, , ,

Parenting is scrupulosity hell, and I don’t even have a kid yet.

Like, effective altruism gets a bad rap, but at least most effective altruists are aware that excessive guilt is an issue and try to combat it. The parenting advice world, however, is full of articles with titles like If You Send Your Kid To Private School You Are A Bad Person, Facebook friends-of-friends who say that not homeschooling your child is child abuse, comment sections who think that agoraphobics shouldn’t have children, and parenting books that say that if you tell your baby not to cry you better put aside a lot of money for their therapy bills.

I don’t mean to say that there’s no such thing as bad parenting. It’s a bad idea to call your kid a stupid lazy failure who will go nowhere in life. You should probably take your children to the doctor on a regular basis. It is not a good idea to give your child lead lightly sprinkled with arsenic and botulism for dinner. Notably, sending your child to private school, not homeschooling your child, parenting with a mental illness, and saying “don’t cry” are not actually in any of those categories.

First of all, there’s not actually a whole lot of evidence that parenting does much of anything. Of course, don’t abuse or neglect your kids and don’t decide that the Vitamin K shot is a bad idea because technology is bad epidemiology is scary and Thomas Edison was a witch. And you have a lot of control over how happy your kids are in childhood and, relatedly, how much they hate your guts as adults– and substantial control over how happy a human being is for literally two decades is nothing to sneeze at. But for a lot of the things the Mommy Wars are over– formula vs. breastfeeding, homeschool vs. private school vs. public school, positive discipline vs. timeouts vs. nonabusive spanking– the best evidence shows little to no effect on long-term outcomes. (For more, check out The Nurture Assumption and Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.)

On a related note, for a lot of parenting, the evidence is very mixed. Bob doesn’t let his children under two watch television, following the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Alice, on the other hand, notes that a lot of the research the AAP relies on is correlational, and better designed studies suggest that television is, if anything, mildly positive. It can make sense for Bob to explain to Alice why he trusts experts more than his own assessment of the literature, or for Alice to explain the studies she’s relying on. Yelling at each other about how they are terrible parents doesn’t promote sharing information; it just makes people feel like shit.

Even if the evidence is clear, parents have different needs and constraints. Charlie’s kid is being severely bullied in public school, and sending him to private school is the only way Charlie can think of to keep them from being repeatedly assaulted. Dana is a single mom who works two jobs, and frankly she barely has time to sleep, much less homeschool– she knows that if she homeschooled her children they’d wind up being educationally neglected. Eve has wanted children for her entire life, but she’s struggled with agoraphobia for years: right now, thanks partially to good coping mechanisms and partially to working from home and Instacart, she’s managed to minimize its interference with her daily activities, but she knows that eliminating her agoraphobia will take years and may never happen. She has planned to live with roommates and to have her husband drive the children to activities.

I don’t think that Charlie is a bad person, Dana is a child abuser, or Eve shouldn’t have children. They are doing the best they can in their circumstances. Even someone who’s a hardcore homeschooler can admit that public school is better than educational neglect or homelessness, even someone who’s very much in favor of diversity in schooling can admit that a child being assaulted is too high a price to pay, and even someone who’s leery about mentally ill people having children in general can recognize that a manageable, chronic condition does not necessarily mean one shouldn’t have kids. Since they agree with those statements, they need to stop using the harsh rhetoric that makes it look like they don’t.

The most important thing any child needs is a happy and healthy parent. If you’re running yourself ragged trying to be Supermom, all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to stress yourself out, snap at your kids, make your kids feel guilty because of all the sacrifices you’re making for them, and make parenting decisions you wouldn’t have made in the right state of mind. If you have to bedshare (increased risk of SIDS!) or let the baby cry it out (not respectful of your baby’s needs!) in order to get a good night’s sleep, do it; I’m pretty sure either way the downsides are outweighed just by the risk of you falling asleep at the wheel of a car, not to mention all the other benefits of actually getting to sleep. If breastfeeding is ruining your relationship with your baby, don’t breastfeed. If driving kids to fourteen activities leaves you with no time for yourself, ask them which activities they really want. Even if the only thing you care about is your children, in the long run the right decision is to take care of yourself.

