Speak Truth to Bullshit

This isn’t the post I was intending on writing this morning. I had something more nebulous and reflective in mind, but as often happens, a Facebook post got me thinking.

Those of you in the UK will know that this is the time for flu vaccine being given in primary schools. The vast majority of parents will take this up without discussion. Some are asking questions, and, as always, some will refuse.

Not all the refusers are vaccine refusers across the board. There are some who feel that school is not the place for medicines to be given, others who take issue with the flu vaccine specifically (even if they are up to date with other vaccinations). This post isn’t about the pros or cons of vaccination in general or the flu vaccine in particular, however. What it is about is the dangerous trend of polarising and shutting down discussion.

The post that caught my eye this morning was one criticising parents for asking other parents about the flu vaccine in schools, saying parents need to be asking their GPs not other parents. Fair enough, as far as it goes, right? Other parents may or may not have access to good information, and whatever your parenting question—particularly with regards to health—FB really isn’t the ideal end all and be all for finding solutions. Except, I’m really not at peace with the idea of ‘ask your doctor, do what s/he says, and it will all be okay.’ Or shut up and follow the crowd.

Who likes to be right? Me! Me! I do!  I’m sure I’m not alone in that. But here’s the thing: parenting is tough, and there’s a lot that challenges us, a lot that is specific to our kids, our families, or even our geographical region. In the dizzying array of choices and possibilities, certainty gives comfort. ‘I am right’ may give us a sense of righteous superiority, but the flip side of that is the shame and guilt of where we’ve been ‘wrong’. Is surrounding ourselves with people who feel the same way as we do…or holding our tongues to avoid the quasi-inevitable criticism the best answer to this dilemma? It may be the functional reality for many of us, but I believe we can do better.

As parents, we have primary responsibility for the health and wellbeing of our children. It is a tremendous responsibility with lasting consequences, and one many of us at times feel ill-equipped for. As a parent, I have genuinely experienced the extremes of excellent and poor medical care—my eldest would not be alive today had I deferred to one A&E doctor’s judgment of her illness at age two, when her intussusception was misdiagnosed as excessive maternal anxiety over a tummy bug. She did nearly die. Her life was very fortunately saved by a just in time second opinion, a GP who could admit that he wasn’t sure about what was happening with her but he wasn’t happy about how she looked, and so sent her on for further investigation, and some excellent surgeons at the RVI. After her surgery, I was told my one of the doctors to always listen to my maternal instinct—that it was one of the greatest tools for identifying trouble.

good mother

What has this got to do with the way we talk about flu vaccines in schools (and by extension other issues relating to our children’s health)? Nothing and everything. I don’t believe that deferring responsibility onto an authority figure for any decision we make for our kids will make us feel better if something goes wrong. I do believe in parental engagement, choice, and responsibility for our kids.

In her new book, Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown talks about how polarised we’ve become in our communities, how we are increasingly living in echo chambers and failing to engage in real, civil discussion with people who hold different points of view than we do. She argues that we loose something vital when we don’t engage in these discussions, and when we don’t value civility and the humanity of those who hold opposing views to us. One of the most dangerous positions of all is “You’re either with us or against us.” It reduces what’s real to a rhetorical polarity that shapes how we see what’s real in ways that are overly simplistic and ultimately inaccurate. People who disagree with us on health and parenting issues are not less than we are. They are not ‘with us or against us’. Most are thoughtful individuals who are trying to do the best they can for their children and their families. Dare I say many have thought long and hard, possibly researched and anguished over their decisions before making the choice that seems most right for them and their children in that moment.

Here’s what I believe:

*If you care about children, and the health and well-being of children, you need to care about parents, and that includes creating community spaces where it is safe for parents to ask questions and reflect on their choices without being deflected, shamed, or ostracised because they want to know more.

*If you value the capacity to make your own choices for your children (whether this be about how your child is born, how they are fed, how they are educated or something else), you need to equally respect that capacity for choice in other parents—even when they make choices that you consider to be NOT right (ie they make choices that are different to your own).

*Expert opinion and information gathered can only inform decisions—as parents we have the responsibility to choose based on our own circumstances.

