Before it became a feminist news outlet, I enjoyed the Scary Mommy site. The volume and variety of content reminded me a bit of that song from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: “Something familiar, something peculiar, something for everyone…something appealing, something appalling.” Every now and then stories from the site pop up on my Facebook feed, including one titled “Gentle Parenting Isn’t Always Easy, But It Is Rewarding.” I finished reading it with my prejudice against “gentle parenting” intact.
Frankly, it isn’t necessarily the parenting methods described by self-proclaimed gentle parents that annoy me as much as the self-congratulatory title, which all too often accompanies a holier-than-thou attitude toward their own parenting and a blindness to the good in others’ styles. When looking at a gentle parenting article, I am always prepared to find heaps of scorn for parents who don’t follow this “scientific, evidence-based approach,” and who also deny that the tenets gentle parents espouse (empathy, respect, understanding, and boundaries) are in fact common to most good parents. What are parents who don’t adopt the “gentle” moniker? Rude? Harsh? Nothing good, you may be sure. We bark orders at our 2-year-olds and beat them mercilessly when they cry, creating cowering, emotionally-stunted messes who need lots of therapy to help them overcome their ungentle upbringing.
The current post begins by focusing on “the judgment that tells us we shouldn’t snuggle our babies to sleep. You know, out of fear that they will become “too attached” to their brand new mommy or daddy.” Strawman alert: people recommend that you put your child down sleepy but awake not because they don’t want your kid to be too “attached,” but because doing so allows your child to (eventually) soothe himself to sleep. Most people recognize that it’s hard to do this with newborns and describe this as a gradual, dare I say gentle, process.
“We’re told that nursing our baby on demand instead of sticking to a strict three-hour block-schedule is going to make our infant “spoiled” (as if that’s such a thing). If we wake up for the fifth time in one night and decide to rock our babe to sleep yet again, we are creating “bad habits.”” This author completely ignores the fact that feeding newborns on demand is widely promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics and most parenting resources; the “Baby-Wise” approach of timed feeding hasn’t been popular for awhile, though it’s still there.
The author then states that if we were dealing with adults, no one would disapprove of cuddling and comforting them back to sleep. This paragraph is a veritable cornfield of straw men:
“When adults are upset and shedding a tear or two, sometimes the gentle touch or tight hug from a loved one is much needed.” (When adults cry, it’s usually because something terrible or sad has occurred. Babies cry regularly, and most of the time we snuggle them in response.) “On those nights when we are too restless to sleep, we enjoy and appreciate the closeness of our partner to keep us company.” If my husband is suffering from insomnia, he does not wake me up because he’d enjoy some company. True, we sleep together, but when I was living with my brother as an adult I never wandered into his room and woke him up to keep me company; nor did he do the same to me. “If we wake up aching and down for the count with a fever, it’s comforting when someone is by our side and eager to care for us until we are better.” I personally know zero parents of ANY parenting philosophy who don’t care for their sick kids at night. My husband and I have never said to our young kids, “Ah, sorry you threw up. Be a good kid and throw your dirty stuff in the laundry, huh? See you in the morning,” and I cannot imagine even the strictest of parents doing such a thing unless they’re actually negligent or abusive (which is different than having a different parenting style).
After telling us that babies communicate by crying, the author goes on “We hold them while they ride out the tummy troubles, squeeze them extra tight as they are cutting a big mean tooth, and we rock them to sleep ten times a night with droopy eyelids when it’s needed.” Yes, duh. We all do that. Here’s the big question: How often is “needed”?
The author provides an absolutely bonkers answer and establishes her mommy-martyr cred in the next few sentences: “Our children’s need for us knows no bounds (says the mother who was up every hour, on the hour with her five-year-old this week). We are never off the hook when it comes to the high demands placed on our shoulders as a little person’s parent, and it really is so short lived…there isn’t some magical number in age where our kids stop needing us, nor should they ever feel like they are “too big” for their parents to stop being intentional with the way they are cared for.” We have, then, the author’s real thesis, which is not “We should snuggle and care for our babies” (not controversial), but that in some ways at least we should never stop treating them as babies.
