An Open Letter to Parenting Philosophers

I believe in being positive, especially as a parent, but sometimes I do get frustrated. I get angry when people are being oppressed, when someone is reinforcing prejudicial societal patterns, or when people are putting others in unnecessary pain. Rather than making Chris listen to me rant (yet again), I’ll write an Open Letter addressing whatever is making me angry.

I don’t believe in parenting philosophies. That’s not to say that I don’t believe they exist – the reams of parenting books and blogs would immediately disprove me. Rather, I don’t believe in their usefulness as moral and ethical frameworks. Instead, I think they’re useful as broad sets of guidelines from which parents can and should pick and choose based on their own values. Trying to apply something as restrictive as a specific ethical philosophy to something as situational, deeply personal, and chaotic as parenting is bound to end in frustration. Parents feel judged enough – making them feel as if it’s straight up immoral if they don’t follow your philosophy in every situation is just wrong!

Lately, I’ve felt very frustrated when I’m reading a blog post or book where I agree with the broad viewpoint but they take a position that’s so extreme that it doesn’t match anyone’s lived experience that I know. This is a pretty common issue with philosophical frameworks – it’s how you end up with annoying thought experiments like the trolley problem. Normally, this isn’t a huge issue. In “real life,” the only person who will judge you if you don’t follow a single philosophical framework in every area of your life is a freshman philosophy student. However, everything in parenting is about people’s personal, everyday lives. Unfortunately, most parenting philosophies don’t make space for the variability between families.

Often, this narrow viewpoint comes from the author’s unacknowledged privilege. This unexamined privilege shows up in all sorts of issues, from prenatal care to sleeping arrangements.

Broadly, it’s a good idea if pregnant women eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. But using language that’s going to inspire guilt in women who can’t meet those requirements (looking at you, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) is unfair to the many pregnant women who feel hideous nausea all of the time and can only eat very limited diets. And that’s not to mention the women who had food sensitivities before they got pregnant.

In general, breastfeeding is a important behavior to encourage and teach new moms how to do. But for women for whom breastfeeding exasterbates post-partum depression or is so awful that they’re in chronic pain, telling them that using formula denies your child “what is needed for development” is just reinforcing the narrative of failure that’s already running through their heads. Besides physical restrictions, there are many women who have to return to workplaces – especially retail and other service industry positions – that have no space or time accommodations for pumping, making breastfeeding after a few weeks impossible. New laws require employers to provide these resources, but considering how common wage theft is despite the fact that it affects a much larger population, I’m not confident in enforcement. While these articles often blame the larger society for not supporting breastfeeding instead of the individual, the language still feels intensely personal.

I’m all for the general idea of attachment parenting, but saying that co-sleeping and baby-wearing will guarantee that your child will never be a bully minimizes so many other social pressures and makes non-attachment parents feel unnecessarily guilty. Statements like that fail to acknowledge that not everyone is capable of that level of intense exercise after giving birth. A friend of mine was left with severe back pain after a very long, intense delivery and unable to carry her son around. However, that doesn’t mean that she loves him any less or he’ll be irrevocably damaged.

Beyond privilege, some of the philosophies are just absurd when carried to a certain point. I believe that babies shouldn’t be cooped up in seats or forced into positions they aren’t ready for. But claiming that propping your baby to sitting once in a while will doom him or her to a life of klutziness is ridiculous.

Basically, these philosophies and their advocates need to cut parents – especially moms, because they’re usually targeted at moms – some much-needed slack. Moms are expected to get everything just right these days, truly “leaning in” and “having it all” when that’s impossible or much too stressful than is healthy. Adding to that pressure by implying that moms who don’t follow a definitive philosophy are permanently damaging their children is irresponsible and mean. Babies have flexible brains and are remarkably adept at developing well even when we screw up once in a while. Similarly, making hyped up promises that everything will go perfectly – your baby will definitely sleep through the night, be wonderfully calm or naturally graceful – makes the parent who follow those philosophies and don’t get the results feel like there’s something wrong with them rather the idea that maybe the approach doesn’t work for their family. While there are (TW: descriptions of child abuse) some philosophies that no one should ever adopt, no single philosophy is perfect for every situation or every family.

Instead of presenting these philosophies as the end-all and be-all, I wish that the advocates would present their ideas as a toolbox of skills and options that parents can use as needed. I would like them to acknowledge that other philosophies may have some good points that parents may want to draw from. I would like them to even show parents how actions offered by their philosophy can fit with or complement others.

In the meantime, it’s up to us as parents to not allow ourselves to be intimidated by dire warnings and over-promises. By rejecting the formulation of One Right Way to parent, we can embrace the fluidity and chaos of parenting in all of its messy glory. By allowing ourselves the freedom to pick and choose, we can end up with what’s right for our families, no matter what anyone else thinks.

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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Parenting Philosophers

  1. My mom’s wise comment (oh she of the 10 pregnancies and 7 live births) is this: “You can read all the books you want, but if the baby doesn’t read them too, you’ll have a difference of opinion.” She also said that not one of us responded to her parenting in the same way.

    My comment: I loathe and despite the “What to Expect” books, anything by Ezzo, anything by Ferber. They are cookbook parenting to the extreme.

    Learning your child’s cues and needs as they develop – that’s more important and much more reliable in terms of helpfulness. (That’s one of the reasons why I like Dr. Sears and others who are much less rigid and more helpful in terms of a broad spectrum of children and the families that love them).

    Hang in there. You’ll be able to write your own book. 🙂

    • I find the What to Expect books somewhat useful as a reference about milestones, but a lot of their advice is mediocre at best. I didn’t find them to be “cookbook” parenting, but instead to be frustratingly ambiguous and definitive at the same time, using the phrase “don’t do [blah blah] too much” a ridiculous amount. I worried a lot what “too much” meant at the beginning. I haven’t read Ezzo or Ferber, but they sound pretty dreadful from what I’ve heard elsewhere.

      My favorite book so far has been “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.” Partly because it does present itself as a toolbox and partly because following its advice will just make you a better listener and person in general, not just a good parent. I also like “Babies in the Rain,” which I just happened to pick up at the library one day. That one is really focused on learning kid’s cues and needs and is particularly interesting because it’s written for childcare providers as much as parents.

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