Parenting in the age of online advice

There are few people more vulnerable to advice than the brand new parent. No amount of preparation or experience can save you from the feeling of having been thrown out of an aeroplane and told to fly. And when it comes to your first child you are always the new parent. Subsequent children may benefit from the fruits of your experience, but the first child is always the family guinea pig.

This intense susceptibility to advice starts when you are pregnant. Already a hormonal train-wreck, you listen mesmerised to more experienced friends and relatives wittering on about carrying high, carrying low, carrying in your hips, carrying forward, which way a pendulum spins when you hold it over your belly, and why girl babies steal your beauty.

So far, so normal. Old wives’ tales have been around since the beginning of time. Most of us don’t take them terribly seriously, and they can actually be an inter-generational bonding experience as older women remember their own pregnancies and form a solid support system for the pregnant newbie. If only it ended there.

Today’s parents don’t only have old wives’ tales to contend with — not when the entire internet is at their disposal. You might think you can choose to distance yourself from online advice. If you don’t want to know something, don’t Google it, right? Unfortunately, it’s no longer that simple. Merely being connected to social media means you will have an endless barrage of advice flung in your face on a daily basis. You no longer have to seek out links about what you should or shouldn’t be eating while pregnant — they will find you. And if you have the mental fortitude to resist clicking on something called “These five common foods may harm your unborn baby” you’re a stronger woman than I am.

At least advice about pregnancy tends to be fairly consistent. The gods of the internet seem to agree on most pregnancy-related things. Folic acid = good. Sushi = bad. Alcohol = very bad. Yes, there are some wild-eyed exceptions, but basically you’ll find similar advice on most sites. It’s when your baby is actually born that all semblance of consistency flies out the window. You weren’t thinking of breastfeeding him, were you? Don’t make me laugh. Half the internet will convince you that you are raising a combination of Einstein and Donald Trump by breastfeeding, while the other half will soberly inform you that breastfeeding has few demonstrable benefits and may actually be causing your baby’s asthma. Just what every mother struggling to latch her brand new infant wants to hear.

Then your child starts to grow and the anxiety-producing advice keeps on coming. Are you congratulating yourself on having raised your baby to the age of two? Well don’t, because she probably isn’t setting the table for dinner every night, is she? And the internet says she totally should be — in between dusting the baseboards, of course. You might argue that your two-year-old can’t even reach the table, never mind set it, but chances are you’ll be left with a nagging feeling of guilt anyway — a suspicion that you are somehow failing at parenthood.

As your child becomes mobile, chances are you will make an effort to child-proof your house and lift tiny, swallowable objects out of the reach. Then you open your Facebook page and get slapped in the face by an article that makes you wonder just what kind of pansy you are anyway? Are you raising a baby or a wimp? You should absolutely be letting your toddler play with knives, and when she gets bored with that, give her a pet python.

Whatever parenting approach you’re trying, there’s always some other culture out there doing it better. In the old days you might not have known about how Korean children are wonderful eaters or how freakishly well-behaved French children are, but these days there’s no escaping it. Constant exposure to articles like these probably won’t make you a better parent, but they will certainly make you a more insecure one. You’ll doubt yourself all the time and second-guess your most basic decisions. You might even swing wildly between one new parenting fad and another, to the inevitable confusion of your children.

But let’s say you make it through the picky-eater and food-throwing phases. Your child is now at school and rapidly morphing into a teenager. Does it get any easier? Does the flood of advice slow to a trickle? Does it, hell. You’re probably feeling some pressure to keep up with the Joneses by sending your little darlings to extra dance classes, language classes and martial arts classes. Then just when you’ve got their lives scheduled to the nth degree you discover that you’re actually robbing them of their childhood. So you ease up a bit on the scheduling and leave them free just to be kids. But your problems aren’t over because the world is about to be swept up in Tiger Mother mania. Do you want your child to be a soft, entitled western brat who gets praised just for existing and never learns to connect pride with achievement? Of course you don’t, so you let yourself get seduced by the Tiger Mom philosophy.

If you and your children aren’t thoroughly bewildered by now, you just haven’t been paying attention. So how do we cut ourselves off from this avalanche of well-meaning but contradictory advice? Well, it’s probably not really possible in today’s age. Yes, we can (and probably should) take regular holidays from social media. But for most of us, the internet is an inextricable part of our working and social lives. The most we can do is take each new piece of advice with a heaping tablespoon of salt and try to resist jumping on every new bandwagon.

If you do manage to get this right, please let me know. I’ll keep an eye out for your forthcoming Huffington Post list of “Top Ten Tips on Resisting Parenting Advice that Every Parent Should Know”.

Image – AFP

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