Over the weekend, I read a couple of parenting articles in The New York Times.
It was some intense reading full of hardcore facts and figures and suggestions and techniques, and I came away from it thinking that I have no idea what I’m doing as a parent. Which is totally cool, because I already knew that. It helped to discover that, judging by the articles, no one else knows what they’re doing either.
But thank God I don’t believe in parenting experts because even if I did, I have no idea how I’d be expected to even remember all the so-called “best” techniques, let alone have the wherewithal and discipline to implement them. Nor would I necessarily want to.
Parenting is an experiment, but our kids shouldn’t be test subjects.
The hoops we need to jump through in our mission to be the best parent and build the perfect child just keep multiplying, and every single one requires real investment before any potential payoff materializes. This kind of constant experimentation can’t be good for parents or for kids.
A few months ago, a woman named Ava Neyer read all the “baby sleep” books and put together a brilliant post combining all of the conflicting sleep-based parenting advice one encounters these days. It was a great way to illuminate the challenges we parents have, in an era when everyone not only has an opinion and a platform via which to share it, but everyone is also an expert. Never before have so many self-anointed know-it-alls proliferated so prominently, because never before has there been such a readily available soapbox on which to preach to passers-by.
Information comes at us all from all angles these days, so quickly and so often that it’s barely possible to stop and consider its accuracy, or even if it’s worth stopping to consider. Like this series of images that landed on my Facebook wall last week. Seems legit, right? Except the person who created it did so to shame us all into realizing how easily we accept bullshit when it simply has the veneer of truth, or at least has an authoritative font and cute background image.
Few publications carry the aforementioned “veneer of truth” like the New York Times. But as I read a pair of articles – one covering how to raise moral children, the other about why helping our kids with their homework is pointless (what a dodged bullet!) – it wasn’t the accuracy of the information I cared about. It was my own lack of ability to absorb it, or lack of ability to absorb it well enough that I might one day enact the parenting techniques it espoused.
What parent, aside from one with a photographic memory, has the ability to process, filter, and then actually implement the countless different parenting techniques that are thrown in our faces every day? We barely have a chance to give one new trend a shot before the next one goes viral.
While reading these pieces and trying to determine if there was anything worthwhile to take away, my own inability to put previous “how-to” tips (that’s what they boil down to, as absurd as using a manual to mold another human being may be) into practice was making me feel inferior. After all, this is the New York Times! The paper of record! I am a terrible parent. Then I got to this part:
“For example, regularly discussing school experiences with your child seems to positively affect the reading and math test scores of Hispanic children, to negatively affect test scores in reading for black children, and to negatively affect test scores in both reading and math for white children (but only during elementary school). Regularly reading to elementary school children appears to benefit reading achievement for white and Hispanic children but it is associated with lower reading achievement for black children.”
Is that specific or what? Only during elementary school! Only reading, but only sometimes! What if you have a multicultural family like Brad Pitt? How often should you discuss school with your kid if he is of mixed race? And what if you’re not even sure of your child’s ethnicity, like Vin Diesel’s parents? I’m white, so does this mean if talk to my son about his school day he’ll become the class dunce? But I’ve already done that!
After I read that passage out loud to my wife and she scoffed as pretentiously as I did, I stopped caring about these scientists and their “findings.”
Despite the research that was undertaken for those pieces, and the honorable – if misguided – application of the scientific method to the art of parenting (to quote myself: “I’m raising a person, not a chain reaction.”), it’s obvious that everyone is simply guessing.
If you somehow manage to get through all the numbers and statistics, and all the caveats and exceptions, you’ll ultimately realize that, despite the bizarre specificity, there’s nothing particularly practical in there – or in most of the advice we’re constantly inundated with. And even if you do find something approaching a reasonable, actually use-able, suggestion, odds are it will be altered and expanded upon, if not flat-out contradicted, in the next piece you come across.
Furthermore, should you actually buy this stuff, you can’t use it all; you have no choice but to cherry-pick the techniques and approaches you prefer, because there’s simply not enough sand in the hourglass to implement everything. Besides, even just trying a few of them forces you to turn your home into a science lab, turn yourself into Bill Nye, and turn your relationship with your children into a lifelong experiment, constantly tweaking your techniques to see how they respond, and which process yields the best results.
Sorry, but no. I have children, not lab rats. Parenting is definitely an experiment, but my kids are not.