Unnatural Parenting

January 11, 2011

I’m a natural parenting advocate. But it doesn’t mean what most people think when they hear that term – “My son breathes imported air and plays with organic string.” Although I love being crunchy. 🙂

A better way of saying what I believe might be “parenting naturally.” To be a comfortable, capable parent with how you choose to raise your children. To learn from your mistakes, to feel at ease with your decisions, to (as I’ve said before) know why you do what you do.

Parents have strong intuitions about what their child is ready to learn and do. But too often, this gets pushed aside with the madhouse scramble to have our kids at the top of the smart pile. We have Your Baby Can Read, Baby Einstein, baby flashcards, learning toys, pre-preschools, and constant barrages of experts and marketers reminding us how much better our kids lives will be if we buy their product. It makes you doubt your own parent voice (which at times is intended).

The other day I took Bella to the Children’s Museum. While in the toddler center, another little girl about her size began to play near us. She was sweet, offering Bella a fake apple to share.

And then.

Her mother swooped in from behind. “Is that an APPLE? A, a, a, apple? A is for apple? Red apple Joanna? Can you put the red apple in the blue basket? B is for basket. Basket. Blue. Both have a B in them – buh, buh, buh, and we put the red a, a, a, apple in that blue basket and see it? See it go DOWN IN the basket? It went DOWN IN. DOWN. IN THE BASKET. Blue. Basket. Apple.”


Her mom narrated every.single.thing she did. I was exhausted just listening to her, and by the end of the hour the mom was too. You can hardly blame her; she put a ton of energy into trying to get her daughter, just once, to say or acknowledge what she was telling and showing her. And her daughter could have cared less. They were both very frustrated.

No doubt, she is a loving mom. That has nothing to do with this, and I’m not judging her – she was a kind person. I’m using her technique as an example of a common theme in many of us – unnatural parenting. This lady forced herself to spell, reiterate, and coax even when it was obvious her daughter (who I found out was 16 months old) didn’t know how to respond to what she was doing. Why? More than likely the pressure for her child to excel.

When you constantly read and hear about how the education gap is widening, how our schools are failing in their jobs to teach children properly, that the three year old down the street can already read Harry Potter while your kid lit a Barbie on fire yesterday… Yeah. That can make you a little less confident in how you parent.

I’m not comfortable spelling out things to Bella yet. I think, “She doesn’t even know what it is.” So, I try new things with her and see how she reacts. I talk to her constantly, but I don’t force understanding or make myself insane trying to explain everything. I watch her play to see what she already knows and what she’s trying to figure out. I read books that offer suggestions to gently challenge her while still staying within a range of something she can accomplish. It helps push down that little voice in my head of, “You aren’t doing it right. Buy this instead. It has lights and shiny things.” Sometimes…I still buy it out of insecurity.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the whirlwind of “Look at my kid – she’s a professional bull rider, knits argyle sweaters for the old folks home, studies French cooking, and her favorite thing to do is SAT prep. And she’s 4.” Certainly there are kids that love to do these things – that thrive on them. But the problem is that the media has capitalized on them to show how dumb your kid must be if they aren’t like the very few child prodigy’s.

But don’t. Slow down. For the sake of their ever-so-fleeting childhood – let them be. Leave the reading till they know what letters are. Set aside the flashcards. Remember the ads are there for a reason – your money. Follow your child’s lead and your instincts. Parent naturally, the way you know how.

Because honestly? You do.


  • Cindy @ This Adventure, Our Life

    January 12, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    I would probably be right in the middle. Bailey is a talker, therefore, we talk back and forth a lot. I narrate things in a conversation. I believe in following your child’s lead whole heartedly, because pushing them will not get them anywhere except to frustration. I think in the example you provided, yes, I have seen parents like that, and I think we as parents need to be careful about interfering too much. I think some of the things you mention could go either way though. We take Bailey every friday to a Co-Op pre-preschool and find it very rewarding, Bailey explores art, play, outdoor play, water play, snack time and eating with other children, and as a parent I enjoy the company of other parents, lessons in child development and help from other parents and the teacher. Would I consider this a market, un-natural parenting, or pushing my child to grow up, I think not. Not any more than taking a child to music class, gymboree, or these other types of places… I am a firm believer that what may be good for one family is not for another. I think whatever interests and stimulates your child’s mind is beneficial. So if it is books, then read, if it is social settings and playgroups, then play…

    Overall I agree with you, follow your child’s lead, let them explore the world with and without you.

