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The best parenting advice I ever received
It came from a complete stranger.
Finding out you’re going to be a parent for the first time is an exhilarating, terrifying, utterly head-spinning experience. I’ve written on this before, but even if it’s something that you’ve anticipated and planned for, parenthood upends your entire life.
You have to childproof your home, identifying all the heretofore-unseen dangers lurking amidst your seemingly-benign household furnishings. You have to reimagine your daily schedule, forgoing spontaneity for predictability and the need for constant coverage. You have to reconsider basic notions of food, sleep, and safety. You have to re-think your whole way of living, as you are no longer your primary responsibility.
Sound like a lot to think about? You bet! But you’ll have some help.
Chances are, as soon as you put news of an expected child out into the world, you’ll start receiving advice on how to raise them—often unsolicited. People love imagining themselves as experts on things, and lots of people have raised a child at some point in their life, so there’s no shortage of self-styled parenting experts out there, ready to tell you exactly what you need to do.
Most—if not all—of this advice is well-meaning, offered out of a genuine desire to help you in your parenting journey.
There’s just a few problems.
First: best practices change!
Expert advice on what’s best for babies changes constantly, as our understanding of nutrition, physiology, brain development, safety and numerous other factors change. I was born in 1982, and the best practices for caring for a baby then were very different from what they are in 2022.
Second: what works for one baby often has very little correlation to another!
This is something you can test firsthand should you decide to have a second child, confident that you now know there is everything to know about babies. (Good luck.) But even up-to-the-moment information that works perfectly for one person’s child may fall completely flat for yours. Sleep-training might’ve worked perfect for your coworker’s son Jimothy, and it might be a complete disaster for you!
Babies are weird like that.
It’s like they’re whole different people!
Third: some people are just crackpots!
I mean, just look around.
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Both leading up to and after the birth of our son, we received a lot of advice from family, friends, co-workers and more—all well-meaning, some good, some quite bad—but the one piece of advice that stuck with me the most came from a complete stranger.
It was September 2015, and my son was only eleven weeks old. My brother was getting married, and I was in the wedding party; I live in Kentucky, he lives in Colorado. There was simply no way around it: I was going to have to fly with an baby.
I was going to become the person I’d always hated. I was going to be the person who brought a crying baby onto an airplane.
(I should note that in the intervening years my views on this have entirely changed, and I would much rather sit next to a baby on an airplane than ninety percent of adult travelers. But I digress.)
We boarded the flight early—I finally appreciated the reasoning behind the “parents traveling with small children” pre-boarding group, as I was in possession of 12 pounds of baby and roughly 300 pounds of baby gear—and so we were already settled into our seats as the rest of the passengers boarded.
I held my son swaddled in my lap as they filed in, and I felt judged by every face that passed; I tried mostly to avoid eye contact, assuming what everyone was thinking. I must’ve been white as a sheet, so filled with dread was I about how the next two and a half hours might go.
We’d received plenty of advice about how to fly with a baby. Dress them in layers to prepare for unpredictable cabin temperatures. Try to plan their nap schedule to correspond with the flight. Feed them during take-off and landing to help alleviate ear pressure, and so on.
I wasn’t convinced any of that was going to help, though.
Midway through the boarding process, a woman I would guess to have been in her early fifties filed past, and smiled as she peeked down at my son, saying “what a cute baby!” I offered an apologetic chuckle and a nervous “well, I’m glad you think so now!” She gave a quick glance around and leaned in, whispering just loud enough for both my wife and I to hear.
“You’re doing great, and if anyone has a problem with him, fuck ‘em!”
I wish I knew who this woman was, because I’d like to sincerely thank her for that moment of kindness, one that’s stuck with me nearly seven years later.
It is hard being a new parent. You are doing something you are by definition completely unprepared for, while at the same time receiving mountains of often-contradictory advice from all sides on how you should be doing it differently.
The truth of the matter is, there’s no one right way to handle any parenting situation, other than to try your best—even if your best isn’t all that great right now, due to the physical and mental exhaustion you’re likely in.
As long as you’re doing what you can to clothe them, feed them, support their heads and keep them safe from harm, then it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks about how you should be doing things differently.
Some babies thrive on breast-feeding, and others do marvelously on formula. (There’s a good reason why baby formula was invented, I’m just saying.) Some babies can cry it out for a couple nights and sleep peacefully forever after, and others may need to be rocked to sleep before they can learn to do it on their own. It’s best to limit screen time for toddlers, unless a pandemic hits and their schools close down for six months while you have to keep working, and then Disney+ turns out to be a pretty good babysitter after all.
Children are resilient, and you don’t have to get everything right. In fact, I promise you, you won’t get everything right. You need to survive those early days, too.
Last week, I was traveling back from New York City with my wife and kids. The kids, now 7 and 5 years old, have grown into perfectly-unobtrusive travelers who will happily bury their heads in games on their tablets so quickly after boarding that they have to be alerted to even look out the window during takeoff. I read a book for two hours on the flight, they asked so little of me, a sentence that would’ve seemed inconceivable to me when they were tiny.
At one point during the flight, my son asked to use the restroom, so I escorted him to the one in the back of the plane. In the service area adjacent to the restroom, a young mother was standing, bouncing a crying baby roughly the same age my son had been on that first flight. She had that same look of apologetic desperation on her face that I’d had back then, and I offered a comment about how cute the baby was.
“Oh, I just hope he’s not bothering people too much!”
“You know, I once got a good piece of advice about that—”
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Now, in light of this column, and for the benefit of reader Brian G., who has a baby on the way, I’d like to hear from you: What’s the best piece of parenting advice you ever received?