Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Parenting Fads, Publishers, and Bad Advice

When a child's behavior is complex, advice should be too complicated to Tweet

One of my favourite newspaper columnists, Tralee Pearce, wrote recently in The Globe and Mail that parenting trends seem to be coming fast and furious these days. It was resilience in 2012, maybe competition for 2013? She has a good point. One moment parents are told they should be harsh like a Chinese Tiger Mom, the next they’re criticized by the likes of me for keeping their kids Too Safe for Their Own Good. What’s a parent to do?

The truth is, there is no single formula to raise wonderful children to become competent caring compassionate adults who contribute to the welfare of others (I’ve called those the 4C’s, in case anyone is asking). Like faddish diets, or teaching kids to read without phonics (egads!) we are too quick to think there is one solution to very complex child developmental processes. Here’s why I think this is happening…

The publishing industry needs the “next big thing” and so entire books are written when at heart they may have one or two good tips for parenting a particular type of child. But the title sells. The problem is in the over-zealous promotion of a single idea and its marketing as the perfect solution for many children.

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Still, while I agree with Pearce that we are too quick to be faddish, I think she missed something very important about the way the social and behavioral sciences build our knowledge base. Our understanding of human development proceeds in baby steps. Truthfully, we are being overprotective, and yes, some Tiger Mothers do raise children who manage to perform at Carnegie Hall. But the real reason these strategies produce great kids is not easy to Tweet or package in a book title. It has to do with complicated interactions between individuals and their social and physical ecologies. Place a kid with a rambunctious personality in a toxic overly stressed parent’s home and you have a bad fit. Place that same child in among loose canons who love adventure and could care less whether the beds are made, and that child thrives. There are many reasons why some kids do better with some parents. Unfortunately being given birth parent isn’t like online dating. You don’t get to choose. The fit can sometimes be great but all too often our friend’s mother seems to understand us better than our own parent.

Which brings me back to books and packaging parenting advice. No single book or manual advertised on talk radio stations is going to deliver the perfect parenting advice. But publishers don’t want to hear that.

Maybe that’s why a manuscript that explores this complexity is still sitting on my desk, an orphan child despite its three older siblings having already been published.

The manuscript uses the story of three families in a parenting group, and my own relationship with my less than perfect parents, to show that parenting by the numbers seldom is as easy as it sounds. Though I present 9 amazing principles to raise great kids (both publishers and us parents like lists), the truth is the principles interact with one another in such dumbfounding ways that I had to merge fact with a fictional narrative to show readers the complexity that really is our lives. If you have a kid who is causing you grief, like so many of the parents who come to hear me speak and who asked for this book, then you know that solutions are always more complicated than 1-2-3 Magic.

In truth, if you’re looking for answers, I’d recommend you begin with your own experience, and that of your elders and friends. Then turn to some experts and even us authors if you have to, but be sure that who you read isn’t just telling you about their own experience.

I’ve come to realize that many of the most popular and readable parenting books are written by people who have no scientific credentials in the field of child development. They’re law professors or journalists, sometimes parents of a challenging child. The last role is the most credible, but there is a lot to be said for surveying the research too. Hard to base a entire theory on an ‘n’ of 1, which means good parenting advice shouldn’t just be about what I think is right for my child or worked for me in my home.

As a writer about parenting, my culture, my worldview, my experience, skew me towards thinking I’ve got the right answers. Readers should always beware.

So, if you’re a publisher reading this and you are looking for the next big thing, hmm, maybe write me. The next big thing may not be just one thing, but complexity itself.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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