Used to be, in my mom and dad’s generation, that parenting know-how was just supposed to come with having children – a mix of what you somehow knew to do (basic instinct), what you could figure out to do (problem solving), and practices you recollected being done by your parents (past experience.)
You didn’t need any particular body of knowledge, special skills, or official instruction. You just muddled through and got the job done. Mostly you assumed your kids would come out mostly okay.
Then in 1946 Dr. Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care and the deluge of parenting books began. The great success of Spock’s book, which is still in revision, showed how parents were really hungry for knowledge and guidance about coping with the challenges of child-raising.
By powerful implication, it also put parents on notice that parenting was a responsibility that mattered, and that some practices like physical discipline (spanking and other forms of hitting children) were damaging and not okay. Dr. Spock spoke with the voice of authority and was treated that way by many readers. “When I don’t know what to do, I look it up in Dr. Spock and see what he has to say.” For coping with the uncertainties of parenting, now there was a popular reference book one could consult.
So today, in a bookstore of any size, there will be an entire section of shelves devoted to parenting books. New titles are constantly replacing the old by promoting the latest fashionable family focus and current child management ideas.
As for the authors of these books, in the course of offering professional advice, they have managed to professionalize parenting itself. The very term “parenting” suggesting some kind of knowledge base and skill set that moms and dads now need to have if they are do a competent job raising their children.
Whenever people professionalize any area of human endeavor they do it by creating a class of “experts” who, with specialized knowledge, are supposed to know more about some aspect of life than the average person. Thus with all the expert advice about parenting that is now available you’d think more comfortable parents would be the result, but this is not necessarily so.
On the plus side, parents now know that they are not alone in their struggle, that other people have some experience with these dilemmas and problems, and that there are additional ways of thinking about and dealing with child raising challenges. Parenting experts can expand our awareness with new ideas.
On the minus side, parents are more self-conscious, insecure, and even more defensive about their own conduct since now there are all these parenting experts around. By virtue of their authority on the subject, they have strong opinions about what is advisable and effective and what is not, what is parenting “right” and what is parenting “wrong.” Experts can undermine our confidence by raising doubt.
To make matters worse, parents can be confused by the variety of conflicting expert opinions they hear. For example, when it comes to their child’s school performance, should parents insist that the child strive for excellence above all else? Or should they treat academic achievement as just one important component in the development of the whole child? When experts disagree, what is the parent to do?
Then there are the larger questions. What difficulties should be considered normal? When should parents have cause to worry? What behavior should be tolerated and what should not? Where should parents be flexible and where should they be firm? Which disciplinary strategy works best? Who really knows?
In the end, the answer to these questions is a harsh one. When all the child raising experts have been consulted and had their say, the parent must be the expert of last resort and finally decide, for good or ill, what to do – to hold the child back or advance a grade, to medicate the child or to manage behavior without medication, to rescue the adolescent from consequences or to let consequences bite. This is the lonely responsibility that comes with being a parent.
So what are we supposed to do with all these ‘experts in parenting’ and all their expert advice? Well, first off, it’s important to put parenting experts into some perspective. Parenting as a field of study has not proceeded as a hard science like physics, for example, that has been subjected to centuries of systematic observation, experimental investigation, and theoretical thinking to unravel its organizing principles and governing laws. However, the lesson of scientific thinking is important to remember. Nothing is ever settled. Everything is open to question and subject to revision. This is definitely true about understanding the nature and practice of parenting.
As a very recent field of study, knowledge about parenting probably belongs somewhere in the social sciences like psychology. Even placed there, it is a body of knowledge that has been mostly taken for granted and generally overlooked. Thus if you surveyed undergraduate and graduate curricula that prepare the broad array of educational, mental health, and medical practitioners, although there may be Family Studies and Child Development classes, you wouldn’t find many program offerings that specifically address the psychology of parenting children and adolescents, even though parents constitute a primary population of professional care.
Yet, in response to an ever increasing public interest, the subject of parenting continues to generate a growing body of popular literature, more personally expressive than peer reviewed. This is not to discount and devalue what parenting writers have to say. I think most of us have something to offer. However, the watchword is: “readers beware.”
Most of this material is a matter of opinion and biased by the writer’s limited life experience, family values, educational preparation, and individual point of view. This is certainly true for me.
So one question is: how does one decide which parenting experts to credit and consult? I think the best answer is to treat this selection as a matter of personal taste. On a much lesser scale of importance, this selection is similar to how one chooses a church in which to worship (if one is religiously inclined.) You seek a faith that answers your needs and is consistent with your beliefs. I suggest you choose your parenting experts the same way.
You can qualify your experts by asking yourself and answering some simple questions such as these. Does what this person is saying make common sense to me? Does what this person is saying agree with my values? Does what this person is saying affirm some of what I have been doing? Does what this person is saying tell me something I didn’t know? Does what this person is saying fit my individual situation? Does what this person is saying cause me to rethink what I have been doing?
Although parenting will always be a perplexity, today you don’t have to raise children and adolescents in isolation. You don’t have to go it alone. There are a lot of ideas and strategies out there for your consideration. Don't blindly follow what these self-appointed experts have to offer or allow them to make your parenting decisions for you, but use what they have to say to further think through the child raising choices that are your responsibility to make.
So when it comes to parenting experts, my advice is: help yourself.
Next week’s entry: Adolescence and Revisionist Parents