Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

A Little Unsolicited Advice
(Because her kids turned out just fine, right?) 
by Casey Kelly Barton

When it comes to unsolicited advice, there are no magnets for it like mothers-to-be and mothers with small children. Anthropologists could argue that this breach of manners ensures the perpetuation of the species by giving the rookie mama important information -- like that she will die if she rides a bicycle while pregnant (thanks, Mom). But I think it happens because people want to be right -- especially, and sometimes desperately, about the way they raised their kids. And an offering of advice that goes unchallenged is just as good as a validation, right?

While this is by no means a representative sample of the advice all moms receive, I’ve been told that nursing would turn my son into a ‘breast man’ (an assertion bolstered by his gape-mouthed infant awe in the Las Vegas airport during tank-top weather), that I should leave my baby with strangers during a separation-anxiety phase just in case I ever become critically ill, and that the elastic in his socks would deform his ankles. Oddly, I know of another mom who was offered that last piece of wisdom as well. Where are the legions of warped-ankled adults voicing their tales of woe?

I spent a lot of time around babies as a child and more time studying child development as an adult, so I’m not buffeted by the waves of helpful hints. Most moms aren’t, because they know their children best. Some unsolicited advice is amusing, almost all of it is bogus, and a little of it is so bad it’s offensive (give your infant a caffeinated soda to ‘cure’ her colic, for instance).

The only advice that shocks me is the advice given by the occasional woman past childbearing age relating the hard-hearted way she treated her own young children. There’s a little undercurrent of doubt, in expression and tone, that accompanies these offerings. These women apparently hope to provide an example of how I should treat my own child and, if I happen not to openly disagree, they get some sideways approval for what they did.

Such women have advised me to let my child hurt himself (not just a bump, but a gash on a 15-month-old) ‘because that’s how they learn,’ to let my baby cry and cry with no response from anyone, and to bite my toddler if he bites another child ‘because that’s how they learn.’ Research has shown that kids do learn from such experiences, but not what the parents intended.

One incident in this category sticks out in my mind. I had my then-2-year-old with me in a hospital waiting room. My father was there to help keep my son occupied, but the wait for my appointment dragged on for an hour, and there was not much to occupy a curious child. A woman -- probably in her 70s or 80s -- sat across the room, saying nothing until my son and father wandered down the hall to ride the elevator.

"My boy is 50," she smiled at me. "But I remember when he was that age. One day he was hammering with his toy hammer, and he hit his thumb and said ‘dammit.’ I told him not to say it, and he hammered a little while more and hit his hand again and said it again. So I picked him up and blistered his butt, and the next time he hit himself, he looked up at me real quick but didn’t say anything." She paused. "And he turned out to be a real good boy."

I said nothing, saddened by her story, offended that she felt the need to share it with me, and wondering who had given her toddler the hammer and the vocabulary lesson (at my house, unfortunately, it probably would’ve been me). I was puzzled that this event still stood out in her mind so that of all her parenting experiences, this was the one she chose to introduce herself to another mother decades later. And what did ‘real good boy’ mean? To me it sounded interchangeable with ‘just fine,’ a phrase used to describe the way everyone’s kids turn out unless they end up in jail.

Childrearing philosophies have changed so much over time in this country it doesn’t surprise me that some people of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation did things I don’t. Their experts cautioned against spoiling and manipulation, as if each baby came into the world half-curdled, with its own monstrous agenda. Of course, not all mothers bought these notions. I got better support for extended nursing from my 80-something great-aunts than from some women my own age. But those dire experts did wield influence. A friend described to me her elderly in-law ruing the way she tried to ‘beat the sin’ out of her children with spankings, as was thought necessary at the time. ‘I was so mean," this woman lamented, ‘so mean.’

I try to follow a nurturing, attachment-oriented course with my child. I think his agenda is to learn and be loved (and eat peanut butter whenever he can). Still, I’m not nearly perfect. What am I doing now that seems right and "expert approved" but may be discredited by the time my son becomes a father? If my child grows up to be healthy and well-adjusted, is it because of the things I did right, his ability to bounce back from my mistakes and crabby days, or some of both? How do we know we are doing the right thing, especially when we’re usually tired and the perspective is so close? What will I second-guess when I’m old?

The hard part of raising children is that there’s so much uncharted territory. No two situations or people are alike, people are resilient to varying degrees and, as a friend pointed out, there’s no way to clone your kids and run a controlled experiment on your own childrearing (I agreed this would be too expensive; she pointed out the unethical aspect. Everyone really is different). Most people turn out ‘just fine,’ at least in the most general sense. And there’s no way to know with absolute certainty how differently the little boy who got his bottom blistered might have turned out if he’d been corrected with respect and kindness. Hence, I guess, his mother’s lingering uncertainty.

I am never sure how to react to these revelations. I can’t bring myself to openly disagree with an elder whose mothering days are long since past. It’s not like she gets a do-over. A wince mistaken for a smile prompts these women to beam or to ramble on, grateful for an apparently sympathetic audience. Respond neutrally or not at all and they fall silent. It’s as if they’re waiting for someone not caught in the heart of a long-ago situation to tell them, "Amen, sister."

I just can’t. But I wonder, when I run into these women who share unbidden, harsh things they did to their children decades ago, what it’s like to carry that need for approval through a lifetime, even when you have the grown evidence of your efforts there in front of you. And I hope like hell I don’t find myself 80-years-old and telling a stranger I did my child wrong with the best of intentions, waiting for someone, finally, to assure me that I did the right thing.
Casey Kelly Barton writes and mothers a child who needs less sleep than she does in Round Rock, Texas. Her work has appeared in Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, Texas Highways, and DogFancy.