Parenting 101?


After four children, I've learned to give far less gratuitous parenting advice than I did following the birth of my first. Twelve years ago, when my oldest was a newborn, I secretly thought my child-rearing methods and philosophies were foolproof. Now, I freely admit to being completely stymied by a 3-year-old who doesn't see any particularly reason to use the potty.

As the children became old enough to provide verbal feedback, I also realized what seemed to work at the time wasn't as effective as we had hoped it would be. One would think that being in science would have better prepared us for the sudden paradigm shifts that require reinterpretation of everything we thought we understood (and this is even prior to puberty!) At least for us, though, parenting style has been part philosophy and part serendipity. It's amazing we've been able to actually manage parenting and career.

Attachment Parenting Tendencies

Looking back there is a pronounced contrast between the infancies of my first and fourth children. My oldest was born while I was between postdoc grants and my husband was in graduate school; he had a fairly conventional babyhood. We yielded to the baby book experts and insisted he sleep through the night alone in a crib, despite some heartbreaking cries. Necessity required a sitter, and he went, not especially happily, to a lovely woman who watched other children.

My husband and I both had latent "attachment parenting" tendencies and under the circumstances did try to be as child-centered as possible. We staggered our work hours and brought him with us to the university when we could to minimize his time apart from us. We tried to reserve evenings and weekends for baby time. As most postdoc mothers probably do, however, I did occasionally resort to reading papers while my little one was nursing or climbing on the playground.

I couldn't bring myself to be separated from him during trips, so we went to scientific meetings as a family (a factor which did tend to hinder my professional travel). My son compliantly went to his new sitter and preschool through the years although I did wonder why other parents claimed their children "loved" preschool. He wasn't visibly upset when I left him there, but then I couldn't say whether he loved or even liked it.

When we moved to my current job a few years ago, life became more convenient. We live in a small townhouse, within biking distance from campus. I am happy and remain extremely grateful that it is a teaching college without intense research expectations. It has a low-key environment where most colleagues smile when children come to work. However, having a family does hinder me to some degree. The "short" 90-minute, one-way drive to use equipment is not an option when I have a class at 1 p.m. and a sitter to meet at 5 p.m.

On the other hand, my daughter, born a year and a half after I began this position, was not compliant, and if we had not already believed in "attachment parenting" she would have insisted on it. She had her own (strong) personality and left an impression on many a sitter. After two different child care providers resigned within a month (violating the "book" advice that infants can't tell and don't care who is holding them), she was permanently attached to me.

We did not have many options at the time because we were relative strangers in a small town, so whether she was nursing, sling-riding, or both, she came to work with me. My daughter would not sleep alone and ended up in the family bed with us--with 8 a.m. classes to teach, I had no energy to head down the hall several times a night to settle her into a crib. Even so, the permanent daze caused by sleep deprivation made it difficult for me to focus on research, so I couldn't overachieve by working long hours as many young faculty do.

Stay-at-Home Dad

After finally finding a female sitter she liked, the sitter unexpectedly moved away, so during a family discussion, my husband decided to give up his job and become a stay-at-home dad. He made the sacrifice for the family because he was not really satisfied with his employment opportunities as a freelance fruit fly geneticist. I don't think it was an unavoidable choice, and certainly things might have been different in a larger town with more resources. Since we had started home-schooling the oldest, this move made life much easier all around. Now, with three children being home-schooled, it is hard to imagine any other way.

Sometimes I wonder if children three and four were cheated out of an official "infancy." We never decorated a nursery or set up a crib. Instead of investing in the latest from Babies R Us, we rummaged baby clothes and toys from the closet. Although they were always with or on me while I was home, they didn't have my undivided attention. They had to ride along in the sling to soccer games and dance class as extra baggage. Rather than having them the center of attention during long weekends, they were the "stars" only for special half-hours.

On the other hand, their home environment was so much richer. We had more advanced books, interesting places to go, complex games to learn, musical instruments, and--sometimes--doting older siblings. Partly as a philosophy and partly as a function of lack of time, the little ones learned, not by mastering "infancy" and then moving on to the next level, but by being part of the family community from the beginning.

I think conceptualizing child development in terms of community is very similar to the apprenticeship process that occurs in science. Students learn not by taking a class on "how to do research" but by being part of the research community, joined together in a common pursuit. Perhaps we as a family have always leaned towards an integrated approach, but the philosophies and practices have become more established over time.

Although my oldest did experience a more structured and out-of-the-home life than my youngest, I couldn't swear that the varying experiences made them different. I can't say one was lucky and the other deprived. What I can say is that parenting, regardless of the family background, requires patience and a lot of work. Being scientists didn't give us an advantage over other parents. The necessary ingredient, love, was present and continues to bind us as a family.

Kathryn Toy Knecht, Ph.D., is an associate professor of toxicology in the department of pharmaceutical and biomedical science at Ohio Northern University in Ada. She may be reached at

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