Parenting Advice is not one-size-fits-all

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I remember very early in my parenting career (in the mid-90’s) looking at a parenting book and feeling uncomfortable about the advice I found there – perhaps it was advocating for cry it out as a response to sleep problems or perhaps it was saying to not immediately respond to your child’s cries because it might spoil them. Those types of advice did not feel right to me as a parent at a gut level. Then I found other books that did feel right – (the Baby Book, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, and Our Babies, Ourselves) and I found parent education classes as well. Those resources offered me the opportunity to learn that there are lots of different ways to parent children and no one-right-way-that-fits-all.

All parenting book authors are sharing ideas that worked for them as parents, and worked for their children or maybe that worked for their clients. If their methods work for you and your child, that’s great. But if not, that doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent or you have bad kids, it just means you need to find different advice. And you especially need to find advice and support that is strengths-based and responsive – instead of things that say / imply “if you do it this way it will always work, and if it doesn’t work then you’re a failure”, seek out things that say “here are some ideas that work well for many families. If they don’t work for you, here are other resources you could try.”

After 27 years of parenting and 23 years as a parent educator, I believe that even more strongly. And, as the parent of children who are “thrice exceptional” – gifted and autistic and ADD/ ADHD, I especially know it’s true. Different children need different parenting styles, and neurodiverse children may need different parenting approaches than neurotypical children.

For example, let’s talk about “picky eaters.” First, I’m going to say that 30 – 50% of parents say their preschool-aged children are picky eaters! So, if you’re in the 50% that doesn’t have this experience, count yourself lucky! (And don’t pat yourself on the back too much… it might be more about the kids’ temperament than about what you did as a parent.) I work with parents to re-frame some of their assumptions about picky eaters, and see things from their child’s perspective, and I give them lots of great tips I’ve gleaned over years in this work. But then someone says “but my kid is really picky – I’ve tried all those tips, and they still won’t eat!” And I say “I know… I’m right there with you.” Because my first child was a flexible, easy kid with food. My second was picky – turns out she has lots of allergies and intolerances and she knew that some foods made her feel sick or in pain – she couldn’t articulate that as a young child – she just was “picky.” And my third child is a whole other realm of picky eater – he has a VERY limited set of food he’ll eat. He is autistic with sensory issues, and has a hard time trusting food – if he has one bad blueberry, then it takes weeks or months to coax him back into trying blueberries again. So, I have another collection of tips for those super picky eaters, and I have a lot of empathy (and no judgment!) for the parents who are managing that.

And toilet learning… well, based both on all the reading I’ve done and classes I’ve taken, plus my own experiences with my 3 kids, I’ve got one set of standard issue recommendations on potty training, and then advanced tips for children who resist toileting. 20% of children go through a phase of refusing to poop in the potty. And 10% of children (usually boys) will have challenges with bed wetting up to age 8. For the parents who are already struggling with challenges, getting well-meaning advice from others who say “it’s easy – just do this and it will work” just makes them feel worse about themselves as parents. It is so much more helpful when someone says “wow, I’m sure you’ve already tried all the usual fixes – I’m sorry they haven’t worked for you. Can I help you find other resources or do you just need someone to tell you – ‘it’s OK, you’re doing your best’?”

Sometimes these challenges and delays will work themselves out if we just wait for it. Sometimes it may be helpful to seek professional support or testing to figure out if our child has particular challenges that need extra intervention. And as you’re working on challenges, it helps to find books, websites, educators, and/or other parents who offer advice that is helpful and relevant to you and to your unique child.

Today, I was reading advice on a parenting site, and I found something that troubled me. (I am not going to share the source, because otherwise the advice on the site was excellent, and I do not wish to criticize their whole approach – only this particular content which I will be contacting them about.) Here’s what it says:

These signs – things they say show you it’s time to set a limit – almost perfectly duplicate any list you can find of common symptoms of autism.