No one is a perfect parent. Even parents who are committed to respect and kindness get pissed and scream at their kids. Even parents who care a lot about their children’s autonomy have days where they don’t care about respecting your ability to choose the pink shoes or the purple shoes, just wear this one and get in the car we’re fucking late. Even parents who care a lot about their children’s nutrition have weeks where they get McDonalds for every dinner because they’ve been on their feet for fourteen hours and they can’t bear to cook from scratch.There is not a person in the world who manages to go eighteen years without making a mistake. Think of it like a primary relationship: even if you’re committed to good communication, self-awareness, and emotional maturity, there are going to be times when you say things that you don’t really mean, you have stupid fights that could have been avoided if you just explained what you meant, or you skulk around the house saying you are FINE just FINE when you are clearly no such thing. That’s not to say that it’s a good idea to skulk around the house saying you’re FINE, any more than it’s a good idea to scream at your kids. But what it means is that you should apologize, say you were having a rough day, and stop beating yourself up about it. And it means that if you’re being judgmental of someone for screaming at their kids, you should stop, unless you would like to go through the greatest hits of times you did things that went against your values.

But my most important point is that children are different from each other. Again, think of it like a primary relationship. Obviously, there are some baselines that apply to everyone: it’s a bad idea to have contempt for your partner, you ought to respect your partner’s needs and boundaries, you should own up when you’ve done something wrong, and so on. But a lot of advice simply doesn’t generalize to everyone. “Watching porn is a great way to strengthen your relationship!” works for sex-positive people but not for the serious Catholics. Some people find playfully calling each other assholes breaks the tension, while other people would find that tremendously disrespectful. Some people take time for their weekly date night, while other people find that unnecessary and stuffy. Some people sit down for State of the Relationship talks, while other people just bring up things as they come up. People need different things in their relationships, and so naturally relationships are going to work differently from each other.

The difference between parenting and primary relationships is that children spend quite a few years without a good model of their long-term needs (“I need ice cream for dinner and all the toys in the store!”) and even after they develop such a model are powerless to leave the relationship if it doesn’t suit their needs. It’s very possible for a parent– even a good, loving parent– to make mistakes about what their child needs. So where you might shrug and go “well, I guess it works for them” at a friend’s incomprehensible primary relationship, a friend’s incomprehensible parenting style might prompt you to go “holy shit! That’s horrible for your child!”– even if it’s exactly what their child needs. And of course this bitterness is most natural on the part of children whose parents had a parenting style or practices that just didn’t work for them.

To pick an example close to my heart: Borderline personality disorder is caused by a combination of a genetic predisposition to BPD and an invalidating environment in childhood. Some invalidating environments are genuinely awful, such as being a victim of child sexual abuse or being abused. But some invalidating environments are just what’s called, evocatively, “a tulip in a rose garden”. Borderlines get born in families that are very emotionally controlled, that encourage stoicism, and that teach them to keep a stiff upper lip. If your child has a genetic predisposition to BPD, that makes them feel like their emotions are stupid and that they’re worthless, fails to teach them any useful coping mechanisms for extreme emotions, and encourages them to make their emotions bigger so that people will pay attention to their pain– all of which lead ultimately to having a personality disorder.

The problem here is that encouraging stoicism and emotional control are great ways of parenting some children. Saying “look, it’s not that big a deal” can help teach a child to reframe the situation and look at the bigger picture. Modeling control of your emotions in the face of negative life events helps many children learn to face their problems effectively. Most of the parents who teach their children emotional control do that because it’s what worked for them as kids.

There’s no such thing as a perfect parenting style for every child. There’s not even any such thing as a parenting style that is 100% guaranteed not to give your child a personality disorder. Even if you do the best you can, you might hurt your kid. That’s terrifying. And I understand why people back away from this terrifying reality by claiming that they know the One True Right Way To Parent and if anybody else disagrees it’s because they’re horrible people and child abusers. But it still has the possibility to hurt other parents and your own children.

Before you criticize parenting decisions, consider why you believe what you believe. Do you believe it because of:

  • High-quality academic evidence, like twin studies or Cochrane reviews
  • Low-quality academic evidence, like correlational research
  • Ethical principles (e.g. “don’t hit people unless you have a really good reason”)
  • Anecdotes about what worked for you (either as a kid or a parent) or kids or parents you know
  • Having read a parenting book that includes wildly enthusiastic testimonials from people without surnames

If you believe something because of relatively less valuable evidence, consider toning down how angry you are about people not following it.

Consider the context as well. If someone is treating your child in a way you consider disrespectful, it’s totally justified to complain to a friend or in a Facebook post. If a stranger is making a parenting decision you consider unwise, or you have read an article about a parenting technique you think is evil, maybe consider toning it down and recognizing that things that work for you don’t necessarily work for others. And when you issue general advice, always be aware of the many circumstances that keep people from following any piece of ethical advice; make it clear that you believe that people should do the best they can, and there is no shame in not doing something you’re not able to do.