It’s time to do away with the idea of ‘parenting’
In readable and humorous prose that any parent should find reassuring, Emily Oster’s new book Cribsheet, the follow-up to her 2014 best-seller, Expecting Better, assesses the hard data on many of the decisions that parents must make in the first five years of a child’s life. Oster takes on a myriad of issues that cause stress for uncertain new parents: how to feed the baby, how to get any sleep, whether or not to sleep train, what kind of child care arrangement to establish and more.
All the topics that Oster addresses have clear, data-driven answers: (a) do x, (b) do y, (c) do either x or y, because the difference between the two is not that significant. So much of the value of Oster’s eye-opening work lies in showing people how often (c) is the correct answer.
Emily Oster has done the Lord’s work in toppling the false idol of modern parenting.
On a few topics, Oster’s synthesis of the data validates the edicts of modern conventional wisdom (for example, that spanking is not helpful). On a few more, she argues that today’s dictates are more complicated than usually understood, but only slightly so (the safe sleep rules are correct, for instance, but co-sleeping in the safest way possible is no riskier than doing certain unavoidable and mildly dangerous things, like riding in a car).
But Oster’s most noteworthy contribution is her challenge to the modern advice on hot parenting topics like breastfeeding, screen time and sleep training. If you want to be reassured that you made the right decision on any of these topics, Cribsheet will reassure you. (Hint: the answer is c). If you have a very strong opinion about what other parents should decide about any of these topics, Cribsheet will shame you. (No matter what you did, the answer is still c).
The End of Parenting
As the parent of two children under the age of 5, I was happy to read that my decision to quit breastfeeding each of my sons just before the age of two months probably hasn’t caused any damage beyond an extra stomach flu or ear infection. And I was also reassured to know that Oster reaches a similar conclusion about moderate amounts of television. Thank God the rather copious “Barney” reruns that my oldest started watching before his second birthday (around the time, incidentally, that I was still breastfeeding his newly arrived little brother around the clock) are not going to hurt his chances at academic honors a decade from now.
But as I finished Oster’s excellent book, I had two thoughts. First, despite the book’s subtitle promising a guide to “better, more relaxed parenting,” I am no more relaxed now than I was before I read it. Second, this economist just made the scientific case for what has long been anecdotally and culturally clear: We American parents need to stop parenting.
No, I do not mean that we need to stop having children. I mean that we need to stop engaging in the practices that have coincided with the widespread usage of “parent”as a verb, beginning in the 1970s. That is, we need to stop caring for our children solely through the necessary but insufficient lens of their safety, short-term happiness and long-term achievement. As Oster makes clear, parenting (defined as that laser-focus on safety, happiness and achievement) is useless, even on its own terms.
But beyond that, I would submit, those terms are themselves flawed. Too many children who are parented exceptionally well by our modern definition are unhappy and unfulfilled. Too many young adults who have been carefully parented and have achieved all manner of successes, flounder in a state of perpetual purposelessness and extendedadolescence. Clearly, parenting alone cannot be blamed for societal issues that have a multitude of causes. But the cultural preferences communicated to our children by those of us parenting today—intelligence over wisdom, convenience over righteousness, individual preference over familial and communal obligation—are compounding these problems.
Before there was “parenting,” there was “child rearing.” To me, the two-word phrase encapsulates two ideas. The first idea is that of a child, fittingly at the center of this enterprise. A human baby is born with no ability to care for herself and thus depends entirely on others to be fed, bathed, protected and engaged. The second idea connoted by “child rearing” is that of helping a child to grow beyond the need for that care and into a fully “reared” adult. There is an inherent tension in the phrase: a child has to be cared for, but not too well, because she must ultimately cease to be a child and must care for herself and others.
For Whom Are We Parenting?
One word that is notably absent from “child-rearing” is “parent.” For a world that was in many ways far less child-centered than the one we live in today, this was a rather child-centered turn of phrase. In practice, of course, schools of thought around how to raise children have always included excesses, limitations and outright insanities. And, of course, laments for the specific nature of the childhood that was common at the last moment when “child rearing” was the preferred term are largely nostalgic idealizations. Bringing back the phrase or even the spirit of child rearing could not bring back the world of 1955 after nearly 65 years of technological, economic and social change—nor should we want to return to that world even if we could.
Yet there is something to be learned from the language that our society used, not so long ago, to refer to the business of raising children. And there is something to ponder in how starkly that language differs from our own.
In the term parenting, we mothers and fathers take center stage. Our children, both the present beings and their long-term well-being, are oddly absent from a word meant to communicate our devotion to them. But I guess this makes sense; perhaps we are not parenting for our children, after all. We are parenting for ourselves.
In the term parenting, we mothers and fathers take center stage.
