ABCs of Child Psychiatry

Real info about children's mental health

Tiger-Attachment-Duct Tape Parenting

The case for using parenting approaches that don’t fit our natural tendencies.

What to do with all of the parenting advice that is out there right now?  Here is a weird idea….think about what comes most easily to us as a parent and make an effort to go in the opposite direction.

It seems like everywhere we turn there is another approach to parenting complete with a name, a book, and group of avid followers.  This can be a confusing world to moms and dads eager to do right for their kids.  Some of these approaches sound remarkably similar to other styles (except with different lingo) while others clearly represent differences in comparison the other person’s recommendation.

We have tougher approaches such as those championed by sleep expert Dr. Ferber and more recently the Tiger Mother advocating for less fuzziness and more active promotion of a child’s own achievement and independence.  At the same time, the attachment parenting folks tell us the exact reverse – namely that by keeping infants nurtured and close and responding to their distress that they will develop an increased sense of safety and agency which will eventually help them be more secure down the road.  There is also the “less is more” methodology urging us to stand back and shut up.

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What is a parent to do with all this contradictory advice?  What should we recommend as the child “experts?”  First, it is important to note that the scientific evidence on the subject is surprisingly weak mainly because a) there are so many moving parts when it comes to positive and negative child behavior that studies can’t account for them all, and b) to really get a definitive study would require randomization, which is nearly impossible and would throw doubt on anyone who would be willing to participate (I want you to sign this form and then we will flip a coin which will tell you how you will raise your kid for the next 10 years, okay?).  Second, we have to remember that one size definitely does not fit all.

The last sentence often gets interpreted as license to do whatever suits us. Like choosing the source where we obtain our news, many people tend to go with parenting advice that fits their existing predispositions, thereby solidifying the position.  If you think spanking is an appropriate discipline technique, you are more likely to read material that reinforces that belief, and vice versa.

Is that so bad? The good Dr. Spock, after all, advocated decades ago that parents should be skeptical of all the clatter and trust their instincts.  Far be it from me to contradict one of the preeminent child development experts, but just to make things even more complicated, I want to throw out a recommendation for the exact opposite…

At least to some degree, make an effort to parent in a way that is AGAINST what comes naturally

Of course, I’m not talking about mistreating kids or thumbing your nose at good universal principles – I’m referring to balance.  If a warm loving parent really struggles with setting limits and being firm, then maybe that is where he or she needs to head.  If another parent easily takes the role of the tough disciplinarian, maybe that person needs to work on being a bit more playful and responsive.  Parenting both with and against one’s instincts is probably not mutually exclusive and may even be optimal. 

All kids need love.  All kids need limits.  After that, it starts to get complicated.

 

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Copyright David Rettew, MD 2013

David Rettew, M.D., is a child psychiatrist at the University of Vermont and author of Child Temperament: New Thinking about the Boundary between Traits and Illness.

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