Whenever I write an article or a facebook update about some parenting principle I have just learned about (from experience or research), I invariably receive warnings about how this may not work for all children, and I should just “wait and see” what it’s like to have 2 children etc. The assumption seems to be that the lessons I am learning about parenting can only apply to Joshua, our 2-year-old son, and to no one else. If I were discussing specific rules and techniques, then this reasoning might be true. However, I’m talking about principles, not techniques.
Principles vs. techniques
A principle is a general idea that can guide decision-making for specific problems. A technique can be thought of as a set of steps or a procedure for addressing a range of problems, and may or may not be based on principles.
When principles are used in daily parenting, they require much thinking, evaluating, reasoning and judging, because they do not offer a clear-cut answer to each problem. However, they are essential for ensuring consistency, order and predictability in family relationships. Principles inform parents about why something should or should not be done, not how it should be done.
Techniques, on the other hand, are packaged kits that promise to resolve a host of problems (e.g., time out). When a parenting problem arises (e.g., a temper tantrum), one can simply summon the power of the technique without having to wonder whether it is appropriate for this particular case (not all temper tantrums have the same cause). They tend to focus on how something is done, not why.
I’m talking about principles
When I share ideas about parenting, I am always talking about principles, never about techniques. Principles cannot be reduced to a simple sentence like “rewards are harmful”. They are always tightly related to a host of other principles, and are infinitely complex. In fact, in attempting to model reality, principles can never be “complete”, because reality is infinitely complex. This means that we can always learn more about the principles behind good parenting, and behind everything else for that matter. We may also need to “unlearn” some things we have accepted as principles, but that are not accurate.
If we refuse to learn or unlearn, we are doing ourselves and our children a great disservice. It is not good enough to keep doing what has always been done, even if we “have turned out alright, haven’t we?”. Learning that something we used to believe is not true is not a statement about our intelligence, our abilities, or our fitness to be a parent: it is a natural and welcome step on the way to self-improvement. Of course it is never comfortable to question our beliefs and assumptions, because they have become our familiar companions. Thankfully, our worth is not measured by what we know or believe, or even by what we do, so we don’t need to feel inferior if someone points out that one of our long-cherished assumptions is inaccurate. Who knows, we may even end up feeling grateful that they had the decency and courage to say something respectfully when it was needed.