Forget the science, this is parenting

Throughout my 24 years as a parent, I have been both eager consumer and perennial skeptic of parenting advice. Eager because, like most parents, I want to do best by my children. Skeptic, because parenting has never been a one-size-fits-all endeavor that conforms easily to experts’ ever-changing prescriptions.

When my youngest children were born, Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton monopolized the parenting airwaves, spattering recommendations across books and television shows. One click of the remote and I could watch them pitch their brands of childrearing and the benefits of professional guidance.

“I wish that every new parent had a chance to share their new baby with someone who could interpret him for them,” Brazelton said during an interview, speaking in a warm, soft, hypnotic tone that could make a true believer out of anyone. “It makes a significant difference in a baby’s self-esteem, and readiness to pick up on learning — all the things we dream about wanting.” Yes, I wanted and dreamed about all of that. He had me hooked. I bought the books and watched the shows. It was the least I could do to safeguard my children’s futures.

Brazelton and Leach had a lot to say about feeding, sleep, crying, aggression, and the parent-child relationship. But their overall messages boiled down to a key principal: listen to and accept children unconditionally. The more attentive and responsive the parent, the more resilient and flourishing the child.

So, a few years later, when my six-year-old son spawned a family crisis by announcing that he would wed our neighbor, I felt armed and ready.

“No,” my four-year-daughter insisted in response, “you are going to marry me.”

“I can’t marry you,” he replied, “brothers don’t marry sisters.”

She shed tears. Could not sleep.

As I tried to comfort her, I could not help flashing forward to the teenage years, wondering whether I would be consoling her the same way then. I pictured her grief flung throughout the house after a romance gone awry. I felt the fragility of the protections I could offer, my inability to shield her from life’s shocks and tremors. I badly wanted to inoculate her against future pains, and give her the inner strength to withstand its assaults. So, channeling the mantra of unconditional acceptance, I reassured her that she was dearly loved by all.

“Yes,” she moaned, “everybody loves me, but no-one will marry me.” At her age, she could not imagine parting from her family.

Attending and responding was harder than it sounded. Especially when it required disentangling parental anxiety from the child’s feelings. I still liked Leach and Brazelton, but their advice worked better in theory than practice.

In the eighteen years since that incident, I have watched the parent guidance industry become more complex and omnipresent. The World Wide Web proliferates opinions and recommendations, promising to deliver answers with one touch of a keyboard. A quick search of “parenting advice book” returns 56,978 results on Amazon and “parenting advice blog” shows 13,600,000 Internet entries. (Both have already increased since this writing.) With that volume, the experts and opinionators should cover just about every dilemma of childrearing. But try googling “what to say when a preschooler worries about marriage,” and nothing of relevance appears. Even if it did, it is unlikely that a book, or the Internet, would have been able to guide me through that moment, whispering to me that my daughter was not concerned about love, but about separation.

Despite their limitations, the advice gurus continued their magnetic pull, promising to turn myself and my children into the best possible versions of ourselves. Along with them, I encountered ubiquitous warnings of harm and maladjustment, which stoked my determination to stay abreast and be well-prepared.

The morning newspapers featured stories about teens who attempted suicide after being strung on and then rejected by online romances. The evening news reported the ways modern culture stunts children’s development. Hidden poisons lurked in food and cleansing products. Parents deprived children’s intellect by speaking too few words per day. Youth were plugged in and tuned out, turning their lives into breeding grounds for ADHD. Problem after potential problem flashed across the screen. Expert after expert expounded solutions. Brazelton and Leach’s “listen to and nurture your child” was updated with haunting proof that children need protection. What was a modern parent to do?

A Google search scored plenty of suggestions. Monitor your children: keep tabs on their social contacts and activities, check their social media usage, search their rooms.

Other sites warned against too much oversight. Children need privacy. Hovering parents damage self-esteem. America is faced with a tsunami of overprotective parents breeding youngsters who will never be able to cope with life’s demands. Let children struggle and learn from their own mistakes.

