Making A Rod For Your Own Back (+ Irritating Parenting Phrases)

January 2, 2013

Heard The Parenting Expression Making A Rod For Your Own Back…?

If you have a small baby, you will have no doubt heard the expression ‘making a rod for your own back.’ But what does it mean, and why do people say it to new parents?

Making a rod for your own back, and other terrible parenting phrases

Terrible Parenting Expressions

As a former English student, I always enjoy reading the end-of-year lists of words and phrases which have crept in and out of use in the past twelve months. According to The Guardian it was bye to chillaxing and hi to omnishambles, apparently, and Charlie Brooker has a typically brilliant take on fashionable phrases here.

The past year also added a whole new metaphorical dictionary to our shelf, full of the world of words related to pregnancy, parenting and babies.

There are slings, self-soothing, baby sleep and baby sick. Months become trimesters. You’re no longer you, but mum, mother, mummy, mama, or muma.

And even baby names have trends and fashions and a multitude of different spellings and variations, most of which are a Mumsnet minefield.

The Awfulness Of Making A Rod For Your Own Back

The vast majority of the overly cutesy, twee or sentimental baby language people use has a nails / blackboard effect on me (it’s not just me, surely?). However, the parenting phrase that I have become to find most objectionable over the past twelve months is ‘making a rod for your own back’. But what does it mean?

Typically taken to mean you’re doing something easy now that will cause problems in the future, making a rod for your own back it’s the type of phrase that’s often dished out by health visitors, relatives, and pseudo well-meaning onlookers.

And it is incredibly irritating. It is often used in relation to things that people may or many not agree with, or around things you generally do out of necessity.

Gentle Parenting – Your Way

As some examples, things related to parenting that I’ve been told or read that I’m ‘making a rod for my own back’ about: breastfeeding on-demand, extended breastfeeding, letting the baby asleep on me, feeding her to sleep, occasionally letting her sleep in our bed for some or all of the night, co-sleeping, choosing not to give her a dummy, and not leaving her to cry.

It’s easy to let it wash over your back when you’re more confident in your choices, but when it’s related to something you do because it’s all you can do to get by and just survive in the hazy first few weeks and months, it’s never particularly helpful.

Be Mindful What You Say To New Mums And Dads

We have a whole year to write ahead of us before we can even think of end-of-year wrap-up lists. But here’s a thought, if it’s a phrase you’ve tempted to use to a new mum or dad, why not make an actual helpful, practical suggestion instead? Let’s try and make ‘rod for your own back’ obsolete.

Is it possible that there’s a parenting phrase that is more annoying? What words really wind you up? Leave a comment, I’d love to know.


  • Gail Kerr

    January 2, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    A favourite of mine is ‘I think he’s tired’ which is frequently dished out when visiting relatives and my 13 months face crumbles at the sight of another unfamiliar face, it is then assumed i will whisk him away and magic him to sleep. Also ‘I think you need to cut up his food a bit smaller’ which suggests i have not given any thought of how to wean, not so common now but during the early stages of weaning when every decision you make has been thoroughly researched (due to fear of doing anything wrong!) is a bit annoying. Love your blog by the way.

    1. gillian

      January 6, 2013 at 10:04 pm

      Oh yes, the tired one! I also used to get ‘oh she must be hungry’ a lot too which is really annoying, especially when it’s coming from complete strangers in the street (why do random people think it’s OK to dish out parenting advice?!) P.S thank you! And thanks for the comment x

      1. Kate

        January 7, 2013 at 3:52 pm

        AAArrrrrgggHHH “She’s hungry” drives me nuts! It’s always from cashiers in Tesco too! Don’t ya think I feed her?

        Great post btw! 🙂

  • Lulastic

    January 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm

    No, you are right it is SO annoying! And completely inaccurate too! After doing all these rod-inducing thing we have the happiest wee lass, I am perfectly content with her independence, she sleeps through, she is can be calmed by her daddy etc etc. And then there are others who parented the opposite way and have a hugely needy child! Sometimes our choices have little play on our rods and backs 🙂

    1. gillian

      January 6, 2013 at 10:10 pm

      Hurrah! That’s so good to hear 🙂 The rod-inducing things are working really well for us too (and are some of the nicest things too, I love it when she falls asleep on me, especially as I know they’re only this little for such a short space of time) x

  • Cathy

    January 2, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Really thought-provoking post, Gill.

    This will probably be rather controversial but I found ‘don’t make a rod for your own back’ possibly the most useful piece of advice anybody could have given me, particularly in the early months.

    Every time I was tempted to let my baby fall asleep on me ‘just this once’, or put her into bed with us when she was being difficult, I thought of that phrase, and it motivated me to stick it out and insist that she learned to sleep independently. It spoke to me in many ways, as it also reminded me that if you put in the ground work at the beginning, you’ll probably have less problems later on down the line trying to break bad habits.

