Last week there was a lot of noise about that crying it out study, which indicated that “graduated extinction” (which is different from simply leaving the baby to cry) isn’t harmful to infants. On my Facebook feed I heard (like many of you heard) a lot from both sides of the debate, decrying the study as too small to be useful or hailing it as the definitive answer from science. People ask me to weigh in on research like this because I’m a counselor who specializes in working with new parents but I’m not that interested in getting parents to do things some mythical right way to raise babies because there isn’t one.
When my son was a teensy-tiny infant I thought someone should invent a sim baby program so that I could make the most appropriate parenting decisions every single time. I could try virtually feeding him rice cereal as a first food and then hit restart to go back and try feeding him sweet potato to see which made him turn out best. Because even then — when the internet was fairly primitive and we all used Netscape — there was so much information out there and such strong opinions about every little thing. It’s not like my mom’s day where the parenting experts were limited to the people you actually knew and saw on a day-to-day basis (and maybe your dog-eared copy of Dr. Spock‘s book). Now there are a whole slew of people who have opinions on every little thing from first foods to sleep habits to how to tell your child that you like the painting they made in preschool (that is if you fall in the pro-preschool camp because oh boy are their opinions about that, too).
Here’s the thing, I don’t want you to raise your baby in any particular way. I want you to raise your baby your way. I don’t want my clients making decisions solely based on the headlines generated by researchers in South Australia; I want them to figure out how to tune into what they need and what their babies need and make decisions based on that. If the researchers in South Australia help inform those decisions — whether that’s helping parents feel good about sleep training or highlighting their own reservations about it — then great.
You and your baby are a unique dyad. You and your baby and your partner and the rest of your family, you are a complicated and distinct system. However you choose to handle sleep with your baby, it’s only one of many decisions you’ll be making over the course of your parenting career. Those decisions are opportunities for you to build your family culture based on your values, wants and wishes for your child. They are opportunities for you to explore and respond to your child’s individual temperament and learn more about the person they will eventually become. And they are opportunities for you to begin to understand who you are as a parent.
There are definitely absolutes about parenting like your babies should always be in car seats and they need to be fed (how you feed them is up to you). But studies like this, while useful and important, cannot take into account the whole colorful array of personalities and practicalities that make up each family.
If you were to come to my office and say, “Should I let my baby cry it out?” I would want to know so much more like who are you? And who is your baby? And what is the context of your lives together? As frustrating as it might be, I would not give you an answer because I want to help my clients find their own answers, the answers they can stand behind and feel good about. I want them to gain the confidence they’ll need for the rest of the hard work of parenting — choosing a kindergarten and giving the sex talk and figuring out curfews. As the kids say, you do you (because trying to do somebody else will just make you unhappy).
Do I have strong opinions? I sure do. I have strong personal opinions about my own parenting choices. But as I say (often), there are lots of ways to be a great parent and to raise great kids. I don’t have a lock on the best way; I’ve just figured out what works for me and mine. For example, I believe my kids are best served by being force-fed a lot of show tunes and being lectured on the superiority of Sondheim over Webber. You will not convince me otherwise but I also promise not to visit that strong bias on you. You go ahead and listen to Phantom and I’ll just sit over here with my well-worn copy of Company.
So if you come to me for answers, I won’t give them to you but I promise you that I will help you find them for yourself.
It’s the therapy stereotype, right? It’s always your mother’s fault! No wonder then that many of the parents I see come in feeling defensive or feeling guilty.
“Did I do something wrong?” they ask me. “Did I create these issues? Is it all my fault?”
My answer to this is probably going to feel frustrating: I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.
Here’s the deal: different kids need different kinds of parents and sometimes those different kids live in the same family, which means the fool proof technique you had for dealing with one child’s tantrums is not necessarily going to work with dealing with the next child’s tantrums. In fact, it might make things worse. Remember there is no one size fits all parenting.
Let’s take childhood anxiety. Anxiety has at its core a whole lot of nature and a healthy dose of nurture. Parents with anxious temperaments often give birth to children with anxious temperaments. That’s not anyone’s fault; that’s genetics. Also parents who deal with the world in an anxious way inadvertently model that anxious way of dealing with the world for their children. That’s nobody’s fault either anymore than the way parents who read a lot tend to have kids who read a lot. Modeling is powerful.
