Monday, June 26, 2000

Parenting by the book

Do modern parents overanalyze the parenting process? Do they make a simple job complicated? Do they spend too much time reading parenting books and not enough time actually parenting? So says a...well, a parenting book that caught my eye today on the Barnes & Noble shelf: Parents Who Think Too Much: Why We Do It, How to Stop It. According to the publisher, author Anne Cassidy "talks about why all that thinking hasn't worked. She tells you why it is time to drop out of parenting class ... adjust your priorities so life does not revolve around a 6-year-old's soccer schedule ... and trust your instincts. With much humor, some outrage, and great wisdom, she discusses: what's wrong with a kid-centered society; why we are making the world too safe for our kids; why 'feel-good' discipline is a bad idea; why raising a happy, average kid is a terrific goal; how to find your own parental voice and style ... and more. The only thing she won't do? She won't tell you how to raise your child." And presumably, she won't tell you to stop buying parenting books until after you've picked up hers.

Frankly, I have trouble believing that a parent who doesn't think is a better parent. I have trouble believing that parenting books are the root of all evil. And I mostly have trouble believing a parenting book that tells me that. I mean, really, Anne, a sign in every Borders and Barnes & Noble in the land saying, "Hey, you! Stop reading this crap!" would have done just as well. Did you really need add another tome to the bundles o' books crowding the shelves? Books about protecting kids, protecting boys, protecting girls; disciplining kids, educating kids, entertaining kids; giving kids a moral sense, financial sense, a sense of humor; adopting kids, birthing kids, toilet-training kids, getting kids to sleep; being more stern, being more free, holding on tighter, letting go; being a mom, being a dad, being a single parent, being a grandparent, being a stepparent; dealing with hyper children, sensitive children, out-of-sync children, explosive children, challenging children, gifted children, spirited children, children with every special need imaginable but mostly ADHD children. Are parents obsessing because there are so many books, or are there so many books to feed the obsession?

And does it really matter? For each trend in parenting, there will be an equal and opposite trend. You see it on parenting e-mail lists--somebody asks a question, somebody else gives an answer, and then yet another somebody completely contradicts it, often implying that the original answer was ignorant, harmful, or indicative of a wholly inadequate parenting mindset. Why should we expect authors to be any different? Glancing at bookstore shelves or Amazon Web pages lately, you can see that for each book touting a foolproof set of parenting rules, you'll find a book that advises you not to listen to those rules, listen to these rules, and a book that says you shouldn't be following any rules, and a book that says that not following rules is what caused the problem in the first place. No wonder "parents today," as the books like to call us, are so completely confused. Every child and every family is different, and nobody has all the answers, but that sure doesn't shut anybody up. Parenting may be one of the few areas in which even people who have never done it and never will consider themselves experts.

And what the experts seem to be saying these days is that we're idiots for listening to experts. In addition to Parents Who Think Too Much, there's the enjoyably titled I'm Okay, You're a Brat!: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You from the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood. Says the Amazon blurb, "In this refreshingly honest book, bestelling author Dr. Susan Jeffers breaks the 'conspiracy of silence' and pulls no punches when detailing just how difficult parenthood can be. With humor and compassion, she reveals the insidious guilt that some child-care experts cause parents to feel. She questions many myths and half-truths that make parents feel inadequate and offers valuable 'survival' tools to cope with it all." Notice only some child-care experts are indicted here; present company excepted, no doubt.

But lest we be empowered to shed guilt and admit that sometimes kids are brats no matter how hard their parents work, here comes America's favorite feel-good shrink, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, with a bucket of cold water. In Parenthood by Proxy: Don't Have Them If You Won't Raise Them, the good doctor "entreats parents to involve themselves in their children's hearts, minds, and souls, to cherish and protect them, and to commit to the essential task of teaching them right from wrong. She acknowledges that parents no longer get much support from neighbors or public and private institutions, but she urges mothers and fathers to work even harder to counteract the prevailing culture of selfishness and irresponsibility."

So...what? Are we trying to hard or do we need to try harder? Are we overthinking or behaving thoughtlessly? Are our kids brats because of us or in spite of us? And while these folks are out writing, promoting, and speaking about their books, who the heck is watching their kids? Perhaps one of us hapless parents should write about Parents Who Spout Off Too Much, and advise would-be know-it-alls to just run their fancy-pants theories by their mothers and mothers-in-law before commiting them to print. The bookshelves would quickly be barren.

And I'd have to find something else to read.

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