By Tracy G. Cassels
“All I know is that I know nothing.”
We have an unfortunate habit these days of being convinced that we know everything; we sorely lack the epistemological modesty of Socrates. And there is no area where this is greater than parenting. Simply because one has been a parent seems to be license to tell anyone and everyone that the way they did it is best; the books they read and followed work better than any others. And if you try to tell them, no matter how gently, that there may be a better, or equally good, way out there, you will witness defensiveness and deafness like you’ve never seen. The parenting “experts” are even worse. In a rush to make a fortune, they treat all babies the same with rules and regulations that they promise will help everyone, individual differences be damned! The big problem with this know-it-all culture is that it’s built upon a false foundation – we don’t know everything. In fact, what we do know is enough to fill a teaspoon and we’d be wise to accept that fact if we want to truly be good parents.
Socrates’ quote about knowledge has stood the test of time because of how accurate it is. I remember reading a piece by a famous psychologist about how the more research he did and read, the less he felt he knew; to the point where he simply had to accept that he felt as if he knew less as a tenured professor than he did as a first year undergraduate student in psychology (going with the knowing less, I cannot, for the life of me, remember who it was).
When it comes to parenting there is a vast history of varying ways to parent and only through constant exploration do we start to understand the implications of each and understand how little we know. The problem in our culture (and perhaps others) is that we are so adamant about believing we must be right in how we do everything that we fail to acknowledge that a) we can still learn and b) that if we’re willing to learn and sometimes admit that perhaps the way we previously did things isn’t perfect, we can be better parents. Let’s start with the first notion – that we can still learn. I think many people would argue against my suggestion that we don’t learn because of the vast popular literature out there for parents that is eaten up by so many. Books, videos, websites – people go to these and “learn”, right? I think wrong. I think people go there in hopes of quick fixes and step-by-step rules to follow without actually learning about parenting, their child, or why these methods may or may not work. We have a society of people who feel that they are incapable of learning about development, childhood, and specifically their own baby and using that information to do what is best for their child and instead turn to someone else to tell them what to do. There are rebels, though, and I believe most people reading this fall into that camp. And the rebels are the ones out there searching for information on myriad practices and then figuring out how it works with their particular child. Because let’s face it – your child is a unique individual with his or her own personality and if you ignore that uniqueness, you run the risk of squashing it.
When it comes to the so-called “parenting experts”, it is astounding how the lack of epistemological modesty runs rampant. You know, the ones who write as if only they hold the key to all parents’ happiness and when questioned on some methods they promote, tend to shut down and refuse to answer? The ones who get defensive when you question their authority? In any realm, parenting or otherwise, defensiveness is the key to realizing someone is under the illusion that they know much more than they actually do. Because if these experts were to actually go and learn some of the information out there (e.g., research, how other cultures function), they would have to stop what they’re doing and acknowledge that what they propose may not work for some children (or, more realistically, is downright dangerous for many children). Again, truly learning isn’t about following the often-insane recommendations from experts, but rather finding out what the options are for parenting and what would be best for your family. All this is to say that we are capable of learning so much about parenting if we’re willing to put in the work. But this capability is totally dependent upon the second point which I mentioned – being willing to learn – and that is much harder.
This willingness to learn should be the easy part because it’s entirely self-motivated, but in fact is much more difficult because it forces us to, at times, admit that the way we may have done things in the past might not have been ideal. This is hard for all of us generally but is particularly hard when we talk about parenting because the stakes are so high. To think that you were “wrong” on how you decided to raise your child? It’s difficult to fathom and even harder to acknowledge. But if we’re all totally honest, none of us are perfect parents and we will all screw up. The difference between the best parents and the not-so-great parents is, I believe, being able to let your ego go enough to admit when you’ve been wrong. If you don’t, you’re doomed to repeat your mistakes and the people who will suffer are your children. For example, I know a woman who has one son. He is in elementary school and all his life she has decided she should do everything for him – he was probably in grade two before she let him pick his own clothes to wear. She would open doors for him, carry any of his stuff for him, and absolved him of any responsibility. Now, in school and with friends, he suffers. Teachers have commented that he has almost no awareness of how to cope with assignments, particularly if he doesn’t understand something. Instead of asking for help, he simply sits around waiting for someone to come to him and fix it for him. She’s been told that she needs to let her son be responsible and take care of some things himself, but she seems unable to admit that she ever did anything that wasn’t perfect as a parent, and so she doesn’t change, and it is her son who pays the price. What she seems to forget is that we all make mistakes. However, if you are willing to admit to the occasional lapse as “perfect parent”, you can learn from it, learn how to potentially mitigate the damage from it (if there is any), and figure out an alternative going forward should the situation arise again.
Having been raised by two parents who could never admit they might have been wrong about anything, I know first-hand that this defensiveness is also easily passed on to our children and very difficult (though possible) to overcome. Because they learn from watching us, when they see us refuse to admit wrongdoing (even in the face of overwhelming evidence), they believe that is the way to behave. Sadly, the more we dig our heels in with certainty, the more children are going to learn from it. Is that really the lesson we want to pass onto our kids – to be completely inflexible when dealing with a baby? Or to ignore all their own instincts in favour of a set of rules some idiot came up with to make a boat-load of money? I hope not.
There’s the WHO code for marketing breastfeeding alternatives (which we know isn’t followed at all in North America), but I wish there were something similar for the myriad parenting books out there today. Instead of allowing experts who typically know very little to make money off families looking to do right by their child, we should have some system that prevents these people from giving the harmful advice they do and instead provide the information parents need to learn for themselves. If we can all agree that we know nothing, we can finally start to learn something.
 My supervisor, Dr. Susan Birch, does tons of work in this regard and the work I refer to here is about how children are more likely to learn from confident others than those who waver. So in one regard, while it’s best for us to waver a bit and accept uncertainty, we need to be certain in our uncertainty for our kids to learn it!