When my husband and I were expecting our first child, we bought “The Book.” A 633 page trade paperback, by then in its 3rd revision, of Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care. We quickly nicknamed it “The Bible.” We couldn’t believe things like “spitting in infancy,” “fretful baby” and “green stools” (three categories) were in the index. Whenever we found ourselves looking with concern from baby Justin to one another, one of us would say, “Let’s look it up.”
It wasn’t a book you read from cover to cover, like today’s parenting books. It was more like an encyclopedia, or a garage mechanic’s shopworn engine manual. You quickly found your problem, and Dr. Spock led you through a soft-spoken “Ah yes, that does happens sometimes, let me explain” discussion of why, and what you might try, and how most things resolve themselves anyway if you can’t find a solution at the moment. And good for you for noticing.
Not so today’s parenting books. A quick check on Amazon shows over 34,000 options under parenting, the titles taking a much more specific approach to child-rearing: raising emotionally intelligent, or self-confident, or empathic children. Choose the adjective you want most for your child, and that’s the book for you. The other adjective-driven approach is parent oriented: Conscious parenting, parenting without power struggles, parenting with love and logic. I feel overwhelmed just looking at the titles. Is there one I wouldn’t want to apply?
Not only is it hard to choose but the variety seems like a recipe for parenting angst: Do I want to be a Tiger mom, driving my child toward excellence at any cost? Or am I creating a tiny narcissist, certain he is extraordinary and entitled to be treated that way? Competing titles challenge each other, undermine our confidence, and make us wonder if our children’s problems are our own creation, the bad result of subscribing to the wrong theory.
A decade of self-esteem books that advised universal praise and trophies-for-all has given way to a new approach: Avoid praising the product, and shift to process, praising grit, and determination and hard work instead. But what does that mean? Can I never again say “This picture is beautiful! I love it!” to my granddaughter? I wonder if Mozart’s mother settled for “You really dug into that chord progression, and I’m proud of you.”
Benjamin Spock’s #1 rule for parenting was a simple one. “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you know.” It was a comforting undertone, one that left the reader feeling encouraged, more capable. Learning new facts always left room to engage your own intuition and trust that as well.
That intuition led me to strap Justin to my chest in a soft flannel carrier and talk to him nonstop as I did household chores. He curled contentedly inside the Snugli, tucking his head under my chin and peering out with wise blue eyes that understood everything I said. My mother was unconvinced but I had no doubt.
I wouldn’t dare trust that instinct today. Too many books would make me doubt. Was I stifling his exploratory need? Making him too dependent? Should I be finding him a playgroup, or letting him manipulate the latest educational toy?
Now, after 35 years of clinical psychology practice, I rarely recommend parenting books when someone comes for help with a child. “Let’s figure out who she is first, and why you two are struggling, then maybe we’ll know if a book might help” I’ll say. It’s a psychologist’s version of Dr. Spock’s rule. Listen to your child, listen to your intuition and believe in what works. Learn to read your child’s behavior. It will tell you much more than any book about what is working and what is not. Trust yourself, and each other.
Children come pre-wired. Each year we learn more about how sophisticated that wiring is, how much they perceive and feel, and how genetics and epi-genetics determine who they will become. They are not blank screens, waiting for us to write on. They are more like flower buds filled with receptors, waiting for the world to stimulate the ones that will generate a blossom. And like flowers, each one is different, blooming in its own time, to a feeding and watering schedule unique to them. Too much praise for one is just the right amount for another. Firm discipline feels like safety to one, and stifles another. The conditions for growth have similar outside edges, but come in lots of different versions. The parenting manual we really need is inside our child, waiting for us to stop and listen and look closely enough to trust that it will teach us what we need to know.
Justin was in kindergarten when his little brother was born. I happily took out that frayed Snugli and gathered Matt’s tiny body inside. He squirmed, he fought, he could not get comfortable. He pulled his head out from beneath my chin, and craned his neck, swiveling his tiny face left and right. Finally, I listened.
I turned him around, and arms free, legs kicking, face to the world, he led me forward.
Mary E. Plouffe raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.
catching me in an ordinary moment
as you turn your shoulders to reach for a pen
or bow your head over books as in prayer
and now as—hands at 10 and 2—you
steer cautiously into your future.
How could you be so wholly beautiful
sweet child of mine?
Tell me how it is possible
I can’t remember entire years of my sinuous life
names of my students
where I put my keys just moments ago
and yet your voice at age three
rings clear as a bell
through the cavern of my skull.
How love has wrought an indelible record
of every childhood giggle
every puffed out cheek that ever hovered over birthday candles.
How it keeps making each sunrise
marbled and beautiful and vibrant
as the wonder I felt
the first time I saw your face.