That said, once the family realizes that their child is struggling with anxiety there is an opportunity to explore the way that parenting choices may be influencing that struggle.
Let me give you an example. Consider bedtime routines. Any parenting expert type out there will tell you that bedtime routines are terrific, right? Do a quick google and you have people promising you that having a routine will make your evenings “battle-free” and “sleep-inducing.” And I agree — having a predictable routine before bed is great sleep hygiene. But if you have a child with an anxiety disorder then that friendly little routine can become a prison where mom or dad has to stand in the doorway and say “Good night” exactly this way with exactly that inflection or the whole routine has to start over again.
Then it may be that changing the parent’s behavior is part of what needs to happen next — the solution may lie in part in the parent’s actions — but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all the mom and dad’s fault for creating a bedtime routine in the first place.
When my son was small I used to fantasize about having a Sims-type game where I could program all of my son’s characteristics into the computer and try out different parenting choices to see which would be the best one. Like, this Sim-baby I could send to preschool and that one I could keep home. This one I could be really stern with and that one I could lean more towards permissive. At the end of the game I’d know exactly the right way to raise my actual baby here in front of me.
Unfortunately we don’t have that. Instead we have a lot of advice and a lot of research, (which is helpful but not definitive) and a lot of books and neighbors and teachers and therapists and then we have our own hopes and dreams and histories and expectations. Then throw in kids with wildly different temperaments, abilities, interests, talents and challenges and well, we end up with a whole mess of confusion.
In short, we’re going to do some things right and we’re going to do some things wrong. Sometimes the wrongs are no big deal and sometimes we’re going to have to course correct. Sometimes a bedtime routine is awesome and sometimes it’s ripe with dysfunction for no other reason than there’s a perfect storm of this parent, this technique and this child and it’s not working.
(This is also why none of us should ever be smug with each other. Show me a parent who has a child who is a shining beacon of perfection and I’ll show you a parent who got lucky. In parenting, like in all things, some of us have it easier than others just because.)
So if you come to me and say, “Is this all my fault?” I’m going to say that I think you’re asking the wrong question. I’m going to encourage you to say, instead, “What can we do now to help things be better?”
Two VERY DIFFERENT bosses
When you look at the ethical guidelines for therapists a whole lot of them are in place to address the power imbalance between therapist and client. In the minds of our clients, the things we therapists do or say hold greater weight than the same thoughts that, say, your hairdresser or mechanic might offer. (Except when it comes to how to do your hair or fix your car.) When we share our reflections about your life choices and relationships then we need to be aware that our clients will likely take those thoughts very seriously, which is why it can be painful and even dangerous to have a therapist get things really wrong with you.
I remember the second therapist I ever saw when I was a freshman or sophomore in college and was in love with a boy who didn’t love me back. (That’s what brought me to therapy although it turns out — no surprise — I had a lot more going on than just that.) Anyway, the therapist just loved all my stories about my super interesting boyfriend and would agree with me, “He does sound amazing! And in a band, too, wow!” which was not what I needed to hear. Now I understand that likely he was just trying to join with me (this thing where therapists go along with you to help build rapport) but at the time I thought, “Well, it’s hopeless. My boyfriend is too amazing for me to ever get over him and even my therapist loves him” and I quit going to therapy. What would have been better is if I’d come back and said, “Hey, I’m sick of hearing about how great you think my stupid boyfriend is” and then we could have had a discussion about it.
Because therapists get stuff wrong. It happens. We’re not perfect and even the best therapist is not necessarily the best fit for any given client. We will get things wrong and it’s up to you, dear clients and potential clients, to help us get it right.
Sometimes we get things wrong because we don’t ask for enough information and sometimes this is because we don’t even know we need it. You say, “Hey, my boss!” and the therapist is sitting there merrily picturing Leslie Knope and really you’re talking about your boss who is more like Glenn Close in Damages only the therapist has already decided she knows what’s going on and so things just get confused.
That happens. Although eventually situations like that work themselves out if the therapist is a good listener and asks good questions.
