Why Is Child-Rearing Advice So Contradictory?

Is there a way to make sense of all the confusion?

Posted Sep 11, 2019

One of the most important jobs we have is raising, or socializing, children to be happy, responsible, caring, and productive members of society. It’s not surprising, then, that parents—the main agents of socialization—worry about whether they are doing the best job possible. And it’s also not surprising that there are many individuals who respond to that worry by providing supposedly expert advice. Hundreds of books are available about various aspects of child rearing and an online search for “parenting advice” yields (at the moment of writing) 201,000,000 hits. The only problem is that the advice-givers don’t always agree with one another, even those who base their advice on research.

 Alexander Dummer pexels
Source: Alexander Dummer pexels

Consider the following recommendations:

  • Pick up babies when they cry so they feel secure.
  • Don’t pick up babies when they cry or you will reinforce undesirable behavior.
  • Mild and occasional spanking can be useful for teaching children correct behavior.
  • Don’t ever spank a child; it teaches them undesirable ways of resolving disagreements.
  • Make sure to give your child lots of praise.
  • Don’t praise children too much as it can undermine their desire to behave well for its own sake.
  • Treat your child with the respect you would give a friend.
  • Your child is not your friend. Remember that you are the boss.
  • Set rules for your child but be willing to compromise on occasion.
  • Set rules for your child and make sure they are followed. Try not to compromise as this leads to confusion.
  • Don’t punish children when they have misbehaved. Talk to them about why what they have done is wrong.
  • When children misbehave they should experience the negative consequences of their actions.

Given this level of contradiction it’s easy to dismiss experts as not quite so expert after all, and as possibly even harmful. However, apparent contradictions can be understood when you realize that there are different reasons  why children don’t behave in an optimal way and that a parent needs to respond differently depending on that reason. We tend to think that one form of parenting works across the board, but that’s not the case. When children behave in a way that is troubling, it can happen for a number of different reasons. And each requires a different sort of parenting.

Why Experts Disagree: Socialization Happens in Different Domains

Following is a list of “domains” of socialization, including reasons for why a problematic behavior might occur. When we don’t identify the domain correctly then we may choose the wrong way of dealing with the problem. Hence the contradictory advice.

Protection. This domain is activated when children are distressed, upset, or anxious. In this domain, parents need to provide comfort as well as help children deal with distress on their own. As a result, children feel secure and trust their parents’ guidance.

Reciprocity. Children need to comply with their parents’ requests. But parents need to comply with their children’s (reasonable) requests as well. The more compliant parents are, the more compliant their children will be in turn. Parents who play games their children have chosen even though they find them boring, or who give their children a choice about what to wear or where to go for a walk, are building up capital; this capital is used in the future when a parent asks for cooperation or freely-given compliance.

Control. This domain is usually the source of parents' greatest concern—what to do when their child misbehaves even though that child knows better. Here is where reward and punishment have a role to play. A considerable body of research indicates that corporal punishment is harmful. But interventions such as withdrawal of privileges and verbal disapproval, accompanied by reasons for good behavior (that make sense) are appropriate. On occasion compromise may be okay but generally, limits need to be clear and maintained.

Guided learning. Here appropriate behavior is taught through discussion and exchange of views, often before the problem behavior appears. Parents read stories to their children that have good and bad characters and they talk about the characters’ behavior, or parents take advantage of an event such as passing a homeless person on the street to guide their children’s thinking about caring for others.

Observational learning and participation. We learn a great deal about appropriate behavior by watching others as well as by joining with them in activities associated with that behavior. Parents can prevent children from playing violent video games and encourage them to have friends who are a good influence. The family can visit an animal shelter or help out in a soup kitchen. But some undesirable behavior occurs because parents unintentionally engage in it themselves, leading to the not very convincing directive of “Do as I say, not as I do."

How Thinking About Domains Helps a Parent Deal with Problems

A good start in any situation is to identify the domain involved and, therefore, what the appropriate response is. Is my child afraid or anxious or sad and needs to feel that I understand and will help? Is my child uncooperative because I rarely go along with what he or she wants? Does my child know their behavior is wrong, and so I need to be clearer in my disapproval and apply negative consequences where appropriate? If my child doesn’t know the behavior is wrong, should I look for opportunities to teach about it? Finally, if my child is a bit aggressive, should I do something about the video games he or she is playing?

This way of organizing events suggests, then, that one explanation for contradictory advice is that the advice givers are thinking about different domains. In future posts I will look more closely at the kind of parenting that is effective in each of these domains.

References

Grusec, J.E. (2019). Principles of effective parenting: How socialization works. New York: Guilford Press.