Empowering Parents

February 21, 2012 at 2:10 pm 4 comments

By Emily Shapiro ‘90


For the past three years I have had the unique opportunity to view the world of young parents from up close, through the eyes of an experienced parent and early childhood educator. This happened because I had a second child when my first was a 20 year-old college student. I have also been teaching and directing for 25 years.

Parenting the second time around has been a wonderful gift. Watching the unique relationship my daughters have developed has been a joy. And being around young moms, and sometimes dads, has been rejuvenating.

However, as I chat with other parents of babies, toddlers and preschoolers in the playground, at playgroups, at nursery school events, I have some concerns about the way decisions about the nitty gritty details of child-rearing are being made. The parents I meet, the parents of my daughter’s friends, are mostly middle-class. When we still lived in Manhattan, many were upper middle class. They are well educated, sophisticated in many areas. Moms as well as dads are highly competent in the work world, whether or not they are currently working, and often hold high-powered positions.

Yet they seem to me to be largely disempowered in making decisions about such topics as sleep, feeding, toilet training, etc. Many become parents never having held a baby, let alone lived with one (unless you count a two-years younger baby brother). They look to experts who all too often respond with recipes rather than information.

I have seen a young mother frantic with worry and feeling inadequate because she couldn’t get her 7 month old to eat the number of servings of vegetables her pediatrician had told her he should be eating.  When I asked whether the pediatrician had seen any signs of non-optimal nutrition, she didn’t know.

I have spoken with parents who took their 6 month old to a sleep expert in desperation, and were sent home with instructions they were extremely uncomfortable following—but no information about the development of object permanence and separation anxiety.

I have heard mothers say they are “bad mothers” for any number of reasons: they “can’t” let the baby cry at night; they haven’t taken away the pacifier though the doctor said it will ruin the child’s teeth; etc. Toilet training has become, for many, a mysterious and frightening ordeal. An acquaintance recently told me she had moved her 18 month old to a “better” day care, where they really “teach” them things: “things” turned out to mean letters and numbers. How is she to know that isn’t the measure of a good day care for an 18 month old?

It’s very difficult to be a competent, generally confident person, suddenly faced with complete responsibility in an area where we have no experience and little knowledge. Caring for a baby or young child is extremely challenging, physically as well as emotionally. It is easy to feel worn down and desperate. At these moments, we may welcome someone telling us authoritatively what to do.

But I believe it is the responsibility of those of us who are in a position to council young parents to support and encourage them in making decisions that are right for them and their child. I believe we serve the children, as well as the parents, best if we share information and listen as they deliberate, but refuse to tell them what to do.

Pediatricians are doing their job when they emphasize to parents that adequate sleep is essential for a child’s health and development, or when they give nutritional guidelines. But parents have a larger responsibility of integrating all of the information that pertains to the whole child, to the entire family, to the child’s entire environment. It is the job of the parent to work out what action to take based on all the information. Parents need to be supported in taking that responsibility.

The message I like to give is:  parenting is a very challenging and very rewarding job. You can do it. I will help you. But these are your children, you are creating your family. Your personality and values need to be expressed in how you do this work. There are many methods and approaches that work. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. It’s very helpful to have some ideas of what has worked for other people. But ultimately, you will create your own family system.

Teachers are less likely than doctors and psychologists to take the role of prescribing expert. Bank Street trained teachers in particular are trained to respect individual as well as cultural differences and to listen as well as talk. I think we are in a unique position to look for opportunities to empower parents to make their own, thoughtful evaluations of what they have been told to do.

I think we can do a lot of good just taking those opportunities as they arise.  However, I would love to see a network of support groups for parents who are not necessarily experiencing unusual difficulties, but just having the inevitable humbling experiences of parenthood. I would love to see these groups led by people like Bank Street educators who are comfortable in mentoring, empowering roles.

I’d love to hear from anyone who has an idea about a context for such groups, or who would like to work with me to try to get some started!

Entry filed under: families, parenting.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jackie  |  February 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    There is so much going on for new parents these days. There is the overwhelming availability of information from numerous points of view, if one looks for it. There is the public attitude that offering an opinion–unsolicited–is beneficial. Take into account that a great number of new parents have already felt some success in their careers, then there’s some anxiety about how to achieve success in parenting, how to reclaim adult-independence and personal time, how much research is necessary before finding the ‘right’ information. Sometimes it seems there is too much information and too many choices.

    The happiest and most well-adjusted new parents I have met are the ones who did their research and reflection on values before the first child was born.

    The best support I received as a new parent was from other moms who had ‘been there/done that’ recently, specifically La Leche League moms. They were very informed and never dogmatic. They offered their experience with encouragement that each family will find their own way.

    I believe that parenting, as with so many other elements of modern living, is going through great changes. We no longer can accept advice, even from the ped. who advises giving a ‘lovey’ to an infant at 4 months for attachment, at face value.

    I think the parents that you are meeting, Emily, probably haven’t yet found their ‘tribe’ or maybe they haven’t determined their own values in parenting. My oldest is 8 now and I have found that new parents are happy and feel some relief being able to tell another parent the difficulties they are having in commiseration, and often later change their minds about the whole thing.

    Support groups are a great idea. New parents who are struggling need to feel empowered. Being heard is probably the first step for many.

  • 2. Eleanor  |  February 21, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Hi Emily –

    I appreciate what you are doing here and love the idea of you starting support groups. I agree that the main component of a support group is compassionate listening. Also, given the intersection of guilt, isolation, and exhaustion for parents, it’s huge just to provide a space where they can be together in the same room and also be real about what is going on for them without looking like they have it all together. The oppression of parents is real. It’s a 24/7 job that comes without pay, training, or support. What other job exists with those conditions? I’m cheering you on as you take on the job of offering some contradiction to this particular form of oppression.

  • 3. Vincent (@cranialgunk)  |  February 22, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Hi Emily,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective. It reminded me of how terrified I was holding my son for the first time. I was so worried that if I held him too tightly I would crush his bones and if I held him too loosely he would simply plummet to the hard ground.

  • 4. Emily Shapiro  |  February 26, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    Thank you for your comments, understanding and support. And Vincent, for your vivid example of exactly the vulnerability I am talking about!
    Any thoughts about how to get these groups started?

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