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Anti-parenting for beginners

Seeking informed, respectful ways of engaging with small children.

Cupboard for naughty children close-up

Image by Laurie Pink via Flickr

When I tell people that I write about babies and young children, they tend to assume that I write parenting books. Will I be able to tell them how to tame their toddler, or straighten out that sleep pattern? Well, no, actually. I have parented too few children (two, when I think a decent scientific sample might be around two hundred) to make any such advice remotely meaningful. In fact, I get a little irritated by the assumption, as I will try to explain.

In a culture that construes pregnancy as an illness, it is perhaps unsurprising that the outcomes of those pregnancies—babies and toddlers—are viewed as problems that have to be solved. I haven't had such a smooth passage through parenthood that I can't appreciate how difficult it can sometimes be. But even through the sleepless nights and the tantrums, I have wanted to see my children as something more than forces to be tamed. An analogy with star-gazing might help. In ancient times, looking up at the heavens was primarily about seeking signs of impending trouble. As a parent, I don't want to start off with the assumption that I'm going to see things going wrong. I want to gaze in wonder, and have that wonder enhanced by careful observation and scientific knowledge. Beneath my sky of little stars, I want to do astronomy, not astrology.

My problem is not with individual parenting books—most that I have seen are written with care, humor, and the best intentions. My problem is with the assumptions that send us flocking to bookshops in search of advice on how to solve problems that often aren't actually there. Is it just me, or are surprising numbers of parenting books written by clinicians: experts in disorder, but not necessarily in the development of the 'average' child? Why do we assume that our children are doomed to mental disorder as a result of what we, the parents, do?

It is not as if there is sound scientific evidence that particular parenting practices are effective. It seems fair enough to interpret research findings and tentatively conclude that a particular approach might work, or at least is worth a try—as long as you don't give the impression that anyone has solid scientific evidence about a way of altering a child's development for better or worse. As Oliver James has recently pointed out, there is hardly any decent scientific research on the topic. Much parenting advice is based, or claims to be based, on good science, but the science wasn't designed to test particular parenting regimes; it was designed to find out how little minds develop. If it's evidence you want, have a look at some of the modern research in behavioral genetics, which suggests that many cherished ‘parenting' strategies actually make little difference. Or visit a site like Parenting Science, which starts with the research and sensibly follows through the implications that might be there.

We are slightly scared of toddlers. They are not quite babies, not quite children. Their in-between status make us uneasy, and we don't know what to do with them. For all our sophistication, our attitude towards them can still be rather medieval. In my own writing (on this blog and elsewhere), I have wanted to tell the world about the fascinating research which brings babies and toddlers alive for us and enhances our wonder at them. Small children are people; they have stories; they have minds of their own. People can make their own decisions about how, if at all, to convert that knowledge into practice. They don't need me, a decidedly non-expert parent, to tell them how to do it.

I am, of course, not anti-parenting. I am not anti-children, or anti- moms and dads. I think it is the most important thing in the world that parents treat their children with love, understanding, and respect. Which is precisely why I don't think that the condition of being a child should be pathologized. (Since when was 'to parent' a transitive verb? Do you 'wife' your husband or 'daughter' your mother?) Or, worse, that we should behave with our children in ways that are only there to soothe our own consciences or promote our own social status: to be seen, however consciously or unconsciously, to be 'doing the right thing'. The children come first, not our egos.

For what it's worth, here is the only parenting advice that I think parents need:

Watch: The best thinking about small children, to my mind, starts with careful observation. I firmly believe that careful, informed observation of your own children can tell you more than any parenting 'expert' can.

Listen: Children become skilled in their native languages incredibly quickly. The average three-year-old is not expert at many things, but she is a genius at language. Listen to her, and find out what's on her mind.

Read: Spend time with some books on children's development that take children seriously: Brian Hall's Madeleine's World; Paul Bloom's Descartes' Baby; Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby.

Imagine: Apply the knowledge you have gained in trying to imagine your child's experience. Some earlier posts show how I have tried to do this in my own work.

Mind-read: The ultimate goal of being a parent is surely to put yourself in your child's shoes and see the world from his point of view. 'Mind-minded' parents, as we call them, tend to treat their children as individuals in their own right, with minds of their own. We have described evidence that parental mind-mindedness makes a big difference in children's development, with links to children's later attachment and social understanding.

Love: One thing that children do seem to learn from their parents is how to love. It hardly needs saying, of course, but there's a huge amount of research, in the scientific literature on attachment, to back it up as well.

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