Several years go during a "well child visit," a pediatric nurse asked me a question about my then 18-month-old daughter:
“How many words does she have?”
“I have no idea,” I responded, baffled by the question.
“We like them to have 15 words at this age,” she snipped, clearly disapproving of my failure to keep track of my daughter’s vocabulary.
“You should talk to her in more complex sentences,” she advised, assuming I would take her advice and initiate some decent conversations about black holes or the meaning of life with my toddler.
Instead, I burst out laughing.
As an anthropologist who has studied childhood across the globe, I know that some kids take their own sweet time to talk and that all kids eventually catch up.
I was also amused because the nurse had easily slipped into the role of expert in the arena of child behavior, and she expected me to listen and learn.
And no wonder.
Although the parent-child relationship has been working smoothly for millions of years, today’s parents are quivering masses of indecision and self-doubt. Why are we so afraid of parenting?
Part of the self-doubt comes from a simple change in demographics.
Since the turn of the century, the birth rate in the United States has been steadily falling and in the 1960s, with the introduction of the birth control pill, it dropped dramatically. Most families now have two children, many couples don’t want children at all, and neighborhoods are no longer teeming with kids.
As a result, few grown-ups have had experience with little brothers or sisters. Teens used to learn about kids by babysitting, but these days adolescents are too busy with scheduled events or school work, or they want a job with better pay and less hassle. And so they grow up with no child care experience at all.
Today's parents pigheadedly refuse to look for advice from people in the know — their own parents. No, no, we want to be “better” parents than the previous generation, so why ask them?
And so we turn to “experts,” that is, parenting advice books and pediatricians.
Those books are bestsellers written by doctors, nurses, child development researchers and parents. They all purport to know the “right” way to bring up children and they all exude confidence. But most of what comes between the covers is, well, folklore; these books are simply cultural documents that echo currently accepted ideas about bringing up children.
What we get from pediatricians is also suspect.
Parents go to the pediatrician begging for advice about sleep, feeding, toilet training and discipline, and they want the baby doctor to tell them how to bring up the baby. But a three-year pediatric residency is hospital-based and residents are trained to treat sick children, not normal kids who refuse to eat their peas. No pediatrician learns how to get a healthy baby to sleep, or what to do when a child cries, or what makes little kids smile.
They don’t even learn how to diaper a baby.
Where, then, can we turn when faced with the challenge of being a parent?
We might simply look inward. If parents stay close to their kids, listen and pay attention, use common sense and stay flexible, chances are they’ll know what to do, even if they make a few mistakes along the way.
Being a good parent isn’t that easy, but it’s also not that hard.
As Dr. Spock wrote 60 years ago, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link (opens in new tab)) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link (opens in new tab)).