Parenting Styles Are About You, Not the Baby

What kind of parent are you? The answer is happily clear: It doesn’t matter, not in the least.

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Illustration of parents taking care of babies in a crowded living room
Julia Barnes for Fatherly

What’s your parenting style? Are you an attachment parent, free-range parent, a gender-neutral parent, or a tiger parent? Though each camp has a loyal following, parenting styles say a lot about the expecting adult but very little about how that baby is going to fare. At the core, it doesn’t really matter how you label your parenting style. You can be there for every whimper or give them room, give your kid all the toys, or none of them. You can invest time, money, energy, and a great deal of stress into following parenting styles exactly. But none of it will make a difference.

The fact is that babies are designed to be largely immune to parenting styles. They will grow and develop regardless of how a parent labels their parenting – as long as the parent is there and responsive at least half of the time. The proof of this lies in the history of parenting norms and the enormous diversity of cultural parenting practices around the globe. So why are Americans so stuck on the idea that very specific iterations of good parenting are so essential for raising healthy babies?

Much of this can be traced back to 1946, when pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock published the book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care and opened the doors for the diversity of parenting styles we see today. In this wildly popular book, Spock did away with the idea that the unformed baby needed to be placed in strict mold to be trained. Instead, he rightly suggested that parents knew the best way to raise their unique and special child, writing it explicitly in the introduction: “You know more than you think you do.” This opening statement is very good advice and in line with the reality of raising an infant. But it wasn’t generally the sentiment that parents took away from the book. After all, the 10,000-plus pages of detailed parenting advice in his book followed, contradicting this central thesis.

These pages were the first shot in a war of intensive parenting styles. What Spock was saying, in no uncertain terms, was that the more care, contact, and thoughtful consideration a parent put into the rearing of their child, the better that child would ultimately turn out. And that hypothesis was borne out, or so history would suggest. A generation of kids raised by Spock, the Boomers, thrived. The reasons, however, are linked more to the growing wealth of a nation and a deepening understanding of children’s health than one man’s breakthrough parenting advice.

“Dr Spock writes his big book in the aftermath of WWII. The biggest group of children were coming into the culture. We had a booming economy and we had the corporatization of medicine,” says Johnson. In other words, the Boomers did well because they had an economy and medical advances to back them. And yet, Spock’s millions of followers would argue that it was the parenting style borne from his book that lead to better outcomes for the kids.

The idea that parents can’t parent by their own volition is by some measures stronger than ever. A 2019 study from the Cornell University Population Center found that when presented with a variety of parenting styles, 75 percent of parents said that the more intensive styles of parenting were preferable. The evidence for this is thin. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that intensive parenting practices like anticipatory problem solving and enrollment in structured activities didn’t yield the results parents wanted. “Although parents may believe that expensive and time-consuming activities are the keys to ensuring their children’s health, happiness, and success, this study does not support this assumption,” the authors concluded.

Furthermore, intensive styles of parenting like attachment parenting or concerted cultivation require huge investments of time and money. Those parenting styles require parents to be constantly available and provide their child with an assortment of extracurricular and social activities to be successful. Like the advice doled out in Spock’s book, the ability to parent that way is too costly for many parents. American parents are being pressured to follow parenting styles and norms that are unduly expensive and stressful, without evidence that they produce any better outcomes. What can be done? For one, we can take a page from parents outside the U.S.

Small Steps for Baby, Giant Leaps for Parenting Styles

“There’s a huge diversity in cultures, and subcultures within cultures, that provide their infants and young children with vastly different experiences,” says psychologist Richard Aslin, a Senior Scientist at Haskins Laboratories and previously the Director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging and the Rochester Baby Lab. “And yet, 99.9 percent are going to reach an age at which they are going to walk. The progression that they will go through is really different from culture to culture.”

How babies learn to walk isn’t a random consideration. Walking is linked to how a child develops physically as well as intellectually because the ability to move and explore has been linked to intellectual skills like language development. In her article titled The Road to Walking: What Learning to Walk Tells Us About Development, researcher Dr. Karen Adolfof of NYU’s Infant Action Laboratory puts it like this:

“In science, literature, art and religion, walking upright separates child from infant, man from beast, freedom from slavery and moral righteousness from turpitude. It is no accident that so much of our developmental iconography depicts upright locomotion as the exalted endpoint on the road to developmental progress”

Walking is an essential milestone in child development. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what you do as a parent to get a kid to walk. The evidence is found around the world. A study from 1976 found that babies in some tribes in Kenya learned to walk a month earlier than peers in industrialized nations (somewhere around 10 to 11 months) largely because they were taught to do so by parents through concerted teaching and practice. American babies, on the other hand, generally learn to walk between 12 and 16 months of age. Then there are babies in rural areas of Tajikistan, who are often bound in restrictive cradles called gahvoras for the first 24 months of life and therefore do not learn to walk until much later compared to their Western counterparts. Three extremely different parenting cultures lead to three exactly similar outcomes: The kids walk.

There is an incredible tendency for babies to grow in much the same way, regardless of where they are or the cultural traditions that inform how parents interact with their offspring.

