Should you feed your newborn every three-four hours or demand feed them?
Should you use the “timeout” strategy to discipline your child, or offer then cuddles when they misbehave?
Should you employ self-settling techniques or assist them to sleep?
There’s no shortage of parenting books that state in no uncertain terms how you should raise your child. Some draw up schedules and step-by-step instructions, while others give generic ideas on how you should go about solving common problems.
Either way, they come across to new parents as instruction manuals that seem to imply that if you don’t follow them correctly, you’ll end up with a cranky, misbehaving child and an equally exhausted and unhappy parent.
There isn’t consensus amongst parenting experts because there isn’t one single right way to raise kids
That’s what researchers from the University of Warwick concluded when they interviewed 160 mums about their experiences with parenting manuals.
“Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare ‘bibles’ over the years, it’s interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice,” says Dr. Angela Davis, from the university’s Department of History. “Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order, and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers didn’t follow the methods of childrearing they advocated.”
According to Dr Davis, this left mothers “feeling like failures when these targets weren’t achieved”.
To address these feelings of confusion and inadequacy, Jodie Benveniste, a psychologist and director of Parent Wellbeing, developed the Parent Manifesto program.
“The Parent Manifesto is about creating your own parenting approach based on your values and what’s important to you,” she says.
“It’s a step-by-step process to help you identify what’s really important to you and your family, what kind of values you want to live by, what kind of values you want to teach kids.”
She says that instead of telling parents what they should do to solve a particular problem, the Parent Manifesto builds their confidence by reiterating the fact that they know their child better than anyone else.
“By building your own self-awareness and having some tools you can use day-to-day, you actually get through those moments and come out the other side, and you feel much better about your capabilities as a parent. It just builds from there.”
This point of difference is important because the Warwick University study found that the parenting advice given over the past 50 years were cyclical in nature, suggesting that even experts couldn’t agree on what’s the best way to raise a baby.
Dr Davis says, “[There are] strict rules laid down by Frederick Truby King, whose influence is very much evident in the 1940s and following decades ... We then find the advice becomes less authoritarian and regimented as we go through the decades with the influences of Bowlby, Winnicott, Spock and Leach.”
“However, when we reach the 1990s, when Gina Ford came to prominence, we come back to the strict regimented approach of Frederick Truby King several decades earlier,” she says.
Benveniste says there isn’t consensus amongst parenting experts because “there isn’t one single right way to raise kids”.
The research also found that women of different generations within the same family were often unsure of what the best way to raise a baby was, suggesting that advice from others, while well-meaning, isn’t always coming from a confident parent.
But this doesn’t mean that we should shun all advice given through books, family and friends, says Benveniste.
“By all means, read the parenting advice, listen to what your family and friends might say, but you’ve got to filter it all through your own value set. So that’s how you make decisions about whether to take the advice on board or whether to reject it.”
This is exactly what happened to Dominique Broomfield, mother of two and co-founder of babiesandtoddlers.com.au, when she realised that Gina Ford’s advice to wake a sleeping baby up was in conflict with her gut instinct.
“I managed to relax a lot more when I sort of stepped back from the book ... the baby does find its own natural rhythm after a while, and some do it quicker, and some will take that little bit longer, but they all know when to sleep, when to eat or when they want to have cuddle or when they want to play,” she says.
“I think sometimes … if you follow the baby’s lead a little bit, then you’ll get there a little bit quicker than trying to put this sort of undue routine on yourself and your little baby.”
To avoid feeling like a failure, Benveniste advises parents to work out if the routine and advice suggested in parenting manuals work for your family. If it doesn’t, there’s no need to feel disillusioned, as there’s no science that proves that any one way is the right way to raise a child.
This is why it’s important to find your own way, borrowing bits and pieces of advice that work for you from different books, friends and family, eventually creating your own unwritten childcare 'bible' to help you navigate parenthood.