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.