Do you remember the days when people spent more time raising their own children than telling other people how to raise theirs? When no one particularly cared what brand of baby bottles you were using, whether or not you breastfed a respectable period of time, what philosophy of child-rearing you subscribe to, or how much TV you allow your kids to watch? Yes, I know that everybody has always had an opinion. That certainly hasn’t changed. But everyone didn’t seem to be quite so determined fifty years ago to impose it on others.
I look at blog posts, education journals, and parenting articles and I see a lot of highly vocal parental pride.
“We are believers in attachment parenting.”
“We share a ‘family bed.'”
“We live an organic lifestyle.'”
“We breastfed exclusively for two years.”
Please do not misunderstand me. I have no contempt whatsoever for these parenting styles and practices. And I’m all for people raising their children with thought and a deliberate attention to their children’s needs. It’s the tone of moral superiority some proponents of various parenting theories get that unnerves me.
I came across one such sound bite the other night. Actor Neil Patrick Harris was doing the obligatory parental bragging about his twins and boasted that his family has a “no baby talk” policy.
Now when I say I’m annoyed with this, please do not interpret that as me being all kinds of upset with Neil Patrick Harris. He isn’t the first person to say it, and he is in all likelihood a perfectly nice man who clearly adores his children. He simply repeated a phrase that is echoed by many parents –some of whom are excessively confident in their child-rearing convictions. I’ve been guilty of it too, so let’s not run out and throw stones. We’re none of us perfect — which is precisely my motivation for writing this.
As a teacher and a parent of both a highly verbal, early talking child and a child with an autism spectrum disorder with severe language delays, it annoys me when people self-righteously proclaim they “don’t speak baby talk” to their children or that their children are so verbal now because they didn’t then. Language acquisition is so much more complex than that. Children thrive the more they are spoken to and interacted with period, no matter what the language or style of speaking. There are behavioral studies in linguistics that demonstrate high-pitched speech toward infants is normal across most cultures. It appears to be somewhat instinctive. And, really, there are an awful lot of brilliant and articulate men and women throughout history whose mothers and fathers spoke sing-song silliness to their beloved babies.
Neil Patrick Harris obviously was not discussing autism or special needs conditions. Nor are most of the “no baby talk” proponents. But when they make these statements,they are implying that baby talk is somehow harmful to typical childrens’ language development. Parents whose children are language delayed or simply not as impressive as their more precocious peers, have now been put on notice that they are somehow to blame for this.
Ditto for TV watching. Yes, yes, I know all about this debate as well and have read the same studies as you have. And, certainly, children are much better off running around outside making mud pies than watching cartoons. However, I do not buy the argument that children who’ve seen a little television are miles behind in their development. I – and most of my friends – grew up watching an awful lot of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers, The Electric Company, and so forth. In the evenings, I loved The Dukes of Hazard and Charlie’s Angels. Despite my obviously intellectually deficient childhood, not only do I know how to wield a library card, I also managed to graduate college. So I don’t buy the “developmental delays are caused by watching too much television” argument either. The same thing goes for children who were bottle fed, made to sleep in their own beds, or given processed food once in a while.
When people have misconceptions about the causes of developmental delays (or the lack of excessive genius even), I get tense. And my opinion itches to be set free. Because having it implied that you are to blame for a child’s delays hurts – and hurts needlessly. When you say to a parent of a child struggling developmentally that they should start or stop doing some particular thing, you are possibly coming at someone who lives with self-doubt every day. We all wonder what we could have done or could do better. We question our decisions. And some may wonder if it really was Yo Gabba Gabba that caused their child’s autism after all. (For the record? It wasn’t.) The truth is that, with the exception of severe neglect and malnutrition, most developmental delays have a physiological or genetic cause. Despite the abundance of information proving that, people still feel free to share their “expertise” with hapless parents everywhere.
Having a developmentally delayed child is much like standing in dirt crossroad in the middle of nowhere. The right path is not clearly marked. We try to peek a bit down every road to determine the best one to take. There are few road signs and no mile markers. You set off down the road you have carefully chosen. You hear the people off in the distance who took other paths. Some of them – whose proximity you can’t quite determine – are reporting how terrible their journeys are. Some of them are joyfully shouting how pleased they are with theirs. You can’t tell who is closer or farther away. With each successive voice added, you are left standing alone on the road trying to determine if you should begin making your way back to choose another. You are left amidst a cacophony of voices shouting at you to head in their direction. But, in the end, you are still standing on that road all alone, tightly holding the hand of your child while trying to appear confident. It’s a frightening and lonely feeling. One no parent will ever forget.
And the thoughtless comments and boasting of others can take you right back to that road in that moment of indecision.
Here’s what we know for certain about raising children:
1. They need to know they are loved and valued.
2. They need to be protected from illness and harm.
3. They need clothing, nourishing food, and shelter.
4. They need an appropriate education.
5. They need opportunities to play and safely explore their world.
That’s about it. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, or tribe you hail from, this is what you need to grow into a healthy, well-adjusted adult. And I just want to take a moment to say to all of the parents out there whose children are receiving these five basic things: You are a good mom. You are a good dad. Your children are who they were meant to be all along. You’re doing a good job — not matter who is suggesting otherwise.
And I’m going to try to say it to myself more often – the me who worries, overanalyzes, and doubts. The me who believes it easily of others but finds it harder to believe it of myself. For, like all of you, I’m really doing the best I can.
“In spite of the six thousand manuals on child raising in the bookstores, child raising is still a dark continent and no one really knows anything. You just need a lot of love and luck – and, of course, courage.” ~Bill Cosby, Fatherhood, 1986
So, what annoying things have been suggested to you for better raising your special needs child?