In Defense of Parenting Ideals

Acting like only crackpots police screens, or have wooden toys, devalues all our parenting.

A mom standing in front of a TV, ostentatiously blocking it from view
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus and Christian Fregnan on Unsplash.

A few weeks ago, the hosts of my favorite parenting podcast, Slate’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting, responded to a letter from a listener with a familiar kind of patronizing mirth. The listener, a dad of small children, was concerned that Grandma and Grandpa were giving his kids screen time against his wishes. “Raising kids in Berkeley, we saw a lot of this,” co-host Carvell Wallace said of screen-free, sugar-free parenting. “People hold onto it like you’re going to be able to create some transcendent child.” Co-host Rebecca Lavoie told a story about the time her co-worker, about to become a parent, reported that she was going to send her baby to a day care that only had wooden toys. “You know the reason why day cares have plastic toys is because germs actually come off when you wash a plastic toy with soap?” Lavoie remembered asking her co-worker. Experienced parents, Lavoie implied, know better than to choose a day care based on their “ideas” about what kinds of toys “might somehow be more stimulating.”

I agree that the question of what you can fairly ask babysitting grandparents to do is a tricky one, but I didn’t like how the hosts made a gentle mockery of the very idealism that underpinned this reader’s concern. As a wooden-toy-hoarding, screen-free parent of an almost–2-year-old, I know I’m the mom who’s the target of this kind of message: You are a fool for having ideas about parenting! It’s something I hear everywhere, from relatives who predict I’ll be giving my daughter J giant bags of candy by her third Halloween, to people on airplanes who promise me she will be obsessed with Disney by age 5, no matter what I do. It seems crazy to have to defend the concept of having ideals, but here I am.

Nicole Cliffe tweet: "The key to parenting is that if you don't abuse or neglect your kid and you love them unconditionally and feed them food, you're in the 1% of parents throughout human history, A+ work. If that basically describes you, you're doing great, sweetie."

I love Care and Feeding columnist Nicole Cliffe and the hosts of MADAF as much as the next person, and all of these voices are trying to be supportive to parents who feel that exposure to parenting theories and advice makes all of the stresses of their daily lives worse. As a breastfeeding apostate, I’ve had the experience of going into a tailspin from the guilt of feeding my baby “wrong.” The impulse to take pressure off of parents who worry about their parenting is kind and well-meant. It’s also intended to be feminist, because it’s mostly moms who are commenting in Facebook groups with their worries about Tylenol doses and sibling fights and preschool choices. Often the goal of such messages is to reassure moms who find themselves surrounded by examples they worry they can’t match—to let them off the hook.

But I’m here to tell you that having ideas about parenting has made my first few years of motherhood so much better. That’s because my goal in following a parenting philosophy is different, I think, than what is ascribed to me by those who would pooh-pooh the idea of parenting ideals. Earlier this year, Dan Engber argued on Slate that parenting doesn’t matter—at least not in a way that can be scientifically measured. His argument is echoed by Cliffe’s in the tweet above: So long as you’re not outrageously abusing your children or doing something he describes as “weird” (“insisting your child only poop at certain times, or that she never hears a word beginning with the letter ‘P’ ”), the science is so inconclusive as to make the certainty of most parenting advice seem ridiculous.

But what this stance about parenting advice assumes is that people who have ideas about parenting follow them in order to maximize their kid’s potential. This may be true for some parents who follow them—and of course, some of my parenting decisions really are about trying to give my child the best chances in life. The resulting sense that people who parent in particular against-the-grain ways are doing it to transform their baby into the “transcendent child” they deserve, because they think they’re better than everyone else, certainly has something to do with the mistrust and anxiety that kind of ideals-driven parenting generates. But for many, idealistic parenting is not about your kid getting into an Ivy League school. It’s sort of about the future, in the sense that these ideals might help create a relationship that makes it so they want to come home for Thanksgiving when they’re 30. But what it’s really about is making your daily life with a small child better now.

