None of them suckas!
What’s your parenting style? Are you an attachment parent, free-range parent, a gender-neutral parent, or a tiger parent? The answer says a lot about the expecting adult but very little about how that baby is going to fare. At the core, it doesn’t really matter how you parent your baby. You can be there for every whimper or give them room. You can give them all the toys or none of the toys. You can invest time, money, energy, and a great deal of stress into following parenting advice. None of it will make a difference.
The fact is that babies are designed to be largely immune to parenting styles. They will grow and develop regardless of what a parent does, as long as a parent is there and responsive at least half of the time. The proof of this lies in the history of parenting norms and the enormous diversity of cultural parenting practices around the globe. So why are Americans so stuck on the idea that good parenting is so essential for raising healthy babies?
“There’s a huge diversity in cultures, and subcultures within cultures, that provide their infants and young children with vastly different experiences,” says psychologist Richard Aslin, a Senior Scientist at Haskins Laboratories and previously the Director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging and the Rochester Baby Lab. “And yet, 99.9 percent are going to reach an age at which they are going to walk. The progression that they will go through is really different from culture to culture.”
How babies learn to walk isn’t a random consideration. Walking is linked to how a child develops physically as well as intellectually because the ability to move and explore has been linked to intellectual skills like language development. In her article titled The Road to Walking: What Learning to Walk Tells Us About Development, researcher Dr. Karen Adolfof of NYU’s Infant Action Laboratory puts it like this:
“In science, literature, art and religion, walking upright separates child from infant, man from beast, freedom from slavery and moral righteousness from turpitude. It is no accident that so much of our developmental iconography depicts upright locomotion as the exalted endpoint on the road to developmental progress”
Walking is an essential milestone in child development. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what you do as a parent to get a kid to walk. The evidence is found around the world. A study from 1976 found that babies in some tribes in Kenya learned to walk a month earlier than peers in industrialized nations (somewhere around 10 to 11 months) largely because they were taught to do so by parents through concerted teaching and practice. American babies, on the other hand, generally learn to walk between 12 and 16 months of age. Then there are babies in rural areas of Tajikistan, who are often bound in restrictive cradles called gahvoras for the first 24 months of life and therefore do not learn to walk until much later compared to their Western counterparts. Three extremely different parenting cultures lead to three exactly similar outcomes. The kids walk.
There is an incredible tendency for babies to grow in much the same way, regardless of where they are or the cultural traditions that inform how parents interact with their offspring. That’s true, even when the interaction is ugly and unhealthy.
Children will often lie to protect abusive parents and will happily return to them despite the abuse. “The ability to bond with a caregiver is such a strong biological imperative that once a bond is formed — even with an abuser — it is difficult to break,” Dr. Regina Sullivan notes in a 2010 article published in Cerebrum. “And the devastation resulting from abuse often will not become fully apparent until the child is well into adolescence.”
These children may grow to become adults suffering from depression and substance abuse issues later in life, but they do not stop developing early on. “Children are incredibly resilient. They are so resilient that they love their abusing parents,” Aslin says. “It’s interesting that they have this incredible ability to adapt to their environmental circumstances and become fully functioning adults.”
That’s clearly an extreme example, but it makes the point: babies grow, and they grow regardless of parenting styles, good or bad. That would seem that babies are less a problem to be solved than a problem that can largely solve itself.