Important Parenting advice! Ignore Parenting advice!

When did "parenting" become a word?  When a publisher realized that there were millions to be made from telling anxious, well-off parentingers about all the things that can go wrong with kids.  (And a guy named Stan, in marketing, suggested they move away from the term "child rearing").  Nobody ever sold a book called "If You Can Afford the 30$ to Buy This Book Then Your Kid Is Doing Better Than 99% of the Humans Who Ever Lived."  21st century Canadians live in an age and place where most of us can provide our children with nutritious food, shelter, education, clothing and medical care that most of our ancestors (and many people around the world today) would have been delighted to be able to give to their kids.  That and love will go a long way.  We live in an age and circumstance of tremendous blessing.  So why do we consume parenting advice books and lectures by the SUV-load?

I work with a lot of families in difficult situations and I have seen some pretty bad parenting (by today's standards).  I can tell you that very little of what I have seen happens because people didn't read a book on parenting.  Occasionally, I will meet parents who honestly did not know better.  I tell them to stop and, usually, they do.  Twice in my career I have told parents not to threaten to hit their kids with a belt.  These parents felt overwhelmed by out-of-control kids and thought that threatening such a beating was better than actually following through.  I told them that, for a kid, the fear of such a beating can be almost as devastating as the beating itself.  They thought about it and saw that what I was telling them was probably true.  We brainstormed some better ways to deal with their kid's behaviours and they never resorted to that kind of threat again.   

I see parents who want to stop doing things they know or suspect are bad for their kids but they can't because they have mental health issues or are struggling with the ghosts of their own past or trouble in their present.  Just about everybody knows that parents should keep their marital acrimony away from their kids.  There are dozens of books that will tell you that.  But I have seen a lot of parents who tell me that in their particular circumstance, because their soon-to-be-ex wife/husband is such a poisonous viper, it is absolutely critical for the kids to know everything.  Or they make every effort to hold back only to find themselves pouring out all their hatred to a kid who is caught in the middle.  A book may help re-inforce a message in such a circumstance but I think that person needs supportive friends, a caring community and probably counselling.  

The people who buy books on parenting are often the worried well; parents who lack confidence in their own ability to parent.  That is where I have the biggest issue with the parent-advice-industrial complex.  By turning something that humans have done pretty successfully for our whole history into a gerundified 'parenting' with classes and manuals and DVDs, it makes parents feel less confident in their own judgement rather than more confident.  Ron Taffel wrote a wonderful piece in Psychotherapy Networker a few years back called "The Decline and Fall of Parental Authority... and what therapists can do about it."  He wrote about some of the forces undermining parental confidence and what that does to people's lives.

[A] chronic sense of being held hostage by kids and the culture at large helps explain why parents so often show up in our offices looking and sounding like spineless wimps. With so little time to bond with their children, parents are afraid to take even one step that could drive them farther away, undermine their already shaky school performance, and ruin their chances for social success when little else seems to matter. Not surprisingly, a multibillion-dollar public and private enterprise monetizes these insecurities by selling a raft of social modules and remediation services—including tutors and homework helpers for the well-heeled and supplemental educational materials designed to jack up reading and math scores. The issue isn’t just parental abdication, but what I call the “merchandising of childhood,” based on a deep-rooted fear of failure.

Taffel sees economic difficulties as the driving factor in parental lack of confidence.  I would go one step further;  I think we live in a fear culture.  We are encouraged to be fearful rather than generous and open towards people and the world around us and we are especially encouraged to transmit those signals to kids.  Engagement in community organizations has plummeted in North America over the last 50 years.  People don't join clubs, religious institutions civic organizations.  In Robert Putnam's famous phrase, today people are "Bowling Alone."  And people are 'parenting' alone as well.  Living in a more mobile, deracinated society that is fearful and highly individualistic means people don't have great social networks for parenting.  There are fewer norms for parenting and the norms that exist are harder to learn than they once were.

That makes for a lack of what social scientists call self-efficacy among parents; basically the feeling that you know what to do and are able to do it.  That is a problem because self-efficacy in parents correlates highly with good outcomes for kids.  (Obviously, if you are convinced that the way to deal with a kid is by threatening to hit him/her with a belt or to dis your ex to the kids, that's not good.  But it is better to parent with confidence than to parent without confidence, even poorly, and parents who feel confident in their parenting are less likely to parent badly.)  Researchers don't know exactly why that is the case, whether confidence comes from success, or if it comes from shared norms and those things generate success in parenting or maybe that kids perceive confidence in their parents and feel a sense of safety because of that.  Or a combination of those things.  But it is clear that feeling that you can manage being a parent without getting post-doctoral training in child development and arts and crafts is good for families.  

This doesn't mean that parenting books can't be helpful for everyday kinds of problems with kids.  I have mentioned "How to Talk so Kids will Listen, How to Listen so Kids Will Talk" before which I think is great.  But I actively discourage parents from trying to anticipate and preparing a fully developed response to every potential disaster of childhood and adolescence.  Now if you'll excuse me I have to go work on the next chapter of my parenting book.  The working title is "1001 Things That Will Definitely Go Wrong With Your Kid That Only This Book Can Fix."