Entering an Altered State
On parenting ideals
While I was writing at Dorland, someone with a lot of Twitter followers (a fitness or dieting guru or something) rediscovered my essay about not playing with your kids and got a bunch of people mad about it. This time, I only had an inkling because a couple of people were clicking the angry emoji on random public Facebook posts of mine. Like last time, when the essay came out, these people on Twitter were talking about how I’m a bad, neglectful parent. Someone wrote: “Jesus fucking christ. You should be CHERISHING this time with your children. Not making them feel ignored and unwanted. Seriously, fuck the writer of that article with a pineapple dipped in turpentine straight up the poop shoot.”
When I read that, I wondered, Where were your parents when you were a child? What did they teach you? Would they celebrate this violent language? Did they say “poop shoot” (also, it’s poop CHUTE, no?) I’m no longer on Twitter, so I don’t know if they would have directed these bon mots at me; I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say no. They’re free to have their opinions.
I’m sharing this as a lead-in to what I want to talk about, which are parenting approaches. I don’t have one, unified style of parenting and I don’t think many people do, mostly because life is so complicated, situations are so specific, and every child and their needs are always changing. I did, however, read this profile about Janet Lansbury with interest.
Lansbury, the protege of Magda Gerber, who began Resources for Infant Educarers, known as RIE, has a very popular podcast called Unruffled as well as a book called No Bad Kids. If you don’t know anything about RIE (and you don’t want to read the profile of her), I’ll say it’s a child-rearing philosophy about letting your child develop at their own pace. They’re anti-tummy time or anything that “helps” a baby develop physically (like holding their hands as they learn to walk). They believe in narrating to a child what you are going to do: now I’m going to pick you up, now I’m wiping your butt and putting on a clean diaper. They’re into clear boundaries and also letting a child express their emotions. As Ariel Levy writes in the article, “RIE might be compared to a kind of weirdly loving libertarianism: children are expected to solve their own problems; parents are expected to affirm their kids’ feelings, even the ugly ones. “As completely counterintuitive as this is for most of us, it works,” Lansbury writes. “How can your child continue to fight when you won’t stop agreeing with her?””
My best friend’s mom was briefly a RIE instructor and when Bean was born I read Magda Gerber’s book. Some of the stuff is intuitive and wise. I like talking to an infant, and I actually don’t think describing a diaper change is all that weird or gross, though of course I wouldn’t do it every single time. I do think narrating life to your pre-verbal baby is essential and not that onerous. And, at the park, my motto is, “If you can’t do it yourself I can’t help you do it,” which seems RIE-ish (or just lazy…hmmm). The RIE “toys” we had—for instance, these little metal condiment cups—were Bean’s favorite. When each kid was pre-mobile, I lay them on their backs with their things in reach and enjoyed watching them grab for them. As my kids got older, I felt I had clear boundaries and let them have their feelings, as Lansbury would suggest.
Other stuff about RIE just seems too restrictive. No pacifiers. No highchair. No rocking. (I remember my friend’s mom saying, “We don’t believe in putting the child in an altered state,” but that seems so absurd that I must’ve dreamed it.) The “day in the life” section at the back of the RIE book struck me as ridiculous, something like: “Little Johnny was crying and I went into his play space and I said, “Johnny, I am finishing making this crudite platter and when I’m finished I will pick you up.” Johnny calmed down after that.” Johnny was like eight months old, btw. Yes, Mommy, finish that crudite platter, by all the means.
So much of RIE makes sense and I like its assertion that kids are smart and capable little explorers. However, it strikes me as an idealized version of parenthood for someone with time and money. For instance, RIE suggests a dedicated space for your child to explore freely and independently, so you don’t have to hover or worry, and so your child can be free to be curious. This is amazing—and was not feasible for us. Until Bean was eighteen months, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Our two-bedroom house was tiny. By the time was Mickey came around, I had the space but it was a zoo.
