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Progress book parents access: Are All These Parenting Books Messing With Parents’ Heads?

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I have a massive stack of parenting books on my desk. Some of them tell me I’m doing an awesome job raising my kid (those books, I dog-ear and pet lovingly). Others tell me I’m screwing everything up, from bed time to screen time. I devour them all, for my job, but also because there’s part of me that keeps looking for that thing to cling to—that just-discovered philosophy from some remote village where all the kids are happy and helpful (and would never call you “Squishy Belly Mommy”), that scientifically-proven technique that will give me five more hours a day, that voice that’s going to say, “Oh, honey, you mean you’ve been navigating parenthood without an instruction manual? Here you go.” I’m searching for answers at a stage where there seems to be an endless number of questions.

But is there such a thing as too much parenting advice? As pretty much anyone with a child will tell you, oh hell yeah there is. The Guardian published “The Diabolical Genius of the Baby Advice Industry,” in which Oliver Burkeman argues that parents, particularly brand new ones, are a unique prey. He writes that the exploding genre of parenting guides “targets people at their most sleep-deprived, at the beginning of what will surely be the weightiest responsibility of their lives, and suggests that maybe, just maybe, between the covers of this book, lies the morsel of information that will make the difference between their baby’s flourishing or floundering.”

What Burkeman believes parents are trying to do is bring “the terrifying unpredictability of the world under control.” And is there anything more unpredictable than suddenly being in charge of a new baby who doesn’t know day from night or where his own nose is? At the same time, there’s a wondrous sense of hope in it all. While it’s too late to perfect our own adult lives, Burkeman writes that “a brand-new baby makes it possible to believe in the fantasy once more.” Could your offspring be the next Bill Gates or Oprah or Jon Stewart if you just nurture them the right way?

But read enough of these books and you’ll quickly find that no “right” way exists, and there’s a threshold to how much advice you can consume before you start questioning every single decision you have to make (Are flushable wipes really better than the ones you throw in the trash can?). Everything seems to contradict each other. Burkeman points out that in the baby advice industry, there are two opposing camps: the Baby Trainers (those who urge parents to implement strict schedules and structures as early as possible) and Natural Parents (those who believe that “modernity had corrupted the purity of parenthood, which could be recovered only by emulating the earthy practices of indigenous tribes in the developing world and/or prehistoric humans”).

Many parenting styles fall somewhere within those circles—there’s Tiger parenting, slow parenting, attachment parenting, free-range parenting, RIE, and helicopter parenting. While there are some hardcore advocates for certain philosophies, I think a lot of us fall into the let’s-just-do-the-best-we-can category. Why do we need these boxes at all? Burkeman cites the work of psychologist Alison Gopnik when he explains that perhaps our mistake as parents is “in imagining that anything as complex as a relationship between humans could be reduced to a set of consciously manipulable variables.” We’re putting stress on ourselves and our kids by trying to stay within the lines.

So far, at various stages of raising my daughter, I’ve cherrypicked parenting advice that sounded like it might work for my specific situation. (Let’s face it, I usually just chose whichever method would give me the most sleep), I have co-slept, and I’ve followed a strict technique of getting my toddler out of diapers in three days. I still read lots of parenting books, and I find value in them, but I don’t place any of the authors’ advice over that of trusted friends who have older children, and our pediatrician. I’m more into parenting reminders than parenting rules. (I live by this one from Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, which says, “Who we are is a much more accurate predictor of how our kids will do than what we know or understand about the science of parenting.”) I will always get excited over a good parenting hack.

I know that we as parents should love our kids, acknowledge their feelings, and make ourselves available for them when they need us. Aside from that, do whatever works for you. Your confidence will come through experience, not through the pages of the latest bestseller.

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