Clearly, parents can influence their child to acquire skills early. You can walk like a Kenyan at 10 months or a Tajiki at 24 months, but the overarching outcome is the same. A 2013 study from Zurich found that early or late walking was a poor predictor of outcomes. Researchers followed a group of infants from the time they learned to walk through 18-years old, testing them regularly using standardized IQ tests. They found that the time a baby learned to walk had no bearing on how intelligent they would be in the future.

There is an incredible tendency for babies to grow in much the same way, regardless of where they are or which cultural norms and traditions inform how their parents interact with them. That’s true, even when the interaction is ugly and unhealthy.

Children will often lie to protect abusive parents and will happily return to them despite the abuse. “The ability to bond with a caregiver is such a strong biological imperative that once a bond is formed — even with an abuser — it is difficult to break,” Dr. Regina Sullivan notes in a 2010 article published in Cerebrum. “And the devastation resulting from abuse often will not become fully apparent until the child is well into adolescence.”

These children may grow to become adults suffering from depression and substance abuse issues later in life, but they do not stop developing early on. “Children are incredibly resilient. They are so resilient that they love their abusing parents,” Aslin says. “It’s interesting that they have this incredible ability to adapt to their environmental circumstances and become fully functioning adults.”

That’s clearly an extreme example, but it makes the point: babies grow, and they grow regardless of parenting styles, good or bad. That would seem that babies are less a problem to be solved than a problem that can largely solve itself.

Why would this be the case? Researchers suggest there is an evolutionary factor involved. It makes sense that a baby would be wired to survive and grow. After all, they emerge from the womb completely helpless to caregivers who may or may not be up to the task. In her article on the attachment of children to their abusers, Dr Regina Sullivan puts it this way: “The infant brain is actually perfectly developed to accomplish the tasks appropriate to the survival needs of infancy. Some of the unique functions of the infant brain help to explain why a child will bond with whatever caregiver is available.”

This is not to say that a parent’s investment in any kind of parenting style at infancy is bad. It’s not — it’s simply optional. There’s nothing wrong with parents and babies spending time together in intensive parenting pursuits. Babies love attention and novelty. Parents enjoy feeling useful. In the absence of all else, those two qualities are incredibly beneficial to the long-term relationship between kids and parents.

Buying Into Parenting Styles, At Great Cost

Parenting is stressful in no small part because it immediately put the child’s economic future at the forefront. Thinking about where a baby is going to end up long before those considerations can even count for anything means that parents are already embroiled in the competitive ugliness of the modern economy. Yes, some parents may be able to take on a parenting style with their baby simply for the sake of fun and bonding, but more often than not, the intensive parenting practices in infancy are based on anxiety. That anxiety causes parents to sink far more into the world of parenting than is necessary.

Decades after Spock’s book was published Boomers raised on Spock’s advice started having their own children. The big difference now was that mothers worked. According to the PEW Research center, 43-percent of married women with working husbands were stay-at-home mothers in 1967. By 1999 that percentage had plummeted to just 23-percent. The rise of working mothers caused many pundits and politicians to express anxiety about the children they characterized as abandoned. This anxiety was recently highlighted during the Democratic Presidential Primary debates when candidate Christine Gillibrand chided Joe Biden for an op-ed in the 1980s where he suggested dual-earning households were causing the deterioration of the family. “We do not take care of our own families these days,” Biden opined. We want someone else to bear that responsibility.”

“American mothers work more now than women in the 70s, but they also spend three times the amount of time with their children. It just means they are sleeping less and more stressed.”

Historian Bethany Johnson notes that all of the fuss caused mothers to become defensive. There was a sense that they had to be able to do it all. “Mothers started to take on the work of proving, via their parenting method, that they were doing a good job,” Johnson explains. “You have the Tiger Mom, the Helicopter Mom and Attachment Parenting.”

These parenting styles, loosely based on precepts from Dr. Spock and the baby advice industry he spawned, did not move the needle for babies. They developed as they would have. They learned to walk. But it helped give parents a sense of agency, offered misogynists proof that moms could hold a job and be good moms, and it stressed parents the hell out. Those parents who were affluent enough and had enough time could invest in intensive parenting styles with the idea of giving their child a better start. Those who weren’t had to work harder, at the office and at home.

“We’re setting parents up for failure by building this tension around what’s happening to our children and giving them impossible models to fill,” says Johnson. “American mothers work more now than women in the 70s, but they also spend three times the amount of time with their children. It just means they are sleeping less and more stressed.”

It’s a way of parenting that can be traced back to Spock — a way of raising babies that has no scientific backing. Babies will develop and grow. Parenting styles don’t matter.

“Really what has worked best throughout history is to respond to a baby’s needs,” Johnson says. “Do the best you can at the moment you’re in. Find something that feels right for you and your family. There are a lot of things under ‘what feels right’ that is healthy for your child. There isn’t one supreme approach because there are human beings involved and humans are different.”

So while parents may obsess over their parenting style, it turns out that it probably doesn’t matter in the long run. Not as long as the basis for that parenting style is simply being there for your child.

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