RIE seems geared for one child. Janet Lansbury has three grown daughters, so I am sure she would disagree with me, but the sort of focus and patience RIE asks of a parent is really challenging if you have more than one kid. For instance, in RIE, they suggest a toddler eat at their own little table. On her blog, Lansbury writes:
Then, when the baby sits easily and independently, you can transition to a small table (like breakfast-in-bed tray with legs, wooden footstool with a level top, one of the wonderful kidney-shaped tables we use in RIE parenting classes, or something you or your talented carpenter husband can make). The baby sits on the floor, then later on a small stool or chair, while you sit across the table from her.
I’m imagining me, serving Mickey his dinner at his little table, and I’m sitting across from him, chatting. What is Ginger doing? What is Bean doing? What is Patrick doing? What are they eating? Where are they eating? Who had to cook Mickey’s meal? Or ours? Am I going to eat? Who is helping Bean with his fifth grade homework? Who is getting the art supplies for Ginger? Who is moderating their one compromise TV episode pick? Who is cleaning out their lunch boxes? It’s just—no. This is a scenario for ONE KID and one or two parents, where nothing is going on except the child’s meal.
I suppose, the RIE answer would be that if I had raised the other two as RIE kids, Bean would be alone in his room doing his homework (ha, sob, no, let’s talk to the psychiatrist who had him assessed), and I would have put Ginger’s art supplies in a place she could reach (in a perfect world I would have more closet space, too.) They wouldn’t watch TV, probably. They’d clean out their own lunchboxes.
If I had done X I would have children who do Y and then I’d feel Z. This is my least favorite kind of math.
At the end of Ariel Levy’s piece, it’s revealed that she has one kid who is like fifteen months old. I really liked the article, which was informative, entertaining, measured, but I LAUGHED OUT LOUD at this disclosure. One child under two!!!!!!!! Levy writes about listening to Lansbury’s podcast when she was pregnant: “What scared me most about parenthood was the excruciating power struggles I saw between my friends and their children: endless wars, fraught with tension and disappointment. Lansbury was describing a world without those interactions—one in which you can say no, and mean it, without feeling guilty or getting angry.”
Oh honey. Oh honeeeyyyyyyy. She is in for it.
(Or, hey, maybe she isn’t because 1.) She will have a neurotypical daughter who quietly draws while she lives her life and 2.) She won’t have any more kids and 3.) She has enough money for all the things to smooth parenting’s daily spikes and 4.) She committed to RIE…?!)
After I read the article I listened to a few episodes of Unruffled, Janet Lansbury’s podcast. The episodes are short, usually around 30 minutes, and her voice is soothing. I really like her sensible approach and her compassion. She isn’t punitive. I like to be reminded that young children are not rational animals. That they have big feelings that they don’t quite understand. That they need you to be calm and accepting, and make the boundaries clear. She makes me feel like I can do this, and I appreciate her insights. While I may not actually follow any of her advice (or see evidence that it works when I do try it), I can admire and appreciate it.
What is annoying about the podcast? The people who write in for advice! They seem so passive, and so unsure of themselves. In their desire to validate their kids’ experiences, they have become these intensely solicitous creatures, meek and apologetic. You can imagine a woman, being stabbed in the stomach by her toddler with a kitchen knife and the woman asking, “Are you mad because Mommy took the toy away?” as she bleeds out. On the podcast, Lansbury seems to be continually reminding her audience what her approach means in practice. Everyone is always getting it wrong.
These parenting philosophies feel a little like a strict diet that’s impossible to adhere to in real life with all of its demands and nuances. If you do it to the letter, you will reach nirvana. If not, well, it was your fault. The diet/philosophy isn’t the problem, it’s you.
Also, what I keep coming back to is: what about kids older than toddlers?
Why is RIE all about infants and the under-four set? They’re predictable and cute!
I would love to hear Lansbury talk about eight-year-olds, and pre-adolescents, and teenagers! I am curious if ANY of these methods work for older children. The age expiration suggests that if you do RIE to the letter when your child is young, then, once they become more rational, literate people, there will be no power struggles, no misunderstandings, no big emotions that hurricane through a house.
