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Tuesday, October 26th, 2010

Parenting: A Horse of Many Colors

parenting/ Milos Dukic

As a nanny, I get to watch parenting. Being in people’s homes and caring for their children is necessarily intimate. Up close everyone’s eccentricities are magnified, so I get a good view. Each job and new family brings a different set of expectations and assumptions about what ideal parenting should be. I also came into the field with my own set of ideas based on how I was raised. Success in the job, however, meant being flexible about my personal parenting ideals and caregiving techniques. When I taught in a Montessori classroom, I let tiny infants feed themselves. I’ve also spoon fed a two year old when that was the family’s custom. Most parents are pretty clear on their version being the right one and as a nanny it’s my job to respect that they know what is best for their individual child. I am lucky to have never worked for anyone I thought was a bad parent. I have never felt like I couldn’t follow the lead set out for me. That has not stopped me however from making observations about parenting culture and all its variety.

The poor and the rich parent differently, as do the old and the young. How one parents is owed to class, race, education, geography, religious affiliation and political orientation, along with other cultural factors. The parents I work for as a nanny for the most part represent only a small corner of the parenting culture pie and even amongst themselves there has been quite the spectrum. American parenting culture is by no means a monolith. Like our history, our parenting reflects the melting pot that America has always been. And similarly to how many folks feeling disengaged from any personal (ethnic or religious) traditions seek to create their own, parenting is often a process of cherry picking among an overwhelming plethora of information. Each family creates its own tiny culture, blending the things that make them who they are with the conscious choices they make directed at being better versions of themselves.

At the same time none of us exist in a vacuum. So much of what we do as parents is cultural, but as Franz Fanon explained culture often only makes itself clear in contrast with someone else. Only when we take notice of the difference between ourselves and others, do we also take notice of our own practices and beliefs. While visiting Spain I was shocked to see babies being walked in prams on the street at one am. Here when a parent tells me their kid is up till ten I’m surprised. In Asia, confusion overtook me when I noticed that infants went without diapers on eighteen hour bus rides, seemingly only going with everyone else when we stopped along the road. Up until then I had never questioned that the method of potty training I knew, M&M’s as incentive and all, was the way to go. I had honestly never thought there was much difference in approach possible. Watching other people parent has made me aware of the context from which my parents made their choices and interested me in the options I have for the future.

I have come to believe that there is no “right” parenting even if many experts offer conflicting theories stating as much. Parents end up feeling insecure and judgmental of each other where that myth exists. In parenting, we strive to create kids who will become happy people, who can successfully navigate the world. Many different choices can all end up at the same destination. We endow children with our particular perspectives and then at a certain point they all meet up in school and argue it out amongst themselves. My lesbian parents carefully taught me that families come in many variations but the rest of my kindergarten class seemed especially sure that only one mom and one dad could count. They were speaking from the cultural context in which they were being raised, as I was. Theirs was just really clearly different. I have turned out a functional and compassionate individual and I would bet that most of the people I went to school with despite denying my family’s legitimacy in elementary school are nice enough citizens of the world. I think I could handle waiting in line at the grocery store with most of them.

Acknowledgment that there is a wide swath of diversity within acceptable approaches and that the difference often results as a consequence of varied cultures is an important insight I have gained in the field. Being aware of the cultural aspect of parenting has given me a different way to look at the parents I have interacted with. I look at everybody and their follies with a combination of amusement, academic interest and sympathy. Maybe that is what allows me a measure of compassionate detachment that is ever so helpful to the job.

© 2010 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.

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Kellen has watched other people parent for years. She has worked as a babysitter, infant teacher, nanny and in continuing education and quality improvement for childcare providers. She aspires to be a foster parent someday.

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