How Would You Deal With Conflicting Parenting Advice?
Conflicting advice can turn parenting from a fulfilling journey into one filled with self-doubt. Here's how to get the right information and also, deal with the contrasting opinions coming your way.
Parenting is a journey hardly navigated alone. For, parents always require guidance, assistance, recommendation and counsel from others on a range of concerns. Sometimes, this can cover the entire trajectory of their child’s development.
Be it from family members and relatives, experienced parents, specialists (paediatrician or mental health professional), strangers, or even the media (including the Internet), most parents actively seek parenting advice. At times, they also receive unsolicited instructions from various sources.
But, how accurate is the advice that parents receive? And, how much of it is conflicting?
Too many 'experts'...
Unfortunately, like the ever-changing wave of nutritional advice, contradictory parenting advice can be overwhelming for parents. Let us find out why a lot of parenting advice often seems conflicting and therefore, confusing:
When it comes to parenting, everyone claims to be an expert (regardless of whether they are parents themselves!). Experienced parents sometimes believe what worked with their children can and will work for other children too. A parent may let her child self-soothe, and thus, recommend this as a way of preventing children from becoming overly dependent. However, another parent may pick up her child the moment he begins to cry. For, she may believe that letting the child soothe himself indicates laxity, if not harshness.
Some parents, usually influenced by grandparents, might believe only in traditional practices, which they are certain are correct. For example, on advice from grandparents, parents may co-sleep with their child contrary to the new-age concept of ‘training’ the child to sleep on her own in a separate room.
Some parents might believe that the way they were raised is the best approach to parenting. For example, it was previously believed that spanking was a good strategy for disciplining young children. So, “I was beaten up and I turned out okay” seems to be a common testimonial among certain parents. However, this approach doesn't take into consideration those individuals who have suffered a host of adverse effects of spanking. It may also represent a self-serving bias, in which the person perceives herself in an overly favourable manner, overlooking faults and failures.
Parenting advice also differs across cultures, shaped as it has been through the years by beliefs, shared values, climate, and history. For example, Asian collectivist cultures recommend a month-long confinement period for the new mother. But, this postpartum period is given less focus in Western cultures that are more individualistic.
Clearly, the world of parenting guidance seems like a labyrinth, with parents having to wade their way through what seems like a never-ending maze. The messages can seem complex, controversial and at odds with the reality of parents’ lives. They may also fear getting it wrong, as parents may believe that wrong parenting practices can damage their child for life. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Here is how you can deal with conflicting parenting advice:
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed: First, be aware of the fact that it’s normal to feel confused or overwhelmed. You’re not alone in this ongoing tussle between what works and what doesn’t. However, when it comes to parenting, there isn’t ‘one right way’ to do things. For example, one of the biggest decisions a new mom has to make is to choose between breast milk and formula. But, because breastfeeding is recommended as the best choice for babies, it puts an inordinate amount of pressure on new mothers, who might often evaluate their worth based on whether they’re able to breastfeed their baby. It doesn't have to be this way. A mother might choose to breastfeed while supplementing with formula or pump breast milk or feed on demand or decide to follow a schedule. The choice should depend on your routine, comfort, beliefs and convenience; instead of the ‘shoulds’ you are expected to adhere to.
Appreciate an opinion: If you receive contradictory opinions from two well-meaning but different friends, learn to appreciate their views but try not to consider these as facts. Each one of us has a personal worldview influenced by the way we were raised, our education, culture or religion and a host of other factors. Nothing makes our worldview correct or incorrect; rather it’s the context and the way we choose to apply our ideas that adds value to the way we parent. For example, there is no ‘right’ way of making your toddler fall asleep — co-sleeping has been found to have its benefits and so has making children sleep independently in their rooms.
Learn from different perspectives: If the different views of others make sense to you, see what you can learn from them. Try to figure out what you can incorporate into your own parenting. Remember, it is always possible to assimilate different views in ingenious ways in the way you raise your children. For example, in disciplining toddlers, ‘time-out’ is considered to be a controversial strategy. It is shunned by some because of the belief that time-outs are harsh and don’t work. However, the rationale behind this strategy, i.e., helping the child calm down, can be adopted and utilised in various ways in disciplining a child.
Trust professional scientific guidelines: Professional guidelines for child-rearing such as those issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are based on years of scientific research. Use these as a broad framework on which to base certain parenting decisions, especially those concerning child health and safety. For example, the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is now a much-researched subject, with clear recommendations across cultures. However, not many parents were aware of it during the 70s, 80s and 90s. So, instead of believing that it’s okay to make a baby sleep sideways or on his stomach, it's best to remember that our parents give such advice because they are not aware of SIDS and the factors that enhance its risk.
Know where to look: Grandparents might not be the best source of up-to-date scientific information but can offer the benefit of their experience. Similarly, your paediatrician might not be the best person to seek recommendations for the best school for your child but can guide you regarding your child’s vaccination schedule. In the world of parenting, it often helps to know where to seek what kind of help to ask for. For example, for book recommendations to raise a confident child, join social media children’s literature groups. For, the most reliable information on breastfeeding, look up WHO guidelines.
Watch out for parent-shaming: Avoid those who judge your parenting style, criticise your methods and indulge in parent-shaming. Formula versus breastfeeding, working versus being a stay-at-home parent, nanny versus daycare, Montessori versus kindergarten, giving in to a tantrum versus holding your fort, struggling with healthy food versus offering junk food that will readily get gobbled up… As a parent, while you’re making these choices, stay away from parent-shamers who do not add anything worthwhile but only disapprove and condemn your decisions.
Do what works for you and your family: Finally, it makes sense to do what works for you and your child. No one knows your family context and your child’s temperament more than you. Every suggestion you receive or snippet of information you come across shouldn't create doubts about the veracity of your own parenting methods. In this messy mix of opinions and parenting philosophies, do what suits your family, while keeping an open and scrutinising attitude intact.
Although not easy, parenting can still be a fulfilling and happy experience. All you need to do is be a little circumspect and careful about the advice you need to accept and follow, and the ones you needn’t.
Dr Meghna Singhal is a clinical psychologist, psychotherapist and a parenting consultant at ParentCircle.