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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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."

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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.

The proliferation of advice also coincides with the growing complexity of parental roles. As one example, Furedi recalls that when he was a child, it would have been unthinkable for a parent to help with homework. "That would have been called cheating," he says. "Today, if they don't help, it's called irresponsible."

Stephanie Coontz, a family historian who chairs the Council on Contemporary Families in New York, faults some childrearing books for being untested and anecdotal. "There's a pattern of people in America appointing themselves experts," she says. "They think, 'It worked for me - I'll write a book.' "

And write they do. The publishing industry does not track sales of parenting books as a separate category. But Kim Corradini, a buyer for Barnes & Noble bookstores, finds that sales have remained fairly stable in recent years, despite a proliferation of titles.

Today whole forests are felled as publishers try to supply information that will relieve parental anxiety. Amazon.com lists 10,041 titles under the category "Parenting and Families."

Pregnancy books and infant-toddler books sell very well, Ms. Corradini says. "When people find they're expecting, first-time parents will buy a number of books. They need a manual for dealing with this new creature in their lives." Sales continue to do fairly well through preschool, and then drop as children enter their school years.

"Basically the rule of thumb is, the older the child, the lower the sales, until you get to the teen years," Corradini says. Then parents may hurry to the library or the bookstore, looking for just the right expert to soothe their concerns and offer advice on everything from drinking, drugs, and sex to violence.

After the Columbine shootings, books dealing with adolescent boys sold well. More recently, girls have had their day. Last spring, several books about mean girls and girls' social groups were popular, Corradini says. She expects them to continue to sell well next spring when paperback editions appear.

Overall, Corradini notes, practical parenting books do much better than philosophical parenting books. "People want answers for issues they're dealing with."

Not everyone turns to books for answers. For Nicci Brown, the mother of a 20-month-old daughter, some of the best advice comes from her mother. There's only one hitch: Mom lives 10,000 miles away in Australia.

"Fortunately, we have a good phone rate to Australia," Mrs. Brown says with a laugh, explaining that she and her mother talk several times a week.

Like other parents, Brown, a communications manager at Syracuse University, also turns to parenting magazines and the Internet. She gathers information from websites such as American baby.com, babycenter.com, and healthykids.com. These sites also send e-mail newsletters.

"You can put the age of your child in, and every week they'll send you an e-mail that's appropriate," she says.

On her lunch hour, Mrs. Wilson, the Massachusetts mother, surfs websites, printing out pages to read later. She also gives her husband articles to read on the subway as he commutes.

Anne Leedom, founder of Parenting Bookmark, a website for childrearing books, finds that most of her buyers are women with young children. Some women buy books for fathers, a growing trend as publishers market books to mothers for fathers.

"Dads don't realize how much information is out there for them," Ms. Leedom says.

She encourages parents to ask: Who is this expert? What is their background? Why would I want to listen to them? "When you read the information, if it does not make sense to you, or feel right to do, then that is not the parenting book for you."

Leedom tells of a friend, a new mother, who learned that lesson the hard way. Someone had given her a book advocating a strict approach: Let the baby cry and refuse to feed it on demand. "This poor mother had been crying every day," Leedom says. "She couldn't decide whether to go with her heart and her instinct, or this expert. The tension in their home was awful." After the mother rejected the advice, life settled down.

Until recently, Leedom says, a majority of parenting books focused on coping with a problem after it occurred. Now, in what she terms a big shift, more authors are focusing on how to prevent a behavioral problem rather than on how to fix it. The question becomes: "What can we do with 3- or 4-year-olds so when they're 10, they will have self-esteem, they will achieve, they will have character?"

Paula Mattos of Roseville, Calif., the mother of two children, 5 and 7, likes "quick and easy reading, such as 'If you're having trouble with fighting, here are 10 tips,' or 'Four ways to handle this problem.' "

Three childrearing books currently sit on Wilson's nightstand. She approaches them smorgasbord-style, taking "a little of this and a little of that." That helps her understand her position on an issue and how she wants to deal with it. No single book leaves her thinking, "Everything this author says is just hitting the nail on the head."

In evaluating the worth of the experts' advice, she considers her children's personalities: "Some things that might be wonderful with one child might not work with mine. Is this a good way to approach it with my child?"

While many parents struggle with too much material, others have too little. Alice Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University, notes that most parenting books are written for middle-class readers and many have price tags beyond the reach of low-income families.

Noting that many children come from bilingual families and different cultures, she asks, "Are we disenfranchising some parents because they don't have materials geared to their level?"

Regardless of their economic situation, what can parents do? First, says Furedi, the British sociologist, they need to realize that experience is the ultimate teacher. Experts don't necessarily offer a quick-fix solution.

Second, he emphasizes the value of building "networks of support" with other adults.

The maternal wisdom that earlier generations shared over the fence as they hung laundry on the line is now passed along in break rooms at the office. "There's a lot of trading stories with friends at work," Brown says. "They'll say, 'Oh, I've been through that.' "

Terry Ayotte of Vienna, Va., turned to friends to recommend a book on sleep issues when her daughter, now nearly 2, was a baby. Experts on sleep, she discovered, fall into two opposing camps - "let them cry it out, or never let them cry it out." That kind of polarization also shows up in subjects such as timeouts and sleeping with babies.

Whatever the pluses or minuses of childrearing books, Ms. Coontz takes a philosophical approach. "Kids are pretty resilient," she says. "A little common sense goes a long way. No advice has ever destroyed a whole generation of kids."

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