Parenting Looks Nothing Like What the Experts Say

Everyone’s winging it, but that’s not a bad thing.

A child pulls clothes out of a drawer.
Thanasis Zovoilis / Getty

Harvey Karp makes soothing babies look like a cinch. In the video that accompanies his best-selling book The Happiest Baby on the Block, he holds one screaming infant after another, deftly rolls them on their side, and bam!—the crying stops. “Side position” is just one of the techniques to calm a baby in Karp’s repertoire. He also uses swaddling, shushing, swinging, and sucking. Bleary-eyed parents ooh and aah over how Karp can instantly activate a baby’s calming reflex, or “automatic shut-off switch,” using his trademark “five S’s.”

However, Karp himself has never raised an infant. I imagine if he had, he’d be intimately familiar with the sixth S: straight out of luck.

I discovered the sixth S shortly after having my daughter nine years ago. A childbirth injury had left me bedridden with chronic pelvic pain, and for two months I lived on an air mattress in my living room because I couldn’t make it upstairs to my bedroom. I couldn’t sit in a comfortable position to nurse; I couldn’t stand to change my baby’s diaper or squat to bathe her; I couldn’t bounce her to calm her down. My husband stepped up, handling most things baby-related while I healed.

But one night, my husband was passed out on the couch with a fever, and I was left to handle the nighttime madness on my own. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and the baby was screaming, clearly hungry. I had struggled with milk production, but the books had been adamant: Breast is best. But my daughter wouldn’t latch, so I didn’t really have a choice. My baby would have to settle for second-rate food: formula. Well, when I brought it to her, she wouldn’t take that either.

As she arched her back and screamed, I thought back to when she was born and how everything might have been different if I’d just gotten one more massage from my midwife instead of opting for drugs. The natural-birth books had all warned against drugs and surgery; why had I been so weak? Why hadn’t I just endured the pain and tried to turn the birth experience blissful, like all the women in Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth?

In a fit of anger, I nearly threw the baby across the room. It’s the scariest feeling I’ve ever had, and I quickly put her in her bassinet, went back to my air mattress, and let her cry while I sulked. I was only weeks into being a parent, but according to the books, I had managed to fail at the three most important things so far—childbirth, breastfeeding, and soothing.

I’m not alone in my self-blame. Research shows that parenting books can be damaging to new parents, adding to mothers’ stress and heightening their chances of developing postpartum depression. The you’ve-already-failed messaging in these manuals is pervasive. Missed breastfeeding your newborns in the “golden” first hour of their life? Too late, your bond is irreparably harmed. Still using a pacifier after six months? Too late. Allowed your toddler to play with your phone? Not potty-trained by 3? Yelled at your kid? Too late, too late, too late.

Parenting is as high stakes as it gets—another person’s life is in your hands. And many of us look to gurus for easy step-by-step instructions on how to do it right. Don’t get me wrong, tips and tricks are great. But what the “experts” are telling us doesn’t always work. They don’t account for the fact that raising other humans is a messy endeavor. That each child and each parent is an individual with unique experiences and needs and quirks.

After almost a decade of raising a kid and talking to parents for my podcast, The Longest Shortest Time, I’ve realized something: We’re all winging it. We are master improvisers, managing our kids’ daily curveballs with a mix of random ideas, physical comedy, and whatever tools just happen to be at our fingertips.

Through trial and error, I discovered some techniques that really did make things easier with my daughter. For soothing, blowing on her eyelids and stroking the top of her nose worked. For breastfeeding, I sat her upright and facing me, as if seated in an invisible chair—a position that nobody mentions in breastfeeding books.

I asked the listeners of my podcast to send in their own tricks. It turned out that to get their kids to stop crying, some parents were snorting like pigs in their infant’s ear. Others were fake sneezing, sprinting around the house, wagging their butt in the baby’s face, or writing with a finger on the kiddo’s back: S-L-E-E-P. Yes, this was the stuff. This was what parenting actually looks like. I kept asking for these strategies on my podcast and website, and they poured in by the hundreds. They were hilarious; they were spontaneous; they were weird. And they were nothing like the lofty ideals promoted in parenting bibles.

Take the perennial question of how to get little ones to eat their broccoli. Recipe books such as Feeding the Whole Family, Little Foodie, The Big Book of Organic Baby Food, and Little Bento will have you believe that any child can become a healthy and adventurous eater if you just make food delicious and cute enough. But the 8-year-old son of Jillian St. Charles, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, wouldn’t have it: He had an eagle eye for veggies mixed into his muffins. So Jillian started throwing “fancy dinners”—breaking out the china and the crystal goblets, then shutting off the lights and burning some candles. Her son loved the drama of the low lighting, and had no clue that there was spinach in his marinara.

Screen time is one of the biggest things that parents fret about these days. The Tech-Wise Family, for example, advocates for no screens before 10 a.m. and while kids are in the car; Simplicity Parenting encourages no television or computers at all before the age of 7. But screens aren’t always evil and sometimes even come to the rescue—and not just on road trips. After a screaming match with her eighth grader over a book he had to read for school, Kate Kerr in Lyons, Colorado, decided to download an audio version of the book that her son listened to while playing video games. Years later, he is a computer programmer who listens to podcasts while working.

These strategies are born out of desperation—they are a far cry from the aspirational methods you’ll find in the books by experts. Often I wonder, Is there even such a thing as an expert in parenting? Anyone advocating a one-size-fits-all solution for raising kids is certainly not doing parents any favors. In reality, we’re figuring out what works moment by moment—and what works today might not work tomorrow; what works on one child might not work on her sibling. Often, the best we can do is accept each challenge as a given and go weird. Do something completely unexpected or absurd, kind of like the “Yes, and” principle in improv comedy, where performers build on one another’s ideas.

Yes, the toddler twins are tearing each other’s hair out and the 6-year-old is whining that she’s bored and the preteen is yelling that I’m the worst for taking away her phone … And let’s grab hands, turn our faces to the sky, and get it all out with a family scream.

Yes, the teenage stepdaughter wants nothing to do with me and refuses to speak a word in my presence … And I will write her a thoughtful letter, leave it on her bed, and invite her to write back.

The trial-and-error route is realistic and it’s custom-made. The experts are trying to squeeze parenting into a rigid plan for the masses, but there’s something to be said for just making it up as you go.