*We all need access to good, unbiased information and support with interpreting that data if it is complicated or specialist. Accessing this info isn’t always easy. It may involve the risky act of asking questions and stepping out of our comfort zone (not to mention possibly disagreeing with what our friends believe or what other people tell us to do). It’s still totally worth it.

*It’s okay to ask questions, always. We lose something when we fail to ask or to question our assumptions.

*It’s not okay to shame or humiliate or dehumanise people for asking questions or making choices that are different from our own.

*It is okay to accept that our own positions may be different to that of our friends or extended family, and we can *still* love and accept each other as human.

*We have an obligation to respect one another even when we disagree.

*When it comes to things like infant formula, vaccinations, birth interventions, schooling, what benefits our children (and our society most) is challenging the status quo—this is how we guard against abuses of power and put things right when they do go wrong.

*Science is not static. Good science involves asking questions, challenging what we think we know, seeking more accurate and more complex understanding.

*Science (ie, what we know according to research) is not always in alignment with what’s put into practice in every day life. We are learning more every day, and we have the capacity to do better for our children. When we discuss and question, we keep everyone accountable.

Why is it so uncomfortable to hear parents asking questions about things we are sure we are right about? I think in part because it lifts the lid on the uncertainty and messiness of choices in the real world. In life, and in parenting, rarely is anything perfect. It also touches that uncomfortable thread of where there’s right, there’s wrong—and the guilt and shame most of us carry for those times when our choices or actions weren’t what we’d consider to be the ‘right’ ones.

I feel we can do so much better than ‘I’m right’ when it comes to talking about difficult parts of parenting. To me, better means that making a concerted effort to listen with respect even where we don’t agree, to share what we know with kindness, and, as Brene says, speak truth—with civility!!—to bullshit.

3 thoughts on “Speak Truth to Bullshit

  1. Completely agree. I’m constantly pushing for better communication methods. The vaccine debate is incredibly emotionally charged, but I worry that part of this is the often unspoken issue of seemingly causing harm to your own child. This can range from the pain of the needle to potential side effects versus an unknown potential for harm should the person contract the disease which is being vaccinated against.

    As our memory of the lasting effects of these diseases fades from living memory, the pain and potential side effects of the vaccinations becomes more immediate and avoidable.

    • Hey Marie! Thanks so much for your comment. I think there are a few keys to civility in discussing difficult issues — Brene Brown talks about this issue in great detail in Braving the Wilderness (a book I can only incredibly highly recommend! And it’s available on audible for those of us who find it easier to listen). As a doula, I really had to find my way to peace with so many difficult topics where my clients and I might not see eye to eye–I feel it’s important to find ways of navigating these conversations in ways that don’t diminish us or the people we’re conversing with. So the keys for me:

      *Being curious about the other person’s why, their reasoning, their story. Being curious doesn’t mean we have to agree but it gives us a chance to learn about someone else’s perspective. Also, when people feel heard and understood, they are more able to engage in real conversation.

      *Recognising the responsibility, agency, and maturity of the other person and go in with as positive an interpretation as possible of what they are saying. Asking for clarification where needed vs projecting or presuming that everyone who holds a certain view is the same.

      *Recognising that in most issuers there generally are pros and cons — while one person’s weighing up of the evidence may lead to a different decision, that’s not any less valid than our own. Also everyone’s views may change over time–we are all doing the best we can in any given moment.

      *Recognising that shame and humiliation and dehumanisation have no place in civil debate, when we stray into these territories we’re no longer discussing, we’re engaged in conflict.

      Vaccination is definitely one of the most fraught topics. It would be nice to see more genuine conversation and safer places for parents to talk through their concerns. My experience of people who opt out or alter the recommended schedule generally is that a lot of research, thought and agonising goes into making those choices whether for or against.

      • I’ll have to look for that book, I think. I’m very interested in finding out other people’s ‘why?’ It’s what’s pulling me to public health. I seem to be drawn to the most fraught topics, and civility is something I try to aim for, as far as possible!

        I come from a place where someone very dear to me was unable to be vaccinated, for reasons that are no longer reasons to avoid vaccinations, so I’ve been in the situation of actively refusing them myself.

        Similarly, I’ve found empathy and understanding, finding a way to make a connection is much more productive than fighting or criticising. It’s not an easy path to stick to sometimes!

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