Thoughtful Thursdays: I know this much is true… don’t I?

I have been reading a lot of books about one year olds and toddlers (more on this tomorrow). One of these books, Your Self-Confident Baby by Magda Gerber, was given to me by my SIL and describes “the importance of respect in caring for children.” The author of the book is the founder and director of RIE or Resources for Infant Educarers (not a typo but a term coined by the author). In the introduction she mentions that she is a great-grandmother and has been working with children for over 50 years.

There is a lot about the book that I like. There is also a lot that I don’t like. I don’t feel like I’ve read enough about the book to explain her philosophy but if you want to explore it further, without buying the book, I suggest you check out the blog Mama Eve, written by a mother who enthusiastically employs RIE philosophies with her own sons.

Some of the suggestions I appreciate from the book are observing your child play instead of leading her, allowing her to figure out how things work instead of teaching her, telling her what you’re going to do instead of man-handling her as if she weren’t a sentient being. Sometimes I’ll go whole paragraphs agreeing with everything this women has to say.

Then I’ll come across something that I’m not sure about and almost always it’s crouched in a declaration of the author’s opinion. Evidently there is no research to back up these claims, she just believes them to be true. Here is an example: “You might think, what’s the harm? I think all behaviors add up over time, and the sum total either helps or hinders a child.” Now whether you agree with that statement or not (and I know it’s hard to agree with it when it’s taken out of context, which is precisely why I presented it out of context), it seems strange to me that I should except it just because this woman believes it to be so. Sometimes I’m surprised by how negatively I react to her declarations. Is it because she is stating what she thinks, without any “research” to back it up? Do I place so much faith in study findings even when I know they can later be disproven? Is this just a reaction to the teacher inside of me who painstakingly instructs her students to not pepper their expository writing with “I”s and “me”s? Or is it just that I don’t agree with what she’s saying? And if I don’t agree with it, is it because she is over-stating or because I am falling back too confidently on my own experience-based assumptions? When it’s just two people declaring their beliefs, how do you determine who knows better?

The truth is, I’m not sure. This book has me questioning not only what I expect from parenting manuals (or constructive self-help books of any kind) but also where my own beliefs about parenting come from. Whether or not I take all of what this book has to offer to heart, the self-questioning it has inspired is certainly making it a valuable read.

To better explain illustrate this dilemna I’ll include an excerpt on tickling.

I don’t believe in tickling children. Tickling is invasive, almost an assault. It changes the way a child feels by making her “laugh.” Laughter should come from the soul and be a sign of happiness, contentment and joy. When a child is tickled, she laughs hysterically, and behind the laughter, there may be fear. I believe that this laughter is a nervous reaction on the child’s part, and makes the parent feel like he or she is not in control. It gives one a feeling of power, almost hypnotic, when you can make another person laugh.

Now this is something I don’t agree with. I don’t believe that tickling is an assault. I don’t feel powerful when I make Isa laugh and it doesn’t seem to be a nervous reaction on her part. She seems to enjoy it immensely. And I believe that I know my daughter well enough to be pretty sure of what she likes and what she doesn’t like. Right? I mean it’s not like the author has done any real research to prove this, it’s just her assumption anyway. Why should I believe her over my own motherly instincts?

Of course my conviction is not based on any study either. It’s based on my own observations just as the author’s belief is based on hers. And just because I have fond memories of being tickled, I know for a fact that my uncle loathes it with the firey hatred of a thousand suns. Maybe Isa does feel attacked when I tickle her. Maybe I am wielding my power as the bigger, stronger being when “make” her laugh. Maybe I’m not taking her preferences into consideration at all.

Examining this more closely has forced me to look long and hard at where my ideas about parenting come from. When I disagree with Magda Gerber, where do my conflicting beliefs originate? Are they based on my own childhood experiences, which have no real bearing on my daughter? Are they supported by societal expectations, which frequently fail to represent everyone’s true feelings? If I’m not sure why I disagree whose opinion should I honor – yhe woman with 50 years experience in early childhood education or a new and uncertain mother who’s reading the book because she feels lost and unsure of herself in her new role?

