The other day, I cut and posted an article that I’d gotten hold of from some fellow parent-bloggers in India. It was discussing research into four different styles of parenting. One of the comments I got back really struck a chord with me and I wanted to spend some time on it today. Here’s Melissa’s comment in full (followed by my thoughts):
I agree that the model presented is simplified, and the truth does lie on a continuum.
I also find it interesting that conclusions garnered from a study done on only around 100 children in 1967 are still being presented to a contemporary audience as if nothing has changed since then. I would have hoped that the later studies would have expanded the themes, or uncovered new ground as our collective social and neurological knowledge has grown. I feel this is out of date.
I also recognized the name Diana Baumrind. In his book Unconditional Parenting(2005) Alfie Kohn has this to say about her and this study(1967) in particular:
“One example in the discipline field is Diana Baumrind’s schema, which has been adopted by lots of researchers as well as practitioners. She describes parenting as being ‘authoritarian’ one one side, ‘permissive’ on the other, or ‘authoritative’ (read: just right) in the middle. In reality, her favored approach, supposedly a blend of firmness and caring, is actually quite traditional and control-oriented – even if less so than option 1. In fact, a close reading of Baumrind’s research raises questions about the recommendations she offers, particularly her endorsement of ‘firm control.’
The larger point is that we may be tempted to accept a certain approach just because of how the discussion about parenting has been set up, and specifically because we believe that rejecting one or two other approaches requires us to embrace a given alternative. To recognize that there are many possible ways of raising children, and to question the validity of various other ideologies, is to free us to explore new directions that may end up making a lot more sense than the conventional wisdom.” (p. 104-105)
That pretty much sums it up for me. Thanks Nathan for all your work in recognizing the possible and questioning the validity of the conventional.
For my part, I agree strongly with both Melissa and Alfie’s read here. On the one hand, I think we are often similarly misled and/or over-generalized by lots of scientific research — about parenting and child rearing in particular. And once uttered, such generalizations, and data-slanting can stick around for decades — which is part of why there continues to be misunderstandings and arguments about best practices for parents. This stickiness of any scientific assertion is why lots of parents still think “cry it out” is a perfectly acceptable and healthy option for dealing with an infant.
Additionally, far too often, researchers go looking to prove something rather than study it, and once committed, they both affect the results and construct their conclusions about those skewed results based on what they sought to prove. So even if they only have 100 participants, and even if they have poorly delineated categories (e.g. what does “authoritarian” really mean, how do you define it, how do you recognize it, how do you describe it?), and even if the research doesn’t account for enough of the involved factors, and even if the researchers make broad assertions based on simple and specific findings, the rest of society seems to respond with such vehemence and “scientific faith” that we live as if these watery assertions are the truth of our lives. It’s one of the many reasons I favor what I call Cro-Magnon Parenting — our ancestors (moving by instinct and intuition) did what functioned naturally through eons in a natural system in which they were totally immersed; they weren’t misguided by a mere century of self-reflective scientific fumbling…
The other thing the article highlighted for me was that (as I’ve been coming to understand more and more) there really are so many ways to raise children. Some of them are shown to be classifiable and in comparison to some other classes, preferable for certain reasons, but the bottom line is that there is not a one-size-fits-all method for parenting. And if we were to be honest with ourselves, the real reasons we pick particular strategies for parenting have more to do with us than with any guarantee we can secure about what will happen for our children. Sure I parent with the idea that what I am doing will be of benefit to my children, but I thought the same thing when I struggled (with myself) to use time-outs. When I gave time-outs up, I had “good evidence” for that choice, but it was the fact that I abhorred the way time-outs felt that really motivated me.
I am reminded here of a recent study of corporal punishment use at home that Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman noted in Nurture Shock. At one point the researchers were faced with what looked like ethnic prejudice in their research, because it seemed as though black families in America were way more likely to use corporal punishment and without the negative effects (increased aggression, etc.) associated with its use amongst white families where corporal punishment was used more rarely. The researchers really didn’t want to say that one ethnic group was more “tolerant” to the use of corporal punishment than another, but that was what the research seemed to be indicating. Upon closer inspection, the best that the researchers could do to explain this anomaly was to surmise that it was the normality of the corporal punishment that made it less detrimental to the kids. In families where spanking was a weekly occurrence, it had been understood (by the children) as part of the culture of growing up, and was therefore less of a jarring experience. In the families where spanking was more rare, it was considered by both kids and parents to be a more poignant response to more serious infractions, and the kids reacted with all the psychological fanfare that those of us who decry corporal punishment would expect. So the researchers wound up concluding that the normalcy (or lack thereof) of something like corporal punishment has more of an effect than the corporal punishment itself.
More and more, I think, aside from the biologic basics of human nurturing, bonding, and development, the parenting strategies we choose and to which we adhere and for which we would argue, are largely about us — more so than they are about our kids. And though I will continue to assert what I think is “most beneficial”, I will have to admit that I mean, “what works for a parent like me, and is supported by evidence garnered by researchers who think like me, as well as by my experience raising kids while being me”… For, rather than a single path which all parents had better travel or fail(!), I think we will all be better served by empowering parents to feel their way through the terrain of their own parenting.
There’s been a good deal of buzz in the last few years about not being “child-centered” in our parenting, and though I have trouble with a lot of what is lumped into such an argument, I will “piggy-back” on that notion, here, enough to say that what I think we need to make space for is a spectrum of “parent-centered” approaches. In this way, we can give parents general information regarding what we currently understand about how people develop and what totally doesn’t work, and at the same time give each parent or set of parents the emotional and psychological jurisdiction and self-assurance to do what feels right and loving and beneficial to them. I am coming to think this way on a deeper and deeper level because the thing that I believe has messed up parenting more than anything else is the revolving fleet of “parenting experts” out there telling us we’re screwing up our kids because we are or aren’t doing “x, y and z”. It’s the thinking that there is only one right way, and that we need an expert to tell and teach us about it, and that we need to ignore what feels right to us that has gotten modernity so (so) far off track in our approach to parenting.
So, to prove Melissa correct and in thanks for her encouragement in “questioning the validity of the conventional”, I would argue that recent conventions in parenting are getting in the way of what is natural, and ought to be subject to a great deal more questioning. Until we get serious about looking at how scientific research, expert advice, and parenting convention work to dissuade us from doing what feels right, from our intuitions, and from our instincts as human(e) parents, we cannot hope to parent our children the way they have evolved to be raised, or in any way that is as appropriate as they deserve. Until we trust ourselves to love and nurture our children, and give proper credence to how that is most naturally achieved for each of us, we will continue to be pendulum-swung back and forth at the whim of each new wave of scientific research and parenting expert admonition. I, for one, think it’s high time we started listening to ourselves and our nature instead.
May you find all the evidence you need to be the kind of parent it is best for you to be. And be it well.
By the way, I want to thank the ladies at The Tiny Toes blog for passing on the article. If you haven’t checked them out yet, let me encourage you to do so. I’ll even make it easy for you — here.