One of the most incredible and unique aspects of being a parent, just at this point in human history, is the fact that we are saturated with parenting rules. One hundred years ago, parents may have received advice from their own family, their neighbour, and their local doctor or nurse. Nowadays the shoulds of parenting are unrelenting. Put ‘parenting advice’ into google and you’ll get 82,900,000 results. Put ‘parenting’ into Amazon and you’ll get 223,810 results. Log on to social media and get bombarded with stories and images of how old friends, family you rarely see, friends of friends, and celebrities are raising their children and why. Parents are identified as a key potential change agent in the lives of their children or even in wider social causes such as the environment, and targeted in public health campaigns and political campaigns. Parents are also identified by marketers who weigh into the shoulds of parenting with advertising for their products, knowing that pushing the parental guilt button is an effective way to sell.
It is not all bad. In fact, in many ways this is fantastic! Parents have better access to evidence-based information on key aspects of parenting than ever before. There are public health campaigns that have provided enormous benefit, even saved lives. For example, the ‘back to sleep’ campaign.
But it is not all good either. Many of the parenting rules that contemporary parents swim in are not evidence-based at all or only loosely so. Parents frequently find that the results promised by a particular rule just don’t come to fruition in real life. Many of the rules are absolutist and impossible for specific groups of parents to successfully follow. And then there are the times when we follow particular parenting rules, not for the results that they promise, but in order to be seen as a good parent, or at least, not as a bad parent (in ACT/RFT speak this is called pliance).
When you put all the parenting rules together, side by side, what you find is riddled with contradictions. Even if you stick to parenting rules coming from repudiable sources such as health professionals, what you find is still riddled with contradictions.
Parenting rules, even well-intentioned and evidence-based parenting rules, have dark undersides. For example, if ‘breast is best’, what is formula? Ah… WORST… And there it is, the dark pit of shame hiding just inside the parenting rule. What a trap for a new mum to fall into!
We know that rule-following can create problems. This is especially the case when the rules don’t work as promised when we try them out in our lives or when we follow the rules to be ‘a good parent’ (in ACT/RFT speak, when the rules function as false tracks or pliance). The problem with rule-following is that it interferes with our ability to be influenced by the context, by what’s actually happening in the here and now of our lives. And guess where your child is?
If your focus is on rule-following, your behaviour can become rigid, inflexible and lacking in creativity. You may fail to notice what’s right in front of you. You may fail to notice what’s actually working (or not) for you, in your life, with your child, by your own values. And that’s a big problem, because many aspects of parenting are experiential skills. They are skills that you learn by doing, like riding a bicycle. Ultimately, many aspects of parenting behaviour have to be shaped and maintained through your own experience of what works (in ACT/RFT speak, through the natural contingencies).
So, what can you do?
Recognise that you are living in a world saturated with parenting rules. Sometimes this works in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t. What would be ideal is if we could reap the benefits of easy access to parenting information and advice, while avoiding the costs.
You can do this by holding parenting rules lightly and gently (in ACT/RFT speak this is called defusion)
If you find yourself hooked by a particular parenting rule, you can try:
- Saying the rule many times over until the words start to lose their meaning
- Saying it in a funny voice or even singing it
- Prefacing the rule with ‘I’m thinking of the parenting rule that…’
Does that make it easier to hold the rule lightly?
Now, tune in to what your experience has to say. In your experience, what works?
You might like to experiment flexibly in order to discover what works for you and your child.
Apply it in your life: Try holding parenting rules lightly. Does it feel different? Instead of getting caught following the rules, follow your child instead. How is that different?