I don’t yet have answers to all of these questions but I will continue searching for them. And I will continue doing what I believe is best for my daughter, even if that conflicts with what some “experts” would recommend.

Do you read self-help/parenting “manuals”? What do you do when their philosophies don’t compliment your own? Do you always trust your instincts or do you sometimes question them?

15 responses

  1. I have the impression many of these manual authors have a tendency to overstate their own likes and dislikes.
    Not ‘believing in tickling’ is a prime example.

    Perhaps this author, like your uncle, hates tickling herself with a vengeance.

    My daughter enjoys to get tickled and to tickle. I trust my observations on this.

    Up to now, I’ve stayed away from parenting manuals. So far, I feel ‘common sense’ is working for us – at least the version of common sense my husband and I were taught by our parents. I didn’t want to overthink parenting, by always second-guessing what I’m doing.

    Is tickling acceptable or not? Are gender-specific toys harmful or not? Etc, etc.

    I’ve heard Triple P is backed up by research, but I haven’t taken the step of looking into it. If I felt the need, I’m sure I would.

    • I’m impressed that you always feel you can fall back on “common sense”. Sometimes my daughter baffles me so much I’m not sure my common sense means much of anything. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve spent that last seven years teaching middles schoolers or what but I feel like she never responds to things in the way I would expect. I hope as I get to know her better my common sense will prove more productive.

      Thanks for the insight!

  2. Wow, good post.

    1. I do believe that behaviors add up, that’s why consistency in parenting is key. But I also know you took that quotation out of context, and it’s about more than behaviors adding up. I think its very good to look at the things that “trigger” us when we read, because that’s how we question to the depths of our thinking.

    2. I hate being tickled. I do feel that tickling is an invasion for me personally. It does totally violate boundaries, and I tend to hate anyone who tries to tickle me. I have horrid memories of dreading my uncle coming to visit for the tickling he inflicted as his “hello”. It often left me peeing on myself. That kind of tickling is invasive. That said, I love to hear my daughter laugh when I tickle her. When we are doing tickling play, I frequently pause (often just to catch my own breath). If she says “more”, then I think it’s fine. When her laughter changes, I pause to see how she reacts. I don’t ever want to tickle her until she pees, or until she is uncomfortable. I think you can tell if a child is participating in the play, or if they seem spaced out, on auto-pilot, or giving an expected rather than authentic response.

    3. Respect is one of the tenants that I tried to build my parenting philosophy on, but God help me, we’re in the terrible twos. It’s hard to respect a two-year-old. Really hard. Respect only goes so far. At some point when they’re screamng “no”, you have to violate their boundaries and pick them up out of the middle of the grocery store parking lot and carry them to the car. Reasoning and respecting isn’t going to get you very far that day.

    • Thanks for your input on these. I also think that behaviors add up but there is something about the way she stated that that really bothered me. I even agreed with the original thought too! I don’t know what it is about this woman but sometimes she really rubs me the wrong way. I think it’s that she expect your entire existence to revolve around your child during their every waking moment. That is easy to do when you run a child care facility and the whole place is geared towards children, but when they are inhabiting an adult world, where adults also need to do things, it’s a lot harder to put some of her suggestions into practice.

      I don’t think I disagreed with her that tickling can be unpleasant to some people, it was her assertion that it was that way for every person. The paragraph before that was about horseplay and she was more accepting of that as long as the child seemed to enjoy it. I don’t understand why tickling has to be different. She can just seem so rigid sometimes.

      I absolutely want to build my parenting philosophy on respect and I really appreciate the way she approaches many aspects of parenting. That is why I continue to read the book. But, as you said, sometimes you need to take control of a situation. Again, in a center created for children it’s easy to handle things a certain way all the time. When you’re out in the adult world sometimes things need to be handled in an adult way.

      Thanks for commenting!


  3. I read a lot of parenting manuals at first, then I decided a lot of them were making me doubt a lot of my instincts. I also disagreed with a lot of advice offered. Or it didn’t work with the twins. I don’t know. I tend to veer towards studies as well. I like the Freakonomics authors, whenever they write about parenting. Sounds weird, but they really crunch a lot of numbers. And I like a lot of their advice. They should come out with a book of just their parenting studies. I would read it.

