If you read enough about modern parenting, you’re bound to find someone complaining that “parenting” is a verb.
Many writers have offered reasons for this shift. “Parenting” implies a product carried to its completion, so the verb reflects modern attitudes toward raising children. As a verb, “parenting” gives its subject sufficient cultural freight to warrant shelves of self-help books.
Anthony Gardner of the Atlantic offers a much different answer. “To parent” is just one of countless denominalizations happening in our language, when a word formerly used as a noun starts being used as a verb. These “verbings,” like text, bookmark, and friend are useful linguistic shortcuts. It’s now “I texted her the address,” not “I sent her an electronic message with the address.”
The verb “parenting” offers a huge shortcut. “To parent” implies a lifetime of activity. It’s a shortened way of saying “provide a nurturing, safe environment in which a child is appropriately challenged and supported, so that the child will grow into a thoughtful, productive, socially-conscious adult who will leave a lasting impact on the world.”
Even that meandering definition doesn’t quite capture the verb “to parent.” One consequence of viewing parenting as a verb is the concept of parenting style. Many parenting styles leave parents feeling like they’re not parenting well enough. Read on for four ways your parenting style might be failing you, as well as advice on how to re-style your parenting.
1 | Metaphorical parenting styles negatively define other parents
A person’s “parenting style” is often a metaphor assigned by other people. Helicopter parents are involved in every small detail of their children’s lives. Snowplow parents remove every physical and metaphorical obstacle from their children’s paths. Jellyfish parents just go with the flow, giving into their children’s every desire.
One problem with describing parenting in these oppositional terms is that any person who doesn’t parent like us is defined as a bad parent. They are helicopters or tigers or snowplows or jellyfish, but we are dolphins.
Defining ourselves in terms of what other parents are doing poorly is not a particularly robust or fulfilling parenting strategy, which may help explain the recent rise of branded parenting styles.
2 | Branded parenting styles don’t deliver on their promises
One of the delights about modern parenting is that there is a manual for everything. Want to get your kid to stay in her bed? There’s a book for that. Want to stop tantrums? There’s a book for that. Want to potty-train your child in three days? There are dozens of books for that (but we’re skeptical about their effectiveness).
This wave of parenting books has also brought with it branded parenting styles, like Attachment Parenting, Free-Range Parenting, and Positive Discipline. These brands were formed by individuals or groups who often sell books, courses, and other materials to help parents master a style.
Many of these branded styles appeal to scientific authority, but they often fail to deliver on their promises. Wendy Zuckerman of Science Vs. devotes an episode to studying the science behind Attachment Parenting. She interviews Alan Sroufe of the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, who separates the branded parenting style of “Attachment Parenting” from the science of attachment.
Scientists who study child development use the term “secure attachment” to describe a relationship between a child and a caregiver. In that relationship, Sroufe says, “the child is confident about the availability and responsiveness of this particular adult.”
Sroufe describes a procedure for measuring secure attachment called the “strange situation procedure.” A parent and baby are observed in a room. A stranger enters. The parent leaves. The stranger stays. After a while, the parent comes back and the stranger leaves. The researchers then watch the child’s reaction to the parent’s return. A “securely attached” child will be happy about her parent’s return. An “insecurely attached” child will be upset or indifferent.
Sroufe says secure attachment yields kids who are more confident problem-solvers, while insecure attachment leads to lower self-esteem and poor relationships. However, it’s not clear that the rules of Attachment Parenting (breastfeed on demand, don’t leave babies to cry, sleep in the same bed, keep the baby close at all times) are any more likely to create that “secure attachment” than any other style of parenting. There may be many benefits to Attachment Parenting, but “secure attachment” isn’t exclusive to this parenting style.
3 | Branded styles obscure similarities
A slew of review articles published in 2017 show that parenting “styles” are not as important to child development as their component parts. One meta-analysis of 1,435 studies draws a connection between “parenting dimensions” (like parental warmth or harsh control) and “externalizing problems” (like aggression) in children and adolescents.
The meta-analysis found that some parenting dimensions, like psychological control and neglect, led to externalizing problems in children. Other behaviors, like parental warmth, behavioral control, and autonomy-granting, led to few or no externalizing problems.
Many of the branded parenting styles highlight one parenting dimension more than the others, but nearly all of the styles include the parenting dimensions associated with few externalizing problems. Attachment Parenting exudes warmth, but so do many other styles. Positive Discipline centers on behavioral control, but it does not own this dimension of parenting. Free-Range Parenting thrives on autonomy-granting, but it is not the only philosophy that does so.
The current scientific consensus appears to be that authoritative parenting, a sort of middle ground between “permissive” and “authoritarian,” has the best outcomes, including higher academic achievement, more prosocial behaviors, and even possibly lower obesity rates. The good news, it seems, is that most branded parenting styles emphasize the parenting dimensions that lead to these outcomes.
4 | Branded parenting styles obscure alternatives
The bad news is that the branded approaches often make alternative strategies invisible. Many branded parenting styles are named to resist challenge and obscure alternatives. You wouldn’t want to be an unattached parent, or a mindless parent, or use negative discipline.
There are plenty of alternatives to positive discipline that are not “negative,” including, for example, choosing the metaphor of teaching over discipline. But these alternatives are not so easy to see when the name of a parenting style presents parenting as a binary between one “good” and one “bad” choice.
This seeming lack of alternatives can set up parents for failure. If you aren’t able to nurse your baby, you may feel that you are failing at Attachment Parenting. If you can’t find time to sit and “be” each day, you may feel that you are failing at Mindful Parenting. If you lash out angrily at your child, you may feel that you are failing at Positive Discipline. In reality, you’re not failing at all: you’re just wearing an ill-fitting parenting style.
The problem of parenting styles isn’t that any particular style is good or bad, right or wrong, it’s that in our adherence to them we forget that style is massively subjective. We alter fashion styles all the time, whether it be emptying our closet in the latest fad-clearing or taking thrift store finds to new heights. We need to approach parenting styles in the same way, with an arsenal of verbs that allows us to lengthen here, shorten there, take in, let out, darn, darn, and vent.
Here are five questions to help you make alterations of the next parenting style you encounter.
- How does this parenting style describe other parents? A hostile and superior tone doesn’t look good on anyone.
- How do you think the creator of this style would define the “good life”? Does that “good life” match your vision? If not, put this style back on the rack.
- Do a quick Google Scholar search on the core principle underlying the parenting style. Is there strong evidence that the style will deliver on its promises? Even if so, is there strong evidence that this style is the only one that will yield your desired result?
- How does this parenting style address alternatives? If the book claims there’s only one right way to parent, its author should be more famous than Oprah.
- Does this parenting style leave room for you to grow, or does it place unreasonable or unattainable demands on you?
The world we live in is filled with information and opinions. It can be confusing, even hectic. While perusing the many, many parenting styles and looking for a fit, remember that if you have your child’s best interests in mind, you’re doing just fine.