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Does the ‘No-Weird Shit’ Rule for Parenting Work?

Put down the flashcards, pops: there’s a new approach to parenting that will solve all your anxieties about this little human you’re raising and cut you an enormous amount of slack. Called the No Weird-Shit Rule, the idea is that, barring abusive behavior physically, sexually or emotionally, most of how your kid turns out has very little to do with anything you actually do or don’t do, and that things will be fine. More than fine. Great even! So stop sweating the big stuff or the small stuff. Feed that preschool application into the paper shredder. As long as you’re not a total monster, whether your kid is going to be a rock star or a rock collector is pretty much out of your hands.

This is the essence of a piece over at Slate by writer/father-of-a-daughter Daniel Engber, who argues that science has proven (largely via twin studies that demonstrate who we are is mostly up to luck, quirks, and DNA) we’re nowhere near as influential as we think we are in our kids’ lives unless we really go out of our way to mess with them. Engber writes:

Let’s talk about the weird-shit rule of parenting. It’s a principle that I just made up. Here’s the gist: Provided that you have the means to satisfy your child’s basic needs, and assuming that you aren’t acting in a way that’s flagrantly abusive, the only way to really change her life — to alter her nature, for better or worse — is to do some weird, outrageous shit. I don’t know exactly what that shit would be. I guess it could be pretending that your baby’s French, or depriving her of toys, or suspending her inside a window cage. (To be honest, even that shit might not be weird enough to make a difference in the long run.) But otherwise, in the absence of weird shit, the weird-shit rule stipulates that as long as you love your kids in more or less the way that normal parents do, and try your best to be benign, you’ll be pretty much irrelevant.

What a relief. The no weird-shit rule sounds like most kids can raise themselves. And it’s perfectly calibrated toward (white, successful, worrying) people who feel a lot of anxiety over whether they have correctly set their kids up for success. It’s a liberating pass, for instance, on sweating whether or not to enroll my kid in Japanese lessons. It’s permission to stop overthinking the sexist media she consumes. To no longer worry about whether or not her public school is as challenging as it should be. It’s also just a great way to not have to examine my behavior too much toward her, because if whatever I do or say doesn’t really matter, I can just be the laziest version of myself so long as I mean well. Right?

If this “lol nothing matters” approach to parenting sounds familiar in its hands-off approach, it’s because you’ve likely heard about it before. Free-range parenting and its stories of sending 7 year olds alone onto city buses has a similar fuck-it, carry-on attitude about fretting over your parenting choices too much. CTFD — short for Calm the Fuck Down — was a viral sensation a few years back that advocated for giving zero fucks in the taking yourself seriously department of parenting. The philosophy from David Vienna — satirical yet, let’s be honest, totally earnest, too — barked at parents everywhere that they should simply calm down about whether their kid had learned the alphabet or anything else. What’s more, they could be assured that “whichever way you choose to parent — your child will be fine (as long as you don’t abuse them, of course.)”

The problem is, that’s really easy to say when you have enough means to basically make sure your kid fails up. Engber admits as much, noting that you do need a lot of privilege to relax and stop giving a shit. Probably good for you to be in a good school district too. And to have safe water. And to not have to deal with like, racism. So then the no weird-shit rule starts getting slowly whittled down to something like this: So long as you don’t do anything super weird or shitty to your kid, and you have money, and the kid is white, and the water’s safe, and the school is decent — THEN you can stop caring, because they will be fine.

Ha, yeah thanks, we know. It’s called privilege.

The other problem with these too-cool-to-care-too much philosophies is that they are wrong. There is an entire gray zone of terrible behaviors you can model for a child without outright abusing them that turn them into jerks. Attachment theory alone sheds some light on this notion. Think how many people you know who weren’t actually abused or anything, but who weren’t bonded to their parents in a strong healthy way, and as a result are broken weirdos who struggle to maintain real intimacy? Exactly — almost everyone.

Assuming a kid has basic needs met and turns out like they turn out, they still may have a whole host of issues to confront and unpack throughout their lives that will actually make them and those around them miserable. And no one has to smack them around, either. And it will definitely be your fault. There’s a reason why authoritative parenting produces the most successful children: It’s a measurably better way to raise a kid than the other approaches. So why bother pretending we don’t know any better and it doesn’t make a difference? We do, and it does.

There are so many ways to fuck a person up while still trying to love them, including never showing them how to resolve conflict, or always solving all their problems for them, or modeling that being dishonest is okay, or actually just praising them way too much. Many of the most insufferable people you know are non-abused, badly raised people.

That sounds really bleak, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Parenting is not a question of whether or not you’ll fuck up your kid in some way, it’s a question of how. You encourage total autonomy and independence in your kid? Robbed of their childhoods, they will grow up to be Adult Baby Fetishists who spend their after work hours in adult diapers shitting and talking in baby speak. Permissive with alcohol because you believe in being the cool parent? Enjoy those future letters from rehab.

You don’t know, and you can’t win. So instead of looking for pat, oversimplified philosophies that free us of the very work parenting requires, we should probably just work toward accepting that there is never an easy parenting approach that won’t mean a lot of worrying and fear. That we can’t know what our kids will really turn out like, or how their future relationships will go (or ours with them, even). There are no guarantees. Wanting to do the right thing doesn’t ensure a positive outcome in anything in life, much less raising a person.

That doesn’t mean that nothing you do is going to make a difference. It’s the opposite: It will all make a difference, it’s just you can’t predict which kind of difference. Sorry.

But make no mistake: You will most certainly pass on some low-simmering bullshit your child may spend their life trying to sort out, just like you are doing right now thanks to your parents. But that’s not so bad, right? Making your kid your own very special blend of fucked up is what it means to be human. We can call that “fine,” or we can just accept that it’s terrible and wonderful, like everything else.