Parents Do What’s Right for Them, Not for the Kids

Differences in parenting styles have more to do with personal history than any objective scientific "fact"

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Peter Bohler for TIME

Dr Bill Sears examines 11-month old Sydney Rose Tamulis, who is laying on the lap of her mother, Samantha Tamulis

We like to think that the choices we make early on as parents — cry it out vs. co-sleeping, stroller vs. sling and so on — reflect deep truths about what’s best for our children. But they don’t. What these decisions do reflect, however, whether we want to admit it or not, are pretty deep-seated facts about ourselves. Our parenting preferences matter deeply to us  — they boost our self-esteem, or perhaps soothe and heal us from having been parented in a way that didn’t meet our needs.

Few parents will readily admit to such a selfish-sounding, unscientific-seeming truth. And yet, as Kate Pickert points out in her piece “The Man Who Remade Motherhood,” William and Martha Sears have made no secret of the fact that it’s their own childhood histories — paternal abandonment in his case, severe mental illness in the family, plus anger, violence and loss in hers — that have been the major drivers of the separation-avoiding, conflict-resolving attachment-parenting philosophy they’ve spread to millions of families around the globe. According to Ann Hulbert, author of the 2003 book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, every single prominent parenting “expert” from the 2oth century has a similar story of either reaction against or reverence for their own parents to tell and all similarly wove those subjective experiences into iron-clad theories they believed to be based on scientific “fact.”

(MORE: The Science Behind Dr. Sears: Does It Stand Up?)

Pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt, whose 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children was one of the first highly influential how-to parenting guides written by a nonreligious leader, was a farm boy with a distant father and a devoted, highly vigilant mother who inspired his deep belief that motherhood should be a practice of exquisitely regulated rules and schedules with as little kissing and coddling as possible. Dr. Benjamin Spock, on the other hand, rebelled against the “emotional austerity” of his Holt-inspired upbringing by spinning a new theory of idyllic, warmly connected American home life.

All of which means that the major pendulum swings between hierarchical and egalitarian American parenting styles over the past century have had more to do with the largely undigested inner stuff of the (almost exclusively) men whose theories drove the changes than they did with any outside realities drawn from an actual body of scientific fact. They had, for that matter, little to do with the experiences of mothers who, as the century advanced, lived increasingly complicated lives.

(MORE: How Feminism Begat Intensive Mothering)

That’s why Spock, who believed he was empowering mothers with his famous dictum “Trust yourself,” came to be rejected in the 1970s as a purveyor of the worst kind of old-time psychoanalytic paternalism. That’s why William Sears, for all his insistence on flexibility and admonitions to “do the best you can with the resources you have,” strikes so many of us as impossibly demanding for any woman who wants or simply needs to keep out-of-home work a viable part of her life. Like Sigmund Freud himself, like all the men who have labored over the centuries to tell us who we are and why we do what we do, those who take it upon themselves to define good mothering practice have ended up telling us a whole lot more about themselves — what they want or lack, what did or didn’t happen for them as children — than about the nature of motherhood. And whether or not we decide to follow their advice similarly tells us more about our own subjective needs than what we think are the needs of our children.

MORE: Cover Story: The Man Who Remade Motherhood

MORE: TIME’s Complete Coverage on Attachment Parenting