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"It Depends" Parenting

Why one-size-fits-all approaches fail.

It never ceases to amaze parents how the same approach to raising children can led to such different results. As a practicing child psychiatrist, I hear all the time how a particular parenting technique, like maybe a bedtime routine or rules about eating, worked so well for the first child and then failed spectacularly for the second.

The struggle to find some new method or technique often pushes parents to look for answers in the world of books, blogs, and social media posts. There they certainly find them. While it is often said that there exists no “manual” for raising children, the reality is that they are everywhere – they just all say different things. When it comes to picky eating, for example, one expert tells you to get tough and stop being a short-order cook for your 4- year-old, another tells you to put the dessert right there on the plate next to the green beans, and another to cut your child’s vegetables in cute little shapes.

The whole thing can be quite bewildering (and exhausting) to the parents who are truly looking for reliable information to guide their decision making. Why do simple science-based answers to parenting dilemmas that have existed forever seem so elusive?

The answer is actually something that all parents know but, for some reason, few parenting books or blogs seem able to truly recognize or incorporate in their recommendations. Kids are different, and the “correct” parenting answer can change from one child to the next. A one-size-fits-all approach might make for a clean, cohesive argument, might fit in a Tweet, and might be supported by a few cherry-picked research studies, but in the end almost always falls short.

To go beyond the soundbites, you need to learn a bit more about the science of parenting. Yes it’s true that parenting isn’t physics and requires instinct and connection and emotional attunement, but it is also true that there exists a fairly massive literature of evidence for what works and doesn’t work for parenting struggles just like yours - and the answer very frequently is a completely accurate but thoroughly unsatisfying, “It depends.”

How unhelpful is that!? Luckily, the “it depends” answer is just as wonderful of a place to start a discussion as it is a terrible place to end one.

My new book tackles head on many of the most controversial and widely discussed topics that parents of young children face, including discipline, screen time, praise, sleep training, picky eating, helicopter parenting, and many others. For each one, we calmly and as objectively as possible look at the evidence behind it in a non-technical and non-preachy manner. Then, if the overall answer is “it depends,” and to varying degrees it often is, we then go into how that answer might vary based on other important factors.

One of the most important "it depends" factors can be a child's temperament, which refers to a person’s core traits that develop into our personality. Some kids are easily worried, others much less so. Some kids love noise and excitement, others quiet. Some kids notice little details, while others are oblivious. These things are all temperament, and they can play important roles in a parents approach to screens, childcare, sleep training, and many other choices we have to make.

Parents understand that children are different, and it is time a parenting book did too. Sure many other books and blogs acknowledge child differences in the fine print, but then the rest of the content is full of arguments to convince parents to follow some universally prescribed path.

Parents shouldn’t be treated as juries who need to be convinced to render a preordained verdict through the offering of one side of an argument. We can handle having a few options, weighing some different factors, and not being spoon fed someone else’s foregone conclusion. The developing human brain is, after all, a little complicated.


Rettew DC. Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows about the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.