HOW do you get children to share? What kind of punishment works best? How can you stop brothers and sisters from fighting so much? The questions are perennial, and every generation of parents seeks the answers. But today's parents, perhaps more than any former group of moms and dads, have a torrent of advice to choose from. There are books, courses, newsletters, seminars - all designed, in theory at least, to make the tasks of child-rearing less mystifying.
``There's lots of stuff out there, and I think some of it is more confusing than it is helpful,'' says Nancy Samalin, who for more than a decade has run workshops for parents in the New York City area.
Mrs. Samalin's own book, ``Loving Your Child Is Not Enough'' (Viking, $15.95), is among dozens that have been published over the past year. They range from the specific - ``Siblings Without Rivalry,'' by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich (W.W. Norton, $14.95), for example - to the sweeping, like Bruno Bettelheim's ``A Good Enough Parent'' (Alfred A. Knopf, $18.95).
Aid for parents is hardly a new phenomenon. In 1815, the denizens of Portland, Maine, started the first regularly organized parents' discussion groups in the United States. The early and mid-1800s saw the publication of a number of magazines aimed at helping mothers raise their offspring. Federally supported programs in child care and homemaking came with legislation in the early 20th century.
Efforts to educate people in the art of being a parent have ebbed and flowed over the decades, but the tide since the late 1940s has been on the rise. Today, says Susan Ginsberg of Bank Street College in New York, such programs have ``enormous variety, they're simply all over the place.'' She ticks off schools, hospitals, and mental health agencies as a few of the institutions sponsoring programs. Then there are workshops run by individuals trained in the field, like Samalin.
Dr. Ginsberg organizes parenting seminars for corporations interested in helping employees balance work and family demands. She also edits and publishes a newsletter, Work and Family Life, that corporations can subscribe to. She sees a number of factors combining to increase the demand for parent education today - most notably sheer demographics, as thousands of baby-boomers come of child-bearing age.
Lawrence Steinberg, professor of child and family studies at the University of Wisconsin, agrees. ``I think it has to do with the yuppie generation coming of parent age. They're more likely to believe that when you want to learn about something you go out and read a book about it.''
Some seasoned parents may chuckle at this, observing that child-rearing is something learned only by doing. But a desire to read up on the subject can be helpful, in the view of Dr. Steinberg. He argues that well-researched material on child-rearing know-how can help fill some gaps of knowledge.
Weren't things better when grandparents simply passed their child-rearing know-how along, generation to generation, minus all the ``experts''? Steinberg, for one, doubts this. ``Most of grandma's home remedies over the years have turned out to be wrong, and that might be just as true of parenting,'' he ventures.
Whether the advice is coming from grandmother or from a child development specialist, beware of dogmatism, counsels Samalin. ``Parents have been told what to do ad nauseam,'' she says. Samalin states that there's ``not a single `should''' in her book.
Perhaps Dr. Bettelheim, a veteran of 60 years of observing parents and children, strikes the crucial cautionary note in his book. ``Generalized advice,'' he writes, ``is defied by the uniqueness of each adult and each child.''