Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; there’s no right or wrong way to parent. It’s a common refrain that there is no parenting instruction manual, usually told to soon to be or brand new parents. But as our third child gets older, I’ve realized that even the things that worked for the first ones, the twins, don’t apply to the youngest, and we have to just make it up as we go. There’s no guidebook because the same things don’t necessarily work for other children, and many times, don’t even work at different times for the same child.
The key to parenting must therefore be adaptability. Different things work at different times in different situations. For someone with a scientific and analytical mind like me, this can be incredibly frustrating as the same thing can result in completely different outcomes in different times. The feedback look can also be so long that there’s no way to even measure or assess how something worked until much later when it’s too late to do it differently. Some things about parenting get easier with additional children, but sometimes, apparently, it’s all just different and what makes it easiest is accepting and embracing that difference.
My coworkers with children sometimes ask for advice. Usually it’s about sleep training, getting infants to eat, or simply living with and surviving toddlers and preschoolers. I usually start sharing my perspective based entirely on what worked for us before I realize it isn’t resonating at all with them because the situations are entirely different. While my twins were huge pains about going to sleep when they were toddlers, our youngest goes to bed very easily and sleeps like a log until he wakes up singing in the morning. If kids from the same family can be this different, of course other people’s kids will be as well. What works for us isn’t all that likely to work for them. Even the twins need different things at different times, demonstrating just how much difference there can be between kids.
Each kid also changes frequently, so what works one day may not work the next. Our youngest was horrible to get to sleep for his first six weeks or so. He just refused to lay down and hated being separated. Even rocking him vigorously in the rock and play did nothing to calm him or get him to sleep. We discovered the magic effect the rockers had on the twins around their 6th week, and while I had to develop new muscles to rock constantly with both rockers, the two of them were incredible about sleeping in them and it later translated to them falling asleep easily in the stroller, especially when moving. Neither worked at all for the youngest.
Instead, around the six week mark, something flipped and he just accepted that he would sleep in his crib and fall asleep almost immediately after reading books. Now at two, it’s still pretty much the same. While we used to be able to just walk out of the room and let him fall asleep, these days he wants us to stay for a moment or two, sit in the rocking chair while he settles, and then we’re free to go. For a few days while we figured out that he only wanted us to stay briefly, we flashed back to the twins who made us sit in their room for hours until they fell asleep and we could quietly sneak out. As long as we let him tuck in one of his stuffed animal friends first, the youngest is happy to let us out of sight right away.
As easy as he makes bedtime, it’s the rest of the day where he really challenges us and shows that a completely different approach is needed. The twins were pretty easy to deal with while playing. Since they always had each other, they would be occupied in a small space with just a few toys. We used to be able to stick them in the playpen for a while and they would stay completely occupied. Even when bigger, they were content to play together in the living room while we could actually get some other things done.
The youngest hated the playpen, would throw everything out of it, then try to flip himself out of it. He will play by himself periodically, but it always feels like an unexpected miracle when he does and we can’t rely on it happening so that we can do other things. He is obsessed with his brothers and just wants to play with them all of the time. While they usually indulge this, there are times when they want to play alone or build something that he can’t be trusted with, so emotions erupt. While the two of them understood what no meant, even if they didn’t always listen at first, he thinks being yelled at is hilarious and purposely keeps going. Nothing short of running over to him and stopping him actually works, which doesn’t bode well for his discipline when he’s older.
However, having the third child really showed me just how little some of the things we obsessed over early with the twins really don’t matter. Of course sleep training and healthy eating are important, but the level to which we obsessed with measured everything and the degree to which I tried to micro-manage every aspect of their sleep schedule is laughable now in retrospect. Maybe it’s just another area in which he’s different, but the youngest pretty much fell into the right patterns early on with far less work from us. Though the twins did tend to try more different food, he pretty much refuses anything green or not a carb. But the twins flipped this as they got older anyway and while they’re still pretty adventurous eaters, they periodically turn down things they used to eat regularly. Maybe the third will completely change and eat more than crackers and pasta when he’s their age.
So now, when other parents ask me for advice, I still tell them what we did and what worked and didn’t. But now, I also tell them how much everything about parenting is pretty much dumb luck and a combination of trying and seeing what works. There’s no perfect way to parent, or even a way that’s necessarily going to work more than once. Sometimes a strong willed consistency is most needed and continuing to enforce the same rules again and again may seem like it has no effect until all of a sudden one day everything changes. Other times though, if it doesn’t work the first time, something entirely different is needed. Good luck figuring out which one it is though.
Every parent seems to make the same joke about the minute they leave the hospital after giving birth and how for the first time, they’re just on their own with no rules, limited guidance, and have to just figure out how to raise a human being for years. If my experience proves anything, and it may not, it’s that the reason for this is because you just have to try and keep trying different things. No one’s experience will be exactly the same, and so what works for someone else, or even works the first time, may not work for you or work again. But the secret of it all is that no one actually knows what they’re doing, despite outward appearances or a well curated Instagram feed. Everyone is just making it up as they go too. So don’t feel bad if it feels like there are days you have no clue what to do. Because often, none of the rest of us do either.