Parenting Off Paper

Parenting Off Paper

3:30 a.m.
A mother’s voice shakes as she hums, pulling the swaddling blanket tighter around her baby. That’s got to be too tight, she thinks. The Book says swaddling tightly will calm him down. Baby wails and kicks against the blanket. It just seems to make him madder. She rocks. He screams. She sways. He screams. He’s changed, he’s fed, he’s burped—but he still screams. Maybe something’s really wrong. She unwraps the blanket, straps baby into his carseat, and starts to drive to Urgent Care. Halfway there, the crying stops. Is he breathing? Yes, he’s just asleep. She heads back home, pulls into the garage, and carefully turns off the ignition. Opening the door is too risky, so she leans her seat all the way back, wipes away a tear of exhaustion, and drifts off to sleep.

8:30 a.m. 
A mother tells her toddler it’s time to get dressed. “NO! I no wanna get dressed!” “But it’s time to get ready to go, love.” “NO! I no wanna to go!” The Book says to use cooperative language. “Come on, let’s get dressed. I’ll help you.” She takes her daughter by the hand. Her daugher melts into a puddle on the floor. The Book says to give toddlers choices. “Do you want to wear the green shirt or the pink one?”  “NO!” “‘NO’ is not an option, sweetie. What do you want to wear?” “NO! NO! NO!” From the next room, the baby starts to cry. In one swift move, Mom pulls off the toddler’s pajama top, then wrangles the pink shirt over her head. “NO! I no want this shirt!!” “Well, you should have picked one. Do you want to pick your pants?” “NO! I no want pants! NO NO NO!” Seriously? thinks the mom. Choices my eye.

3:30 p.m.
A mother picks up her son from kindergarten. He holds up a painting he made in class. “Look at my picture, Mommy! Isn’t it cool?” The Book says to give non-judging feedback. Oh, it’s so colorful!,” she says. “Yeah! It’s a dragon! Do you like it?” her son asks. The Book says to focus on the effort, not the result. It looks like you worked really hard on that!” The boy’s shoulders droop a little. “Yeah, but do you LIKE it, Mommy? I made it for YOU.” The Book says that praise will inhibit kids’ internal motivation . . . But look at his little face . . . “Sweetie, I LOVE it. I think it’s the coolest dragon I’ve ever seen.” Her son beams and squeezes her around the waist. Book be damned.

Ah, The Books. At some point, we parents realize that this whole raising humans thing is way more complex than we anticipated and we don’t really have a clue what we’re doing, so we turn to The Books. We cling to them like flashlights in a dark room. We stack them on our nightstands, hoping to absorb some of their wisdom through osmosis. And every time we pick up a new one, we think we’ve found The Answer. The Solution. The Key to Figuring Out This Parenting Thing.

But here’s the problem with The Books: A lot of parenting advice looks really good on paper. It makes sense. It sounds perfectly logical. Methods of dealing with behaviors, philosophies of discipline, theories of what kids need and what makes them tick—authors are awesome at making you see how simple it all can be . . . on paper.

But parenting off paper is a whole other ball game. Kids are not always logical—in fact, they can be flat-out irrational little maniacs. Kids are not simple—they are as complex and unique as every one of us grown-ups, and what they need and what makes them tick is as individual as fingerprints.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after 15 years and three kids, it’s that parenting is an incredibly individual undertaking. Taking one Book’s philosophy and applying it directly to your family is a great way to frustrate yourself. Something might “work” with one kid and totally fall flat with another. Something might “work” for a while and then suddenly it won’t. One of The Books might be a godsend to a family you know and adore, but it might be a totally wrong fit for you and yours. Many of The Books will sound wonderful in theory but not pan out so well in practice.

I’ve gone from adoration to disdain with certain of The Books during my 15-year parenting journey. My favorites are ones that use comic strip scenarios that show an interaction between parents and kids after utilizing whatever tips The Book is offering. You know the ones, where the kid is like, “Oh, yes. I feel all calm and centered now instead of maniacal and ragey because you showed me you were really listening.” Or, “Bedtime seems wonderful and inviting now that you’ve made me feel safe and loved.” HAHAHA *snort* Unfortunately, kids don’t follow a script. At least, mine never have.

Parenting is more art than science, more organic than systematic, more improv than script. That’s not to say there’s no place for research and systems and and even scripts in your parenting plan. Those things can be invaluable tools. But what works on paper doesn’t always work in real life. There is always trial and error involved. Kids change constantly. Humans are complicated, so naturally raising them is a complex endeavor.

After digesting The Books and thinking about all of this over many years, here’s where I’ve landed: At some point, you have to craft your own parenting philosophy based on your values, beliefs, personality, and vision for your family. It’s not as hard as it might seem, but it does take some time and thought. Hone it, and then write it down. Having a clear philosophical framework that defines your unique family is more helpful in the long run than any one-size-fits-all approach.

The other key is that you have to really know your kids. Continually learn about them—”Learn your learners,” as Pete Carroll says. Try to connect with and understand your kids as individuals. Then you can purposefully adapt your methods according to each child’s personality and temperament, while staying within the framework of your overall parenting philosophy.

There’s nothing wrong with parenting on paper—as long as it’s on your paper and not someone else’s. And as long as you stay tuned in to the off paper reality, because off paper is where the awesome, hard, beautiful experience of raising humans really happens.

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Annie writes about motherhood and other hilariously beautiful things. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and three children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

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