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Do books know best?

When parents have questions or feel they aren't doing a good job raising their children, consulting a book may help - but not always.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2002

Father doesn't know best anymore. Neither does Mother. Or at least they don't think they do.

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And no wonder. This is the era of advice overload, when an army of family experts is barraging parents with information on how to rear their children. Whatever the subject - discipline, sleep, meals, tantrums - there's a book by a confident authority, just waiting to tell parents that they might not be doing it right.

Some titles are straightforward: "The Baby Book," "The Parenting Bible." Others are sassy: "I'm OK, You're a Brat." Still others promise greater order and harmony in the family: "Parents in Charge," "Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking," "Playful Parenting."

Yet whatever the approach, all this advice, however helpful, can be daunting to parents. "It's an overwhelming amount of information, and it's often contradictory," says Roberta Wilson of Lexington, Mass., the mother of two sons, ages 6 and 2. "Wading through it is my biggest challenge."

At their best, these advice-givers, many of them psychologists and family therapists, offer comfort and solace to parents who are often short on time and long on guilt.

They reassure parents that they're not alone and that they need not be perfect parents raising perfect children. That, theoretically, gives parents more confidence.

Yet ironically, parental confidence appears to be diminishing rather than increasing. According to a new survey by Public Agenda, 6 of 10 parents say that overall, they're doing only a "fair" or "poor" job of raising their children. Relatively few say they have succeeded in teaching their children important values such as independence and self-control.

Half a century ago, Benjamin Spock made raising children sound relatively simple. "You know more than you think you do," he reassured anxious parents in the opening lines of his famous book, "Baby and Child Care."

Parenthood has become a competitive venture, now that even 2-year-olds are vying for space in the best nursery schools, which will supposedly put them on a fast track to Harvard. As a persuasive self-help industry reaches out to everyone, it's easy for parents to follow the guidance of professionals rather than trust their own judgment.

The result is what British sociologist Frank Furedi calls "paranoid parenting." In his new book of that title, subtitled "Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child" (Chicago Review Press, $14.95), Mr. Furedi criticizes an "industry of advice providers" for preying on parents' "desperate hopes" and concerns.

"Experts put a lot of pressure on parents to make sure that every single minute with kids has value," Furedi says, speaking from England, where he teaches at the University of Kent. "There's a sense that you can never parent too much."

In the 1950s, Furedi says, prevailing myths portrayed parenthood as domestic bliss. By contrast, today's myths cast childrearing as an ordeal.

Even the vocabulary has changed. Instead of "childrearing," the favored word is "parenting." Furedi sees the switch as reflecting a fundamental shift in attitude. Instead of concentrating on the child, he says, advice now focuses on concern for parents.