The biggest problem with natural parenting: it treats children as parental products, not people

total quality management

The biggest problem with natural parenting (besides the fact that it is not supported by science) is that natural parenting is deterministic. It views children as vessels for parental action and ambition, not as actual people with needs, desires and dreams that may differ from their parents.

At its heart, natural parenting, an affectation of Western, white, privileged parents, views a child as an object to be acted upon to create the desired result: an adult with specific middle to upper middle classes achievements: smart, talented, and ready to enter the economic competition of adulthood at a high level. “Average” children are a disappointment, and, according to the anti-vax crowd, autistic children are better off dead.

What’s striking about natural parenting is not merely that parents wish to raise children they can brag about, but that they think they have the recipe to do it.

That recipe includes:

  • unmedicated vaginal birth
  • extended, exclusive breastfeeding
  • rejection of vaccination
  • “pure” food (organic, no GMOs)
  • keeping the child often literally attached to the mother and thereby constantly controlling all experiences
  • the family bed, insuring no privacy for child or parent even at night

In other words, natural parenting is determininstic. What is determininism?

According to Wikipedia:

Determinism is the philosophical position that for every event, including human action, there exist conditions that could cause no other event.

There are many different kinds of determinism. In the setting of parenting, determinism stands for the proposition that it is parental actions that determine the characteristics of the person the child becomes.

Natural parenting is not about children. It is a recipe that parents can use to create an adult intellectually, socially and economically successful in an upper middle class Western, (and to a large extent, white) environment. Children are viewed as objects to be acted upon, shaped and molded. The actual child takes second place to the future adult that is purportedly being created.

This deterministic view of parenting has important implications for children, parents and social policy.

Consider breastfeeding. It is a paradigmatic case of natural parenting beliefs being turned in to public policy. When and why did the government think it should get involved in promoting breastfeeding, which in first world countries has only trivial benefits?

There’s not much question that the government has inserted itself into breastfeeding promotion at the behest of lactivists (breastfeeding activists), despite the fact that there couldn’t be a more intimate, fundamental personal choice than how women use their own breasts. Lactivists have their own motivations for making their personal infant feeding choice into an object of public policy. There is a lactivist industry whose financial health is directly tied to the amount of pressure to breastfeed brought to bear on new mothers. The task of supporting new mothers who choose to breastfeed has gone from a volunteer task (La Leche League) to a profession that charges $100 an hour or more to do the same thing. The economic growth of the lactivism industry is tied directly to official efforts to demonize formula feeding, locking up formula in hospitals, forcing women to sign breastfeeding “contracts,” and overall efforts to make bottle feeding an object of social scorn. Moreover, lactivists themselves benefit from the psychological boost that comes from being able to claim success at an infant feeding method that is ostensibly so important that the government feels compelled to promote it.

Obviously the lactivist industry did not lobby for lactivist policies by declaring they would benefit from it. They lobbied by implying that breastfeeding has the power to create better, smarter, healthier (and therefore less expensive) individuals. Fill the child with breastmilk and presto, an ideal adult will be produced! The truth is, no matter how desperately lactivists insist that breastfeeding prevents the chronic disease of adulthood in privileged societies, breastfeeding is just one way of feeding a child and has no impact on the adult that is produced.

Lactivism, like all of natural parenting, is a one size fits all policy. The fundamental assumptions of lactivism is that ALL children will do “better” if breastfed, that ALL women make enough breastmilk to satisfy the needs of ALL infants, that EVERY child’s brain is “improved” by breastfeeding, and that ALL women should be more concerned with using their breasts to feed babies than their minds and talents to work outside the home and meet any of their own needs. Those assumptions are flat out false.

The more important issue, though, is what breastfeeding policy tells us about the way we conceptualize children. We don’t see them as people, unique individuals with unique needs. We see them as future adults, guaranteed to become the adults we desire if only the parents fill them with the correct inputs. But any parent who has more than one child knows that the parenting strategies that make one child happy may be utterly wrong for another child who has the same parents, in the same family, growing up with the same economic and socio-cultural conditions.

The implications of the determinism of natural parenting are enormous, ranging from anti-vaccine advocacy, where parents are more concerned about the purported creation of a socially and economically non-competitive autistic child than whether that same child lives or dies; to hysteria about parents letting their children out of their sight to walk home from the park unattended; to parenting choices that not so coincidentally place extraordinary stress and responsibility on mothers and force women to stay in the home.

The message that natural parenting sends, particularly to mothers, is, “It’s all up to you.” and if things don’t work out, “It’s all your fault.”

Parenting is NOT deterministic. Yes, parents can screw up children (it takes a tremendous amount of neglect and abuse to do so), but parents can’t create perfect adults no matter how desperately they wish they could. And good parents can, with the best effort and intentions, raise children who are average or below average, emotionally fragile, subject to the perils of addiction, or even criminals.

Fortunately, most children are resilient. If they were not, I would fear we are raising a generation that will struggle because we ignore who CHILDREN are, their needs, desires, dreams, talents and limitations, in favor the ADULTS that parents desire they become.