That cannot be. There are so many parenting challenges at my house right now (Will Ginger stop itching her arms until they bleed? Will Bean ever bring home the correct homework? Will Mickey stop throwing things? Will Ginger stop calling everyone an idiot? Will Bean’s knees keep him from making friends because he can’t even run anymore? Will Mickey ever get weaned off the yogurt pouches? Is Bean clinically depressed? Why did Ginger ask me if she was fat? What do I do when Bean calls Ginger racist? What do I do when Ginger calls Bean slow? Why is Bean sucking on the remote again? Why is Mickey peeing in his pants again? Why is Bean crying over school again? How can I get Bean to stop doing Joker impressions? Why does Mickey not like any narrative TV shows and only bad YouTube shows? How can I get Ginger to be more resilient about her art “mistakes”? Why are they all screaming at each other? Why are they not eating dinner? Why oh whyyyy? THE LIST GOES ON AND ON.)
Maybe parenting philosophies rub me the wrong way because they imply that they’ll be an end-point: congrats, you got it right. But that’s a fiction! There will always be troubles or issues or worries. It’s parenting a human being! It’s living life! As Jessica Grose writes in her essay “I’ll Say it Again, There is More Than One Way to Raise Kids Who Thrive”: “Many of the highly defined parenting methods seem to promise that if you follow them to the letter, you’ll feel an end to the routine frustrations of parenting.”
I also really liked this article by Jessica Winter about the “harsh realm” of gentle parenting, a RIE-adjacent method/ideal. Winter writes:
One of the major themes in “Brain-Body Parenting,” and in gentle-parenting discourse generally, is that children don’t defy for the sake of defiance, but that their challenging behavior is a physiological response to stress and should be seen as essentially adaptive. The assumption unto itself is questionable: if little Timmy is on the front lawn tossing gardening implements at traffic, his motivations are probably obscurer than stress. This is one of the most confounding dilemmas of parenting, especially as kids exit the toddler stage: that sometimes a child tests or destroys boundaries for the thrill of it. Under the gentle-parenting schema, a child’s every act must be seen through a lens of anxiety and threat-detection—which heightens the parent’s dual role of child psychologist and emotional-security guard.
Bam! She nails it! Sometimes, it’s not that deep.
A lot of the “gentle parenting” stuff seems to center around “repairing harm” and healing trauma—the parent’s own, even. The culture has arrived at peak-trauma, as the brilliant literary critic Parul Sehgal tells it, and we’re all about connecting our present issues with our past pain. Maybe we’re just want to unpack and undo what our parents did to us. And we want to prevent trauma so it doesn’t impact our child’s future.
It seems to me that people who dive way into the gentle-parenting methods are deliberately seeking a different approach than the ones their parents used. I take no issue with that, in theory—especially if someone’s parents were assholes. Sometimes, though, it seems to be more about the parent than about the child. Treating every action from a child as a symbol of some deep, painful emotion might have its own consequences…its own, ahem, trauma. (It’s also not going to make up for a Boomer parent who said to you, “Cut that out,” when you cried.)
I am going on and on! I guess I see how someone might be angered by my “hey don’t play with your kids if you don’t want to! There are other meaningful ways to connect!” essay. We are coming to it with such personal stakes, and specific experiences.
So, tell me, how do you parent? And why?
Oh, here are some links:
-I’m moderating a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It’s on Sunday, April 24th, at 12:00 pm. The panel is on climate fiction! Tickets to panels are free and will become available on April 17th.
-Speaking of climate fiction, I just did an event with Rebecca Scherm for her climate-change speculative novel, A House Between Earth and the Moon. A ravaged planet, a scientist, a teenager, some nefarious tech moguls, a space station. I recommend it.
-If you’re near Silverlake or Highland Park Wine, get this bottle.
-Have you heard of the singer Samia? This song Fit N Full is catchy as hell, and I like the whole album. Google also tells me that Samia’s mother is the actress Kathy Najimy, of Sister Act and Hocus Pocus fame…!
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