When my daughter was little, books and magazines were the main way I learned about parenting, and I read everything I could. Penelope Leach’s and Berry Brazelton’s books became dog-eared and hyper-highlighted. Nowadays, there are any number of ways that we can acquire, take in and put parenting information to use.
Certain forms, like classes and lectures or one-on-one mentoring though, often carry a dogmatic tone (my classes included), and frequently trigger out-sized emotional reactions in parents. Self-condemnation is sometimes the unintended result: “I’m such a horrible parent.” “How could I not know that?” “How could I do that?” “How could I be so stupid?” A better orientation with respect to acquiring and using parenting information might be: instead of using it for self-flagellation, use it in the service of becoming a pedotrophist.
“Won’t I get arrested and be required to register on some Community Offenders list?” you might ask. The answer is No. A pedotrophist is simply someone exceptionally skilled in the rearing of children. Think of it as a person who has mastered “parentcraft.”
A Dearth of Pedotrophy
A cursory examination of course offerings in colleges around the country finds approximately zero institutions of higher learning offering degrees in parenting, arguably the most important subject area human beings can research and practice. There are courses and degrees in child development, and developmental psychology, and pediatrics as a medical specialty, but no specific degrees in pedotrophy. If you Google pedotrophy, you get a paltry 2000 hits, most of them links to online dictionaries.
One possible reason for this subject lack in universities is because of academic arguments over just how much real power parents supposedly have over kids. One camp has historically argued that it was mostly nature that was responsible for how kids turned out, the other that it was mostly nurture. That dichotomy however, misses the point, not only because it’s a false one, but I don’t think the answer can ever really be known. Both nature and nurture operate in different degrees and in different ways at every developmental stage.
A better perspective might be one that asks: how can I become the best pedotrophist I can be? And what benefits might result? I can think of many. As Geoffrey Canada did when he started Baby College, presumably in response to this educational lack.
Pedotrophist parents would be wide open to the possibility that they don’t know what they don’t know, that is, open to the reality of our own ignorance. (Decades after my daughter was born I’m still learning new things about skillful parenting). They would, for example, be willing to face down the “fallacy of similar effect,” which is the often unconscious, mistaken notion that things work in kids the same way they work in adults. As obvious as it might seem, kids are not simply little adults, yet how often do we unwittingly treat them as if they are?
Mothering Well Makes You Smarter
One benefit of becoming a pedotrophist is that mothering well (by either parent) appears to make you smarter and protects against suicide. If we can generalize from animals about this fundamental function, maternal behavior triggers the development of new neurons; and in the brain, more is generally better. It’s apparently especially beneficial for boys. Based upon my own experience as a new father, my engagement and effectiveness in the world increased significantly once my daughter was born. I had someone besides my wife and myself to operate in the world on behalf of.
Thwarting the Barker Hypothesis
Another benefit that would very likely result from becoming a pedotrophist is that parents would protect kids from becoming victims of the Barker Hypothesis. The Barker Hypothesis was named in the 1980s after the epidemiologist, David Barker. Barker set the stage for establishing the field of bioarcheology when he postulated that lifespan and adult diseases originate in stressed fetal development and/or in troubled early childhoods. Without good parental guidance, research seems to suggest that abused and/or neglected kids are destined for a life of pain. By beginning in the nursery, parents can create the conditions to optimize brain function all the way down the road into old age.
According to Boston neuropsychiatrist and political activist, Bessel van der Kolk, the greatest terrorist threat to America isn’t from Al Queda. It’s from parents who deliberately or unwittingly do damage to their children, damage evidenced by the Barker Hypothesis. That damage negatively affects them throughout their lives, and few ever realize the roots of their difficulties lie in the nursery.
Spreading Acts of Kindness
Finally, parents working to become pedotrophists would teach their kids that it’s lucky to talk to strangers, and they would teach them which strangers are safe and lucky to talk to. Such parents would also learn about and understand what medical sociologists at Harvard have recently come to realize: that spreading acts of kindness has a large multiplier effect and that it only takes a handful of people, even kids or strangers, to make a huge positive difference in the world. And as technologies like Facebook and Twitter and their offspring connect us together more and more, that multiplier effect will be multiplied! Isn’t that possibility alone, worth inspiring us to all become pedotrophists?