    Of course there are some babies that will easily switch from sleeping on/with parents to sleeping independently with no fuss. And there are some parents that absolutely do not mind their babies sleeping on/with them until baby decides he or she is ready to sleep independently. I also don’t know of any teenagers who still co-sleep or sleep on their parents! It’s only a problem, really, if you find yourself stuck in a pattern with your child that is having a impact on your quality of life, relationship, job or your ability as a parent.

    I also used to think to myself, ‘second babies manage’. By which I mean we often, with our first children, tell ourselves and everybody else that we HAVE to let our babies sleep on us/co-sleep/rock them to sleep/take them out in the car or buggy to get them to sleep out of necessity/cannot allow them to cry even for a second – but how many parents of second children are afforded the time to do the same? And their second children manage just fine. I always really enjoy reading blogs and comments on blogs from parents of more than one child as they almost universally say ‘with my first I bent over backwards to stop him from crying/get him to sleep but with my second I realised I just didn’t have the time and as it turns out, he’s entirely capable of getting to sleep by himself and I’ve learned a bit of a cry isn’t the end of the world.’

    I always held that in my head if I ever started to doubt what I was doing when the rest of the world seemed to be allowing their children to sleep on them and I didn’t. I always thought to myself, second children manage just fine.

    1. gillian

      January 6, 2013 at 5:42 pm

      Hello! Controversial indeed 😉 really interesting way of looking at it as I’ve never heard of the phrase being used as anything other than a negative! I’d definitely agree that it’s only a problem if anything you do becomes negative or frustrating. Most of the rod / back things I listed in the post have been choices we’ve made that have worked and are working really well for us (and I still find it utterly lovely when she falls asleep on me :-)) xx.

  • Sally

    January 3, 2013 at 5:27 am

    I totally agree with your post: the Mumsnet minefield, the constant bewilderment and self-doubt and then the covert criticism from those that have done it before and differently. I think I would add “Are you sure?” in as well – never was a phrase better designed to feed on a first time (hell, even second time) mum’s insecurities. But over time, I’ve come to realise that mother really does know best and that our instinct is our most powerful tool in parenting.

    1. gillian

      January 6, 2013 at 10:14 pm

      It’s so true – you really do know your child best and come to know what will or won’t work. Have you read the What Mothers Do book? It covers these sorts of issues (and is such a lovely book, it really made me re-evaluate how I thought of motherhood) x

  • helen

    January 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    It’s certainly one of my top annoying phrases, usually said with a pursed lips lemon sucking face! My other hated one is when little b’s not actively grinning and people look all disappointed and say “ooh, isn’t he grumpy!”. Sometimes he is grumpy, usually because he’s tired/hungry/wants a break from you dangling toys in his face and throwing him around. It’s like he should have a perma grin stuck to his face!

    1. gillian

      January 6, 2013 at 5:06 pm

      It’s always said with the lemon face isn’t it?! ‘Isn’t he grumpy’ does sound really annoying – the other one that used to wind me up was ‘oh they must be hungry!’ if the baby was crying, usually in the middle of the supermarket. Thanks for that, random passer-by…

  • Kate

    January 7, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    Have to say I disagree! It’s my second child that we’ve done more attachment parenting stuff with (co-sleeping, babywearing etc) and that’s so that we can deal more effectively with child #1. If child #2 had been in a buggy all the time as a sleepy newborn, I wouldn’t have been able to take child #1 to playgroup without either parking her outside or waking her up. Slinging her meant I could get down and play with child #1, which was essential for his wellbeing. And co-sleeping has given me the 7-8 hours sleep I need to be able to cope with an energetic 3-year-old (we never got that with child #1 and wrestled him into a cot daily. We were shells of people).
    You’re right in that the second child never gets as much attention, but FOR US it’s more; “with my first I bent over backwards to stop him from crying/get him to sleep but with my second I realised I just didn’t have the time, so I just stuck a boob in her mouth, curled up next to her and went to sleep”. Don’t confuse needing attention with needing intimacy. Esp as newborns, babies don’t need your attention but they do need intimacy. Sticking child #2 in a sling meant that she was happy and I could give what mental energy I had left to child #1. It might not be for everyone, but it worked for us. Yet to see what happens long-term, but being carried everywhere certainly hasn’t held her back when it comes to crawling etc…

    1. Kate

      January 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm

      (This was meant to be a response to Cathy’s comment on second children btw….)

  • shirley

    January 13, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    It’s your baby to rear just as you please so ignore all the well meaning advice,if you hv numerous children they will all be different to rear and things that work with one may not work with other children

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