It starts at birth. Well, before birth, really. Are you planning to have a natural childbirth? At home with a midwife? You aren’t eating unpasteurized cheeses are you? You will breastfeed, right? How long?
And it continues with fervor through a child’s early years. Preschool? Homeschool? Unschool? What types of soap are you using? I hope you know about buying organic apples. Will you stay home or go back to work? And on and on.
To parents, it can seem as though everyone has very strong opinions about how children should be raised. Those opinions stem from passion to help children grow up with the best – something we can all feel good about! But social pressure and unsolicited advice can be paralyzing when making the best choice for the family means selecting a path not considered “right.”
Answers to some of the challenging parenting questions can be very easy to make out of context. The phrase, “I was a great parent before I had children” contains some truth! The moment you try to parent within the context of family, the answers are much more nuanced.
Consider the subject of breastfeeding. Taken out of context, the Breast Milk vs. Formula debate might be pretty easy. Breast milk offers all kinds of benefits that can’t be found in formula feeding. But when you take the issue and put it into the context of a family, the decision of how to feed a newborn can be harder to reach.
I have friends who wanted desperately to breastfeed. They worked for months, enduring excruciating pain and hours-long failed nursing attempts. They were stressed and exhausted; their partners, bodies, babies, and other siblings were stressed and exhausted. They needed permission to make a different choice. Still, they felt overwhelming guilt at the prospect of making the choice they needed to make, because the best choice for their family failed to meet societal expectations.
The right choices to many difficult parenting questions contain biases about the families making them. Electing to stay home from work typically requires a financially supporting partner (though not always, I understand). Purchasing fresh and organic food requires a financial strength and access to healthy food options that are not available equitably.
Most importantly, vehement early childhood advice conveys an underlying mistrust of adults who raise their children. Like if we left families to make their own right choices, they would choose the easy route: giving up on breast milk after a single hiccup or choosing expensive gadgets over healthy food for their children.
So what to do? It is still important to advocate that children get access to the best possible care during their early years (and on!). My most significant parenting decisions have been influenced through advice from my community.
Here are a few ideas on the most significant ways to learn from and influence your community:
1. Listen More, Lecture Less. Families have stories, and it is through understanding these stories that we can have the greatest influence. When we understand the needs, we can support the decision-making process.
2. Advice Belongs in Relationships. I have had a few people stop me on the street to offer their bits of wisdom about how I am parenting. 99% of the time, I shrug it off. Why? I have no relationship with those well-meaning passersby! See an out of control family in the grocery store? Offer to help push the cart. Are you neighbors with new parents? Stop by to help fold laundry. Build a relationship. Out of relationships, everyone can grow.
3. Grow Together with Other Families. Go for hikes together. Sit at the beach together. Eat dinner together. Time together makes space for conversation, and those are the moments when we grow.
In the end, the best possible care is always the style of care that works for a whole family unit, not just the child. Let’s empower families to make the choices they need to find the right path for them.