What’s trickier is when the therapist is wrong only you don’t know she’s wrong because it’s nothing as clear cut as facts. Instead she’s operating with a set of biases that you don’t know about. Like say she is against beach vacations and thinks everyone should go hiking in Hocking Hills and you don’t know this so when she’s discouraging you from planning your vacation to Bethany Beach you think there really is something wrong with your ideas. You wonder, “Is this what’s wrong with me? That I always go to the beach?” and it’s confusing. Because sometimes it’s true — your ingrained thoughts or beliefs are part of the problem — but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s just a matter of different priorities and opinions.
So what do you do?
First of all, if you feel like your therapist is being biased, tell her. Have a discussion about it. Heck, have a debate. Good therapists know their biases (we all have them) and will be willing to engage with you. She will be able to say, “Here is my bias” but she’ll also be willing to say, “My issue with the beach is not because I’m against beaches, it’s because you’ve told me that you are allergic to sand in previous discussions and I want to challenge your assumption that you should go to the beach anyway.”
Or the discussion might help you discover that your boss thinks Glenn Close in Damages makes a GREAT boss and that you should suck it up and let her murder people and violate legal ethics and blackmail everyone because your therapist places a high value on career achievement and that’s just her philosophical starting point. In which case you can decide for yourself if that’s the kind of therapist that you want to have.
Very often you and your therapist won’t agree about things and a lot of the times, that won’t matter because our ethical guidelines state:
Counselors are aware of—and avoid imposing—their own values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Counselors respect the diversity of clients, trainees, and research participants and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.
(this is from the 2014 American Counseling Association Code of Ethics)
In other words, even if your counselor would personally love to work for Glenn Close, she ought to be able to appreciate that you would rather work for Leslie Knope. But if you’re not sure, ask her. Have that discussion. Find out what’s going on there if you feel like she’s misunderstanding your point of view or steering you away from your goals. Because even though we are therapists and sit in the big comfy chair (or at least the chair with good lumbar support because this job is hard on your back) that does not mean we know everything or that we’re the boss of you. Sometimes we’re wrong. Call us out when we are; good therapists will appreciate the discussion.
(For the record, I prefer a Hocking Hills vacation as long as there’s air conditioning and obviously I would prefer to work for Leslie Knope because I like waffles a lot more than I like murder and blackmail.)
I’ve written before about how change can feel like betrayal to friends and family. What happens is that sometimes it feels so scary that they drag you back and you find yourself in that same rut you’ve been trying so hard to leave. They like you there because having you there is familiar, it makes sense to them. If you change then they have to change (or at the very least change their ideas about you). And they didn’t sign up for that; they don’t necessarily want to change.
Sometimes their need for sameness will be so great that they will refuse to see that you are different.
Let’s say that when you were a little kid you hated birthday parties. Maybe you were shy and hated being the center of attention while everyone sang you happy birthday. Or say you’ve never liked frosting and dreaded the inevitable first bite of birthday cake. I don’t know but let’s just say that’s how it is — you didn’t like birthdays parties.
That became your thing as you grew up. That’s what your friends and relatives would say about you.
“Now that one over there?” they’d say, jerking their thumbs your way. “That one hates birthday parties.”
They would tell all the stories of you sitting in a corner scowling while everyone else made a fuss about presents. They’d pull out pictures that would show you wailing over the birthday cake your grandmother made, even though she’d hand drawn a beautiful frosting design showcasing your favorite characters from Sesame Street across the top.
The more they said it, the more you believed it. Besides there’s proof in everyone’s stories and in all of the photo albums; you are a person who hates birthday parties.
Only one day you start figuring out that it’s all more complicated. Perhaps you went to a birthday party where there was no singing and everyone made their own sundaes. You thought to yourself, “That’s not so bad, that’s pretty good. Maybe I don’t hate birthday parties — maybe I just don’t like getting sung at and eating frosting.”
So you go back and tell your friends and family, “Hey, I’m throwing myself a birthday party this year! Do you want to come?”
And they scoff, “You? You, hater of all birthday parties? You who threw up all over my birthday party when I was eight because we generously gave you a corner piece of cake with a big blue rose on it?”
“Well, yeah,” you say. “I hate frosting but I love birthday parties.”
“No, you don’t. You hate them.”