    Huh, the tickling advice is interesting. My daughter hates to be tickled but my son loves it. I just follow their lead on that.

    • I really do seem to gravitate towards studies as well. There is something about cold hard numbers to back up a claim that I really appreciate. I really LOVED Nurture Shock for that reason. I thought that book was wonderful. If you haven’t read it you really ought to. You’d LOVE it.

  4. I don’t read any parenting manuals. I do believe in respecting my children, and I get that from the philosophy of Maria Montessori (my doctoral degree is in the philosophy of education). I’m actually sort of sensitive to the tickling issue … I would imagine that it can feel invasive, especially since little children have no control over what adults do to them. I tickle my daughter, but it’s more of a silly loving contact than some I’ve seen. And we’ve taught my son to say “stop” when he’s had enough; I think it’s important that children can communicate their wants, and that adults listen to them, and that we try to put ourselves in their shoes sometimes, even if we don’t give them everything they want!!

    • I also believe in respecting my children, and Ms. Gerber has actually made me realize that I can and should respect my daughter as an individual even now, when she can’t express herself much at all. I really appreciate that point of view and feel like I’ve learned a lot from the book. I think it’s just that sometimes she is so rigid and she gives examples for some of her suggestions based on her school and I feel like it’s so much easier to do some of the things she espouses when you’re in a place geared completely towards children. In the adult world it can be so much more difficult.

      As for tickling, I too have been tickled to the point of harassment by my mom. I would never tickle someone who seemed to be laughing out of control or unable to speak. I think what bothered me about that paragraph was that she wouldn’t admit that some people like it and a parent can discern when they are crossing the line. I tickle Isa very gently as a part of games we play. She loves it. I never tickle her continuously or forcefully. I think the fact that she asserted that there wasn’t an acceptable way to tickle kind of annoyed me.

      I too believe that it’s important for children to communicate their wants and for us to listen to them. I’m already allowing Isa to override my plans when there is no reason not to do so. If she wants to play for five more minutes in the bath that I want to sit there I let her play. Why should my desire to get her out trump her desire to stay in? Now if it’s past her bedtime that is different, but usually it’s just me wanting to move on to the next thing. And if she clearly doesn’t yet I let her stay in. I hope I can remember to do that in the future.

  5. I, too, lean heavily on my instincts, but I do have moments where I feel like I need my instincts validated…especially when there seems to be so much contradictory information out there (like info on sleep, for example). I think my craving for validation also comes from not having much of a parenting model (or deeply disliking the model–or lack of model, perhaps) used when I was parented.

    I’ve poured through several parenting books recently, all of them mostly coming from the attachment parenting perspective. It’s interesting to me that much of this “philosophy” feels so common sense to me. Much of it is what I am already doing, which kind of makes me wonder: do we tend to seek out parenting education in the vein of what we already want to do as a parent? Like, I knew I wanted to babywear, breastfeed, co-sleep, etc–and I wanted to do those things long before I knew that they were a part of the attachment parenting model.

    Your feelings about the book you mentioned instantly reminded me of my own reaction to a book I read just a few weeks ago. (I mean to blog about this eventually, but I’ve had a shitty blogging record lately, so we’ll see.) This book was called “The Natural Child: Parenting From the Heart,” and it was grounded in attachment parenting…but it took it way far,maybe too far for me. For instance, it criticized use of praise, noting that praise too often is manipulative. And that’s one of the places where I scratched my head…because I believe in praise. Basically, it says only praise when it’s genuine, not when you’re trying to craft/elicit a certain behavior. It certainly did make me stop and analyze my intent when I’m praising, so maybe that’s the point. ANYWAY, just like tickling, it seemed to take something good–praise–and turn it into something that supposedly is harmful. (This book also supported “unschooling,” so that should tell you a bit more about its perspective.)

