7 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Call It Alternative Parenting

by Sabrina Joy Stevens

When it comes to parenting, there really is no one right answer. There are a few wrong ones, to be sure beating our kids, starving them, or letting them turn into Caillou all come to mind but overall, there are many ways to go about ensuring that our kids are safe, healthy, and happy as they grow into adulthood. That's why we honestly need to stop calling certain parenting decisions "alternative."

Though there have been various kinds of parenting that have been considered "mainstream" over the years, the parenting subcultures I most often hear referred to as "alternative" parenting styles tend to be the ones that some folks might describe as being kind of "hippie-ish" in nature: moms who intentionally plan to birth outside of hospitals; moms who breastfeed beyond six months or a year; folks who babywear, especially if they do so more than they use a stroller or continue to do so well into toddlerhood; parents who co-sleep or use a family bed, especially past early infancy; free range parents; unschooling parents, and so on and so forth.

Even though these parenting choices might be relatively less common in our society (or at least, not as widely shown in the media and held up as "normal"), there are still so many different kinds of parents that it's hard to say there's any set mainstream, so it's even harder to say that anyone who isn't that is "alternative." Plus, "alternative" has a strange connotation in this context. It sounds like an attempt to politely say that someone is weird or wrong, without having to come right out and say that they're weird or wrong. But judgment by any other name, is still judgment. For that reason, and the following others, I think it's a good idea to just ditch the "alternative parenting" label, altogether.

Because "Alternative" Could Mean Anything

When someone uses the word "alternative" as a set term to describe something, I'm immediately confused. "Alternative" just means "one of two or more available possibilities," and since there are nearly infinite possibilities when it comes to parenting styles (or any lifestyle choice), how am I supposed to know which one they're talking about without more information?

Because There Shouldn't Be One “Mainstream” Way To Parent

Like I said above, there are nearly infinite possibilities when it comes to parenting styles. But typically, whatever is embraced by the most powerful people (in our society, middle- and upper-class white families) is positioned as "mainstream." That's highly problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, they don't all necessarily always agree on what parenting "should" look like (hence the seemingly endless "Mommy Wars" being waged in the media and elsewhere). Moreover, if whatever they agree on is considered the mainstream, then everyone else who makes "alternative" choices is at risk of being judged or even punished for doing something else. Instead of arbitrarily creating a "mainstream" and an "alternative," we should just embrace all kinds of parenting that result in well-loved, happy, healthy kids.

Because Most So-Called “Alternative” Parenting Choices Are The Norm Almost Everywhere Else

The idea that it is the "norm" for families to inhabit single-family homes, with enough rooms and beds for each child to have their own, is completely at odds with the experience of most people throughout human history, including many here in the present-day United States. Likewise, while baby formula, strollers, cribs and the like are all useful, legitimate, and even life-saving inventions, they're not universally available, nor have they been around forever. Same goes for age-graded schools, parenting done solely within nuclear families, and other cultural institutions and practices that are still relatively new even in Western societies.

Treating choices like full-term (or "extended") breastfeeding, babywearing, co-sleeping, unschooling, free-range parenting, and so on like new or "alternative" trends ignores that none of these things are new, and for many people, they aren't really even a choice. They have been the biological and ecological norm for literal ages, while what many in the United States consider "mainstream" parenting is actually quite novel and uncommon in comparison.

Because Most Parents Mix Parenting Styles

The great thing about being able to learn about lots of different approaches to parenting is that we can pick and choose what works for our families, instead of feeling like we have to do the exact same thing as everyone else even if it makes us or our kids miserable. That also makes it really hard to consider any one parenting style the norm, because so many people are mixing and matching so many different things. Without a defined norm, we can't really have an alternative, 'cause that's just how language works.

Because "Alternative" Is Sometimes Used To Belittle Certain Choices

Our society doesn't always embrace difference as much as we should. Instead, when one way of doing things is held up as the norm or the "right way," all of the alternatives are cast as being "lesser," setting all of those people up to be considered inferior parents. That can lead to unpleasant things like judgmental looks from passing strangers, and that judgment can also lead to actual danger, like when people assume parents doing something differently are putting their kids in danger when they really aren't.

Because We're All Individuals

The more we question what even qualifies as "mainstream," let alone "alternative," the more we realize that everyone is doing things a little differently, and that there's some value to be found in a lot of different ways to parent.

Because We Should Make It Easier To Learn From Each Other

We're really lucky to be able to benefit from generations of thinking, research, and observation about parenting, as well as insights into how people in nearly every society, subculture, and time period have chosen to raise children. Instead of lumping groups of people together under vague terms like "alternative," we should try to be specific and respectful about the many different ways to raise our kids, so that we can figure out who might have some new-to-us parenting intel that could make our families' lives way better.