Books, Advice, Or Just Wing It? Responsibly Parenting In A Culture Obsessed With Perfection

Do extreme parenting books set parents up for failure and promote practices that aren’t scientifically proven to work?

October 8, 2018
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I read surprisingly few parenting books during my first pregnancy. There was something in me that felt like I was probably going to be okay. I believed that since my mom had done a pretty job raising four kids, I had a pretty good idea of what I was supposed to do.

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Randomly, near the end of my pregnancy, a friend of mine suggested that I give a book on baby sleep a try. She swore it changed everything for her, and her suggesting the book brought up doubts that I might not actually know what I was doing. I didn’t really have much of a plan for getting my kids to sleep each night, so maybe I should give it a shot.

I read a chapter or two before giving birth and then devoured the rest over the course of a day while nursing my newborn around the clock. This books made some pretty attractive promises centered around me getting the sleep I was desperate for a few days into motherhood.

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The book, Babywise, is a pretty controversial book in the parenting world. It suggests rigorous sleep training techniques that you typically love or hate. I’m not here to stir up a fight on sleep training, so I’ll leave it at this: I knew in my gut that this book wasn’t a fit for my family. Nonetheless, I powered through the methods for two nights before my husband finally suggested we call it quits.

This was my first of many experiences feeling like the parenting advice I was reading or hearing was asking me to question parenting practices that came naturally to me. It’s not that I’m some amazing parenting expert, I’m just a regular mom. The longer I am a parent and exposed to “parenting culture,” the more it feels like parents are obsessed with being perfect and that the advice given follows suit.

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Like Oliver Burkeman, writer for The Guardian, I take issue with the extremes presented by so many parenting books. On top of that, I simply didn’t get how any one method could work for all children or all parents. Parenting three kids has taught me this couldn’t possibly be true.

Who knows how to parent?

Parenting books can provide confidence for nervous or anxious parents. I know, because I have turned to them during seasons of struggle. When we turn to parenting books, we’re typically looking for advice on how to parent well. Maybe a book was forced on us by a friend or perhaps we sought out a book because we had a specific fear or concern about being a mom or dad.

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Whatever our reasons, we want answers from someone who knows their stuff, right? Unfortunately, we might be too trusting of who claims to be a parenting expert, turning to books based on their position on the bestseller list instead of their authors’ credentials.

Authors of parenting books should be experts in a child development, which means they should probably be trained a child psychologist, child psychiatrist, or have some kind of postgraduate education specifically focused on child development, according to Owen Muir, MD, child psychiatrist and medical director at Brooklyn Minds, a concierge mental health treatment center in Brooklyn.

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“If you can find a single parenting book written by a child psychiatrist, you’re doing pretty well,” Muir says. Specifically, he notes that even pediatricians, who are experts in the medical side of childcare like screening for conditions or administering vaccines, aren’t great sources of “expert” parenting advice simply because they don’t have postgraduate education in child development.

“In child psychiatry training, you actually spend time in nurseries,” he says in providing a comparison. “A lot of the parenting advice comes from people who … don’t really have expertise how young people develop their ability to talk about thoughts and feelings or their ability to learn.”

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Unfortunately, many psychologists or psychiatrists with specialized training in child development don’t step in and write a book until something is wrong, meaning they focus in on helping parents with exceptional circumstances such as caring for a child with special needs, mental health problems, or trauma in their past, according to Muir. This leaves parents with raising typically developing children in a typical environment with a smaller library of well-written books at their disposal.

The Problem with Extremes

Outside of carefully checking the credentials of the authors of any parenting advice books you read, it’s also important to take the content into consideration. The author being an expert doesn’t automatically qualify a book as a good fit for your family. Parenting books, and self-help books in general, tend to use extremes to get their point across and get their books sold.

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“When you’re trying to win at having the book that’s bought by the most people, you’re often trying to catch the most eyes, and sometimes that results in advice that’s flashy but there’s not a lot of substance there,” says Shane Gregory Owens, PhD, a psychologist who works with parents and young adults.

The problem with extremes in general is that they’re actually not a great way to parent or to raise well-adjusted kids. When parents are extreme, kids learn to be extreme, too, according to Muir. Take attachment parenting, which Burkemen mentions in his article and Muir brings up as an example of extreme parenting practices.

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According to the organization’s website, attachment parenting is based on the idea that parents and children can build healthy bonds through very specific parenting practices. At face value, that sounds pretty mild. When you dig deeper into the values, there are specific principles promoting co-sleeping, breastfeeding with very little flexibility or structure, and discouraging allowing the baby to cry at any point.

In Muir’s mind, parenting practices that avoid parent-child separation to such an extreme degree actually contradict what secure attachment is about—a child’s ability to feel secure in a world that isn’t always predictable and where their wants and needs aren’t constantly the main focus.

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“You want children who are flexible, who can handle challenges, who can handle new experiences, and who can meet new people in their life and engage with them healthfully and not full of terror,” he says.

Lead with what you know; ask questions about the rest.

So, should parents avoid parenting advice books altogether? Hardly. Instead, parents should be careful about why they seek out parenting books, how they read them and apply the advice, and what they use that advice to accomplish.

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According to Owens, for most parents, parenting well can begin from a place of starting with what you know and filling in the rest.

“You were brought up by your parents, and if you were brought up successfully, you already have a set of tools that you can bring to things,” he says. Then, as you run into things you don’t feel certain about or that you have questions about, move on to asking for advice from people within your circle. Turn to family or friends before turning to books.

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At this point, if you still have unanswered questions, parenting books are great for filling in the gaps. As you start looking for books and experts, keep a few things in mind.

Firstly, remember there is no one answer for parenting well.

“Audition many books, stay away from the notion that any book has the right answers in it,” says Owens. “There few absolutes when it comes to parenting. There are few things that absolutely are right and few things that are absolutely wrong.”

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Follow the advice in these books with the understanding that following any set of advice at all times isn’t realistic. Overly prescriptive parenting books, books full of lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts, set unrealistic expectations for parents, according to Owens.

Additionally, trust your knowledge of your child and your ability to respond to their needs. Parenting books can be helpful, but they can also overcomplicate what we already know about kids—they respond well to positive attention and positive feedback. For most parents, according to Muir, this means doing the things that already come naturally to us like responding with empathy to their emotions.

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“If it sounds outlandish or counterintuitive, it probably is,” says Muir. “None of this is particularly rocket science: Pay attention to your kids. If they’re sad, recognize that.”

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, remember that children do not need perfect parents. You’re probably already a good enough parent. Researchers point this out in an article for Disease in Childhood, writing that the vast majority of parents are doing a satisfactory job while prescribing more intensive intervention for the minority of parents who are truly struggling.

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In fact, most kids respond pretty darn well to parents who are just doing okay. Parents who are not on point 100 percent of the time, who do not always understand exactly what their child needs, actually teach their children really important lessons for emotional development. They learn flexibility and they learn to consider the possibility of misunderstandings, according to Muir.

Catherine Pearlman, PhD, licensed social worker and author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavior Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction is a big proponent of good enough parenting and shares in an essay for for Brightly that imperfect parenting also builds independence in children, teaching them to be resourceful as they deal with disappointments in life.

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For me, and for parents everywhere, this is permission to feel confident in our abilities and confident in our children, believing that we have the skills to meet their needs and they have the ability to adapt, even when we miss the mark.

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