technique, but I won't really ever be able to use that part of it because I'm just not a person who hits other people. Doesn't mean there's not anything else in the book that will help.

I was also thinking about your experience at the school. Try to remember that they're just people too. They have good days and bad. But, I can also validate your experience with them and having ups and downs. Staff in programs like that can be pretty set in their ways and not have alot of empathy for your own individual situation. I'm not trying to offend anyone by saying this. I've been staff in a special ed classroom. I know we can be a pain in the neck to deal with, constantly telling you how to deal with your kiddo and not really getting how tough it is for you to make it through each day with the depth of emotions you have about the whole situation. I'm sorry you're having to deal with all of that and not having it work out the way you imagined school would be for your son.

I remember desperately wishing, when my first was born, for a baby-simulator, some fabulous program that would model the consequences of all the decisions I realized I was going to have to face as a parent, just so I could avoid the biggest mistakes. I was definitely overwhelmed by how crucial every single decision seemed, and how I just didn't have enough information to make any of them. The books were contradictory, the anecdotal evidence was not conclusive, and the motives of people trying to give me advice were often a bit suspect.

It was probably a good early lesson. If I have a philosophy at all, it's that every family has to find its own balancing point -- how much discipline, who sleeps where, whether/how to reward or punish certain behaviors, what happens at mealtimes. It's going to be shaped by the child's temperament, the parents' backgrounds and beliefs, economic pressures, the pressures of the community you are in, but mostly you blunder around until you find something that works for you and you stick with it as long as it seems to work. Pain comes from the dissonance of thinking something should work and it doesn't or clinging to something that used to work.

The reassurance I cling to is how resilient kids mostly turn out to be, even after a rough six months or a rough year, responding as much to the intention and underlying love as the techniques by which they are raised, at least in the long run. It probably is not much consolation when you are facing an agonizing mismatch between child personality and school culture, but I would be skeptical of magic bullets and one-size-fits-all solutions.

I, too, have gone from book to book, each time thinking that I've hit upon the "right" philosophy or technique. What I am beginning to understand, for me anyway, is that I need to focus on my child/ren, and what they need in the moment. All the parenting books do is provide tools, any of which I may need at a given time. Humans are so variable, I think we only see glimpses of the whole picture at any one time. For me, I have to remain as flexible as possible in terms of how I parent my kids, because they are always changing.

I don't have a specific philosophy I would recommend. But this discussion reminds me of this book I recently heard about, which discusses that whole issue of maternal instinct v. "official" expertise:


I forgot to add: the absolute best parenting advice/approach I've ever heard was from Ginni Sackett at the Montessori Institute Northwest here in Portland. She teaches an amazing parent ed class early in the year at the Montessori Institute (it's in February this next year; here's the link: http://www.montessori-nw.org/section.cfm?wSectionID=779), and she's also teaching a one-night class on Parenting in a Consumer Culture (or something to that effect) at Providence Montessori (@ NE 50th & Couch) next week on December 10. I believe it's from 6:30 to 8:00, and I think it's free (sponsored by the school). Seriously, I've read a lot of books and have heard a lot of speakers, and Ginni is absolutely the best speaker on parenting I've ever heard. Totally transformed my parenting style for the better and gave me great tools for parenting, especially for parenting my strong-willed daughter. I'm so excited to get to hear Ginni again!

I can't remember if it was this site that led me to the book or not, but I just read the book, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety". I am pregnant with my 1st child and becoming a 1st time mom--I was OVERWHELMED with all the focus on being 'perfect' as a mom! I was making myself feel so crazy, incompetent and plain bad as a person--what if I didn't get the 'safest' carseat/stroller/crib/toys, etc. What if I didn't sign up for the 'right' birthing classes? What if I didn't totally eat organic?, etc. I haven't even had this baby yet, and already people have passed along books, ideas, classes, etc. on how this new person should sleep, eat, play, learn and how I should respond to any of their needs. When I start to see all the books about how to 'parent' this child, it scares me to death! The Perfect Madness book helped put some perspective on it. Reading about how children grow up in other countries/cultures helped, too. Realizing that my and my husband's parents and grandparents made very few conscious decisions about how to 'parent' all their kids (and the fact we've all grown up to be pretty decent people) helped too. One review of the Perfect Motherhood book said that in America, “martyrdom appears to be the only feasible model for successful maternity” and I guess I’m saying, I just don’t feel okay with that. I feel like we are all doing the best we can—and of course it helps to read books and listen to others—but that fact that we are raising kids and caring to talk and learn about all these issues—our kids will turn out fine.

My dad would frequently bring up some of his parenting "insights" he had developed over the years. One of the more mentioned ones involved parenting more than one child. It goes something like this: "When you have your first baby and he drops his pacifier, you rush to the stove, boil some water, and sanitize the pacifier before you give it back to the baby. When your second one drops the pacifier, you rinse it under regular tap water. When the third baby drops the pacifier, you just wipe it on your pants before you give it back."

The reason I mention this is because parenting is an evolving situation; the theories you embraced with your newborn may not be the same theories you turn to when the baby is 5, or when you have another child.

I've read tons of parenting magazines, but not too many books by "experts" on child-rearing. (I guess I like the watered down versions better.) The magazine articles would give me tips, for example, on "How to Tame a Toddler Meltdown" or "What to do with a Picky Eater". I got some nice nuggets of advice, some techniques I could use when I just didn't know what to do. But I never was able to embrace any of these suggestions as our household "child-rearing philosophy." Even the few books I did read (while I was breast-feeding my firstborn), seemed too clinical for real life. (Maybe I just checked out bad books from the library, but it seemed like most of the experts were writing in retrospect--what they would have done with their children had they known better. Or it seemed like these "experts" didn't even have kids of their own, but knew how everyone else should raise their children.)

