To sleep train, or not to sleep train: that is the question that Shakespeare would have asked if he was a modern day parent. Or maybe he would have considered whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to put your kid in a Waldorf preschool or a Montessori preschool.
Or maybe he would be too busy elimination communicating (it’s a form of potty training babies) with his six-month-old to have time to write.
Fear-based parenting is big business. I don’t just mean the daily horror stories that pop up on Yahoo news about rare diseases, bizarre accidents, and worst-case scenarios. I also mean the big business of right and wrong parenting.
We don’t want to screw up our kids. Luckily, there are plenty of parenting experts willing to tell us the right way to parent. We just have to buy their book.
And some of it is definitely helpful to some people. I’m not dismissing all expert advice, but I am suggesting that no one has written a book about your child or about you. And by the time a parenting expert did write a book about you and your kid, it would be too late to be helpful to you.
You’re writing your parenting style every day – even if it feels less of a tale of strategy and more of a tale of survival.
Here are suggestions on how to find your parenting style.
Beware online (or anonymous) advice
Look, you already feel vulnerable. Don’t open yourself up to a stranger’s opinion on a social media site. Even if your question seems benign like, "What’s your favorite bottle for a two-month-old?" Inevitably you’ll get a worst case scenario response like, "Here’s an article about a two-month-old choking on a bottle," and a judgement response like, "I hope you intend to put breast milk in that bottle."
If you are going to ask for advice from strangers, be prepared for some strange advice mixed in with the helpful stuff.
Personally, I’m better off asking for parenting recommendations from people I know. Even some of my close friends have different parenting styles than I favor with my kids, so I still use selective hearing when gathering advice and deciding on which advice to follow.
Choose your company wisely
Some people claim to know the right way to parent. I wouldn’t trust those people, and I wouldn’t hang out with them. The truth is I don’t really think they trust themselves. When I was a new and insecure mom, I was defensive and I had to be sure I was doing everything right for my baby which meant that another way of doing things was wrong.
The right people to hang out with don’t actually have the right answers for your parenting questions. They might make suggestions or offer advice, but they don’t believe they know better than you how you should raise your kids.
Hang out with people who make you feel supported and confident. Avoid people who make you feel insecure about your parenting choices.
Find your parenting expert
Really, what is a parenting expert? Have they parented children of every imaginable personality and waited to be sure that all of those children grew up to lead happy and noble lives before publishing their findings?
Certainly there is valuable information in many parenting philosophies, but don’t feel like you have to follow one guru. Parenting is not a two party system. You can pick and choose advice from a myriad of philosophies.
The expert you need is a pediatrician you love. Someone you jive with. Someone you trust. Someone who listens.
And, perhaps the most helpful expert is a friend with an older child similar to yours. If your kid doesn’t sleep, commiserate with someone who also had a baby who didn’t sleep. If you have a sensitive kid, talk to another parent with a sensitive kid. If your kid bites, talk to another parent whose kid was a biter.
Or, if you had a happy childhood, consider your parents experts. Some parenting truths stay true through generations. Your parenting expert may take the form of someone you knew well for years, or someone you just met. This person may change over time depending on your needs. Just find someone you can rely on when all else fails.
Build a community you trust – and then trust it
It really does take a village to raise a child. Through teachers, babysitters, daycare workers, neighbors, friends, and grandparents, your children are going to be exposed to all kinds of opinions and ways of doing things. Obviously, you will only choose to leave your child in a place where you are confident in their safety, but you can’t control every environment.
You can’t make a nanny do things exactly the way you would do them. You can’t expect a preschool teacher to teach your child the way you would teach your child. You can’t ask your mom to babysit and then micromanage how she babysits. You’ll drive yourself crazy and the people in your village crazy too.
I’ve learned a lot about how to be a better parent from the other people (teachers, family, daycare workers, friends) who help me raise my kids.
At some point you have to trust that your child can survive other ways of doing things and other points of view and, in fact, that exposure to other options is what will make your kid a stronger and more resilient human.
Lean on your teammate
If you have a parenting partner, then no decision is yours alone to make. Ask your partner what he or she thinks. Listen to each other. Make decisions together. Strategize together and then follow through with each other’s help.
Being able to share parenting responsibilities (with decision making being one of the biggest), leads to less pressure and stress on one parent and creates more room for joy in parenting and in our partnerships.
Get a reality check
I live in LA. Sometimes I forget that LA is a bubble. Then I go home to Texas and tell my dad and sister that a swim intensive for my four-year-old would "only cost $350 for the week" and they look at me like I’ve lost my mind, and the bubble breaks. Oh, right, $350 is a lot of money for a swim class.
Sometimes I’ll call my sister who has twins or my friend who has triplets for a reminder to not get overwhelmed by the little things. The big picture is loving our kids and keeping them safe.
It’s good to emerge from the rabbit hole of parenting every once in awhile and look around and remember that there are other ways of doing things.
Feel free to change your mind
Everyone talks about how consistency is key in parenting. But every day ushers in a new phase of sleeping, eating, digesting, growing, and learning. Change is inevitable. If something isn’t working for you or has stopped working for you, stop doing it.
I felt like we had to sleep train my daughter and I was determined to be consistent and see it through, and when I finally asked myself why I was continuing to do something that didn’t feel right and wasn’t working, I didn’t have a good answer.
So my husband and I agreed that none of our children were going to cry it out anymore.
Now, some experts will say that we did the wrong thing because we took away our daughter’s ability to self soothe. Some will say we did the right thing because when babies cry they need comfort. All I know is that that baby has turned into a pretty great four year old and she has a little brother who was never sleep trained and sleeps like a champ.
The truth is, you don't have to be stuck with one parenting style. You don’t have to label yourself. Borrow from each style when it works for you and when it doesn’t, give it back. Really, we’re all just making it up as we go along anyway.
I wonder what kind of parent I’ll be today.