Parenting for the Philosopher: Is Parenting “a priori” or “a posteriori” Knowledge?

This post is rather unlike any of my other posts. Honestly, this is more like a documented internal debate I was having in my head earlier. I decided to write it down because I think this is an interesting question and one that I cannot seem to solve entirely. (*Side note: I recognize that not every parent cares about dorky things like this!)

When I found out that I was pregnant, I was washed over with a wave of emotions. I was happy and excited, but also very anxious. I was anxious because I knew very little about babies, children, parenting, or even pregnancy. I remember my first trip to Buy Buy Baby to set up my registry as a two-hour long whirlwind. I didn’t know anything about strollers, car seats, basinets, or high chairs. I didn’t know why I needed a Sophie Giraffe, what the heck a Smart Sock or Boppy was, and I certainly did not think about the intricacies of breast feeding. When it came to actually being pregnant, I was just as in the dark. A mucus plug is WHAT? Is round ligament pain normal? Should I call the doctor and ask if I can eat peanut butter?

Like many women my age, I took charge of my inexperience and read everything that I could get my hands on. I read books on parenting, breastfeeding, and pregnancy. I also read blogs, testimonials, Facebook and Instagram posts, etc. I also started asking for advice from women of all ages. I was hoping some of their wisdom would rub off on me. I prayed that all the books and advice I paid attention to would magically help me ace the parenting and pregnancy gigs.

However, despite all of the information I learned, I realized that parenting and childcare is not always something that can be learned in a book. Dr. Spock was a very clever man, and we do utilize Dr. Ferber’s sleep training program, but neither of these professionals have ever studied our son.

From what I have learned so far, every child is different. Sure, children have similar commonalities that make them children. (Universal forms of “child,” perhaps?) For instance, all babies will eventually begin teething, cry in the middle of the night, and begin saying small words. However, not every baby will be obsessed with the family dog, like cheese doodles, or keep trying to take their diaper off. Some children are easier to potty train than others. Some are better eaters or sleepers. Some are very independent and can play by themselves all afternoon, and some demand their parent’s undivided attention.

A Priori or A Posteriori?

Before we get into the question at hand, we should all be on the same page. I am not a philosopher, but I will try my hardest to explain the terms in the easiest ways I can (and hopefully a bit easier than Immanuel Kant did!). A priori and a posteriori are philosophical terms that categorize knowledge.

  • A priori knowledge exists independently from experience
  • A posteriori knowledge derives from the data of the senses — from experience

With all of that being said, some aspects of parenting cannot be learned until experienced. Until your son keeps taking his diaper off you won’t know how to handle that situation. Until your child refuses to drink any milk that is not chocolate milk, you will not know how to handle that situation. And even if you think that these answers can be found in a book (which they might be!), someone had to study these childcare behaviors and record the evidence. This is all knowledge that had to be learned through the data of the senses.

So, voila! Parenting is a posteriori knowledge! Everything we know about babies was taught to us through a long line of learning!

Well, hold on… Maybe not. Despite all of the evidence that Dr. Spock, Dr. Ferber, or I can gather, there were some things that I just knew how to do when my son was born. I knew how to breastfeed. I knew how to burp a baby. My body intrinsically knew to rock back and forth when trying to get him to fall asleep. I even knew when my body was ready to push during delivery. These are all things that I knew instinctively and that no one had to teach me.

So, is parenting a priori knowledge?

Dr. Spock created a parenting empire on the basis that “you know more than you think you do.” However, does that mean that we know everything? No. Of course not. The reason I think this is so is because every child is different. I cannot expect that my subsequent children will be the same as my son. What if I have a girl? I already know that some things will be different. (Is this evidence of a priori knowledge, then?) I am unsure.

Some things I knew, some things I had to be taught. I would really like some input or opinions. What do you think about parenting? Was it something you learned? Or something you just knew how to do? Or, was it a combination of the two?

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