Have we learned anything from parenting gurus?
Updated: Sep 27
My firstborn has just received her GCSE results; a landmark moment in my life as a mother and a moment I have been building towards for 16 years. I was born in the late '60s and brought up in an atmosphere where academic achievement was paramount but parental intervention non-existent. Dr Spock was the prevalent parenting guru of the time but my parents came from the Sir Frederick Truby King school of parenting. Truby King encouraged extreme discipline from birth and recommended no more than ten minutes of cuddling per day. I'm sure my parents read Dr Spock, well I'm sure my mother did, but if you've never experienced the affection Dr Spock advocated, which neither of my parents had, how easy is it for you to administer. And although suggesting parents use their common sense, Dr Spock's other mantra, is a noble suggestion indeed, how easy is it to have common sense about something you have never experienced before?
It wasn't until I was pregnant with my first child that I became aware that parenting gurus even existed. On hearing my happy news a dear friend promptly sent me all the parenting books she swore by. Most of them were by Penelope Leach, the first parenting guru who was a mother. Her most popular book 'Your Baby and Child From Birth to Age Five' published in 1978, was written from the baby or child's point of view. Leach championed a child-centred approach in which love and its demonstration were of utmost importance.
My cousin sent me a copy of Quentin Blake’s 'Zagazoo', a picture book illustrating a child's development, from birth to adulthood. As soon as my daughter was born my pregnancy pal, who had popped a couple of months before me, gave me her copy of The Contented Little Baby by Gina Ford. It had saved her life, she told me, before generously passing it on. I got stuck in with gusto.
Gina Ford's method didn't work for me at all. This is not because it is wrong, but because I couldn't fit into her schedule and my brain wasn’t able to think clearly enough to alter her advice to fit around my needs. Ford also suggested breastfeeding patterns that my boobs wouldn't adhere to. Hand on heart, nothing could have prepared me for the highs and lows that becoming a parent incurs; emotionally, physically and socially. I'd like to take this opportunity to congratulate you all on the fantastic job you are doing. If you think you’re not doing a fantastic job, take it from me, you are! You're here, aren't you? Reading insights, listening to advice, looking for ways to entertain and educate your darling child. So own it, mums and dads, you are doing a great job, and don't let anyone, guru or otherwise, tell you different! Because they will. Everywhere you look nowadays someone is saying something about parenting, not to mention the parents sharing their every experience on social media. I wonder if so many points of view and conflicting information doesn't make it even harder to know what to do. Back in the early Noughties, the only resource, other than the traditional book-selling gurus, was Mumsnet.
Mumsnet was a game changer because suddenly parents from all over the world could bypass the traditional ‘this is how it’s supposed to be done’, and actually talk to each other on mass.
I asked several parents which gurus or concepts they followed, or are following. Daisy, a mother of two girls under the age of five, said, 'I sort of did it my way. My main aim was that my first child was more like a second child.' I love this idea and wish I had done it. She also said that she tries to be relaxed and unfussy around her kids. My mother in law often tells me how much more relaxed she was with my husband than with his three older brothers and how much easier it was to parent him as a result. Rachel has a four-year-old and a soon to be one year old, she prefers comedians to gurus, specifically Scummy Mummies. She also follows five-minute mum, mother pukka, and pregnant then screwed, on Instagram. My pregnancy pal, the one who introduced me to Gina Ford, didn't cite Gina Ford as one of her gurus when I contacted her for this article. It was paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott's concept of 'The Good Enough Mother' that she found most helpful, “Although, she confessed, “ I was so exacting in my standards that I neglected the 'enough' part of the concept”.
That's the problem with all these gurus, it depends so much on individual interpretation.
In her article about Penelope Leach, in the New York Times in 1994, Anne Hubert points out that, “As a matter of course, experts now humbly caution against excessive trust in the experts.” Parenting is like fashion, it is seasonal and, as we now know, one size doesn't fit all. But we wouldn’t have got here without the extreme discipline of Truby King, inspiring Dr Spock’s more relaxed, affectionate style, which laid the foundations for Penelope Leach's loving, child-centred approach, only for that to be reigned in twenty years later by Gina Ford's return to discipline, and 'controlled crying' method, before the advent of Mumsnet created a more balanced playing field where parents themselves could share which method, or methods, they found worked best.
No one cited their parents as gurus, but there is no denying that how one was parented directly affects how one parents.
I was determined not to pressurise my children academically even though I couldn't shake my parents' belief, that academic success is the best foundation in life.
My first child was born not long after the publication of A Life's Work by Rachel Cusk. Rachel was vilified for her warts and all account of what being a new mother is really like, of which I think Winnicott would have approved. I found her book comforting, it made me feel less alone. I also loved Zagazoo and find it especially useful now I have a teenager! Oh and in case you were wondering, my long ago first born got a lot of A's, some stars and a B. We are all very pleased, as, indeed, her grandparents are too.