Monday, October 18, 2010

NCFR fall Family Focus article "Taking it to the Streets"

I couldn't agree more with Dr. Erickson in her article about the "contradictions, confusion and quackery" around the world of parenting. It's frustrating that anyone can call themself a parenting educator or expert without any credentials and unfortunately it often does more harm than good to the child and to the parent-child relationship.
I would like to clarify a few points that Dr. Erickson brought up in the article regarding the extremes of parenting that she cited, beginning with attachment parenting. Ok, this just happens to be my area of expertise so I want to demystify some perceptions and set the record straight. It was inferred that attachment parenting (AP) strategies are not supported by research, much like the cry-it-out strategies. I will agree that little research has been done on AP families per se but there is a wealth of research that supports the optimal development of children that is rooted in attachment research. Attachment parenting, as defined by Attachment Parenting International (API)strives to establish higher standards for optimal development and should not be confused with the antivaccine movement or any other movements. While there are important personal decisions every parent must make for child and their family,as an organization, API sticks strictly to eight basic principles that are related to attachment theory. API believes in providing the best evidenced-based information possible so parents can make informed decisions for their children rather than following the herd.

In our book Attached at the Heart, coauthor Barbara Nicholson and I spent many years compiling research studies from various fields. We were frankly shocked that the abundance of research wasn't getting to parents so we decided to do just that, starting with attachment research and adding neuroscience, anthropology, developmental psychology and child developments studies. Rather than aiming toward "good enough" parenting we wanted to establish, with the support of current research, standards for optimal neurobiological and psychosocial development of children. Our theory is that if we strive for optimal development, knowing that we aren't perfect and can't, as Dr. Erickson wrote, "apply what we know 24/7" we will likely land somewhere on the "good enough parent" spectrum.

Here's an analogy: We know that for optimal health we should eat lots of fruits and vegetables, organic if possible, to avoid pesticides etc; cut out the bad fats, sugars and artificial sweetners, eat a balanced meal and so on. Let's assume that everyone knows this (which actually they don't or they can't afford), that is the high standard for optimal physical health. In reality there will be days when life is crazy busy, when you and the children are hungry and cranky so you weaken and pull in McDonalds. You order a Big Mac for yourself and chicken nuggets for the kids. You and the kids are satisfied and all is well in the world once again. You know that this was not a good choice but it was the best one for that moment in time. Tomorrow you get back to eating healthier food. As a parent you are conscious of the higher standards but give yourself flexibility to "fall off the wagon" now and then so to speak. The same for physical exercise, the general opinion from the experts is to strive to exercise everyday, knowing that there will be days that doesn't happen, but more than likely you will have exercised at least 4-5 days of the week rather than none at all.
The problem is that many parents don't know what "good enough" is let alone what the optimal standards are, they have no clue and no preparation before they become parents. Media confuse the matter or reenforce stereotypes, myths and misperceptions about childrearing. What we find interesting is that the parents who are trying to be conscientious about how they raise their children, what they eat and how they live are the target of criticism for being "too" this or "too" that when there should be outrage by all of us in the family life education field at some of the most popular advice being given which we believe to be a form of normative child abuse, such as crying-it-out. Infants as young as 1-2 months of age are being subjected to sleep training strategies that include allowing them to cry it out until they learn to "self-soothe". The dangers are that this puts an inordinate amount of stress on infants, causing the brain to be flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone. An infant should be responded to and fed on cue in order to stimulate physical and neurological growth. When allowed to cry-it-out they learn that the world is a harsh place, that they can't depend on anyone so the brain shuts down as a way of adapting to the environmental stress. There is absolutely no evidence to show there is no long term damage when letting a baby cry it out. Some books by doctors advise parents not to pick their baby up when he vomits in the bed (from crying) except to clean up the mess. Doctors and pediatricians regularly promote such books and it's overwhelming to think about the damage being done to infants and no one is advocating for them.
That was just one example of many and I don't want to belabor that point but bring it back to the need to provide parents with optimal standards with flexibility. Even with my background, knowledge and dedication to all children and my own two sons, I feel like I was probably a "good enough" mother. But if I hadn't had higher standards to guide me I surely would have lost my way. As with Dr. Erickson, her knowledge and research background guided her but being "good enough" isn't good enough and should not be the standard we hold for parents. Our children deserve better than that so they can develop to their fullest potential possible, mentally, physically and spiritually.

2 comments:

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  2. I'm in agreement with you. Although I can appreciate that the concept of good-enough parenting has alleviated some of the pressure placed on parents to be perfect or "super parents" lest they permanently "damage" their children, my concern is that it encourages mediocrity in parenting. Like you, I'd rather encourage parents to strive to be the best they can be, while recognizing that they won't be perfect. I'm a firm believer that people will live up (or down) to the expectations they have for themselves. If I tell myself that I only need to be a good-enough parent what impetus is there for me to be anything more?

    In thinking of various disciplines and professional organizations, they all have "best practices" that they encourage. What's wrong with encouraging "best practices" for parents as well?

    I can only imagine what the world would be like if "good enough" was our standard for all roles. We'd never accept good enough doctors (if you needed surgery, how comfortable would you be if someone told you that your surgeon was good enough?), good enough college professors, good enough accountants, and so forth, yet we're okay with telling parents they only need to be "good enough."

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