Point: Close The Parenting Book, Trust Your Instincts

The seemingly endless supply of parenting advice available today left writer Ada Calhoun feeling less informed and more confused about child-rearing. So she decided to start trusting her instincts. She speaks with host Michel Martin about her book Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

It's time now for our weekly parenting conversation. And if you're looking for a book about parenting, you will have no trouble. The bookstore shelves groan from the weight of all those parenting books for sale. Now, many come with a long series of commandments and decrees and diktat: Do this, don't do that, don't even consider doing that - ever.

Today, we want to talk about two different kinds of parenting books. In a moment, a conversation with Po Bronson, co-author of the book "Nurture Shock." He and his coauthor dig into the latest research about kids and parenting. But first, we turn to the book "Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids." The author is Ada Calhoun, and she's with us now from NPR's bureau in New York.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. ADA CALHOUN (Author, "Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids"): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: Now, people might remember you - or have read your work previously. You're the founding editor of the online parenting site Babble.com.

Ms. CALHOUN: That's right.

MARTIN: It covers an array of articles ranging from top pregnant celebrity moms to the ear infection guy, to the attachment parenting and all of that. So I wanted to ask you first, why you think there is a market for all of this, you know, parenting chat, and why you wanted to write this book.

Ms. CALHOUN: Well, I just I think that new parents are scared, and they get a ton of conflicting advice all the time. And for me when I was pregnant, too, I just I felt really overwhelmed by it, and I didn't know who to listen to or who to believe. And everything changed all the time. So for me, writing this book was just my experience and basicallyn how I came to the conclusion that it just doesn't really matter most of the time.

MARTIN: OK. Now, in your introduction, you write that this book is a call for post-partisan parenting free of self-righteousness or slavish devotion to any one parenting guru. What do you mean by that?

Ms. CALHOUN: What I was seeing a lot, when I was at Babble and then just in my own reading as a new mother, was that either you were an attachment parent and you carried your baby everywhere and you breastfed until the kid was, like, 4, or you were super the other direction. You were running home to get the baby down exactly at 12:30 for the nap or whatever it was. And it just - and they were fighting all the time on the message boards, on the playground, these two sets of parents.

And it just seemed insane to me because, you know, a little from column A, a little from column B. It just seemed like what was helpful to me was the best of both worlds, and not just sticking to this doctrine.

MARTIN: Now, at one point in the book, though, I thought your message was going to be, you know, just do your thing, but you're not really saying that. I mean, here's another passage, where you say: Our boomer parents encouraged us to question authority and by and large, made it clear that those in charge, including they themselves, weren't entirely reliable. But some old-fashioned things are there for a reason, and manners are one of them.

And that last sentence would not be out of place in any number of other venues, like Focus on Family or any of the other things with a different - sort of political perspective. So I guess I'm asking you, what are you saying, that there has to be some bottom line somewhere?

Ms. CALHOUN: I think boundaries are really good, and I think manners are really good. And these are things that I feel like have been thrown out in the course of this obsession over, like, whether or not you circumcise your child. And, like, you'll have these message boards that are just full of these incredibly strong views on little questions like that, that just ultimately don't matter if you're trying to raise a really good person. A good person can be circumcised or not. But if you don't kind of enforce certain ideas of treating people well, then who knows what kind of kid you're going to get?

MARTIN: You do say, though, writing in the book's final chapter: Apparently, I just wrote a book about parenting, but I'm still no expert. Not only do I not have a degree in parenting, not only is my child under the age of 3, not have I had meltdowns and snapped and earned only a passing grade on the work-home balance test, but what's more, the second I think I've figured out something for sure, I'm proved totally, embarrassingly wrong.

So all kidding aside - and I do appreciate your modesty - why should we listen to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CALHOUN: Well, I mean, I think the story is mostly just stories about things that I've seen, and things that I've done and how it's worked out. For me, it's really like, every parent, every family is so individual that it is very hard to just say, I'm a total expert on your family, and I know exactly how you should raise your child. Nobody knows how you should raise your child except for you, and that's what the book is all about - is just listening to yourself.

MARTIN: Why do you think we need this book, though, to tell people just to listen to yourself? I mean, Mom's been telling us, just be yourself, since we were kids, hopefully. My mom did, anyway.

