There’s a lot of discussion about risk these days, especially in the realm of parenting. More specifically, there’s a massive backlash against any perceived risk that parents might take with the life of their child. We can see it in comments about formula feeding, bedsharing, switching a car seat to forward facing at one year, sleep training, daycare, leaving a child unattended for a period of time, and so on. The reaction can almost always be summed up as, “If you’re going to take these risks, why did you even have a child?”
The first problem with all this (outside of the obvious problem with such a massive leap) is that it ignores that all of parenting (heck, all of life) is an act of weighing the risks and benefits of various behaviours or activities and that rarely (if ever) do people intentionally choose an act that is clearly far more risky than beneficial. The second problem is that it has led to a fight to inaccurately frame these actions or choices as lacking risk instead of acknowledging the risk and opening up the discussion to mitigation of risk.
All of Parenting Involves Balancing Risks
I’ve said it before and I’ll end up saying it again, but we live in a risk-averse society. It would be fine if we lived in bubbles and were never exposed to risk and this was somehow conducive to thriving, but we don’t and it’s not. There is risk in nearly every decision we make and we, as parents, have to weigh the benefits and risks in order to come to conclusions that we are comfortable with and we do this every single day, often without consciously thinking about it. Most of us don’t consider the food we feed to include risks, but it does. As does the decision of how much TV we let our kids watch (if they watch at all), how much time they spend in the car, who they play with, and on and on it goes.
The parent who chooses formula, the parent who turned the car seat forward at one year, and the family who bedshares have all made their decisions on the information they have and knowledge of their situations. Their decisions may not be what you would choose or what I would choose because our lives and our circumstances differ, but believe it or not, they have looked at the information out there and made a decision based on it.
One of the hardest things to do is to accept that someone else has come to a different conclusion on risk and benefit than us. Likely because it forces us to examine our own choices. If not everyone ends up on the same page, did we take a wrong turn? No, they must have. The problem is that there isn’t always a “wrong” turn. There’s just a different path.
Many people will likely jump in that it’s off or wrong for me to be writing this when I clearly take a stand on the type of information I share. But it’s because one of the most important things when it comes to risk versus benefit assessment is…
Parents Need to Know ALL the Information (and Lack Thereof) to Make an Educated Choice
The reason I push so hard to share what I do is because I know the mainstream bias looks at things one way and ignores the rest. I read the research and see no voice for what research there is on many different issues that are taken for granted in our society. When doctors are telling mothers that there’s no benefit to breastfeeding, or worse, that they will harm their child by breastfeeding past some arbitrary age, then I see the need to share the research and information to the contrary.
When sleep training is promoted as not only being good when needed but promoted as something parents must do or their child will forever suffer bad sleep, I feel the need to share the research that gets no voice. The research that is telling us something is off there. That although we don’t have any conclusive evidence one way or another, there’s a lot that suggests we’re missing a big chunk of the picture and that some of the oft-cited research “for” sleep training isn’t as solid as people believe. (Not to mention the lack of discussion of alternatives that are gentler and still help the family.)
In short, I want to make sure that everything is out there because if people are only hearing one side, they aren’t actually weighing the risk and benefits, are they? With this, though, I also accept that some people will read everything and still take a different perspective than I would. I may not get it, but I accept it. However, this notion of getting information and making an educated decision is at risk. Our society’s views on risk are so negative that we are focused on eliminating the discussion of risk in favour of “personal choice”. I say screw that, instead…
Own Your Decisions and the Risks That Come With Them
Whenever I hear people go to extreme lengths to argue there are no benefits to breastfeeding despite the wealth of information out there to the contrary, or that there is no benefit to keeping your child rear facing, or that bedsharing is inherently dangerous and should be outlawed, I cringe. I cringe and I get angry because this is the type of discussion that does no one any good.
Are there possible risks to formula? Yes.
Are there possible risks to bedsharing? Yes.
Are there possible risks to going forward facing early? Yes.
Does it mean you’re a bad parent if you do any of the above? No.
If you do any of these and your child turns out “fine”, does it mean there’s no risk and we should just shut up already? Hell no.
The point of education is to discuss all the elements. If parents want to use formula, then you need to acknowledge the risk then take the steps to minimize it (like safely preparing bottles). If parents want to bedshare, then they too need to know the potential risk factors (like smoking, overheating, etc.) and take steps to minimize those. Same for TV use, forward facing in cars, what foods to eat, and so on. Shutting down discussion or trying to pretend there’s no risk to certain choices because we did it or it’s popular is downright dangerous. Quite frankly, the only reason I can see to shutting down discussion is if you are too insecure and unhappy with your own choice that you can’t bear to have it discussed openly and honestly.
That’s not good. That’s not educated parenting. That doesn’t help other families. That doesn’t help you. So stop it.
If someone points out that you took a risk with your child by doing X, Y, or Z, own it. Sometimes you will have minimized the risk to nothing, and that’s worth discussing too because then others can learn ways to do this as well. I bedshared (and still do), my daughter watched TV before 2 years of age, she was forward-facing at 1 year, she sometimes eats crap food, she climbs anything and everything (outside or in our house), she uses scissors and knives and cooks over a hot stove. I haven’t made any of these decisions lightly and I acknowledge there are risks with each of them and have done all I can to minimize the risk but I haven’t, nor will I ever, eliminate it. For none of these things was there just risk and no benefit for our situation, even if that benefit may seem inconsequential to you or irrelevant for your family.
Would I do all these things over again in different circumstances or with another child? Outside of a few, I don’t know. Regardless of what I would or wouldn’t do, the point is that I am willing to own these choices. I have been told many things about them all and I am not going to deny that there are not risks associated with them. There are, but sometimes the benefits outweigh those risks and it’s my job as an educated parent to make those assessments based on my child, my family needs, and our beliefs.
Risk is everywhere and parenting is one of the riskiest things we do because the consequences are dire. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take risks or that we should ignore research and education in favour of trying to pretend the risks aren’t real. We just need to be open that even if we don’t take a risk in one area of our children’s lives, we likely are taking a risk elsewhere. We all do it. We have to because we can’t give our kids a risk-free childhood.
So… instead of shutting down discussion about risks, can we please embrace it? Talk about the risks, the benefits, and all the things in between? Help other parents make the decisions that will be best for their family and even possibly give them ways to minimize risk? Because the current discourse isn’t working at all.