Monday, February 25, 2013

Dubious Expertise

Today, a very exciting thing happened: somebody phoned me up to ask my advice about a parenting issue!

Yes! Really!



I won't pretend I wasn't gratified to join the ranks of the 'experienced' parent, but it did prompt me to get on and write this blog post that's been going around in my head for quite a while now.

When you become a parent, a whole new world opens up to you: the world of Internet Parenting.  There are countless blogs, discussion groups, websites and forum spaces, where it seems as though an endless stream of advice, comment and instruction is poured out daily. Whatever you are going through with your child, you can be sure that somebody, somewhere will have already told the whole internet the perfect way to handle it.

Actually, hundreds of people will have done so.  And each one has their own 'perfect' answer.

Internet Parenting World is full of new and exciting ways to raise your child.  A large area is devoted to all things Montessori-related.  I would imagine that many readers don't really know much about Montessori (myself included) but it certainly seems to be a buzz-word for trendy parenting. 

Baby-led weaning is another favourite.  Then there are the countless 'guaranteed success' ways to toilet train your child.  Use only the potty, use only the toilet, daytime dryness only, or do it all at once, give them plenty to drink, give them fewer drinks and so on and so on.

What strikes me is that most of this advice and instruction is given out by people whose only qualification or relevant experience is that they, too, are parents.

Most people parent a child, say, two or three times in their life.  Honestly, I wouldn't trust my car to a mechanic who'd only fixed two or three cars before.  Parenting is a unique field of expertise.  Since most people don't do it that often, anyone who has done it two or three times is as near to an 'expert' as you're likely to get!

Added to that is the diffculty that the little people we are dealing with are far from homogenous.  "I've raised six kids and it's always worked for me," says one mother.  Great.  But who's to say that your six kids are representative of the population at large?  Why should I assume that my child will react to anything in the same way that your child did?

And here's a further complication - environmental factors.  Even if our children were basically similar, the environment in which they have been raised will hugely affect the way they react to and deal with different situations.

The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that there's very little chance of finding someone in Internet Parenting World who will be able to advise me at all!

Many people in Internet Parenting World seem to have decided to embrace a particular philosophy in raising their children.  I wonder what these decisions are based on.  Certainly not any kind of empirical evidence!  We see lovely-looking blogs of parents giving their children 'real-life objects' to play with (yes - real vacuum cleaners, food blenders and hammers!), and it all seems very appealing, but we have no way of knowing whether this is a good thing long-term - the blog will have petered out long before we can see whether that particular DS or DD has grown-up to be a well-adjusted member of society, or has lost 3 fingers in an unfortunate chainsaw incident.

My favourite of these types of blog is the one where the mother decided not to make her house safe for kids because the world isn't safe and it's best just to learn to assess risk and make good decisions from an early age.  So, no locking away chemicals, no plug socket covers, no stair gates.  I was staggered that this household had survived intact until I realised that this mother had one child only and didn't work.  Ok, so she had taken a decision to spend her entire life following her little one around the house, helping him/her to assess risk and not get injured or killed.  I am glad that her child has survived this - I would not recommend it though.  I know from experience that you only have to go into the kitchen for a minute, and a toddler can end up in hospital!  Of course children need to learn about risk, but there's nothing wrong with keeping them safe while they do so.

Parents have always had people around who are keen to give advice.  From health professionals to friends and even our own parents, there's no shortage of input!  But at least when we ask those we know personally for advice, then there's some accountability.  We can see how our friends' children are doing, and watch their philosophies play out in real time.  We experienced the effects of our parents' styles on our own lives so we can pick and choose what we emulate and what we discard.  Our health professionals will be in and out of our lives for a while so if their advice doesn't work for us, we can let them know!

Anyway, I'm pleased to report that I am now at least as experienced at parenting toddlers as nearly all of my friends, having done it twice!  But don't expect to find a perfect philosophy for raising kids here - I'm just feeling my way in the dark like everybody else!


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