I feel like sticking with one specific philosophy has got to be tough--what if your child does something not mentioned in the book, how do you respond? And if you only follow an "expert", you are robbing yourself of something even more important--your intuition.

When I got pregnant with my oldest son, it was a huge surprise. My husband and I had only been dating for about a month (although, it's not quite as scandalous as it sounds, we had been friends for six years before that). We were scared out of our minds, but deep down, we knew that we were supposed to be together, and supposed to be this baby's parents. Our parenting (and life philosophy) was adopted then, sitting on a beach in NY in January: Have faith. I know it sounds cheesy, especially coming from someone who hasn't been part of a religious institution since she was a kid, but those two words have helped us through some really tough situations. "Babe, you just got to have faith" (and maybe an in-depth convo) would let us know we would be there for each other and that "this too shall pass" (to quote my son's namesake, George Harrison).

This holds true for so much in life--have faith that that screaming newborn will not scream forever; have faith that that child who will only eat things that will begin with the letter "m" will not be malnourished; have faith that one or two(or ten thousand) parenting "mistakes" will not scar your child for life. Yes, there is a lot of struggling and hard-work to keep the faith (and think of "m" foods). Everyday as my now two sons get older, parenting gets easier, and harder, at the same time. Our "have faith" motto would sometimes get adjusted (ie. "have faith, but never wake a sleeping child"), but if your kids go to sleep knowing that you love them, that's all the philosophy you need.

As we struggle to do everything "right," let us not miss the beauty of the spirit of our child. Reflect, for a moment, on the job your parents did. See yourself as the compassionate, caring person you have grown to be. Know that you are doing an excellent job loving, caring, and nourishing your child. All is well in this moment. All is perfect as it is right now in the ever present moment.

I remember when I learned my daughter had Down syndrome, one of my biggest fears was that I would have to give up my intended parenting "philosophy" -- namely to go by the seat of my pants, instinct, gut, taking cues from my kid. However you want to call it, I was sure that parenting was going to be one of the hardest things I ever did, but I was sure I would be able to figure it out.

And then I was handed a diagnosis, something I for sure hadn't counted on in my wildest imaginings. I have learned a lot in the past 17 months, and I am not sure I can pick the most important lesson. But one of the most useful, practical and constantly building lessons is that my husband and I are the bottom-line experts on this child. We may need to ask for help from some professionals, learn different ways to watch, different ways to play that will benefit her development. We see lots of doctors, professionals, therapists, teachers,etc, but none of these people live with our daughter everyday.

We have been fortunate to mostly run into professionals who understand that, who offer their advice and step back and let us be the parents. This has allowed us to learn that we can trust our instincts after all, that we can figure this thing out.

My biggest piece of advice navigating the special ed world is to stick to your guns, trust yourself, and use books, magazines, professionals as a resource that you dip in and out of for empowerment and encouragement, rather than instruction manuals.

There is no right way to do this hardest of all things, which is pretty danged lucky if you ask me, because not only is every kid different and unique in her needs, but we are all such different people as parents. If I let myself worry every day about the "right way" to do things, my soul would be crushed in an instant. I think we all just have to trust ourselves, and trust our kids to guide us on this wild journey of parenthood.

My thoughts are to raise my daughter in love, meaning try not to raise her in anger and worry meaning the goal is trying not to get angrey and worried myself, something I have had to get professional help for, just leaning how to cope with fear I guess and learning how to take on the carribean attitude of okay you're screaming like crazy but it's all okay and I'll stroke her forehead and say I know sweetie youre upset right now but we'll get through it, I love you ( SO HARD to do this but so important). Oprah says we pass our wounds to our children so find out what your wounds are, mine are anger and anxiety so now it is up to me to work on overcoming these things and it will take a lifetime, be thankful that your children are making you face your self and are putting you down the hardest road you'll ever travel, you'll grow to your fullest loveliest potential.

This is a great post, and such an interesting topic. We featured it in this week's web wrap on www.thenestbaby.com


Wow. This is an intense topic. I am grappling with this myself. My oldest son (Jack) is suffering from a chronic skin disorder that may affect his quality of life for life and all I can do is wonder what my part is in this? Am I to blame for this disorder? And now, since it is incurable, how can I ensure that this chronic problem doesn't affect his self-esteem, quality of life? I have been agonizing over all the studies that say he is now doomed to emotional distress, depression, etc. Plus we have to treat him with powerful medicines that have scary potential side effects. I tried the "natural" route and ended up placing him at risk for potentially life-threatening secondary infections. Here I thought a good diet and a naturapathic dr. were the key to being a good Mom. Instead I caused my son more suffering.

I can hardly breathe sometimes when I think about how to be a good parent. Lately it seems overwhelming. Right now I am trying to focus on the following:
1). Loving my boys and engaging with them each day (i.e. reading to them, discussing their day, sitting quieting with them, cuddling)
2). Giving them consistency and boundaries.
3). Gratitude. Gratitude for the honor of being their Mother, for their health and every minute, hour, day that I get to be with them.

Thank you to all the Mamas who wrote about this post. What an awesome community!

I think in any situation when many adults are taking care of a child, the most important factor is communication and working as a team. You are, by law, a member of your child's special education team http://idea.ed.gov/explore/home if you feel like there are inconsistencies, talk to the school.

I am a parent educator who teaches classes on what many of you have touched on. That is how to be the best parent you can be. There is no one size fits all approach. What works is being present with your child. That is not something that our culture promotes.

The best parenting website I have found is www.consciouslyparenting.com. They actually teach on-line classes for parents who want a little bit of support and information. It is all science-based, which is really cool. Theres a great forum there and TONS of articles and events. Go check it out if you want.

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