PARENTING is exciting, frustrating, and there are no guarantees, but how can you not do it? It's kind of like we need to eat,'' says Vicki Lansky. You know Vicki Lansky, author of sold-in-the-millions ``Feed Me, I'm Yours'' (a cookbook for parents), compiler of ``practical parenting tips,'' guest of Phil Donahue and P. M. Magazine.
She's the one on the cover of ``Vicki Lansky's Practical Parenting Tips'' (Meadowbrook Press, $5.95) with the blow-dryer aimed at the baby's bottom; the one who suggests on Page 51 of her tips ``For the School-Age Years'' (Bantam Books, $5.95) that you give your child a can of worms for a pet (``they're portable and can be returned to their natural habitat when fascination with them wanes''), the one carrying the fold-up potty seat in her briefcase (``isn't this great?'').
A transplanted New Yorker, the Minnesota-based entrepreneur has become something of a national neighbor next door -- the one who holds your hand when your tot goes through toilet training, and who tells you that this, too, shall pass when parent-teacher conferences become daily affairs.
``Everything she does grew out of her being a mother,'' says her Bantam Books editor, Toni Burbank.
Ms. Lansky fits the image of the 1980s mother neatly. Her two young teens grew up with her business (the cookbook was a volunteer project for the local Lamaze group, she says, put together when the children were both under four), weathered a recent divorce, and now divide their time evenly between the parents' homes. ``Divorce has done a lot for certain segments of the economy, like housing,'' says their mother.
``Sometimes my friends will say, I heard your mother on the radio, or I saw her on TV, but I'm not known just for being my mother's daughter,'' says sixth-grader Dana Lansky.
Life with the mother who knows everyone's tricks of the trade isn't one constant experiment after another, Dana adds. ``We talk about the rules together and figure them out,'' she says, admitting that ``sometimes Mom is strict about things like how much TV we can watch.''
But Ms. Lansky says she started out parenting ``with the same illusions everyone has -- that you're going to turn out a perfect child. I'd call my mother every week with a new theory and she'd nod and say, uh huh, uh huh,'' she says, nodding.
Everyone goes through ``that professional-parent stage,'' she believes, ``but you outgrow it.'' We're talking with a very laid-back parent here, one who thinks that most problems parents ``get upset about seem very important at the time, but in hindsight, they're really nothing.''
Wearing a warm gray cardigan dressed up with pearls, Ms. Lansky came to Washington recently with a briefcase full of tips and toilet seats to promote her new book -- the one with the suggestion about pet worms. ``There's almost nothing for the school-age years, I guess, because you think you know how to raise them by that time,'' she says.
Still, she's gathered 165 pages worth of ideas showing how parents have persuaded children to practice the piano, get along with their siblings, and agree not to spend their entire allowance on candy. ``Vicki is an idea-generating mechanism,'' says her partner, Jonathan Lazear. ``She never slows down. If she's idle, it's because you're not supposed to stand on your head while eating dinner.''
``Vicki's a great bridge between parents,'' says Ann Elwood, head of MELD, a national self-help group for new parents that has Ms. Lansky on its board. ``She can feel what parents are concerned about and what to tell them, plus she has all these lovely bits of information.''
The ``lovely bits of information'' form Ms. Lansky's message to parents. ``She is a parent herself, so she has the first credential,'' says Ms. Elwood, who admits that there has been some criticism that the author ``simply doesn't have the credentials in the child-care field.''
But Ms. Lansky sees such experts as ``mostly theoretical,'' saying that a lot of her readers ``read those people and try to apply their theories, and wind up feeling guilty when they don't work. So they turn to other mothers,'' a phenomenon she thinks is expanding to include fathers.
``You used to go to parties and the men were all off in this corner talking business,'' she says in her rapid-fire voice, ``while women were off in the other corner talking diapers. Everyone put [the diaper discussion] down as trivial, when in fact it's really important -- it is viable, it is business.''
Now she goes to parties and ``everyone's talking diapers,'' she says.
Parenting has changed in other ways, too: ``We're making these tremendous leaps,'' she says, ``and you don't know what to prepare your kids for. About the best you can do is to give them the tools for communicating so they can work it out themselves.''
But the questions she gets from readers ``are the same old ones -- how to toilet train, how to keep your husband from feeding the child candy. . . .
``Motherhood is the hardest job I've ever done,'' she says, ``and I've done a lot of things. It's like cutting the grass, it just keeps reappearing.''
Still, she asks about her children, ``How can you live life without them?''