Those of us lucky enough to have discovered child care methods that resonate with us (like Attachment Parenting or Magda Gerber’s RIE Approach) often find ourselves in awkward situations with well-intentioned grandparents, friends or kind strangers who engage with our children differently than we’d like. Of course, it’s not their fault – they aren’t on ‘the program’ –and it always comes down to, “do I step in and risk offense, or do I stuff my parenting beliefs and bite my lip?”
This subject keeps coming up in my world — with parents in my classes, in comments here and in email and Facebook messages. If I had any easy solutions, I would gladly offer them. But I don’t, so I’m counting on your feedback! In the meantime, here are some general suggestions (that you are welcome to disagree with) based on what I’ve learned through trial and (mostly) error.
Don’t preach or teach. This includes informing the parent whose toddler’s toy has just been snatched away by ours that 2 year olds don’t understand the concept of sharing; warning a grandparent that our child is safer when he isn’t helped up the climbing structure; or mentioning the far more creative choices our baby makes when he doesn’t have toys waved in his face. It’s really hard not to offend others with even the most tactful lesson or correction about child care – if you haven’t noticed already, it’s a prickly subject. (I share my mega mistake in this regard in Accepting Grandparents’ Good Intentions).
In fact, don’t say anything if you can help it. When speaking with a couple of longtime RIE instructors who had recently become grandmothers, we joked about the 12 step program for new grandparents. All 12 steps are the same pronouncement: “Don’t say anything”.
Do admit you are different. I’ve always it found it best to acknowledge, especially with close friends, family members, and any caregiver I employed that I knew the approach I’d adopted was unusual and might seem weird to them, and then ask if they would please bear with me, because I was excited about what I was learning and experiencing with my child. This was the simple truth, and it was far less threatening to others than being a know-it-all.
Do discuss childrearing philosophies later, when it’s feels less threatening. Long before or after any uncomfortable incidents occur are good times to share about the child care approach that you are excited about and has helped you so much.
Do model your approach. It is easiest to appreciate a parenting style when we see an organic, spontaneous demonstration. Be a positive model of respectful care. You’ll be surprised how much others notice, if they are even a little bit open-minded. Strangers have approached me to say how much they enjoyed watching me interact with my toddler. The majority of RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class referrals come from people who have admired their friends’ children, or the quality of the relationship they have with them. You can also model a respectful intervention in the moment. For instance, saying to the person reaching for your child, “Let’s ask him if he’d be okay with you holding him,” and then waiting for your child to indicate, “Yes.”
Do use the occasional white lie to protect your child (or your sanity). I believe in honesty, especially around children, but if there is any time to white lie, it’s when someone wants to do something with our baby that makes us a little uncomfortable.… The ones I’ve used most are, “Thanks, but she might not like that” (being picked up by another person, walked, pulled in a wagon or pushed down a slide, etc.). Or, “She’s just getting over something, so please don’t touch her. I can’t risk exposing her while her resistance is low.” Afterwards, I might briefly explain to my child that I sometimes say things that aren’t quite true to not hurt feelings.
Do acknowledge unusual situations for your child. Babies learn very quickly who does what and how. They can adapt to the subtle differences between the way daddy, mommy and grandpa hold them, bathe them, behave at the park, etc. But when they’ve had a new or unusual interaction with someone, even if they don’t give you that look afterwards, it helps the child to process the situation when we explain simply, i.e., “You looked startled when Uncle Joe took you on a piggy back ride. He should have asked you first. I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to stop him in time.”
Do know that diverse parenting styles become less apparent after the infant and toddler years. There will be fewer child care disagreements and awkward moments with friends and family after the baby years have passed. Except for those occasions when, for example, your 8 year old is invited to a PG-13 movie birthday party and you have to politely decline, but feel annoyed enough to want to give the host parent a good long lecture (ugh…don’t get me started!).
Don’t worry. A child’s primary caregivers have a far greater influence on his or her development than anyone else. It’s the “steady diet” of care that makes a difference — the relationship we are building with our child that matters most.
Obviously, each scenario and relationship we have is unique. Some situations bring out the mother (or father) bear in us more than others, and there are people we might not mind offending if it is in the best interest of our child. So, please share your ideas and specific experiences. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!