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Parental Tribalism: Natural Parenting Under Attack

Posted Dec 02 2010 12:00am
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Photo:   Attribution Some rights reserved by  tibchris What parenting tribe do you belong to?

What parenting tribe do you belong to?

Yesterday, I came across an article that angered me.  I contemplated the author’s allegations, which were directed at natural parenting advocates like myself.   I thought of some of the comments we have received over the years on controversial posts accusing our writers of being judgmental and inflexible.

The Skeptical OB wrote “Parenting-Based Cliques Can Hurt Kids” on Opposing Views :

The idea of ‘parental tribalism’ … [is] descriptive of a tendency among individuals to form their identities through the way they parent, or perhaps more precisely, through differentiating themselves from the way some parents parent and identifying with others.

…Parental tribalism involves constructing an identity around parental choices, or rather constructing an identity centered on differentiating themselves from parents who make different choices. It is perhaps not coincidental that, the leading publication in the “natural” parenting community, refers to its individual message boards, each denoting a different parenting choice, as “tribes”, thereby highlighting differences and encouraging the construction of maternal identity around these differences.

A tribe is defined as, “a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.”  Although belonging to a tribe does differentiate one, it is also a unifying experience.  I have a hard time with the negativity expressed above by Skeptical OB in regards to tribal relationships, whether referring to indigenous people or parenting types.

The opinions and facts expressing the benefits of natural parenting techniques, including natural birth, are intended to share experiences and encourage others in their pursuits of this parenting style.

It is true I have received a couple of emails over the years of readers telling me why they will no longer read Eco Child’s Play based on one post, failing to see that we try to represent a gamut of natural parenting perspectives.  One particularly angry email over a breastfeeding post was sent by a gay couple who obviously could not breastfeed their adoptive child.  They failed to see they could still belong to our tribe and not breastfeed :)

If there is such a thing as a green parenting tribe, it is not the sort of clique described by Skeptical OB.

Strikingly, many of these choices, although they appear to concern the well being of children, are really about the self image of parents. As Macvarish explains:

…[T]the focus on identities reflects adult needs for security and belonging and, although the child appears to be symbolically central, in fact ‘the cultural politics of parents’ self-definition have eclipsed a concern with the needs of children.I have often said that homebirth, for example, is not about babies, and it is not even about birth. Homebirth is about mothers, their experiences, their needs and their desires.

As with all forms of tribalism, parental tribalism leads to conflicts:

[T]there is a frailty and sometimes hostility in real or imagined encounters between parents, where the parenting behaviour of one can either reinforce or threaten the identity of another. What is noticeable in contemporary mothers’ descriptions of their parenting experiences is that many feel stigmatised or assume a defensive stance about their parenting choices, even those apparently making officially sanctioned choices. For example, some breastfeeding mothers express the view that society still sees breastfeeding as abnormal, despite the fact that they are very much swimming with the tide of official advice …

Websites and publications concerned with attachment parenting, natural childbirth, homebirth and lactivism emphasize and encourage this hostility. There is an almost paranoid certainty that other mothers are watching and criticizing. The resultant defensiveness is the true source of the hostility. By aggressively promoting their own choices, aggressively demeaning the choices of other mothers, and aggressively insisting that anyone who makes different choices is implicitly criticizing them, advocates of attachment parenting, homebirth, lactivism, etc. encourage the very conflicts that they claim to deplore.

These conflicts do not benefit children, anyone’s children, in any way. That’s not surprising since it’s not about children, but about parental self image. Indeed, constructing identity around parenting choices has the potential to harm children, by ignoring the actual needs of children in favor of promoting the mother’s sense of security and belonging.

Clearly, there is a lack of understanding expressed above about what, for instance, attachment parenting is about.  Any natural parenting practice, including home birth,  is mutually beneficial to both mother and child.  It does not have to be the sole benefit of one at the cost of the other.  In fact, that doesn’t even make sense.  Not a single green parenting website I have read has ever ignored the “actual needs of children”.

It is true that sometimes parents do feel defensive over not breastfeeding or having a cesarean, for example, but those are personal feelings.  When we feel insecure about our choices or when life has dealt us the unavoidable, we feel defensive.  It’s not a healthy feeling, and it can occur for any experience.

I have taken deep breaths; I have let my anger go.  Eco Child’s Play is not under attack by Skeptical OB unless I perceive it as such.  It is an opinion I don’t agree with nor wish to validate by taking offense.

Of course, I feel like a better parent because I practice natural parenting, but that is because it matches my ideals.  It models the values I want my children to learn.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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