Parenting Isn’t An Instinct

I just started reading Nurture ShockIn the introduction, the authors talk about how we have this myth that parenting is an instinct when, in fact, our only true instinct is to care for and protect our kids. How we go about doing that isn’t “instinctual” by any means. What it is instead?

Parenting as Culture

The primary foundation of our so-called parenting instincts is culture.

Culture is made up of all the complex and interwoven stories we receive about how and what it means to parent. We are parented ourselves. We watch our friends being parented. We learn about parenting in the fictional stories of movies, television, and books. We see headlines and news stories involving parents. We see and hear the titles of parenting books, whether we read them or not.

All of these things and more weave together to create what we think of parenting, what we expect from parenting, and what kinds of parents we choose to be. Regardless of whether you think you’ve been learning how to be a parent your whole life, you have. When you actually become a parent, unless you’ve done a lot of education to become a certain kind of parent, you will be the kind of parent your default cultural training has set you up for.

Parenting as a Skill

I have long thought of parenting as a skill, since I originally approached childcare from an educational standpoint. From the first day I started working in a daycare 16 years ago right up until the present moment, I have devoured information about childhood development, parenting philosophy, and the lives of parents and children. In addition to all that reading and studying, I had a decade of practical practice before ever having a child of my own.

After Dylan’s birth, nurses and doctors kept asking me if I was ready to take a newborn home. It seemed like an absurd question to me. I mean, I had to get used to the wondrous idea that he was my child and I could keep him. But everything else about newborn care was nearly automatic to me. The only thing that was new for me was breastfeeding, and fortunately that went smoothly for us.

Joshua asked me at one point if this newborn stuff was typically harder for some people. I said sure! For one thing, many new parents are learning a gazillion new skills all at the same time. It’s not that changing diapers is hard. It’s not that bathing a baby is hard. It’s that you’re learning each new skill for the first time all at once, on top of the emotional magic of meeting and learning a new person, plus the lack of sleep. It can be a lot!

Not everyone wants to work in childcare for a decade before having a child. I don’t even recommend it – there were a lot of downsides to working in childcare, too. But it’s nice to know that parenting is a skill. You can learn it; you can practice it; you can get better at it.

Improving Your Parenting Skills

The good news about parenting being a skill is that you can improve your skills. Almost anyone is going to improve over time compared to that first nervous day after the baby is born. But, like with any other skill, you can improve on purpose, too.

When something in your relationship with your child goes less-than-ideally, make a note of it. Spend some time thinking about how you would have liked it to go instead and what you might do to improve the situation in the future. Use your imagination to practice. The next time the situation comes up, see what goes the same and what goes differently based on your mental rehearsal. More thinking. More trying again.

If the culture from which you draw your parenting foundation is essentially sound, bringing mindfulness to your parenting skills will get you where you need to go.

Changing Your Parenting Culture

If your cultural parenting foundation isn’t what you’d like it to be, you have a much harder task. You can’t reverse your cultural training. You can never undo the way you were parented, for example, and you can’t take back the books you’ve already read, the movies you’ve already seen, etc. That stupid Sal Severe book is going to stick in my head the rest of my life, somewhere in the back of my mind urging me to turn every goodness in life into a transactional carrot-and-stick.

You can influence yourself, though. Read websites and books that talk about the kind of parent you want to be. I regularly read Authentic Parenting, for example. Ariadne in particular constantly makes me shake my head in awe of the wonderful things she says about parenting. Surround yourself with parents who parent the way you want to parent. One of the things I do is write here at LoveLiveGrow, where I add my own voice to the stream of things that I want to hear. And I constantly surround myself with influences and inspirations that shape how I think about my parenting and keep at bay the cultural influences that I don’t approve of.