I read more parenting books than most people do. I always have. I welcome hearing the perspectives of people who have professional experience with many families and have watched mindsets or techniques help them. This is not to say that I believe everything that I read, but that I appreciate that I might not know everything I need to know, or at least could benefit from, when it comes to parenting.
In fact, I’m not sure I subscribe to the advice of following my natural parenting instincts at all. I don’t know if I actually believe that we, as human beings, are endowed with precisely the knowledge we need to raise our children. We did not evolve as solitary animals that birthed offspring in isolation with the skills required to keep them safe written in our DNA. We are social animals that have evolved living in groups where older, wiser, more experienced members guided new parents through the trials of raising their children. No one expected group members to just know what to do or how to do it, they were taught the skills as they needed them, and through the efforts of many, children were raised.
Nowadays families do raise their children, more or less, in isolation. Most of us do not have a cadre of older, more experienced relatives around to teach us how to best tackle the many challenges of rearing children. And even if we do have them around they may be worried about imparting advice for fear of seeming overbearing or judgmental.
Raising children in this isolated setting, I’m not really sure how we expect to learn how to parent. Do we really have natural parental instincts that can lead the way? Aren’t our “parental instincts” just an amalgam of our own upbringing and the surrounding cultural expectations? Just because it was how you grew up, or how society deems kids should grow up, does that really make it the right, or best, way?
This is not to say I believe a certain kind of parenting should be prescribed, that we should set out to find some ideal way to raise kids and make everyone follow it. A child’s countenance, as well as her parents’, should and will greatly inform how she is raised. What works for one family may not work for another and will definitely fail for some. There are clearly many ways to raise successful, happy children. I’m just not sure we inherently know what those ways are.
It’s interesting to me that we require a period of extensive education for almost any great undertaking, and yet we can have children without ever learning a thing about what they require to thrive. I suppose we believe that since we were all children once we know how to raise our own. But that is like saying that for having once been a student one is prepared to teach. Except most people would have no idea how to best structure a classroom, let along how to productively impart information or effectively build skills. We require teachers be certified in order to teach and we require they deepen their understanding through continual professional development. Most of us even require our children’s caregivers have a certain level of education, say a Masters in Early Childhood Education, to watch our kids, and yet we don’t require anything similar from ourselves.
Reading Nurture Shock: A New Way to Think About Children was a real wake up call for me as a parent. Here was a scientifically sound book proving many of our collective parenting beliefs wrong. We have always thought that praising a child’s work would boost their self-esteem and drive them to challenge themselves to do better, but studies show the opposite is true. Praising a child’s work makes them dependent on external gratification and unable to judge its worth for themselves. Telling a child he’s good at math doesn’t give him confidence that he can perform more difficult tasks but instead makes him anxious to attempt them for fear that failing will revoke his status as talented at math.
Nurture Shock is full of surprising findings like these. Failing to point out and explain racial diversity leads children to be more aware of other people’s difference and to self-segregate in a diverse group of peers. Most of the strategies we rely on to encourage children to tell the truth just make them better liars. Every chapter of that book takes a well-worn parenting instinct and turns it on its head.
So no, I don’t necessarily trust my parenting instincts. I don’t believe I inherently know what is best for my particular children in this particular time in history (which is wholly unlike that of any previous generation). And honestly, I don’t think most parents do either. The increased levels of cognitive and emotional diagnoses, along with the alarming number of children being prescribed drugs to manage them, is just one indicator that we could be making more informed decisions for our children. It’s not that I believe the parents these children have done something wrong–I have every expectation my daughter will be diagnosed with something someday–but that the realities of our children’s lives are so different from our own that we can’t necessarily fall back on how we were raised to know how to do our best for them.
I really do believe that a lot of valuable information can be learned and applied by parents today. I also think parents should do a little research to better understand how children’s minds and bodies work and how their environment can affect them. No one knows a child better than his or her parents; with accurate information a parent is always best placed to determine what is best for their child. And sometimes parents need a little professional guidance to help them figure that out.
This past weekend I hit my daughter for the first time. We were standing on the shore of the lake when my son fell and smashed his face against a rock. I immediately tried to run to him but my daughter held me fast. As she pulled at my underwear and grabbed at my arm, I couldn’t couldn’t extract myself from her grasp. I yelled at her to let me go but her grip only tightened. My panicked need to reach my son, who was screaming not ten feet from me, reached a fevered pitch and I smacked my daughter on her thigh with an empty water bottle. In her surprise she let go and I was able to get to my crying son.
Of course my daughter was upset, but not nearly as upset as I was. I have never, in five years of being hit and kicked, ever retaliated with the same. In those moments after the incident, when I got down and explained that what I did was not okay–that it was NEVER okay to hit–and that I was so sorry, I couldn’t figure out why it had happened. Sure I was scared for my son and wanted to reach him, but what inside me made me lash out like that?
I had a long car ride home that day to think about it. Finally I realized that I lashed not in panic that my son was not okay, but in panic that I couldn’t get away, that my daughter was stronger than me, that she was the one in control. I was trying as hard as I could, and I just couldn’t get her off me. It was a physical manifestation of a fear I’ve been having for a long time, that as my daughter gets bigger and stronger, I will be less able to keep her safe when she is hurting me or herself.
Last night I dug up an email from a friend with the name and contact information of a psychologist who does Child Parent Interactive Therapy (CPIT) and reached out to her. She responded almost immediately and I’m set to do my intake interview over the phone this afternoon. My insurance won’t be accepted and I doubt they’ll reimburse me for any of the amount, but it’s clear I need to do something more than Kai.ser is able to provide. My parenting instincts, as well bolstered as they are by all I’ve read over the years, is no match for this challenge. I am admitting that what is best for my daughter and for myself is to seek professional help. I just hope that together, we can make this better.
What are your thoughts on “parental instincts”? Do you believe parents always inherently know what is best for their child?