Then came research that struck fear in my parental heart. Stress is lethal. A single event can destroy neurons in the brain, interfering with memory and learning. Chronic stress is even worse, reducing brain volume and causing emotional and cognitive impairment. It had been proven in mice, which surely resemble little kids.

What type of stress the research referred to, I could not discover. Penelope Leach said that when babies cry vigorously, cortisol swishes through their brains and stymies development. I could remember numerous, sustained episodes of vigorous crying in my children’s infancy: when my son tumbled down the stairs, when I left my daughter at day care, when fevers broke out in their small bodies. With better monitoring, maybe I could have avoided some of those incidents. Clearly, I was failing on all fronts. I was neither vigilant nor responsive enough.

Just how much I fell short and what modern parenthood really demanded soon became apparent. In her 2006 tome, The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland synthesizes parental practices and neurological development. She explains that by responding sensitively to children’s feelings, parents can tame the emotional centers of their children’s brains, keeping cortisol dispersion at bay. It was killing two birds with one stone; by being responsive, parents could build in biological protections. That sounded like a good deal, almost too good to be true.

“Consistent emotional regulation is challenging,” I read, “if you have two or more children under five, you may find that meeting their every need can feel relentless at times; a young child has an emotional regulatory need every 20 seconds.”

Sunderland thinks parents should get help from other adults, share the regulatory burden, but not skimp on it. Others emphasize the grueling demands mean parents should make time for self-care. Surely self-care is hard to fit into that kind of schedule.

Edward Tronick, a Harvard psychologist, claims that the average mother responsively attunes to her child only about 30 percent of the time. He thinks it is good enough. That would knock Sunderland’s estimate down to one regulatory reply per minute. Even with the lowered bar, I knew I failed the test. Once a minute hardly left time for meal prep, adult conversation, or a trip to the bathroom. Although maybe I could sneak in a couple of deep, refreshing breaths for self-care.

I gave parenting my best shot for many years, but following the experts’ advice proved challenging. I tried to attend and respond, but could not always muster interest in my children’s concerns. Did it matter whether, during four-square games, my son’s friends cheated and called balls out that were really in, or if the homework his teacher assigned was “a stupid waste of time”?

“Fine,” I would say, “if it’s that bad, don’t play four-square or do your homework.”

“What kind of mother tells her kid not to do homework?” he replied.

I made a few half-hearted attempts to monitor social media and activities before deciding the effort was not worth the ensuing resentment or the way it interfered with unconditional acceptance. I snooped only if I noticed suspicious or irresponsible behavior. Even with that hands-off approach, I got accused of over-protectiveness.

“What are you doing tonight?” I would ask my teenagers.

“Why do you always need to know everything?” they would respond.

“When are you finishing your history project?

“I don’t know, it depends when I have time. It’s really annoying when you keep asking what we are doing and when.” That is not to say that parenting did not have its magic moments, when understanding and action coalesced, and the experts and I fell into step. Sometimes a kiss could magically cure a scraped knee or a bandage hide it from consciousness. Sometimes a well-timed comment lifted a sour mood. But, at other times, life’s bumps and bruises left marks. Most healed. Some probably remain as scars.

I am sure my bumbled responses are indelibly imprinted somewhere in my children’s young adult brains, but they do not seem to mind. It turns out that they did not want me to be a scientific or studied parent, or to pepper everyday interactions with too much responsiveness. They did not mind if I did not always listen or sometimes misunderstood, or if they ended up with brains or lives that were not perfectly regulated. What they wanted most was for me just to be their mom, interested in them, and willing to help when needed. Their bar, thank goodness, was relatively low.

In the meantime, the news, Internet, and bookshelves continue to bombard with the latest findings, promising to make parenthood more and more scientific, and daily life less and less feasible. While curiosity allows the hints and tips to continue to sneak into my inbox, I try to divorce myself from their grasp. No matter how devoted or well-read I become, I can never give myself or my family immunity to the difficulties of being human.

“I love you. I am going to miss you,” said my daughter, giving me a big hug as she bounded out the door to return to college, moments after expressing irritation at my questions.

“Even though you find me annoying?” I asked.

“Yes, you are annoying,” she said. “So, what?”