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Against prescriptive parenting

I’m spending the weekend with my tribe: a ragtag band of people who call themselves homeschoolers. We each have different reasons for choosing this path, and our kids are as different as kids can be. Some of us homeschool because we want our kids to go to college. Others homeschool to keep our kids away from school, period. But the thing we have in common is a passion for kids and learning.

But that doesn’t mean we always agree.

I started out this morning going to a talk that I had to walk out of. The speaker is well-regarded and I’m sure she was going to say lots of things I’d agree with. But she gave herself away in the first ten minutes. She told me that she knew what my kids need and want.

Good way to get me to stand up and walk out.

Some of us have unusual kids. Even saying that is against what a lot of homeschoolers believe, which is that all kids are unusual. Well, yes, but if you could make a chart of all the kids in the world right now, behaviorally speaking, you’re going to see most kids falling into some wide center, and then the outliers. Those in the center have more in common with each other than the outliers have with anyone else. That’s my kids.

This speaker showed a picture of someone wearing a baby in a Baby Bjorn. The baby was old enough to hold his head up. He looked perfectly content, his eyes on the camera.

“Never, never do this!” the speaker said.

And I was transported back.

My first child was unusual. I didn’t know how unusual my kids would be as they developed, but I noticed right away that my son was an unusual baby. He didn’t sleep. Or rather, he did, but in little catnaps throughout the day and night. He didn’t go through a short period of stranger fear at the appointed time — he only wanted to be with me or his father, and his father only if I wasn’t there. He was interested in everything. Right away, his eyes met ours and focused on us. He watched things happen.

His first two words were his own: “Datz” meant something like “I want that.” “Dis” meant something like “Wow, this is cool!” Around the time when he was using these two words with great frequency, my husband and I took our annual spiritual pilgrimage… to Santa Cruz’s Open Studios. And here’s the memory that came up when the speaker told me I had done some horrible, irreparable harm to my son.

We got out of the car at the 17th Avenue Studios, a group of artists populating decaying industrial buildings sprinkled amongst acreage of auto body repair shops and machine shops. I strapped my son into the Baby Bjorn, facing out.

Why did I do that? Well, I knew my son. He wasn’t in that “I need to cuddle with you and be protected by you” mood. He was primed to look at and marvel at this world he was discovering.

We started to look at art. His conversation was sprinkled with occasional “dis”es and “datz”s. I moved into the studio of an artist whose work didn’t particularly grab me. I was turning to leave when my son, facing outward, came face-to-face with a painting that just blew his mind.

“Dis! Dis! Dis!” he cried. He pointed. He kicked his feet in a happy dance. He noticed that the painting was enormous! He was thrilled to see little bits of newspaper incorporated into the surface. He used his full vocabulary to tell me what he was thinking: This painting is exciting! There’s Mommy’s newspaper, ripped into little bits and glued! I love looking at Mommy’s newspaper! Look at that red paint! I love red paint! This painting is so big that I have to crane my neck to see the top! Look how far away the top of this painting is!

“Datz! Datz!”

I want to take it home with me! Please, Mommy? Please can I go into that painting and be in that world? Please will you spend $3000 dollars on something you don’t even particularly like?

I did not make the wrong choice. I did not violate any rule of human love and nurturing. I knew my son, and I gave him a gift. Not a $3000 painting, but the gift of his first experience by being blown away by a work of art. I have never forgotten this experience and never will. I loved my funny little boy who kept me up all night so, so much right then.

All parenting books have the potential to help you think about your parenting and improve it. But no parenting book can tell you how to parent your child. Even if your child would fall into that wide center of dots close together, your child is, as the homeschoolers will tell you, unusual.

I hate prescriptive parenting because it makes all of us feel like failures. We can’t please everyone. So instead, let’s figure out how to be the best parent we can be of the children we get. And let’s not vilify a parenting tool and blame it for bad parenting. It’s a tool, and that day, I used it well.

Posted in Parenting.


6 Responses

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  1. Katie says

    Wait… what? What is wrong with this? I’m confused. 😀

  2. Suki says

    That your baby should always be against your breast, face in. Apparently this is doctrine amongst some people. What bothers me is the doctrine aspect of it. If my son had needed to cuddle with me, he would have made that clear and I would have responded. But at that moment, he clearly needed to be interacting with the world, and I responded. I would rather be a mindful parent and respond to my kids’ needs, even when they don’t gibe with a philosophy I like, than be a parent who always follows someone else’s rules!

    • Resa says

      People are amazing with their “this non-harmful thing that I don’t agree with will RUIN YOUR KID FOREVER!” stuff. My son went through a stage where he liked to hang upside down while being held. He went to a great deal of trouble to maneuver himself into that upside down position, and he would peer out at Upside Down World and shriek with glee. Inevitably, someone would be appalled. He was very strong and could pull himself up and if he at all looked like he was getting light-headed, I turned him back up. I guess to some people it looks as if I were wandering around with a baby with his legs wrapped around my waist, hanging there upside down because I was too careless to notice he wasn’t in “proper” alignment.

  3. Heddi Craft says

    I always say in regards to parenting, no matter what you do there is someone who will tell you that you are wrong. You do have to honor the needs of your child and your family and yourself, rather than the “pearls of wisdom” of those who are not walking in your shoes. 😉 Nice post.

  4. Sage Smiley says

    I enjoyed this too. An area that I am much too vulnerable to other people’s prescriptions is food and diet. I have the strange ability to think that every illnesshe gets is my fault because I don’t feed him a perfect enough diet, you know because it’s so easy to get 4 year olds to eat salad. I get so twisted around and confused about what I should be feeding him (combined with what he will eat) that I become immobile and utterly lost. Ah, but sometimes I let go and realize I am doing fine, he doesn’t drink coke and he doesn’t smoke…!

  5. Suki says

    Yes — if I followed all the dietary advice I’ve been given about my kids, they’d be left with water and dark, leafy greens! (But only if they’re grown organicially…) 🙂 We all have to balance advice we get with the reality of our lives. Every family makes choices (even the preachy ones), and no single choice is going to ruin your kid’s life. I think it’s harder than ever to feel like your parenting choices are right, because we get so much conflicting advice. I really like reading about new ideas and especially about new scientific studies, but you always have to take everything and see how it fits into the life you already have.



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