Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Parenting Books: What Do They Recommend, and What's Missing?

Parenting books often forget parent-child relationships.

Visit any bookstore, or go to or the Internet versions of Barnes & Noble or Borders, and you will find self-help books by the dozens and dozens. Of the various kinds of self-help offered, you will find remarkable numbers of books offering to help you learn parenting, both in general and for specific family and child characteristics. Lots of people buy parenting books and some people read them; reader comments on line suggest that some readers like them. But there always seems to be a market for a new one, so maybe the books aren't all that helpful after all.

A recent article in the Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice examined the content of some parenting self-help programs and compared them with evidence-based parenting programs (Sorge, G.B., Moore, T.E., & Toplak, M.E. [2009]. Comparing the content of parenting self-help programs with evidence-based parenting programs. SRMHP, 7, 26-36). Sorge and his co-authors looked at 15 popular self-help parenting books and compared the suggestions and information they gave to the content of treatment programs (that is, programs that are not "self-help") such as the Incredible Years and the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy programs-- programs whose effectiveness is supported by research evidence.

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Many of the self-help programs did recommend some strategies that were also in the high-quality treatment programs. For example, they frequently encouraged parents to pay attention to and praise good behavior; to try to remain calm rather than displaying angry responses to children; to enforce consequences for misbehavior whether at home or otherwise; to respond to misbehavior immediately and consistently; and to use time-outs in response to misbehavior.

But the self-help programs infrequently encouraged some parenting strategies that good treatment programs use. For instance, not many suggested that parents show interest in the child's play or follow the child's lead rather than directing play; not many suggested shaping child behavior by rewarding small steps in the right direction; not many suggested engaging the child in stimulating learning activities; and not many warned against giving too many or unnecessary commands to children. Sorge and his co-authors noted that the self-help programs generally did little to encourage building the parent-child relationship or using the relationship as a foundation for discipline. The authors were concerned that the self-help programs seemed to suggest that one program can deal effectively with every family's problems, and that lack of success must result from failure to carry out the program as instructed.

There are several interesting issues related to this article's description of parenting self-help programs. First, it seems paradoxical that in a culture that is presently fascinated with attachment-- and prepared to attribute almost any problem to attachment or lack thereof-- there should be so little concern with parent-child relationships as the 15 self-help books apparently offered. It's as if the self-help authors and their audience believe that attachment is something different from a relationship. Perhaps, too, an emphasis on relationship-building may be unattractive to a parent who is exasperated and frustrated, and really too angry with the child to want to think about how both of them may need to change in order to improve their interactions. Those emotions would also make it less likely that a parent would feel like following the child's lead. Whatever the reason, however, it seems that popular parenting books almost ignore the one factor that has the most impact on parenting ease and success.

One real problem for the author of self-help parenting books may be the fact that one size does not fit all-- especially not all ages--- but a book that tried to deal with that reality would be too long, too complicated, and too expensive to sell. Helpful treatment programs guide parents to consider children's individual needs and abilities, but those considerations which parents can achieve through reflection are not so easily encouraged by instruction without discussion (in the self-help mode). And once again it may be the case that parents buying self-help books are in moods that make them feel less like considering the individuality of a child who seems to be an antagonist.

Finally, a common characteristic of self-help parenting books was the recommendation of a time-out strategy for dealing with negative behavior; there may be a number of problems connected with this suggestion. For some years now, time-out has been a favorite recommendation, because it seems to be a desirable alternative to yelling or to physical punishment, and because it seems so logical to match the length of the time-out (shorter or longer) to the child's lesser or greater age. Yet many parents find it extremely difficult to manage time-out, and this is not surprising. A child in a tantrum, or otherwise out of control, is hardly to be expected to stay isolated upon command, and attempts to control the child physically or to contain him in a locked room will increase the stress and acting-out for both child and parent. Even if the parent can manage time-out effectively, unless the strategy serves to remove social reinforcers that are maintaining a negative behavior, its effect may be primarily to escalate emotion. In addition, the effect of time-out can be expected to be quite different for children of different temperaments and different ages, who will have different levels of concern about isolation and separation from the caregiver. And let's not even think about how you manage time-out in a crowded restaurant or grocery store--- the very places where negative behavior is most likely to erupt.


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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