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  • Branson

    January 11, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    I so seriously love your blog. Every time I see your name in bold in my reader I get excited 🙂 I couldnt agree more with this post. My mom and sisters are obsessed with that my baby can read and it drives me crazy. I want my baby to be a baby… Not a tiny 5 year old. I want him to be loved, played with, read to, and exposed to a wide variety of experiences. I can do all of that without fancy contraptions or parking him in front of the tv for instruction. There isnt anything wrong with using those products, within reason, but there is something wrong when you make people think if they dont do it they are lazy, ineffectual parents. Phew, ok end rant. Didnt even realize that was bugging me so much!

  • R’s Mom

    January 11, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I see your point, and obiously I wasn’t with you to hear exactly how the mom at the museum was acting with her child. But like others have said, I like to keep a running dialogue going with R. And sometimes, it’s just easiest to have the dialogue go something like this…”Are you playing with your blocks? That’s the block with an A on it. A is for airplane…see the picture of the airplane? It’s a green airplane…look at the yellow banana on the block for b…” Etc. etc. And I’m not doing it to grill into him colors or letters let (he’s only 12 months), but just because that’s an EASY way to keep the narrative flowing, while also staying focused on what he’s doing. I do think it’s important for babies to hear a lot of language, generally, instead of us just playing in silence.

    Also, what babies absorb amazes me. At Christmas when we hung the stockings, R kept point at the mantle. So we kept telling him those were the Christmas stockings. And what do you know? He said stocking…his third word, was stocking. And I always tell him he’s getting lotion when I put it on after a bath, and the other day I said the word in conversation and he stopped and held up his arm, like he does when he sees me get the lotion after a bath.

    So no, I don’t talk to R because I think he needs to know his abc’s by the time he’s 18 months old or because I need to only do educational things for him to get ahead…but I have realized that he’s a little sponge right now, and he wants to soak it all up…

  • Jen

    January 11, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Something I have noticed with myself at least is that I more often see what my older child did before my younger child. Or at times (though not nearly as often) what other peoples children around my kids ages are doing that mine aren’t. I think thats somewhat normal. Its a hard thing to not ask yourself why isn’t my child doing what so and so is. I think part of it is exactly what you said other people coming up with stuff to “help” your child and make you feel like if you don’t have these things then you aren’t doing the best you can. I think if we step back and look at the bigger picture we will most likely see that our child is doing other things that theirs aren’t. (or that our older ones weren’t doing at that age) I tell myself that each child goes at there own pace and try not to let it bug me. Though its not always easy by any means. Great post. I love how you make me think.

  • angela

    January 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I have a friend like the museum parent, and it makes hanging out with her and her children exhausting. I feel like it’s one thing to talk and narrate and play when the child is engaged, but I can literally see her son’s eyes glaze over and tune her out at times. I don’t need proof that he is bright; I don’t need to see him recite or identify unless he wants to do that.

    I agree it’s important to narrate and engage and interact, but I completely saw my friend in this post, and I feel your frustration with that helicopter style of parenting.`

    1. Diana

      January 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm

      Yes – this is what I was trying to say! We all know those parents, I can be that parent at times. But it’s not natural parenting unless you child requires that amount of constant attention for some reason. And most kids do not. It’s one thing to talk to your kids during the day, it’s another to overhaul their thought process with a barrage of narration.

  • Lisa

    January 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I talk to my son. A lot. Not because I think it’s going to get him into Harvard. I talk to him because he’s my son, that being said he is only 18 months old and can’t hold a conversation and sometimes? I get desperate for material, and singing the alphabet for talking about the days of the week, or counting, seem like more appropriate topics for conversation than what happened on last night Bachelor.
    I mean, I think any dialogue an adult has with a child is a little forced. I don’t think it means their trying to make their kid better than everyone elses or forcing them to grow up to soon.
    (I hope none of that sounded snarky, I didn’t intend for it to :))

    1. Diana

      January 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm

      I just meant that you should parent the way you know how – not to let commercials and the Today Show that features the super smart kid dupe you into feeling like you have to be ON 24-7. This lady did this from the moment I saw her to the moment we left. And neither her or her daughter looked very pleased about the results.

