A few weeks after my daughter was born I was suddenly gripped with an “Oh my god, how can I be a parent?” feeling. And a fear that once my responsibility to this little copper-haired beauty became more than feed, change, hold, soothe and love—when she started becoming a person with opinions, desires, and impulses she could act on—I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. I had no intention of just following my instincts about how to parent because, well, I couldn’t detect any instincts. Except to protect her, and that seemed a little vague. The basic care and love I was providing to my newborn were, I knew, not going to be enough as she grew.

As the left-brained empiricist, I am, I decided to learn, to think about my actions and the consequences that might result. I needed to find the perfect parenting method, one that could be applied consistently, and with guaranteed results. What a naive little fool I was!

I, of course, started with research, because who doesn’t head to the library (this was before the internet) right after they have a baby? And I learned that, from a scientific and sociological perspective, there are four recognized parenting styles: authoritative, neglectful, permissive and authoritarian. The names of the styles tell you pretty much all you need to know, although some parents may wonder what “authoritative” means or may think that the word is a bit pejorative, which, in my opinion, it’s not at all.

Next, I learned about parenting methods, and this is where I began to get somewhat perplexed. Just like today, there were many parenting methods: positive, laissez-faire, consequential, fear-based. Now we have attachment, free-range, helicopter, unconditional, spiritual and slow parenting. There are also some approaches that are not methods per se; they evolve without much thought on the part of the parents and have more to do with their deficiencies as adult human beings. Toxic parenting and narcissistic parenting fall into this category.

So, we have style of parenting and method of parenting. Your method may change periodically as your children grow and you use trial and error to determine the method that works best for your family. Your style of parenting, however–the way in which you apply what you believe about parenting–probably won’t. That’s because your style of parenting reflects who you are as a person, regardless of the parenting method you choose.

How to make sense of it all? I considered this question for quite some time, reaching no firm conclusion. In the meantime, I unknowingly did something that would turn out to be the catalyst for my transformation from neophyte mama to a more confident parent. I looked to the moms I knew for advice and support.

I found help in three mommy mentors–Betsy, Sue, and Theresa– all friends from different areas of my life, and all with young children or babies. I watched them with their children, consulted with them about my child, and learned. All their kids were happy and healthy, and the moms all possessed what I identify as parent ease: they were not anxiety-ridden about their kids and seemed sure about the road they were taking as parents. Good role models and they shared with me the knowledge they had acquired about raising children.

Though my three mommy mentors were different as individuals, they had a lot in common. All were madly in love with their children and demonstrated that love frequently. All three were accepting of the fact that they would undoubtedly make mistakes as they parented. And all three acknowledged their children as unique individuals and responded to them as such. None of them subscribed to one particular parenting method, although Betsy was keen on allowing her children to make their own choices–after she told them what the possible consequences would be—and she was equally keen on having her children experience those consequences (none of which were abusive).

Finally, and I was later to learn how important this parenting trait is, each of them was quietly but unequivocally confident in their role as leader and authority figure. I say “quietly” because they seldom yelled in anger, and I never saw any of them raise a hand to a child; nonetheless, neither the parents nor their children had any doubt about who held the authority. When Mommy said no, it was no. Since I had been raised in a very different way, I was attracted to what I saw, and eager to emulate it. Where do I sign up, I asked; where do I get what you have?

By watching my mommy mentors I realized that it is not the style or method that is most important (unless you are abusive or neglectful). It is what I call ‘the basics,’ the essence of good parenting that must be included if we are to raise responsible, kind and accomplished adults.

Think college and core courses that lay the foundation for higher learning. Regardless of your major, there is an aggregate of required classes that are essential as a foundation. And once you ensure that the lessons of these requisite courses are learned, you can choose just about any major you want. Same thing with parenting. When you cut to the core, it isn’t the style or method that counts most; it is whether you have been able to instill in your children the values that are most important and the skills that will best serve them as they grow to adulthood.

I don’t care what your politics or religious beliefs are. Doesn’t matter if you are permissive or authoritarian, if you are so attached to your child that you might as well be partners in a three-legged race or your children are so free-range that you often cannot pinpoint exactly where they are; there are certain core ‘classes’ parents must teach their children in order to fulfill their obligation under the social contract; to produce children who grow into adults who contribute to, rather than take from, society.

Parenting methods don’t focus on core values and skills very much. I find them to be more about technique than anything else. They all have something positive to offer, but it’s been my experience that not one of them can be applied across the board, with any child with any certainty. One size does not fit all when it comes to parenting. Children are unique individuals, and just as you wouldn’t put low-octane gas in a race car, not every parenting approach will work with all children.

As the person who knows your children best, you must acquire a body of knowledge about parenting, which will give you a number of options in selecting the parenting techniques that will work for you. Yes, it’s more work, but the rewards can be great. But this book is about parenting practice that can exist both in conjunction with and separate from any one particular parenting approach.

I ultimately became a more effective parent, obtained a B.S. degree in Family Studies and went on to teach parenting and child development, but the core of my parenting knowledge was learned from three intelligent, highly competent women, and whatever heart I brought to my parenting was first drawn from their example. Later, this body of knowledge was supplemented in my college courses and through my work as a family resource worker and parent educator, where I was exposed to many wonderfully resourceful, loving and effective parents—some who were truly courageous—and unfortunately, more than a few horribly irresponsible parents. Over the years, I learned what it meant to be a parent, the many different adaptations that can be applied to make parenting work, and some of the strategies that can be used to permanently lower the parenting stress level—at least until they become teenagers!

I hope you’ll keep reading as I share my experience doing what can be the most glorious, exhausting and creative work you will ever sometimes dislike, but mostly love.

So, onward!