Now, she and her 5-year-old have my sympathy if her 5-year-old was so sick that she was up every hour on the hour–unless the child was ill with a vaccine-preventable illness, in which case I have no sympathy at all for this author. But it is simply nonsense to say that our children’s need for us “knows no bounds,” and we’re “never off the hook.” Rather, a child’s need for us knows very definite bounds that change as the child grows up. A newborn really does need more or less constant feeding, snuggling, and attention. They don’t need to be taught how to tie their shoes; that comes later. A three-year-old child does not need that same proximity to their parents, and should possess the skills to be a little bit independent. A thirteen-year-old child needs something else again. These needs may differ from child to child, or be fulfilled in different ways from parent to parent, but they are not boundless, nor are they static. Barring medical or developmental problems, 5-year-olds should not be getting up at night as often as 5-week-olds.
I have no idea what “there isn’t some magical number in age where our kids stop needing us, nor should they ever feel like they are “too big” for their parents to stop being intentional with the way they are cared for” actually means, but coming on top of the other stuff it sounds very much like the author is okay with bed-sharing into the kids’ tween years, breastfeeding until approximately the same age, and not instituting barbaric practices like a regular bedtime.
The author then attempts to prove that “gentle parenting” is necessary because Young kids aren’t able to manage their emotions just yet, and even some (almost all) adults struggle with it from time to time. It takes years and years to teach our children how to live in this big, big world that can be quite intimidating to even the bravest of them all. And as a parent, it is our responsibility to help them navigate it. Not to say, “Sorry, kid. You’re on your own for this one.” This is a fine mix of some obvious truths and foolish advice. It is absolutely our responsibility as a parent to help our kids navigate this world and deal with their own emotions. And guess what? A vital part of that process is to sometimes say “Sorry, kid. You’re on your own for this one.” If we swoop in to rescue our kids from every distress, we get fragile kids and adults without the necessary resilience to cope with the problems of everyday life. This is failing our children in a big way, and I believe it’s seen in the ever-increasing rates of mental health issues among our youth.
The author continues to miss the point when, after delivering a paean to the most precious, valuable beings on the planet (children), she says that “I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t always fun waking up with a screaming baby many times throughout the night. But as much as it’s not always fun for me, I have to consider just how not fun it is for my child at the same time. No one wants to scream until their throat is dry, scratchy, and hurting.” Exactly right. This is why you teach the child, at an appropriate age, to soothe themselves. In the long run, you are decreasing their distress by giving them the tools they need to put themselves back to sleep when they wake up. There are many paths to a good night’s sleep, and some children don’t respond well to sleep training, but at some point the kid shouldn’t need Mommy to make it through the night.
She is also creating monsters when she does things like fill up her 5-year-olds’ cups in the middle of the night. “Sometimes I’m internally screaming, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” when one of my five-year-olds insists on needing another drink in the middle of the night. Then I remember how many times I fill up my cup from dusk to dawn,” [how often does she get up to pee?] “and how little it takes of me to refill my child’s Frozen 2 water bottle one last time. These are the things I do for my kids that some people might consider “over the top,” but I make no apologies for the way I choose to parent.”
“Make no apologies,” huh? This author is free to parent however she wishes, but she would be much wiser to tell her 5-year-old kids, “If you want a drink, the faucet is over there. Now don’t wake me up again unless there’s blood, vomit, or a fire. We need sleep in order to be good parents to you, and you need your sleep, too.” Even during the day I make no apologies for pointing out the water dispenser to my thirsty kids and telling them that they’re welcome to help themselves to a drink.
I’ve spent this post attacking the author’s approach to parenting. I don’t generally like to do this; as I’ve said before, kids do fine no matter how you parent them, as long as you’re not actually abusive or neglectful. But I cannot stand the smug, self-righteous tone of mommies (it’s nearly always mommies) who declare themselves “warrior mamas,” or proudly proclaim their superiority to Those Other Folks who don’t babywear or who give their kids time outs (let alone swats on the behind). I get it: You’re a parent, you love your kids, you’re doing your best. So are we all, rude parents included.