“I can do it myself!” my three-year-old constantly screams at me. No matter the task – from buckling his car seat chest clip to climbing on the jungle gym – he wants his mother to do nothing more than observe from a distance. He hardly ever needs me.
That is, until he does.
When he can’t get the clips lined up just right, or a slide ends up being scarier than he expects, he calls for me to come help him complete the task. I’m happy to step back when he needs space to explore his own strengths and weaknesses, and I'm just as happy to jump in when I can be of assistance.
But when it comes to turning to our own parents for help – especially with parenting – many of us are far more reluctant.
Just like I do with my bulk diaper orders, I frequently find myself turning to the internet for parenting-related needs. Advice, companionship, and the latest recommendations from professional health organizations are only a few clicks away. While my parents are a stable source of support for me, they aren’t typically awake at 3 a.m. to answer questions like, “Are BPA-free sippy cups safe for toddlers?”
I’m far from alone in this trend. More and more parents are turning to the internet and social media for parenting advice, leaving behind the centuries-old tradition of seeking help from their own mothers. One study found that Millennial parents were twice as likely to seek out information on the internet than to ask advice from other people. Another Pew Research Center study found that 75 percent of parents reported using social media for parenting-related information and social support.
I’ve definitely done the latter. My mother lives 2,000 miles and two time zones away – she isn’t likely to know if the playground down the street is still closed for repairs, but a quick post on Facebook will get me answers almost immediately. Parents raising young children today belong to a generation more mobile than any before it, meaning many are raising their own children far away from familial support.
But while proximity may be a factor, generational differences may be driving young parents' skepticism about turning to their own parents for advice. According to research presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academics Societies, grandparents tend to use the same childcare practices they did when they were parenting, even though outdated methods may be dangerous.
Nearly a quarter of grandparents surveyed in the study were not aware that infants should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Two-thirds of grandparents did not know that wounds heal better with a bandage, and 44 percent still believed that ice baths were a suitable remedy for very high fevers.
Today’s parents have the benefit of more research into children’s health and safety than ever before, but the recommendations and advice are often difficult to keep up with. Grandparents, most of whom have not raised an infant for several years, are less likely to be familiar with current recommendations, meaning any parent today who has left their baby with his or her grandparents has also likely left an instruction list that looked like this:
"If they take a nap, make sure she goes to sleep on her backs - NOT her stomach or side. And absolutely nothing in the crib with her either. No, not blankets. Definitely not stuffed animals. And if you absolutely have to go somewhere – make sure the car seat is rear-facing. Nevermind, I’ll put the car seat in for you. Actually, just please don’t go anywhere. And definitely no juice in her bottle, and please no sneaking her bites of food. And try to keep her away from the TV while you are at it."
To which every grandparent has responded (out loud or in their head): “I raised you just fine, didn’t I?”
Before we start arguing that we were lucky to survive the parenting practices of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, we must admit there is a downside to our increased reliance on peers and the internet. A survey in Time Magazine found 58 percent of Millennials found the amount of parenting information available to be somewhat, very, or extremely overwhelming, compared to 43 percent of Baby Boomers. A study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that – unsurprisingly – many websites offered inaccurate information. For example, only 43 percent of 1,300 websites examined for their information on infant sleep contained recommendations in line with the American Academy of Pediatric’s guidelines. And while blogs or social media might be a fine place to find information about diapers that don’t leak, when it comes to advice on topics such as vaccination the information available can range from misleading to downright dangerous.
While grandparents might not be the best source for up-to-date scientific recommendations, they can offer the benefit of experience. Brooke Scelza, an anthropologist researching breastfeeding practices in Namibia, found that women from the Himba ethnic group isolated from modern cities called were more likely to breastfeed than women in the United States. But that’s not because they find it easier – instead, most benefit from the help of their mothers and other women in the early days.
Any trip through parenting message boards in the U.S. will reveal topic after topic with titles such as, “How to Say No to Visitors After Birth” or “No Grandparents Immediately After Birth; How to Tell Them.” The conventional wisdom that parents need time alone to bond with their newborn, rather than hosting guests, might set new mothers up for isolation, even as it aims to protect them from unhelpful visitors who leave behind more dishes than sage advice.
Of course, not all new mothers have warm relationships with their own parents. And the “I did it this way and you turned out just fine” line can certainly cause a new parent to question her own instincts. But while the internet may be able to offer the most up to date parenting advice, it lacks the warmth of in-person support from someone who cares about you.
Today’s parents face a host of worries that ours did not – from pesticides in food to BPA in drink cups to how to filter out an excess of information. Still, it can’t hurt to pick up the phone and say, “Mom, what did you do when I just wouldn’t stop crying?”
If nothing else, it might help to hear someone say, “I don’t remember. But you turned out just fine.”