    I don’t hold any parenting book as gospel. I don’t think you (the general you) should do anything that feels wrong to you. I think you should recognize and honor your own expertise in YOUR child. You spend every day with your child–you know better than a book what makes her/him smile, thrive, feel comforted, etc. (Obviously, I’m not talking about the margins here–like abuse and neglect. I did child protective services for years–too many years–and, um, there is no way someone who beats his child with an extention cord is an “expert” in disciplining his child.)

    In general, I trust my instincts, but I still crave some affirmation from time to time.

    • I think we do seek out parenting books that mesh well with our philosophies. I bought the Sears and Sears Baby Book because Kaiser’s Lactation Center recommended it. I didn’t realize it was an attachment parenting tome and as I started to read it I was like, whoa, this is NOT me (attachment parenting does not seem to be my thing, and Isa did not like being worn so maybe it wasn’t her thing either, or maybe if I’d worn her more she would have liked it more I don’t know). I also didn’t appreciate the chapter on going back to work (they basically say that it’s obviously best for a mom to stay home but if she really must go back there are things she can do to salvage the situation – made me wonder how Ms. Sears NP ever got to be an NP). I still read the “milestones” parts of the books but I’ve never really returned to the parenting sections.

      I also don’t hold any book as gospel but it can be hard when everyone is saying things just a little bit differently. I guess I’m just taking one thing from one place and another thing from somewhere else and creating my own parenting philosophy. It just feels like that philosophy has so many holes and when Isa challenges me by creating situations I don’t feel comfortable responding to, I get frustrated and feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. It’s hard. Harder than I thought.

      The good thing is the longer I practice this parenting thing the better I get and the more situations I have to deal with the better I’ll be at handling future situations. Hopefully after the summer I know enough to feel comfortable during the rest of the year.

  6. I really haven’t read any parenting books, but in the early days, googled constantly. I’ve eased up on that some, although right now I’m having fits about what to do about future vaccines. I’ve had two people I really respect warn me about vaccinating my son because he has pre-exisiting neurological issues. All the info in books and on the internet is so divisive and makes me more confused than educated. I have 3 months to decide- in the end, I will probably trust my insticts (but my instincts are definitely swayed by those around me sometimes!)

    Tickling- I HATE being tickled. When someone acts like they are going to tickle me, I have this internal panic. But I do tickle Grayson, because he seems to LOVE it and I love hearing him laugh and seeing him smile. I think we as mothers just have to trust that we read our babies’ body language better than anyone.

    • Man, if I started googling parenting topics I think my head might explode. I can’t imagine all the info you find on vaccines. Terrifying. I hope you find a path that feels right for you and Grayson.

      I think your point on the tickling thing is exactly what bothered me about it. Even someone like you who hates being tickled can determine whether or not their son enjoys it. I think it was her refusal to admit that a parent could determine whether it was appropriate with their own child that bothered me.

  7. My nephew begs me to tickle him every time I see him! Obviously, he enjoys the way it makes him feel and the attention from his aunt. I think some kids could have sensory issues (like Autistic children) for whom this would be painful, but the majority of kiddies LOVE it :). It should be pretty obvious when it’s stopped being fun…

  8. I think you’re right, it should be obvious when it stops being fun and it irks me that she has decided it’s aggressive and that no form of it is appropriate. It just seems to suggest that she thinks she knows all children better than even a mother could know her own child and that attitude bothers me.

  9. I agree with many of the points already brought up. Nav and I have very different parenting styles. What’s “common sense” to me is “out of the box” for him. We were raised in very different families and environments so that is a big factor in our differences. He needs studies and facts so I read parenting manuals and dispense (for lack of a better word) the information to him. He hasn’t ever read a parenting manual himself.

    The boys respond to my parenting style mostly because I’m with them all of the time and he is not. They don’t respect him but it’s something we’re working on. I do think that our/Benjamin’s sleep issues are because we do have different parenting styles. If it were up to me we would have sleep trained them a year ago, but Nav has a say in their upbringing and CIO/sleep training is not something he believes in.

    We have been really working on communicating the what/why/hows of raising the boys so that we both feel like we’re raising happy and healthy children.

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