Parenting: It's the context that counts

Montessori or daycare, time out or not -- your choices matter less than your family's emotional reality

Little kids sleep better when their parents are “emotionally available.” Maybe you saw that headline in the news a few months ago.

Ouch! I’ll bet that was a little dagger to the heart of those of you who feel very connected (emotionally available) to your kids but still suffer interrupted nights.

Well, chin up, sleepyheads. I talked to the researcher, developmental psychologist Douglas Teti of Penn State University. The first question I asked him was “Did some of the emotionally available parents have babies who woke in the night?” Yup.

The most interesting thing about Teti’s study is not that it proves emotional availability is this magic bullet in infant and toddler sleep (it doesn’t). The real take-home lesson from this study (and others, in fact) is that, in parenting, context matters more than specific techniques or approaches. Teti found that the strategies parents used made little difference in how well their children slept. For example, staying with the child until he falls asleep — which sleep-training proponents constantly tell us promotes poor sleep habits — did not predict more or worse night waking.
You can find more evidence that context trumps technique if you look at recent research on the impact of “working mothers” on children’s development. Several studies suggest that other factors, such as a warm home environment, family income level and whether there was a father in the home, had more impact on certain aspects of children’s development than whether mom worked outside the home. Hardly surprising.

Context is everything in parenting. I’m less interested in the specific choices parents make — putting their child in Montessori versus regular child care, using time out or not, attachment parenting, Ferberizing, home-schooling, whether their kid watches TV — than the overall picture in which the family’s choice takes place.

If you were to ask me what I think of the “family bed,” for example, I’d say, “It depends.” Do you feel good about it? How does your partner feel about it? Do you feel connected to your kid? Is everyone getting enough rest?

The context — the parent-child relationship, the level of emotional connectedness, overall happiness and family stress levels — will affect how any given technique will work. A healthy family context will also buffer children from the negative impacts when techniques don’t work out so well.
If a child watches violent movies in a context where he is not well connected with his parents, experiences no warmth from men, is mistreated and sees people around him mistreating one another, I’d anticipate problems. But if his parents are warm, if they pay attention to what he’s watching, put some limits on how much he watches, and help him understand what violence really is and the difference between fantasy and reality, the impact will be totally different.

You’ve made lots of parenting choices already. I’ll bet some worked out well, some were disasters, and some you still wonder about. Rest assured you’ll have many more choices to agonize about. I’m not going to tell you not to worry. If I knew which button to push to stop parents from worrying, I’d have pushed it long ago.

So go ahead and worry. But as you do, bear in mind that the context where your parenting choices play out is almost always more important than actual strategies you use (and the mistakes you make).