There was an eerie silence in the parenting world this year.
No one told me to ignore my two children like the French do, lest they be coddled, or to demand of them constant excellence as the Chinese might, to save them from mediocrity. I was barely scolded in print or online for holding my kids too close, or giving them the freedom to roam too far. And yogi-inspired social workers were no longer lecturing in hardcover on the importance of breathing or guilting me for failing to “live in the moment.” As a matter of fact, my work mailbox, once a reliable receptacle for the parenting books that publishers consistently claimed would herald a sea change in how we raise our children, went largely empty of such submissions in 2016.
Had they run out of ideas or experts to peddle them? Or perhaps parents had exhausted the wells of guilt necessary to move these books. Whatever the reason, for all its violence, discord, and political division, 2016 at least offered moms and dads a welcome break from the usual deluge of parenting style trends. It was instead the year where play, happiness, trust in our instincts, and lowered expectations—for our kids, and ourselves—dominated the school of thought.
The only book pushing another country’s parenting style this year came from Denmark. The Danish Way of Parenting was anti-earth shattering, and suggested intuitive techniques summed up in the acronym PARENT: Play, Authenticity, Reframing, Empathy, No ultimatums, and Togetherness. It stressed the value of play, having fun as a family, and self-awareness.
And third-child parenting became a thing this year—the philosophy distilled, it’s that you foster a relaxed home, confident parents, and more resilient, independent children by treating the kids, no matter the order of their appearance, as if they are your third. That is to say, with less attention, less fuss, and fewer expectations, than you would your precious first, and still-precious, but less so, second child.
Mia Freedman, an Aussie mother of three and founder of the women’s website Mamamia, boiled the philosophy down even further in a blog post on the third-child parenting style: “We have less time and we give fewer shits.”
With lower expectations came the rise of unstructured—even, some worry, dangerous—play, its American ruination chronicled in Hanna Rosin’s 2014 Atlantic piece, “The Overprotected Kid.” In 2016, an adventure playground appeared in New York City and a California dad transformed his home into a free playscape for the neighborhood’s children.
Parents also allowed themselves more freedom this year, even embracing the identity of the less-than-perfect caregiver. Bad Moms raked in $180 million at the box office this summer, not because it was a good film, but because as the mother of two middle-schoolers who felt like she was failing at everything despite her best efforts, Mila Kunis spoke to us. When Kunis rebelled, and stopped checking her kids homework or making healthy treats for the bake sale and went to a boozy brunch with friends instead, she was all of us.
When a well-meaning New York Times writer suggested parents create goody bags—filled with candy, earplugs, and perhaps a little thank-you note—to hand out to fellow passengers stuck on flights with “shrieking children and the parents who can’t or won’t keep them quiet,” the parents of 2016 roared back on social media.
AP reporter and parent Barbara Ortutay tweeted in response, “Can’t wait to sit next to this guy on the plane and hand him a goody bag. And by goody bag I mean a poopy diaper,” while Grey’s Anatomy creator and mother to three, Shonda Rimes, quipped: “FOOL ALERT: If you need a goody bag to ride a plane with a baby, then clearly YOU are the baby.”
It was this sense of “I’m doing my best and dammit, that’s good enough” that defined parenting blogs more than ever this year.
Parenting anti-hero Bunmi Laditan, a Canadian writer made famous for her Honest Toddler Twitter account, has endeared herself to half-a-million Facebook followers documenting her messy life as a single mom with posts like this:
“I've already failed in the cooking, laundry, playdate hosting, crafts, and normal two-parent home department when it comes to motherhood, but if my children grow up to be kind people who can say they felt loved and safe around me, I'll still feel like I succeeded.”
Thousands of likes and comments suggest parents appreciate the sentiment.
Similarly, Rachael Pavlik, 46, who lives in Texas and blogs honestly and unapologetically about life with her two children under the name RachRiot, said parents she knows and communicates with online are more real, realistic, and flexible than they ever have been.
“Some days days I’m super on top of it,” Pavlik said. “I’ve got all the forms signed and the cupcakes ready and sometimes I’m giving them some Ho Hos and sending them off to school. It depends on the day.
“I’ve had people tell me I’m a horrible mother, but overwhelmingly I get positive comments and responses. My kids laugh about it. And they’re still alive, so...”
Pavlik hopes writing like hers will continue to show other parents that their best is good enough, too.
“If your child is fed and in the bed by midnight, congratulations, you’ve done it,” she said.
Parental guilt is nothing new, of course. For as long as there have been children, there have been parents insecure in how to raise them and experts willing to show them the way. In her 2016 book, The End of American Childhood, University of California, Berkeley, professor Paula Fass charts the complete history of how American parents have sought and received advice, from the colonial period to the present day.
According to Fass, the nation’s first settlers turned to ministers for guidance on how to break the sinful will of their children. John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century reshaped the way we saw children: no longer just nuisances to colonial life, but as teachable, autonomous beings with innate wisdom and limitless potential—the special snowflakes we obsess over today. With that shift, along with advances in medicine and technology, mothers were soon consulting parenting magazines for the kind of information modern mothers seek: child safety, home remedies, infant feeding and sleeping, and eventually child psychology.
By the 20th century, Fass explains, doctors begin writing books on the subjects and by the 1920’s Parents Magazine was in full swing, its covers adorned with what could well be modern day headlines: “Is Being an Only Child a Handicap?” “Unspoiling the Spoiled Child,” “To Spank or Not to Spank,” and “How to Deal with Anger and Fear: If I were That Girl’s Mother!”
“That continues through the 20th century,” Fass told me, “but there’s nothing like the complete craziness we see now.” When asked about that craziness—today’s flood of parenting theories and styles—Fass said, “there’s no common thread in any of them. Except madness.”
Back in 1941, a Parents’ contributor, Marion LeBron, warned mothers that the advice they were digesting could cause more anxiety and urged them to “relax and enjoy” their children. Then came Dr. Benjamin Spock, the Yale and Columbia University-trained pediatrician who often eschewed professional opinion in favor of a mother’s old fashioned wisdom. Spock’s best-selling book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, began with the reassuring chapter, “Trust Yourself,” and the opening line, “You know more than you think you do.”
“We need a Dr. Spock right now,” Fass told me. “There used to be only so much opinion and advice that could come across the channels, now with the internet, it’s endless. Spock became the guru because he calmed the waters, which had been churned up in the 1920s. Right now it’s like mothers are being left on their own.”
Luckily for all of us, a rebirth of Dr. Spock’s way of thinking might not be so far off if this year—a time when the biggest waves in the parenting world came directly from mothers and fathers with a loving, common-sense, approach to nearly gimmick-free child-rearing.
So the parenting know-it-alls have stopped peddling the next new thing in child rearing and moms and dads aren’t trying and failing to be French, Tigers, Helicopters, Free range, Mindful, or Slow. And somehow 94 percent of mothers according to Pew, still manage to overwhelmingly agree that we’re doing a good or very good job raising our children. It’s almost enough to look back on 2016 as a time when parents rejected the experts and reclaimed their own Spockian common sense.
But not so fast, says Blair Koenig, a Brooklynite who has since 2009 painstakingly chronicled the nation's most unbearable, sanctimonious, finger-wagging parents at her blog, STFU, Parents. Experts may have lost some power, but the next threat may just be from within our own ranks.
“The reception to less-than-perfect parenting styles has been more positive,” she said, “but I think parents can champion ‘common sense’ parenting and still be insufferable. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
“Both are still well-represented on Facebook, according to my email inbox.”