I’ve heard it a hundred times: “You just have to do what feels right for your family.”
Or some variation…
“No one knows your baby like you do”
“A mother always knows what’s right for her children”
“Just trust yourself”
Or my personal favorite–“You baby didn’t read the parenting book soo…”
I’ve used some of these phrases myself. They aren’t always bad advice.
What I meant when I used them was that if you feel wrong about doing something that some parenting guru told you to do–then don’t do it! You don’t need to “sleep train” your baby, use cry-it-out, wean from nursing, or screw with anything else that humans were made to do (aka, is natural), if you don’t want to.
But that’s not what everyone means.
My baby just turned one year old last month. We still bedshare and nurse throughout the night. But I’m tired you guys. Like, real tired. Fortunately my co-parent is awesome and takes the babe almost every morning so I can get a couple of uninterrupted hours of sleep, but it still just didn’t feel like it was working for me anymore. But I also wasn’t ready to stop bedsharing or nursing altogether–and current child development research suggests that I have no business stopping those things yet–so I felt a bit stuck.
But, when I came across this article by bedsharing proponent Dr. Jay Gordon, I thought that we had a solution! Gently teach your baby to sleep 7 hours a night without needing to wake up to nurse, and he still gets to bedshare but we all get to sleep a little more…perfect!
Dr. Gordon really emphasizes though, that if at any point the crying is too much or it just doesn’t seem like the right time for YOUR baby–then stop! He tells us to trust our instincts if we feel that this program isn’t good for our little ones at that particular time.
I think that’s darn good advice.
And, incidentally, after several days of our little boy crying in our arms half the night, we decided that he wasn’t ready. We were pushing too hard. We’re planning to try again in a few months. We trusted our own instincts and our child’s instincts and made a decision about what is best for our family at this time.
But make no mistake, this was an educated decision.
We are both very familiar with the research that completely supports long-term bedsharing, breastfeeding, and overall close attachment between parent and child. We were weighing the need of the parents to sleep against the baby’s need to nurse at night and we guessed that our need to sleep was greater; but we were wrong.
Our knowledge of child-development formed the backdrop for the situation in which we “trusted our instincts”.
Here’s what I believe is the crux of the problem with the whole “do what feels right” mentality: Even child abusers “feel right” about what they are doing. They often believe that they are teaching good discipline. So just because something feels right, doesn’t mean that it is right.
What feels right to someone is determined in part by their own upbringing, cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, values, and emotions.
When I’m angry, spanking may feel right. If I was raised with bullying, name-calling may feel right. If I’m an American, “independent”, solitary sleep may feel right.
We need to realize the root reason why something “feels right”. If it’s because it matches up with our biology, like nursing, closeness, responding to cries, and etc., then great! Do what feels right. But if it’s because of some other thing, then it might not actually be great for our kids.
And don’t be deceived…our kids are struggling in many ways. American kids are trailing behind kids of other developed nations in academic performance, happiness, and overall wellness (Gross-Loh). Our ADHD rates, autism rates, and suicide rates are all much too high. Not to mention the slews of young people leaving our churches. I believe all these issues can be addressed in part by examining and improving our parenting practices.
We need to break out of the box that says, “you can’t judge any parent ever because you don’t know them or their kids so you can’t know what’s best for them”…. “but even if you think you do know them, you don’t get to decide what’s right and wrong because there are a million right ways to parent”…. “so yeah.”
I’m not a fan of judging people, because even Jesus didn’t judge people–it’s not our place. But I am a fan of judging practices. This is the base of science. I want to know what kinds of outcomes are likely with any given parenting practice.
Nurse your baby? They’re likely to be smart and healthy.
Read to the baby? They’ll have a higher IQ and do better in school.
Spank the baby? They’re likely to be more violent and less sociable.
Research can tell us what is likely. I know there are a million right ways to parent. And I’m sure many of you are thinking about someone super smart who didn’t breastfeed or someone super nice who was spanked. But that doesn’t mean that whatever you do, your kid will probably turn out the same anyway.
What you do matters. So don’t make your decisions lightly. God has given you a divine responsibility to steward that child’s life. Do not gamble with it.
Many a parent has been filled with regret as their adult children struggle with confidence, become increasingly self-absorbed, are filled with anger and bitterness, make reckless decisions, treat their spouse poorly, or neglect their own children.
And everyone knows a young person who is the kindest, most friendly, down-to-earth, confident, successful and humble person you’ve ever known. It doesn’t happen by chance. And it’s not just because they love the Lord. Plenty of people love the Lord but are unable to succeed in life, or struggle to have meaningful relationships (even with God himself), or just aren’t happy.
It takes a secure family of origin and a whole slew of socializations during childhood for love and success to come easily in adulthood.
That’s not to say that a child won’t be able to overcome and still have a satisfying life if their childhood was less-than-ideal. In fact, everyone has some sort of baggage from childhood that needs to be worked through in order to have healthy relationships. And with the Lord, we can. But many of us will still struggle with certain things from our childhoods for our whole lives–and I don’t want my children to have too many of that kind of baggage.
The goal is not to produce perfect children, but to produce children with as little baggage as possible, who know and love the Lord and believe that with God they can work through anything.
In America, we have a problem. Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D, talks about it in her book, Parenting Without Borders. Millions of parents are filled with anxiety about our parenting. We stress and struggle to figure out what is best for our kids, so we turn to blogs, books, doctors, and friends to find out what we’re “supposed” to do. This is in part because we have no real heritage anymore when it comes to parenting. We can’t just do what our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents did because well, they all did something different! In traditional societies it’s much less complicated; “We just do it as our people have always done it…and it works.”
Because of this societal norm of being so high-strung with our parenting, many of us balk at that kind of thinking and go off the deep end in the other direction, saying that everyone should just do what feels right and not think so hard about their decisions.
But I believe that there is a happy medium to be found here.
1–We don’t need to be so worried, because children are made to grow up! God designed the system of babies being born into families full of love, and he gives us the ability to raise awesome adults. So no need to stress.
2–We can’t be lackadaisical about the parenting decisions we make because first of all, God has entrusted these children to us and it would dishonor him to not take it seriously, and secondly, we know from parenting research that the experiences people have during childhood truly affect them for the rest of their life, whether in a positive or negative way.
So let me urge you, think about the decisions you make with your kids, but don’t stress about those decisions.
Be intentional. Begin with the end in mind. Be fierce in your love and gentle in your touch. Be selfless. Be empathetic–it will teach them to be empathetic. Don’t value obedience above love; Jesus didn’t.
Above all, love God in a visible way and strive to always communicate to your kids how much they are worth in his eyes.
And brush up on your research. Go find out for yourself how spanking affects a child’s development before you decide that it “feels right”. Find out the risks of weaning, the benefits of reading, and the outcomes of home births before you make these decisions. Get an e-reader and READ about these things–from evidence-based places please. Not just some doc with a typewriter. If there are no citations, don’t take it too seriously.
Be strong and parent like a boss. Your kids deserve your best.
Gross-Loh, Christine. Parenting Without Borders: Surprising lessons parents around the world can teach us. 2013.