Who Can Help Today's Parents? Spock Is Not Enough

A WOMAN in the Boston area whose business title is "parenting specialist" faced a minor parenting problem of her own when her son and daughter were small. She often didn't get home from work until 10 p.m. Even though she always checked on her sleeping children, they had no memory of it the next day.

So she devised a plan. After applying fresh lipstick, she would go into their rooms and kiss them on the cheek. When they got up in the morning, the lip print offered vivid proof that, as she puts it, "Mommy did come in and hug and kiss you last night and make sure you were all right."

Some outsiders hearing this very 1990s story might feel a sense of sadness that the mother wasn't home for her children's bedtime, even though they were well cared for. Others might applaud her inventiveness. But whatever the reaction, it's the kind of situation nonworking parents of earlier generations didn't have to face.

It's also the kind of situation Benjamin Spock didn't need to address when he published his landmark book, "Baby and Child Care," 50 years ago this year. In the ordered postwar America of 1946, it was enough for him to concentrate on feedings and naps and discipline. It was also enough to offer parents the reassuring words that constitute his famous opening sentence: "You know more than you think you do."

Who could have imagined then that half a century later, the nonagenarian Dr. Spock would still be churning out books for parents? Or that in 1996 he would be hard at work on a new edition of his original child-rearing manual, updating it to include information on such late-20th-century problems as teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, AIDS, and junk food in children's diets?

In the five decades since Spock assumed the role of leading guru on parenthood, a parade of other experts have offered advice as well. In the early 1970s, Fitzhugh Dodson gave Americans a new verb with his best-selling "How to Parent." Pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach followed, along with a host of less famous names. Add to these books the advice dispensed in parents' magazines and newspapers, in workshops, support groups, and parent education centers, and the message is clear: Never have more parents sought help in childrearing. From big topics such as drug prevention and sibling rivalry to small tips on lipstick kisses at bedtime, it is as if the new attitude among parents is: "We know far less than we need to know."

The mid-'90s, in fact, may rank as the proverbial best of times and worst of times for parents.

In the workplace, some corporations have truly earned the label "family friendly" by offering flexible schedules, generous leave policies, and other types of parental support. Yet other employers still demand that new parents hurry back after the birth of a child - or risk losing their job. Some parents must pretend they themselves are ill when they are actually caring for a sick child. They must also cope with snow days and school vacations without missing a beat.

And in Washington, where "family values" supposedly prevail, the stern new demand on parents is: Be self-sufficient - or else.

Individual parents have traditionally been heroes to their own children. But now parents as a group may be the new American heroes.

Short on time as they work ever-longer hours, in some cases short on money as they wonder how to support a family in a downsizing economy or how to finance a college education that may cost more than $100,000, they nevertheless know what parents have always known - that the family remains one of life's great satisfactions.

Even in these most demanding of times - the age of proof by lipstick - mothers like the "parenting specialist," tiptoeing into her children's rooms late at night after a long day at work, still judge all the effort to be worth it.

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