Thursday, October 29, 2020

Of Course There's a Parenting Manual

As I approach 50, and my two kids enter college and high school, I look back with pride and a bit of relief that I didn’t screw this up.

My wife Julie and I were talking recently about how we got to this point, and the one thing we recalled about getting ready to welcome our first child is memories of reading. We read and talked a lot about parenting before we started doing it. Just like we always did before planning a trip, we researched, heading to the bookstore and library in search of what was known about the experience we were about to embrace. Obviously it helped that we were both educators and natural readers. It has also helped we somehow have two incredibly amazing kids. In fact, at times my wife and I sometimes admit we might have no idea if we actually are good parents because in some ways we haven’t really parented; but that really only means we haven’t struggled with managing behavior. In reality, we have parented every minute of our kids lives, even when that meant giving them autonomy and freedom. 

Parenting is undoubtedly an uncertain and ever-evolving series of events, and most parents will advise newbies that you can never fully prepare for what comes next. However, that doesn’t mean there is no store of knowledge and wisdom about parenting. Sadly, too many people feel we are destined to be flying blind and living in a state of crisis management throughout the childhood years. I recall an episode of Oprah years ago where one of her guests lamented to Dr. Phil, “you know, there’s no parenting manual.” Both Oprah and Dr. Phil nodded and smiled, exclaiming, “That’s right, there is no parenting manual.” It’s not like the hospital gives you a user's manual as you head out the door, right? Julie and I just looked at each other, dumbfounded. “Of course there is a parenting manual,” we protested to the TV. In fact, there are dozens that sprang to our minds without even doing an Amazon or Barnes & Noble search. 

Being a Gen X child of a 70s upbringing, I remember hearing my mom talk of Dr. Spock, the pediatrician whose 1946 bestseller The Common Book of Baby & Child Care influenced post World War II parenting. Granted, there is much discussion these days of everything Dr. Spock got wrong, but there is no denying the influence and significance of the book that was grounded in a simple faith in the parenting instinct and that gave confidence and support to millions of young parents by reminding them “you know more than you think you do.” Dr. Spock had plenty of detailed advice on how new parents could raise and nurture their children into adults. His somewhat revolutionary tome broke with traditions in parenting by encouraging parents to not follow strict rules but to see their children as individuals. It’s sort of an adaptive model. For Boomers and Gen Xers, this was the definitive parenting manual used to raise two generations. 

In contemporary twenty-first century America, the bookshelf on parenting self-help has greatly expanded. Beyond the basic parenting manuals, the industry has grown into numerous specialized genres of primary importance such as feeding your child and getting him or her to sleep. There are books on literacy and emotional intelligence and allergies and toy selection. There is no shortage of books on discipline, with full manuscripts devoted to the questions of whether or not to spank (Helpful Hint: No). In fact, two enterprising parents and “parenting coaches,” (yes, that’s really a thing), Carole and Nadim Saad actually wrote a parenting manual called Kids Don’t Come with a Manual, a bestseller which has since become a series. However, if I am advising a future parent, I think it has to start with the classic What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which should be a mandatory baby shower gift, and it should always be paired with What to Expect the First Year.  If we reflect and look back on our experience, the next most significant book Julie and I read was Proactive Parenting. Of course, it doesn’t have to be a single manual or book; it could easily be a website with multiple resources like The Guide to Modern Parenting

These days the parenting manuals most often are not manuals and guidebooks, as much as they are memoirs of success and failure. They share tips on how to raise children the French way, or they are occasionally self-congratulatory books that sing the praises of being a tiger mom or the hipster dad. As the parents of a couple successful children, my wife and I have often fielded not only compliments but queries about what we did, or more importantly how we got our kids to act as they do. Well, we never did anything to get them to act that way. However, we have read and talked a lot about parenting. And as educators, we have admittedly witnessed and discussed a great deal the parenting choices of others.

Much can be learned from the wisdom and experience of others. So, that’s the crux of my parenting advice. Yes, there is a parenting manual. And there is one that is perfect for you and your child. Read it.

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