“Turns out I love them when they get thrown a certain way.”
“Oh so now you’re criticizing the way we throw parties? Now it’s our problem? And now you expect us to accommodate all your new fangled ideas about sundae bars when you know that in our family we eat cake! See, that’s you all over again — ruining birthdays for other people because you hate parties!”
At this point you might start feeling a little crazy. Are they right? Are you fooling yourself? Do you owe it to people to continue on your birthday party-less way because you’ve been such a trial to them throughout your life?
See, there’s a birthday-party-hater slot in their lives and you’ve been filling it for however many years. If you don’t fill it, it means they have to change and while some people can handle change pretty well (perhaps your Aunt Leonie and your best friend from fifth grade handle your new-found love of birthday parties with equanimity) everyone else might freak out.
This can be because
1) they don’t want to think critically about their own creation of your birthday party myth (your grandmother might not want to feel guilty about that Sesame Street cake); or
2) because they need you to fill that slot to avoid their own birthday party hatred (it might be that your little sister hates frosting, too, but needs you to stand in for her so she doesn’t have to suffer the consequences); or
3) they like the story they’ve been telling themselves and don’t want to stop telling it.
You can’t know, really, why they don’t want to let you out of the rut you’ve been in but every time you try to climb out, they push you back in. You throw yourself the party, you invite them all and they stand around and smile sympathetically at you, “Look at you trying to pretend you’re enjoying yourself!”
“But I am,” you say. “This Goat Cheese with Red Cherries ice cream from Jeni’s is to die for.”
“Sure,” they say, nodding and winking at you. “Sure thing.”
Because sometimes that’s how it is.
That leaves you with three choices:
- To sigh and let yourself get pushed back into the rut and give up on birthday parties.
- To argue with them until it becomes a big old thing and you’re all crying with frustration.
- To go on with your bad birthday party loving self anyway and not worry so much about how other people take the Brand New You.
There is a reason there’s a whole genre of television and movies about how you can’t go home again and it’s about growth and change and figuring out how to be the person you’ve become when the people who have been part of your life from the beginning can only see how you were. It’s painful for everybody and certainly for the person trying to grow into something different.
Change is hard but it’s worth it. There are birthday parties out there just waiting for you to show up.
And here’s Whitney Houston’s live cover of “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls.
There’s a lot I don’t know and knowing what I don’t know is a big piece of being a good counselor. One of the most important things I do know is that I can’t make sense of anything without context.
Because I work with kids and parents, people sometimes assume I must have hard and fast rules about what makes for good parenting but hard and fast rules only work on paper. In real life, we make decisions in the context of our histories and our current experiences. We are making big, well thought out decisions and we are making quick, on-the-fly decisions. Those decisions never happen in a vacuum so when people say, “Is this a problem? Is that a problem?” I have to say, “I don’t know. Tell me more.”
Before I meet with a child for the first time, I meet with her parents. We talk about what’s going on and we talk about what the parents have tried already. We talk about what works and what doesn’t work. Parents are sometimes apologetic or defensive when they share one parenting choice or another because parents (unfortunately) are used to being judged. But I don’t judge parents. My job is to understand them and understand their goals and to understand their children so that I can help them live out those goals and to support their children.
Let’s take spanking for a very heated, very emotional example. I know great parents who spank and I know terrible parents who don’t. I can’t really tell anything about a parent or about their child or about their struggle when I hear, “I spank my kids.” It’s just a single choice in a sea of choices so when I hear a parent say, “I spank my kids” I want to know more about that. Why? Is it a knee-jerk reaction? A considered decision? Under what circumstances? What is the child’s reaction? What is the parent’s reaction?
This is how I approach all of those hot button issues: co-sleeping or crying it out, homeschooling or not, time outs or non-coercive parenting. I want to know what these decisions mean in the context of that family. How did those decisions happen? How do those decisions support or undermine the family’s goals? Do the parents feel their choices are working for their children? For themselves? Is it time to consider new options?
When I make recommendations, I make them in front of a background of what the research says, what I know from personal experience and from talking to lots (and lots) of families and — most importantly — I do with respect for the child and family in front of me. I may push parents to reconsider some of their previous choices but I will do it with respect for the values that drive those choices.