      1. Lisa

        January 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm

        ahh, i see. yeah, if gavin didn’t look like he was getting any satisfaction or pleasure out of my babbling, i’d probably try another route! LOL

  • LCW

    January 11, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    Normally I don’t care to comment on posts like this, because I wear two hats when I read them. However, I think that example you provided was indeed a bit much, especially because the little girl just wanted to play. Similar to what Joanna said, I do believe narrating what you’re doing (when appropriate) is totally fine. It’s just a conversation. I wouldn’t call that forced or unnatural or trying to make the kid excel at anything, other than treating them like a human being whom you love and want to include in your day to day happenings. Toddlers are sponges, and it would be odd to not talk to them.

    I narrate when Ryann points to something, picks something up or is whining for something (to encourage words and language development). I certainly don’t go into the sound it makes, or what is starts with because developmentally she’s not there yet (my teacher hat is on now). Certainly I could sit down with her and show her mathematical equations but it wouldn’t mean anything to her and developmentally it’s totally inappropriate. It won’t make her excel at anything but running away from me when I bombard her with all this “learning”.

    We follow Ryann’s lead most of the time. We show her how things work, name things and basically get to her “level” and talk and play. That mom was probably doing what she *thought* was natural, because our society has taught us that our kids need to be the BEST AT EVERYTHING. Which for us, personally, is not our belief and ultimately we want Ryann to be happy.

    1. Diana

      January 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm

      Right there – the BEST AT EVERYTHING point you made. That is exactly what I was trying to say.

    2. Branson

      January 11, 2011 at 6:26 pm

      Do you pronounce her name rye-ann? Thay is my sister’s name and I haven’t seen it anywhere else before 🙂

    3. Heidi K.

      January 11, 2011 at 9:11 pm

      Sing it, sister! You said it perfectly.

  • Alena

    January 11, 2011 at 11:59 am

    I think I am middle of the road. I believe kids need a mixture of free play and structured play. And with us faceing EI I label everything I do with her. I name things we eat. I ask her questions and pause and then answer so she knows timing for please, thank you, yes & no ect. During breakfast I probably say banana 10 times. And the color. Its not that I want her to be the smartest child in the world but because I want her to hear these words so much she will know what things are so when she’s ready to talk they will flow out. BUT we have a lot of free play and I am not strict with what or how she plays with her toys. And I don’t label every toy with every characteristic.

  • Sara

    January 11, 2011 at 11:55 am

    I see both sides of it: there has to be some dialogue between us and our kids, but pushing it to the point where everyone gets frustrated can’t be good. Seems like we’d all lose interest in playtime if it wasn’t having fun along with learning a few new skills, right?

  • Amy

    January 11, 2011 at 11:54 am

    I make it a point to narrate our day. Spencer goes and gets his stuffed kitty, I ask “Is that your kitty?” When I get him dressed, I say we are putting on your socks, your shirt, your pants. It seems natural to me. I think that your example is one of aggressive narration and I agree that it is unfortunate.
    But Spencer delights in learning new words and making the connection. When he pointed to my chin and said chin and I said yes, chin, he smiled and clapped his hands. He knows over 60 words at 16 months and has almost mastered the alphabet. He wants to learn. He also can’t kick a ball or use a spoon very well. I think kids move forward in different areas at different speeds.

  • Liz

    January 11, 2011 at 11:50 am

    C is only 5 months old, but I think we already fall somewhere in the middle. When she is playing in her jumper, I tend to let her be and bounce around with all of her toys.

    When it comes to other tasks, such as bath time, I find myself explaining everything as we do it. “Look! Your washcloth is pink! It has a puppy on it. Do you see the puppy?” I don’t expect that she understands what I’m saying, but I do it mostly because I hate baby talk and it serves as a great way to interact with her.

  • Joanna

    January 11, 2011 at 11:41 am

    I don’t know, I have conflicting opinions on this. I let Madison play and do her own thing. I have no issue with her watching TV and we do lots of different activities. That being said, I make it a point to explain to her everything I’m doing.

    “Mommy’s making you lunch. Would you like chicken nuggets? ::shows her the box:: Can you say chicken? Mmmm, chicken is good. How about some fruit too? You love fruit. ::Places the plate on the tray:: What do you say? (she responds with please or thank you) Good girl, enjoy your lunch.”

    similar to that. I find it important to explain to her what I’m doing, tell her what she’s playing with our touching. Do I do it constantly? No. Do I make her say “blocks” every time she’s playing with her blocks? Absolutely not. But I try to keep a constant dialogue with her.

    It could be complete bullshit but I think that’s why she does speak very well for her age. I don’t sit down and drill her with flash cards or anything but I do my best to make most things we do a learning experience and it isn’t forced. I don’t feel exhausted by it or that I have to do it, actually it comes naturally to us.

