My friends and I have been passing this Science Daily article to each other—a short piece reporting UK research to the effect that for some five decades now, child-rearing “experts” via their manuals and how-to books, having been telling mothers to do impossible things. The authors use the term “setting the bar too high”; I would use the expression “setting mothers (and fathers) up for failure.”
Now, if you’re a 21st century parent like me, you’ve consumed at least half-dozen different parenting books, a bunch of them before your baby’s first birthday. Probably more, right? How many? I think in the first two to three years of my own journey, I read them all. This is the (short) story of when I stopped reading them and why. Flora was about 10 months old, and Cinder three and change.
From 2005: My son peed in my daughter’s ear today, and in the split second of silence between my “Oh, God, Cinder, gross, gross, gross, what were you thinking?” and his ear-splitting, half-remorseful, half-angry “Waaaaaaaaaaaah!”, I condemned myself as a parent. He did this because I breastfed him too long/not long enough, because I did not script the introduction of his new sister into his life as perfectly as, say, Dr. Sears did each of his eight children, because I let him eat too much Halloween candy, because I laugh at his other scatological jokes, because I did not punish him that time he peed on the pigeons in the park…
Minutes later, we’re washing Flora’s head together, Cinder repeating to himself, “We pee in the potty, we pee in the potty, sorry Flora, sorry mommy,” then, “but I can pretend pee on Flora, right, Mommy? Is that funny?” I look at him and blink my eyes. I really don’t know what to say. I have half a shelf of parenting books, including Dr. Sears’ Discipline Book and What to Expect the Toddler Years (the book I love to hate). If I look in the index, I will not find, “pee on sibling” or “how to discipline when pees on sibling” or “pretend pee and poop play, how to deal with.” I’m on my own here, and if I say or do the wrong thing, Flora will smell like urine for the rest of her life.
Cinder climbs into the tub beside Flora and piles bubbles on her head. “Flora is a bubblehead, bubblehead, bubblehead,” he sings. “Look, Mommy, I’m washing Flora,” he says. And at that precise moment, I have an epiphany, at least party because my crisis has been averted—he is no longer looking for guidance as to whether pretending to pee on Flora is funny; I don’t need to provide that particular answer right now.
Here’s my epiphany: I’m a damn good mother, and will remain a damn good mother regardless of how I handle the “pee on sibling” incident. One, in the long run, my specific response to this specific challenge doesn’t matter. He will not be peeing on his sister when he’s six; much less when he’s sixteen. Two, three minutes later, it’s all forgotten—at least by Cinder and Flora—apparently one of those events the universe just throws at you to see if you have a sense of humour. Three… parenting books suck.
From Life’s Archives, November 7, 2005 —Yes, he really peed on her // The Day I Stopped Reading Parenting Books
From 2012: So is it true? Have I really stopped reading parenting books? Well… there’s a chapter of Gordon Neufeld’s Hold On To Your Kids I revisit almost every year (I’ll tell you which one, and why, soon). I’ve kept Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting on the bookshelf still… I haven’t re-read since the pee-in-ear incident, but I think the world’s a better place because that book exists. And I do have a handful of blogs on living with children, learning and family adventures I like to visit. I like to laugh at their adventures, empathizes with their misadventures (so many of theme echo my own), and maybe get inspired by their solutions—or reject their solutions as inappropriate to my family and our path. None of them—not even Dr. Neufeld—will ever—nor should they—tell me what to do when my son pees in my daughter’s ear. I’ve got to figure that out for myself.