“How can I be a great mum?”; “How can I be a great dad?”: everyone wants to know. There are thousands of parenting books out there which purport to tell you the answer. Some are helpful; some aren’t. How are you to know which “philosophy” to go with? Some tell you to leave your baby crying to “help them self-soothe” and have a strict routine. Some tell you the opposite; to pick your baby up as soon as it cries and feed on demand. Should you base it on the latest science? It’s difficult to know exactly what that is and it’s constantly changing. Should you base it on anecdotal evidence? Babies and children are all so different though: just because playing “Ben Howard” at bedtime worked for your best friend’s baby doesn’t mean it will work for yours!
I’m not here to answer “when to ween your baby” (one year?) or whether to use disposable or reusable nappies. It’s really helped me, however, to have a clear philosophy (or simply ‘approach’) to parenting. As somewhat of a perfectionist, I found it agonizing deciding between the many parenting techniques and styles. I have found that instead of trying to ‘zoom in’ to a parenting question, ‘zooming out’ first helps to get the perspective I need to choose. We need to answer the big questions before we can answer the small ones.
Perhaps, as a philosophy graduate, it was natural that philosophy should be the place I turned for help. It should, however, be where everyone turns for help. What do you think of when you think of ‘philosophy’? Romans and Greeks wandering around in togas asking people difficult questions? Well yes, there is a bit of that but philosophy has dedicated thousands of years thinking to the question “How should we live?”. Has science done that? Perhaps from a health perspective. Have your close group of friends who have had six children between them? Doubtful. Has psychology done that? Psychology has given us CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy): a way to live happier, more anxiety-free lives. No it hasn’t! CBT was taken from a 2,500-year-old Stoic Philosophy, rebranded, repackaged and resold. That’s not a bad thing though. Not at all. That’s just one nugget which has been unearthed and made mainstream. There’s so much more.
You don’t have to look for the “latest” idea. Look instead for the “longest”, the most “tried and tested”; the most “timeless”. Science, psychology and friends are a great source of information but you need philosophy to help navigate through the information overload of modern parenting.
Of course there are many, many philosophical prescriptions for parenting when you get digging (and I really recommend the aforementioned Stoic Philosophers as a starting point for this) but these are the three most powerful and transformative ideas influencing me at the moment.
1. “Ne Quid Nimis”: Balance In All Things.
This was the first timeless, wise approach to parenting to occur to me. Not only is it a great way to live our own lives (and we should be an example to our children by demonstrating temperance) but it is a great starting place for parenting decisions. Case in point: my girlfriend and I were swimming with our 4-month-old baby. My girlfriend suggested we should “dunk” our baby’s head (a well-known technique, I was assured) so our baby didn’t develop a fear of getting her head wet. My gut reaction was ‘no, let her build up her confidence until she feels happy putting her head under the water herself’. Two very opposite approaches. Both had sensible arguments. So how to choose? We agreed to apply the “Ne Quid Nimis” approach and splashed her face with a little water. We didn’t lose her trust and she became acclimatized to having water on her face.
Should you be lax or strict? Should you have a rigid set of rules or let them learn for themselves? As Immanuel Kant teaches us, there are no universal laws (which can be applied universally). Context is everything. The only rule which holds water from one moment to the next is balance. There’s an ever-changing balance to strike in setting boundaries for children, as there is in life for adults.
It’s not always clear exactly where the balance is among parenting approaches but if balance is your aim, you shouldn’t end up far off. If it sounds extreme, it probably is!
This is a big one but essential. Step one is for your children to believe in the power of their interpretation. At the heart of Stoic Philosophy is the belief that we have limited control over the world but we can control our reaction to it. Step two is to inform their interpretive abilities.
So many parents (myself included) have the temptation to bubble-wrap their child’s existence. “What if they’re bullied at school? How will their development be affected if…?”. It’s easy and natural to think this way. This, however, is NOT your job as a parent. Your job is not to be a “helicopter parent” or to vet every single person your child may meet to make sure they’ll be a positive impact. Your job is to empower your child’s ability to interpret the world in a healthy and happy way.
If your child encounters a dead animal on the street, instead of saying “it’s just a toy” and steering them away, help them to make the correct interpretation. You might say, “It’s a dead mouse. Death is a very sad thing but it’s what gives our lives definition”. Perhaps in the case of the death of a loved one (and so many situations), you could use the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Or whatever works for you! If you don’t know how to give a healthy spin, then be open about that. Let your child see your fragility, as well as the world’s fragility. Such honesty will make your life and their life much easier in the long run.
3. “Be the change you want to see”.
The third philosophy is simple. If you want your child to be happy, healthy and wise then the best place to start is with yourself. They are much more likely to “do as you do” than “do as you say”!
Do you have a parenting philosophy? Please share it!