This troubled me, so I wanted to double-check myself on this. I showed this to my 23 year old, who is autistic, and just said “I was reading this blog post on parenting advice, and wanted to know what you think of it.” She immediately said “These aren’t signs that you need to set limits… it’s like they cut and pasted in the wrong list… these are all things that are normal for an autistic kid. They aren’t signs that ‘truly difficult behavior’ is coming… unless you try to force this kid to act neurotypical, and then yeah, you’re going to see some misbehavior!”

I told her that was exactly my impression. And I worry about parents of neurodiverse kids who would see this site and think… “oh, every day my kid shows all these signs! Either I’m a bad parent who is failing to connect with them, or they’re a bad kid with too many behavior problems.”

I do agree with the overall message of the parenting site that image is taken from – the idea that connection is important for discipline. When our children feel connected to us and valued by us, they want to behave well, and are responsive to our guidance.

I think it’s so important for parents and teachers to understand that connection and disconnection can look different for different kids. For example, for some children, it is absolutely true that eye contact shows they’re feeling connected and avoiding eye contact says they know they’re in trouble. However, many (not all) autistic people are uncomfortable with eye contact, and in many cultures, direct eye contact is a sign of disrespect. Demanding eye contact could set off behavioral problems rather than serving as a path to resolve them. For some children, placing your hand on theirs and having a conversation about what is happening will calm them and resolve problems. For other children, when they’re already on the verge of a meltdown, uninvited touch might set them off, or being asked to talk it through may overwhelm them.

If you do have a neurodiverse child (autism, ADHD, ODD, etc.) or if you have any child that seems particularly challenging to manage following typical advice, you may find that some resources are much more helpful to you than others, because they are either specialized for the neurodiverse population or are at least sensitive to it. Things I find particularly helpful are the Incredible Years program and challengingbehavior.org, the work of Ross Greene (“kids do well if they can“), the Zones of Regulation, and webinars from Bright and Quirky.

Another issue with parenting advice is that the vast majority of it is written by white, middle class folks, raised in the United States. (And yes, that description includes me, and I know it creates unintentional biases in my work, so feel free to call me on them!) And the research it is based on was primarily done with white, middle class folks in the United States. (Read this article on why that matters – as they say “the research, and the parenting advice based on it, might not apply to everyone who receives it.”) Thus, advice might be unintentionally racist, or classist, or may simply not be relevant to your life circumstances.

Based on their cultural backgrounds, parents may have different goals for their children, in areas such as independence, individualism vs. collectivism, self-esteem, and behavior, and thus may have different approaches to achieving those goals, such as differences in warmth / affection, responsiveness, and discipline. For example, physical punishment may be more common in some cultures than others, but to understand its function in a family, it helps to understand it in a broader cultural context. While co-sleeping with an infant may be viewed as unusual to some, bed-sharing is common in many cultures around the world, and education related to safer sleep practices should inform parents of how to minimize the risks, rather than condemning the practice. The best advice is responsive to cultural and socioeconomic differences, and acknowledges challenges, and build on strengths. If you feel like what you’re hearing and reading doesn’t suit your cultural values, seek out materials from those who share your cultural background. It is easier to find diverse view in the days of the internet than it was when all publishing was managed by white, middle class folks.

When you seek out parenting advice, I do encourage parents to check out a wide variety of sources to stimulate your thinking – I get really good ideas even from reading things I fundamentally disagree with. They broaden my perspective and cause me to further examine my own parenting choices to be sure they reflect my values and goals, and are helping my child reach their potential. They help me to notice differences between my parenting style and those of others in my community which helps me better explain and interpret what my child and I might see in their classmates’ experiences. And they help me double-check myself to be sure I’m not making any big mistakes. So, do read things outside your comfort zone for the sake of mind expansion.

But, when you’re struggling with a parenting challenge, and feeling discouraged about your parenting skills or your worthiness as a parent, or when you’re feeling really frustrated at your child, seek out the parenting advice that speaks to your soul. Advice that includes methods you can see yourself doing and doing consistently. Advice that seems like it could work for your unique child with their unique personality, strengths and challenges. And seek out the people whose advice acknowledges your strengths at the same time it supports you as you work to overcome your challenges.

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