How to Practice Feral Parenting

It's no secret that parenting styles have undergone a vast shift over the last few decades. While most of those reading this no doubt grew up as I did under the authoritative model, children today are being raised under vastly different parenting flags, from "permissive parenting," and "concerned cultivation" to "emotion coaching," and "slow parenting."

Whatever that means.

As I've been traveling over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to see the various parenting styles of my friends. To say that there have been some extreme variations would be like saying that Napoleon ran into a little snag at Waterloo.

Two weeks ago, I stayed a few nights in a four-child home in which I never once heard the parents raise their voices above a soft conversational tone. I've dubbed their style "soft parenting." It seemed to be working, because their children were largely quiet, joyful, and well-behaved.

A few days later, I stayed in a child-riddled house containing five cheerful and rambunctious youngsters, four of whom were boys. When the littlest one (a miniature girl) got whiny, her mother leaned down and sweetly reminded her to "keep a happy heart." And it worked. The whining stopped and the crocodile tears dried up.

Meanwhile I sat at the dining room table snorting into my coffee, imagining my siblings' reactions had our mother attempted such snake charms on us. I've dubbed this friend's style "emotional engineering" and stand slightly in awe of it. I know that I could never pull it off. But it, too, seemed to be working. Her children were smiling, healthy, and helpful.

Then I came here, to the home of Feral Parenting.

For a variety of reasons, including natural temperament combined with the fact that these friends are still recovering from the stunning shock a few years ago of having had their third pregnancy turn out to be triplets, these particular friends have chosen to embrace Feral Parenting.

Although difficult to describe, it truly is a fearsome thing to behold. In a loose sense, I'd define Feral Parenting as a sort of long-term survival system flavored with a dash of desperation.

How to Practice Feral Parenting:

Step 1: Adopt utilitarianism. If you were to have been at Blue Marsh Lake this weekend, you might have been shocked to see a young mother using a butcher's knife to slather peanut butter on her children's sandwiches. The explanation? She'd forgotten her butter knife and begged the butcher's knife from a set of nearby picnickers. "Meh. A knife is a knife," she shrugs later as we laugh over the incongruity.

The utilitarian mindset likewise led to large servings of (hot, cooked) vegetables being served with bare hands. It's led to three potty-training toddlers skipping about commando for a majority of the afternoon rather than bothering with pants and underthings that are bound to get wet anyway. Most recently, this led to my friend mopping up the kitchen floor with a towel thrown down and shuffled under her feet.

"It works," she shrugs cheerily.

Step 2: Be blasé. To some extent, parenting does this to everyone. Poop, vomit, snot, drool--encounters with the bodily functions of children that would leave me dry-heaving seem to have little effect on parents. Within the framework of Feral Parenting, however, this phenomenon reaches new heights. Feral Parents have been known to handle a staggering number of baffling situations without batting an eye.

A few nights ago, one of the little ones picked his nose so hard that it started bleeding (not that anyone noticed at first, due to that night's dinner involving tomato sauce). Upon investigation, it was discovered that he'd been digging fruitlessly for a large kernel of corn which had become lodged high in his nostril. Not bothered, my friend dipped into the kitchen and returned with a mechanical pencil (see Step 1). Fortunately for both the nostril and the pencil, wiser heads prevailed: a pair of tweezers was located and employed in retrieving said kernel of corn. Moments later, as we cleaned up the dinner table and prepared to sip some tea on the back porch, we stumbled across a pile of turds which had apparently dropped out of a tiny pair of shorts onto the deck. No sooner had she cleaned this up, than my friend was hailed by a distress call from across the yard: one of the girls had gotten stuck high in a tree and stood in need of rescue.

The point is that not only did all of these mini disasters take place within the space of about twenty minutes, but they also seemed to cause my friend little to no fuss. Sailing serenely through her nostril-clogged-and-poo-riddled evening, she sat down to our cup of tea and game of Scrabble for all the world as if she'd just returned from a refreshing nap. Meanwhile, I lolled in my chair, exhausted and slightly sweaty from watching all of the drama unfold.

"You get used to it," she laughs.

Step 3: Don't smother. My friend's children play in their small, un-fenced front yard bordered by a very busy street. They climb too high in trees. They eat things that they find outside. They run around with knives clutched in their grubby little fists. "They're just butter knives," says my friend in a tone of voice which not only perfectly illustrates Steps 1 and 2, but also gives us a peep at the overriding philosophy behind Step 3: that children won't learn much if you don't let them hurt themselves once in a while.

The most remarkable aspect of this entire situation is that Feral Parenting seems to be working. The five children living under this regime are thriving and uninjured. They work hard, play hard, and sleep hard.

I'm no expert, but perhaps it's time for you to embrace Feral Parenting. Unstrap those diapers, give your little ones butter knives, and turn them loose to play in traffic.

Meanwhile, feel free to kick back and make yourself a hot tea.

You deserve it.


  1. I can just hear Laura's voice in your quotes! Parenting isn't for sissies. I can't even imagine dealing with triplets + 2.

  2. Ruth, you made me laugh so hard I began to cry. As the grandfather it's not as bad all that but pretty close. God has blessed her with patience, wisdom and a great spirit.

    1. You should be proud. :) Laura is my hero.

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