    I get bored helping her splash in the tub after 5 minutes so we play with her letters and numbers and try to pick up on new ones.

    So I guess maybe I’m in the middle? I dunno. I’m not even sure I have a point anymore.

    1. TheNextMartha

      January 11, 2011 at 11:46 am

      It’s been shown that children that are exposed to a greater number of words early on will be better in language. Not just vocabulary, but a variety like you do. Questions mixed with explanation. Talking to your children is one of *THE* most important things you can do for them.

      1. Diana

        January 11, 2011 at 11:49 am

        I 100% agree with this. Just because your kid doesn’t understand what’s going on doesn’t mean you stop talking to them or showing them things.

        My point is – be comfortable with it. Don’t succumb to the pressure of “Cindy’s kid knows how to spell cat already” because maybe Cindy’s kid was ready to spell cat.

        I just think more parents should follow their kids lead instead of the marketing lead.

    2. Heidi K.

      January 11, 2011 at 9:09 pm

      I narrate like that to my children, too. I don’t think it’s the same as the “a, a, a, apple” lady. You are exposing your child to language. NOT grammar or letter sounds. You are simply helping your child learn more about the world around her. Language is developed by talking TO our children, not AT them. More power to you. Sounds like you’re doing great things with her!

  • Alexia

    January 11, 2011 at 11:35 am

    Couldn’t have said it better myself! I’m a big fan of talking to Cedella but someone smack me upside the head if I end up driving her insane with a constant barrage of spelling and learning. They’re babies for crying out loud! Let’s play and have fun without all the forced interaction. They learn constantly without the ‘Baby Einstein’ main line drip. Oy vey. Oops, am I judging again?

  • Becky

    January 11, 2011 at 11:31 am

    Right on. Kids will always know more than what you give them credit for. Our oldest just started Kindergarten and I’m floored at what she knows, how much she’s learning and how fast she’s learning it. I always felt like we didn’t do enough beyond reading books and talking about stuff. She was in an in-home day care and didn’t go to preschool. Clearly, what we did was enough. Now we’ll see with the other two…

  • heather

    January 11, 2011 at 10:05 am

    I agree. I just like to go with Brighton’s flow. We’ll just be going along and he’ll suddenly surprise me by knowing the color blue or something. The other day he was talking about rainbows and he randomly said the spanish word for rainbow. He learned it on dora but he made the connection weeks after hearing it. They’ll learn what they need to eventually. Let them be kids while they are.

  • Blair@HeirtoBlair

    January 11, 2011 at 9:49 am

    Yep, that’s how we are, too.

    He’ll figure it out.

  • kim

    January 11, 2011 at 9:25 am

    It’s like you can crawl in my head and see my insecurities. I have a terrible time with this. I’m bette w/ Sarah and John, but I was awful w/ Violet. Still am. She’s in the 2nd grade and I see what kids in other schools are doing and I freak out. So yeah, it’s really hard. And you have a great hold on this.

  • TheNextMartha

    January 11, 2011 at 9:24 am

    I have a different perspective. My gifted son actually started reading at 2.5. He knew the entire alphabet by 20months including sounds. *Some* kids are just that way. He would obsess about words to the point that I bet at some point I sounded like that woman. It was mostly b/c if I didn’t tell him, he would ask. Now my 2nd son? Box of rocks. Which is awesome because I can totally be this laid back, ignore him, let him play mom.

    1. Diana

      January 11, 2011 at 11:21 am

      But – and of course now re-reading my post it sounds like I’m bashing gifted kids – you did what was natural for him. He wanted and needed that. But I bet you didn’t force it, you figured out what he thrived under. This little girl? Wanted to just play. You could tell her poor mom had no idea how to just back off and let her be 16 months.

      1. Heidi K.

        January 11, 2011 at 9:06 pm

        Your post did not sound like it was bashing gifted kids. It sounded like it was bashing pushy parents. I agree that a gifted child needs to be given what he/she needs and deserves. Gotta be honest, though….did you really just call your child a “box of rocks?” really?

        1. Diana

          January 11, 2011 at 11:51 pm

          Heidi – I think she meant her second kid would be happy playing with a box of rocks, whereas her first required a very educational playtime. 🙂

  • melissa

    January 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Preach it! I love, love, love this and I couldn’t agree more!!!

    “Let them be little.”

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