Parenting: Theory Versus Practice

As a scholar in the field of parenting, as a teacher of young children, as an educator of adults learning appropriate practices with children, I have to say I felt fairly prepared going into parenthood . . . in Theory.  How hard could it be?

Then, my son was born.

Thus ensued an epic battle between Theory and Practice.  Theory came on the scene confident, fresh, and ready to take on the world.  Practice whispered gentle warnings of hard times ahead.

Theory and I were tight.  In Theory, we would not be giving my son a pacifier.  We’d read enough to know that pacifiers can interfere with nursing.  In Theory, we would never let our baby cry.  After all, my background is in Attachment – sensitive and responsive parents have securely attached children, and parents who respond to their children’s cries have babies who cry LESS long-term.  In Theory, I would nurse a minimum of 1 year – literature supports the idea that the breast is best.  In Theory, we would never praise our child – I teach my students that research links excessive blanket praise to lower self-confidence and self-esteem.  In Theory, we had it all worked out.

But then Practice came along & whispered all kinds of sweet nothings in my ear.

We introduced a pacifier after 2 months because it helped my son’s reflux.  I fought hard, but the pacifier fought harder.  It was my son’s dearest friend, and you could always find one in my or my husband’s pocket.  The way my son zoned when he saw a pacifier, his eyes glazed over!  At two, we successfully transitioned the pacifier out, but he still talks of it fondly today.

Practice taught me that no matter how responsive my husband and I were to my child’s cries, he still cried for 4 solid hours every night for months.  Had Theory heard of Colic?  Our wrists were shot from passing the baby back & forth, constantly bouncing him, hoping it would ease whatever horrible pain he was experiencing.  There were moments when both our wrists gave out, when exhaustion over powered, and when neither of us could be as responsive as we wished, in Theory.

At 4 months, after lactation consulting, after weighing my child’s milk intake at each feeding, after experimenting with every nursing position, after cranial massage, after mastitis and plugged ducts, after crying for weeks – I decided we may not make it nursing, no matter how badly I wanted it to work.  Thankfully we found a way.  But not before Practice suggested to me strongly that book knowledge and “wanting it” are sometimes not enough.

As the Bug has grown from a baby to a boy, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid praise.  It’s easy with any other child.  But with the Bug, his beauty overwhelms me.  I am overwhelmed with pride by every piece of art, by every word he utters, by his ideas, by his mannerisms, and by his smile.  I am able for the most part to focus on his process and to encourage him rather than praise him.  When it comes to telling him just how much I unconditionally love and adore him – I admit I probably cross the line.  I’m not aware of any research linking number of times you say “I love you” to long-term outcomes, but if there are limits, and if they imply I need to cut back – on this one, I’m sticking with Practice.

I feel fortunate to have Theory and research as my foundational guide in raising my son.  At the same time, the reality of parenthood often pits Theory against Practice.  Our goal in teaching Positive Guidance Parenting is to explore a variety of parenting topics while answering the question, “What Does the Research Say?”  We believe that research is best used as a foundational guide, and that everyday parenthood helps morph research into Practice.  One answer is not the answer for all.  By being educated about best practices in parenting, individual families and parents can use Theory to create a Practice best suited to meet their family’s needs.  With research as a base, we hope to help parents practice parenting skills that accommodate their individual preferences, their family culture and traditions, as well as each person’s needs within the family.

So here’s to Theory and Practice!  Often working in concert, often working at odds.

Dr. Rachel

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