Ms. CALHOUN: Well, I think new parents need reassurance. And for me, I wasn't seeing any reassurance on the bookshelves or when I watched TV, and there was a parenting expert on. I just everybody had some kind of agenda they were pushing. And for me, I just wanted another parent talking to me about what they did and, you know, reassuring me that I could figure it out. And that's what the book's supposed to be.

MARTIN: A kind of pat on the back from Ada.

Ms. CALHOUN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But on a more serious note, because you are a journalist and there is actually a lot of there are a lot of interviews in the book. There's a lot of discussion about the way family life is constructed in this country. But I do want to point out, there are a lot of instincts that people are bringing into play all around the world in raising their children, that we would find abhorrent. For example, genital mutilation is practiced in some parts of the world...

Ms. CALHOUN: Right.

MARTIN: ...because that's somebody's instinct about what is needed. And in this country, for example, there's a book I know youre familiar with called "NurtureShock"...

Ms. CALHOUN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...by the authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, that argue that some of our instincts about talking about race, for example...

Ms. CALHOUN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...really achieve the opposite outcome of what many people would expect.

Ms. CALHOUN: Right.

MARTIN: They argue that the research shows that a lot of white parents who avoid talking about race, for example, it just opens the door to kids making very negative assumptions about race that the parents wouldnt agree with if they knew about it. So, I guess what I'm asking you here is, there are a number of areas in which research shows our instincts really aren't all that great when it comes to achieving some desired outcomes.

Ms. CALHOUN: Well, I think that its not the instincts. I think the instincts are always good because the instinct is this desire to take care. But the question is, what do we think of as right? What is the best way to take care of your child? Is the best way, you know, this sort of path of genital mutilation or these horrible things that you hear about - and not to belittle those things but, you know, as far as choices in this country, is it co-sleeping? Is it not vaccinating your kids, and all these other things?

And that's where I think you get into like, the application of this instinct. What do you think is protecting your child? And I think youre right, that it does get tricky where, you know, do you think protecting your child is doing these horrible physical things to them? And that's where you kind of hope that basic education, and talking to people in some position of authority, is going to help.

MARTIN: There are throughout the book these kind of words of wisdom from Ada, about how youve navigated some of these tricky situations. These are all circumstances that I think a lot of people will recognize. You know, one of my favorites is go to the playground and another child has brought a toy. He's not playing with it, but then your child goes to play with the toy, and then the kid freaks out. And then the mom takes the toy away.

Ms. CALHOUN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And then youre thinking, OK, well, why did you bring the toy?

Ms. CALHOUN: Right.

MARTIN: What did you think was going to happen...

Ms. CALHOUN: Right.

MARTIN: ...at the playground? And youre saying, this is how I come out on this. And I just wanted to ask, how do you come to your instincts?

Ms. CALHOUN: I think its like, you know, you expose yourself to things that are helpful to you, and you dont expose yourself to things that make you feel horrible and guilty and like you could never do this. For me, it was talking to like, my friend Tara, you know, or my mother or, you know, other people - and my pediatrician, and then kind of just taking what felt right.

In the case of the mother who took the toy away, I got really mad, and that was my visceral response of like, this does not feel right to me. And she said, you know, my son doesn't feel like sharing. And I was like, I dont care how your son feels. You know, you came to the playground, you share. Like, that's the rule.

MARTIN: But what if that was her instinct as a mom? Her instinct as a mom is, my kid's toys are my kid's toys. Or how about this: She comes to the playground, says: My kid doesnt feel like playing with black kids.

Ms. CALHOUN: Oh.

MARTIN: How about that?

Ms. CALHOUN: Yeah. Again, I dont think that's instinctual. I feel like she needs to look at what her instinct is, protect her kid, expose her kid to the best possible, you know, life that they could have. And how do you serve that? And her answer, I would say, is not going to work out for her if she's going to limit her child's exposure to children of other races, to the sort of concept of sharing, you know. How is this child going to fare later in life? It's not going to go over that well.

MARTIN: All right. Any final word of wisdom from Ada?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CALHOUN: I dont know anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CALHOUN: We're just all doing our best, I think, and that's all we can do.

MARTIN: That was Ada Calhoun, author of "Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids." It should be available in bookstores right now. She's with us from New York. Thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for trusting your instinct to join us today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CALHOUN: It's a pleasure, as always.

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