Kids are Washable for a Reason

Before Evie was born, we did what many young parents do. We read parenting books. After Evie was born we continued to read parenting books. Three of the top books were The Baby Book by the Sears family (that kind of makes them sound like an organized crime syndicate); Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parent’s Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids by Greg and Lisa Popcak; and On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the GIFT of Nighttime Sleep by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam.

After reading and referencing through these and others and the internet (and rest assured, we found some helpful tidbits in all of them, especially The Baby Book) we began to notice that they all had something in common. With the exception of the Popcaks, who make a conscious effort to add disclaimers disavowing this approach, all of the parenting books, blogs and forums had in common the assumption that “I Have Found the Parenting Method that WORKS and if you don’t use it you are not a bad parent but you are horribly misguided and we pity your children who will be at higher risk for autism and social awkwardness and getting eaten by sharks.”

In general I have found that parenting books are divided fairly clearly into two schools, what I call the “attachment school” and the “independence school.” Both want the same thing, i.e. a formula or technique for raising children to be happy, healthy, emotionally balanced and morally upright citizens who will win at life, be successful at everything they try, outperform their peers, win the Nobel Peace Prize, take care of us in our old age and become canonized saints. Is that really too much to ask?

However both schools go about it a little differently. Attachment parenting advocates emphasize the importance of building stable emotional connections within the family, especially prior to and immediately after birth. Exploring and independence will come naturally in time, they say, but the foundation has to be a secure, warm, open, affectionate relationship. They tend to characterize the independence school as harsh, cold, mechanistic and emotionally unavailable.

The Independence school, oddly enough, emphasizes teaching routine, schedule, and… well… independence from the parents. They value skills such as independent problem solving, sleeping alone and regularly from an early age (certainly by the age of 12 weeks) and providing strong, consistent boundaries at all ages, but giving the kids maximum freedom to maneuver within those boundaries. They characterize the attachment group as being soft, easily manipulable, and unrealistic. They tend to go a little bit further with the straw man thing and accuse attachment advocates of hovering, helicopter parenting, making the parents slaves to the infant’s whims, etc.

Both sides have their points, and I can see why each is a healthy antidote for the other. I would also say that each one tends to exaggerate the other’s opinions, or to argue against the extreme fringes of the opposite school, but that’s America. Our politics are just the same.

For my part, I approach the debate with an open mind, i.e. with a healthy dose of skepticism. Kathleen and I lean towards the attachment end of the spectrum and spend almost all our free time interacting with Evie when she is awake (except for date night). However, we are also aware that, in the immortal (and almost indecipherable) words of Rocky Balboa, “The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.” A bit of frustration is a natural part of life in a post-fig-leaf world (starting with the necessity of wearing clothes. Evie’s philosophy on clothes is “the fewer the better.”)

The precise balance between the two philosophies is a topic for a long and fascinating discussion, a few more blogs, and probably a heavily researched and footnoted book, and another book composed entirely of “Baby Blues” and “Family Circus” illustrations.

“Baby Blues” is probably my favorite cartoon, along with “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes.”

It is not my purpose with this blog to hammer out what that balance is, when any pronouncement on it is probably meaningless. Instead, I just want to share my own personal philosophy on childcare (I say “childcare” rather than “parenting” because I formulated it years before I became a parent).

“God made kids washable for a reason!”

— Ryan Kraeger

There is a lot of nuance in that little phrase, and I could probably unpack it for a good couple of hours over a half-way decent beer or two. In a nutshell, though, it is an acknowledgement of limitations. Parents are human. Humans make mistakes. God knows this. He knows that He is going to have to pick up the slack for every human parent that ever lived, and not only is He okay with that, He’s already done it. That’s what the cross was all about.

This is not to minimize or excuse ignorance, neglect or sinfulness in parents. I will be the first to acknowledge that the effects of mistakes, and even more so of sins, can be catastrophic. Some of them can cause years of unhappiness, dysfunction, depression, even death. My point is that people were growing up as well as they ever have for generations before parenting experts came around. People were still growing up human, that is to say, flawed, wounded and imperfect. To become a parent is to accept the responsibility of doing your best for your kids, knowing that it is not going to be good enough, and committed to doing it anyway.

To say that God made kids washable for a reason is an act of humility. It is an acknowledgement that the world is imperfect, and I am imperfect. It is also an act of hope, because it insists that the dirt and dust are part of God’s plan. He sees them, He knows them, and He built the response to them right into the very fabric of Creation.

So relax about the parenting. Relax about the mistakes. Honestly, I suspect that mistakes in parenting are going to be like mistakes in everything else. The ones I stress about most at the time will ultimately be of no consequence, while the worst ones will be the ones I didn’t even know I was making. In any event, trust God in His goodness, that He who had the foresight to make kids washable will also raise them up on the Last Day.

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