In 1946, when Dr. Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, he sparked criticism for his endorsement of permissive households in which parents made decisions based on instinct. While competing theories, ideas and quackeries on the minutiae of the child care part of child rearing had always abounded, there was, before Dr. Spock, a certain widespread consensus about the rearing part. Parental authority was absolute because parents were vested with authority not as individuals but as ambassadors of a wider society that had clear standards of industriousness and morality to which adults were expected to adhere. As such, most mid-20th-century parents expected their growing children to begin acting in accordance with these codes and rituals from a very early age.
By 1998, Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care had sold more than 52 million copies (second only to the Bible) and had been translated into 40 languages. Assuring parents that “you know more than you think you do,” Spock had rendered child rearing a personal and idiosyncratic enterprise. Now, the preferences of individual parents trumped tradition, and they did so just as America was secularizing, de-industrializing and suburbanizing, and thereby removing other sources of authority and convention from middle-class family life. The new indifference of the wider culture to the moral decisions of individuals meant that acceptance of all parental choices would now reign supreme—including in the choice of whether to become parents at all.
The Return of Child Rearing
The eradication of any collective understanding of what kind of men and women we want our children to become is one of the societal changes through which the philosophy of child rearing has been replaced by the philosophy of parenting (and through which children have been replaced by adults at the center of that philosophy). Another societal change that contributed to this shift was the abandonment of any reverence for children themselves, or for the work of providing them with basic care.
Before my older son was born, I had decided, like most upper-middle-class women immersed in today’s culture of parenting, that I would breastfeed him. Breast is best, after all. Then my son was born four weeks early and, like many late preemies, he was terrible at breastfeeding. But thanks to the breast pump, I remained capable of being a good parent; I could, if I did not sleep more than 45 minutes at a stretch or spend time doing anything else, exclusively breastfeed him.
About eight weeks in, I stopped pumping so much and switched to formula as my milk supply dropped. I wanted to do things besides be a good parent. I wanted to empty the dishwasher while my husband fed the baby. I wanted to talk to visitors for more than 20 minutes before I ran off to pump for 30. I wanted to be able to read a whole article or eat a whole bowl of cereal while my son, with his belly full of formula, snoozed contentedly.
This idea—that the choice to have a child is only a worthy one if it is synonymous with the choice to parent as a verb—has permeated every corner of our mainstream culture.
So, I failed at parenting. And I felt a searing, consuming shame. I had never before failed at anything that I had actually chosen to engage in. No, my mom and dad were not modern parenting champions: I had gotten C’s on math tests. But I thought of math class as a universal obligation; I thought of parenthood as a personal choice.
Parenting has become the societal ideal as the traditionally female work related to children’s basic care has been denigrated as “shining floors and wiping noses.” This idea—that the choice to have a child is only a worthy one if it is synonymous with the choice to parent as a verb—has permeated every corner of our mainstream middle- and upper-middle-class culture. Even among those who, like me, try to reject this pernicious view.
I know that the more than 600,000 children aborted in the United States each year are no less worthy of life than my own boys, who were referred to as “babies” while in utero, even by people that believe the unborn babies of women who choose abortion are merely clumps of cells. I know that the 50 percent of children conceived without planning, increasingly by single mothers, many of whom will struggle to choose not between breast milk and formula but between the rent payment and the electric bill, are no less deserving of care than my own children.
And yet, even knowing all this, I fell prey to the central delusion of modern parenting: that providing adequate care to a human child so that she can grow up to fully harbor the light of God that is in each of us has to be justified as anything other than a holy end in itself.
This delusion has its appeal, because it seems to give significance to work that we have otherwise come to think of as a kind of drudgery. It allows us to separate ourselves (the parenting parents, who have made parenting into an expensive and time-consuming hobby) from them (the parents who merely take care of their children as best they can with what they have).
If we did not draw this distinction so carefully, we would notice that the children of those without the time or money to obsess over methods of sleep training would be no different from our own children, were they given access to the same basic resources (safe homes, enough food, adequate education, enrichment opportunities) that we take for granted. This would be an uncomfortable realization. It might even prompt us to think a little bit less about what we want and a little bit more about what others need, which would be inconvenient. Hence we have been grasping for any assurance—however thin, flawed or flat out wrong—that gives us a chance to claim that the achievements of the children we have chosen to have are the results of our parenting.
Cribsheet is an entirely secular book, but Emily Oster has undoubtedly done the Lord’s work in toppling the false idol of modern parenting. In its place, she offers more choice. So, let’s choose to stop parenting. Let’s choose to care for the child with a love that has no agenda. Let’s choose to rear the future adult with a discipline that serves the greater good.
These choices will never make us more relaxed. But they might make us better people, which would likely make us better parents.