A good example from my own experience is the early bedtime recommended by many sleep books. Melinda Wenner Moyer argued the scientific case for a bedtime between 7 and 8 p.m. for preschoolers and toddlers on Slate a few years ago, and I took her post to heart. J is in bed between 7 and 7:30 every night, without fail. But while this maternal strictness was initially motivated by the cognitive benefits of the 12-hour night for the under-5 crew, we’ve persisted because of how much it helps make our lives better. I’m a schedule-minded person, and it really satisfies me to know that bedtime isn’t a question. My husband and I have the time between her bedtime and ours to do all the nonwork, nonchild things we need to do in a day.
(If those nonwork, nonchild things are often “Watch Castle Rock,” that’s our business.) That, in turn, makes it easier for us to feel recharged during the times when we are with her.

The same thing happened with our use of nutritionist Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” guidelines for children and food. The concept is supposed to help children develop a healthy relationship with food. But it also eliminates a tremendous amount of parental second-guessing. If you’re following Satter’s advice, you’re not supposed to coax, cajole, or wheedle children to eat once you’ve offered them the food you’ve chosen for them. The relief that descended upon me when I realized that I didn’t need to do the whole “one more bite” dance was immense. And I wouldn’t have known about that idea if I hadn’t read her book.

I’ve gravitated toward these kinds of helpful structures, in part, because I came into parenthood without much experience with small children: My siblings were all around my age, and while I babysat a bit as a terrified preteen, I put that behind me when I got into high school. I didn’t know when babies might start to sleep through the night, when they can eat solids, when they will sit still in your lap to listen to a book. A little bit of this kind of information goes a long way in helping you adjust expectations—and plan accordingly. I read the Louise Bates Ames book Your One-Year-Old as J approached that milestone. Since it was published in the middle of the previous century, its language was pretty outdated. But I will always remember the diagrams showing how a typical 18-month-old and a typical 3-year-old play in a preschool room full of toys. Watching J zip from spot to spot, I recall the densely layered crisscrossing lines of motion in the first panel of that diagram, and remind myself that in a year and a half she should be much more focused. Between now and then, I can pick things for us to do that don’t punish her tendency to bumble around.

But the best parenting advice, in my view, doesn’t give tips, prescribe schedules, or set expectations. It asks you to think about how you want family life to be. Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting moved me not because it told me what to do, but because it talks about parents as “architects of family life.” Our decision not to look at our phones or watch TV or use tablets when J is awake, while partially driven by our concerns about what screen time might “do to her,” is also a more holistic choice about how we wanted our weekends to feel—for her, and for us. Ever since we made the “no screens around J” rule, I am much calmer and more focused when we’re together. Parenting is about figuring out new ways to live—for the parent as well as the child.

There’s one more thing that bothers me about the “Don’t worry about it!” crowd. Women who write about childhood and family, work as early-childhood educators, or are stay-at-home moms are involved in a huge, interesting, and significant human project. Mainstream culture regularly pays lip service to this idea (“It’s the most important job in the world!”) and then underpays and discounts the work itself. (Never forget Donald Trump Jr. saying women who are sexually harassed should consider “leaving the workforce” and become kindergarten teachers.) The “Nothing matters!” message from allies of women, well-meaning though it may be, carries a subtle undercurrent congruent with our culture’s undervaluing of such work: “You’re thinking about this too much. This isn’t a matter for thought.” I submit to you that it is.

I violate my own parenting ideals regularly. Not the 7 p.m. bedtime—never that!—but other things. I once thought I would not allow J to eat outside of scheduled snacks and meals, and I now regularly allow her to have bites of whatever I’m having when we’re out and about, even if lunch is imminent. (Ellyn Satter would be shocked!) I believe in the idea that you should enlist your child’s participation in diaper changes, in order to make that time into less of a battle and show your child you respect her bodily autonomy, blah blah, but on a lot of days, I just let J make her small protests while I hustle through and get ’er done.

But no matter how many rules I break, I’ll always argue that there’s no such thing as “overthinking” parenting. Even if you don’t believe you have ideals about parenting—even if you “go with the flow” and “do whatever”—you’re making choices along the way. That’s what parenting is. Please make some room for me to do the same.