I'm a parent - get me out of here


Don't believe everything you read - the parenting industry is full of mythsand misinformation. In any case, you might not be as important to your child's development as you think, writes Kathryn Holmquist

True or false: When you give birth well, you should instantly feel an unbreakable bond with your baby. True or false: Daycare is bad for children. True or false: Children who "fail to thrive" are actually undernourished and underloved as a result of neglect. True or false: New mothers who are close to their own mothers are more likely to breast-feed.

You may think you know which of these statements are true and which are not. You may even be utterly convinced that you are right and willing to argue the point. Give you a pen and an audience and you might even write a column aimed at convincing your readers that each one of the statements at the top of this article is true.

If so, you'd be wrong. Because scientific research has exposed each of these beliefs as folklore - and damaging folklore at that. When parents read misinformed articles about parenting, then act on that misinformation, they risk making choices that they wouldn't otherwise make.

This is a real risk. Research at the University of Bristol has revealed that most parents today, especially middle-class parents, use the media as their chief source of information about parenting. They are less likely to consult their own parents - their children's grandparents - than they are to seek advice from a newspaper or magazine.

Yet falsehoods are frequently reinforced in the media, says Professor Dieter Wolke, Professor of Lifespan Psychology and executive director of ALSPAC (a longitudinal study of parents and children) at the University of Bristol.

Baby magazines, for example, regularly enthuse over the magical instant bonding that supposedly happens between mothers and newborns. When pregnant mothers read such articles, then fail to experience bonding heaven within minutes of birth, they may convince themselves they have a psychological problem.

So be careful what you read. Make sure it's backed up by evidence. When it's an opinion, read it as an opinion. Then form your own.

Panic-station parenting has us worrying about a new danger every month ­ whether it be a physical worry like radiation, pesticides or the abuser lurking around the corner or a psychological worry like emotional intelligence.

According to Dr Wolke, parental anxiety is at its highest level amongst well-educated, middle-class parents. The new mother who lives in an urban area away from her own original family is more likely to believe what she reads or hears in the media than her own mother-in-law. "Her mother-in-law will have brought up the new mother's husband differently, so the new mother may decide to ignore her," he says.

At the same time, we parents are setting higher standards for our parenting than every before. We want our children to be healthier, harder working, more emotionally intelligent, more computer-literate, more confident, more ethical and higher achieving than any generation before. We see ourselves as moulding our children into beings that will reflect well on us.

Even Senator Hilary Clinton isn't immune to the trend. When her daughter Chelsea left home for college, Hilary told an interviewer that she wondered if she'd made the most of "every minute" to prepare her daughter for the challenges ahead. Come on. Parenting isn't an episode of The West Wing.

Should parents really be "on message" every minute of their child's life? And if so, where's the room for the fun, the unexpected and the unpredictable? When parents are constantly measuring their children against a mental checklist of developmental issues, how can a child have any sense of his or her own unique destiny?

Steven Pinker, an evolutionary biologist and thinker, looks at the issue of ambitious parenting in his latest book, The Blank Slate: Denying Human Nature in Modern Life (Allen Lane, £25 sterling), published this week.

Many parents continue to believe the 19th and early 20th century view that their babies are born as "blank slates", on which parents must inscribe all the positive programming for a healthy and intelligent mind. They may buy into Freudian notions that parents form their children's subconscious worlds for good or ill.

Rubbish. Babies come into the world already pre-programmed to some degree.

The nature v nurture debate is a complex one, but, as Pinker explains, genetics probably set the stage for about 50 per cent of a child's personality. That doesn't mean the child is programmed like a robot, merely that the child comes into the world with certain tendencies to be more anxious or less, to sleep more or less, to be more or less friendly, to be more or less adventurous, and so on. Studies of twins separated at birth show that even when the twins grow up in strikingly different families, they still grow into adults with similar characteristics.

SO IF you have an anxious or shy child or "bold" or brazen child, maybe you should stop blaming yourself and start accepting your child for he or she is. That doesn't stop you thinking of ways to help your child feel a little less anxious or shy, if anxiety and fear are limiting your child's life. It doesn't mean that you stop trying to instil ethical values by example. But it does mean that you shouldn't beat yourself up every time one of your children has a problem.

Pinker even ventures that parenting may not be that important after all.

Why is it, that in a family of three or four children, each one turns out differently? Birth order was the old psychoanalytical explanation. With evolutionary biology casting serious doubts on Freud, Pinker offers a new theory: maybe each of our children is different, even when they have been parented the same way, because they were born different. Secondly, maybe they are different because they operate in their own peer groups in school and at play.

A child's peer group may actually be more important to the formation of personality than parenting, Pinker ventures. After all, children in groups tend to adopt set roles in order to belong.

It's an interesting and controversial theory. And it gets parents off the hook, to a degree. I've met many fine parents who have children who get in and out of trouble. In many cases, the children are living in areas where their peer groups are also in and out of trouble. For a parent, where you live may be as important as how you parent.

Life happens to us. We cannot control it all the time, any more than we can turn our children into talented, emotionally literate geniuses. So let's relax a little.