Sandra S. McRae teaches writing at Red Rocks Community College near Denver, Colorado. She is the co-author of the bestselling cookbook Weber’s Big Book of Grilling (Chronicle), earned her Master’s degree at University of Colorado-Boulder, and studied overseas on a Fulbright Grant. Her work has appeared in Poets Against War, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Word Soup, Steam Ticket, Pure Francis, and elsewhere. She lives in the Colorado Rockies with her family, two dogs, and the occasional bear. She is never bored. Visit Sandra at www.WordsRunTogether.com.
The moment was, on the surface, entirely unremarkable; neither the setting, an indoor festival in San Francisco one foggy summer’s day, nor the incident was dramatic. It could hardly compete with the poet Keats’ oft-quoted description of “stout Cortez,” so stunned by his first discovery of the Pacific that he stared “Silent, upon a peak in Darien” while his fellow explorers “look’d at each other with a wild surmise.” And yet, what I witnessed that afternoon three decades ago moved me as profoundly as if I, too, had discovered a new world. And in a way I had. I was filled with awe, that potent blend of wonder and a little fear that comes when a person confronts something powerful enough to shift her understanding of herself, of her world, or, as in this case, of someone else. What took my breath and words away was the smallest of scenes—a small girl raising a small hand in a big room.
I thought of this moment after a recent conversation with that now quite grown-up small girl. Once again, my older daughter was poised to launch herself into a new professional sphere, leaving what had become comfortable territory to enter a fresh world that would demand not-yet acquired skills, forcing her to push herself harder, to learn faster, to risk more. So many times through the years I have witnessed her challenging herself in ways that amaze and terrify me. Quietly pursuing through the decades my mostly secure profession, I gasp when I hear her describe her own career ventures. Her boldness startles me because I know how much trepidation and self-doubt, invisible to others, accompany the decision to go a step, often a giant step, beyond her comfort zone.
I did not always recognize the significant gap between my daughter’s outside and her inside. From infancy on, she was inscrutable, either misread by others or impossible to read. “Little philosopher,” strangers on the street would call her, slightly uncomfortable after failing to coax a smile. Those closer to her had as little success in figuring her out—babysitters, teachers, relatives, friends of her parents, even, alas, her parents. We were constantly befuddled by the apparent contradictions between how she seemed and how she felt, between what we thought she would do and what she did. Although she let us read much of her inside story by revealing her fears and hesitancies, knowing that text offered little help in predicting what new page she would write in the world outside. Why, for example, when anxiety and stomach aches preceded each game, would she continue to be the only girl –and a rather slight one at that—on the local soccer team?
Most of us expect and respect the mystery of personhood in our relationships with others, but parenting brings with it the illusion that we really have our kids’ numbers, that we have the magic key to their personalities. As each year exposed new layers of complexity, I grew to appreciate the slow, never complete reveal of my daughter’s character. What she helped me to understand was that children were not to be “got” but just to be wondered at and cherished.
Although I had to relearn it again and again through the years of raising my children, my first and most profound lesson came at that festival in San Francisco when my daughter was four. In a large hall, surrounded by crowds of adults and kids, she clung to me and to her father as the magician on stage at the front dazzled the audience with feats of prestidigitation. When he asked for a volunteer from the rapt audience, the air filled with frantically waving hands and giggles and shouts of “Pick me! Pick me!” I squeezed my quiet daughter’s hand and smiled down at her lovely, solemn face, recognizing that nothing could tempt her to the stage.
Suddenly, her other hand shot straight into the air—no wild waving nor tentative half-wave with sheepish smile, no words. Just a direct, no-nonsense, high in the air arm that said in her own way, “I’m your girl—choose me.” And he did. Watching with astonishment her small figure approach the big stage, I now registered the vibrations of her trembling hand still in my own hand and the clenched set of her jaw as she moved away from us. What was it that, despite the trembling, prompted the hand to go up? What was it that, despite the clenching, propelled my shy daughter to march resolutely past so many strange eyes and mount the high, wide stage? How could the rather-bewildered magician guess at the profound churning inside the little girl who assisted him as gravely as if she were participating in some complicated surgery? How could her parents make sense of her being there?
I have had in my lifetime some grand moments of high drama that have swept me away, but none, I think, has stayed with me as much as this subtle moment of emotional magnitude that left me speechless. No vast, unlooked for Pacific Ocean. Just a small girl, raising her hand in a big room. Just two parents, looking at each other “with a wild surmise,” their expressions full of wonder, love, and a little fear. Who is this girl?
Maureen O’Leary is a writer and professor of English in northern California. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous local, national, and international newspapers, journals, and magazines.