11/30/2011 09:44 am ET | Updated Jan 31, 2012

Relativist Parenting

We spend a lot of time as parents (and an awful lot of time on parenting websites) exploring what kind of parents we want to be. The tendency to name "schools" of parenting is new to this generation. Our mothers were just mothers, not Attachment Mothers, or Free-Range Mothers, and, as we discussed yesterday, the name-your-parenting-after-an-animal trend is only about a year old (and, I would politely suggest, has run its course...)

I have been alternately amused and frustrated by this need we seem to have to give our philosophy a label -- or even to have a distinct philosophy at all. The closest I come to a belief system of my own is borrowed from a friend, Donnica Moore, who sums up parenting as: It All Depends On Everything.

Two essays on Huffington Parents today throw out the idea of "one way" or even a "semi-consistent way" and offer up -- actually CELEBRATE -- a view of parenting that is closest to Moore's.

Devon Corneal describes it here as "Sure of Nothing Parenting." She nails it (as usual).

And Patty Onderko calls it "Relativist Parenting." Her essay is below.

Whatever you call it (because, after all, names can change, and everything is relative...) these two women sum up the on-the-fly, never-the-same-river-twice, doing-the-best-you-can feeling of this thing we do -- whatever it is called -- that differs from child to child, day to day, and moment to moment. -- Lisa Belkin, Parentlode


I could be the worst parent in the history of the world. Or I could be the best. It's all relative. And that's my problem. Being a relativist and being a parent are hard ways of life to reconcile. Most likely, I'm a middle-of-the-road parent, but what's the middle of the road when it's relative to the relative best and the relative worst?

An example: I was crossing the actual (not proverbial) road with my 4-year-old twin boys the other morning when a turning car began honking at us. Here's a secret: I've long ago stopped forcing one of my sons to hold my hand while crossing streets. He rebelled so forcefully that our struggle actually put us at greater risk in the middle of the crosswalk. So I relented, and instead stood right next to him against oncoming traffic until we were safely to the other side. But the woman driving this car made it clear that I had made the wrong decision. She rolled down her window and screamed, "Hold his hand!!!" at me as she pointed emphatically to my unattached son. I was angry and defensive at the time, but later: Am I pansy parent who can't even uphold the supposed "non-negotiable" rules of childcare? Or am I a sensitive mom who wisely knows how to pick her battles? Honestly, I could go either way on that one. I flip-flop as of writing this.

Another example: I tell my other son (the one who does hold my hand crossing the street) one evening that it's time to put down the iPad. He whines convincingly and tells me that he's not done with his game yet and why does he have to turn it off now? I don't know really, I think. I don't want him to have too much of the notorious "screen time," but at the same time, I wonder, "Who am I? He's only been playing Angry Birds for 20 minutes and while 20 minutes is a lot more than, say, five, it's also a lot less than 60." Still, I enforce the power down, since I'm supposed to be consistent. But did I lose his trust as a reasonable parent who values his independent thinking? Again I think, "Who am I?"

I know, I'm his parent. And I need to step up and set boundaries. Kids feel more secure when there are rules and guidelines. Or do they? Isn't it relative to the child, the rules, and the person enforcing them? My kids seem to be relatively secure in their lives. But who am I to judge? My sense of comfortable and secure could be wildly different from theirs.

This second-guessing makes parenting, as you can see, a daily guessing game. One twin seems ready for a talk about the birds and the bees, but the other seems -- relative to his brother -- not. But how do I know if the first twin is really ready for the discussion, relative to his peers? It's a twisted rabbit hole of right and wrong, sensible and foolish, kind and cruel.

Where do I find my bearings, my parenting absolutes when I kinda, I'll admit, don't believe in anything for sure? Dr. Bill Sears is smart about nutrition, but I couldn't do attachment parenting with twins. The SuperNanny seems sensible, but that's probably because she doesn't have any kids. The American Academy of Pediatrics is authoritative, but definitely stuffy.

The term "expert" is completely relative. To wit, as a career parenting writer, I've been called an expert.

Do I even need to mention that I'm not sure whether or not I believe in a God?

It would be easy to say that what I believe in, ultimately, is my own love for my kids and my good intentions towards them. But I bet those parents who read To Train Up a Child and switch their infants feel they too have only the best intentions. And, of course, you may love your kids more than I love mine. How would I know?

But if there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that I love my own kids more than anyone else loves them (in the future, when they meet life partners, I'll duke that issue out -- internally, of course -- with their respective choices), save their other mother. And I love them more than I have ever loved anyone before, save their other mother. I know this. And it's this I have to trust. That's where my parenting rabbit hole lands with a happy thud. I love my kids relative to nothing. And I do my relative best.

Sure, that doesn't help me when I'm trying to figure out how to discipline one when he nearly strangles the other for wrecking his block castle (he worked on it for so long!). But still.

You may think, or be enviably certain, that despite my love (doesn't everyone love their children?), I'm a lousy mother.

But who are you? Your opinion is...well, you know.