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TV Parenting : Programs for Families of the '90s Stock up on Experts and Cozy Reassurance


These days, when Cindy and Tom Roberts' son throws a tantrum, the first-time Burbank parents use advice passed on to them by one of the country's pre-eminent pediatricians: Just say no.

"Two-year-olds are really pushy," Cindy Roberts said. "He'd go over and turn the volume up on the TV set, turn it down, change the channels. He used to slam an antique table against the wall to get attention, even if I was already giving him attention. If I hadn't learned to say no and set limits, I would have had to remove everything from the house."

The Roberts' furnishings--and perhaps some of their sanity--were saved because they did something increasing numbers of new parents are doing: turning to television for advice. In this case it was to "What Every Baby Knows," Lifetime's ACE Award-winning parenting series hosted by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.

With the Family Channel's veteran program "American Baby" and the newer "Healthy Kids," and Lifetime's new "Growing Up Together," premiering June 8, the series is part of a TV genre that could replace the coffee klatch and Dr. Spock as a primary source of information for parents of the '90s.

With their cozy talk-show formats featuring regular families, the series serve two purposes. Not only do they share information, tips and ideas from experts, they help remind moms and dads that, as Cindy Roberts put it, "you're not the only parent on Earth."

New parents' feelings of alienation, some believe, are a result of the moving apart of extended families and the dissolution of community ties that have become common patterns in American society. "Something's got to relace (these old support systems)," said "What Every Baby Knows" host Brazelton, a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and author of 23 books on child development. "Otherwise people are raising children in a vacuum. Support systems for parents are critical, and if TV is one of those, then bravo, I'm thrilled to hear it."

Each of the four parenting series tries, in some way, to provide the support that in a simpler time might have come from midwives and grandmothers. "Parents need to be assured that they are doing the right thing," said Judith Nolte, host of "American Baby" and editor for 21 years of the same-named magazine on which the show is based. "I think the best service we provide is to reassure parents that they're probably doing a good job."

This encouragement comes not from old wives' tales, however, but from pediatricians and other experts the shows bring on to provide up-to-the-minute medical advice and child-rearing techniques. "In general," said Dr. Loraine Stern, a Los Angeles-area pediatrician who has appeared on "Healthy Kids," "the things I like about these shows is that the information is authoritative and not controversy-oriented."

"Healthy Kids" is produced under the guidance of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which must approve "every word, even the commercials" on the show, according to its host, fashion model Kim Alexis.

While the series are all geared toward parents of infants and toddlers and may at a glance seem interchangeable, each has a different slant, said Stern.

"('What Every Baby Knows') deals with parents' feelings and provides a forum for dealing with parents' fears," she said. "Healthy Kids" is devoted entirely to health issues, while "American Baby" is "very much like the magazine, with more of a range of topics than 'Healthy Kids,' " Stern said. "Growing Up Together" also features more general topics. All four shows benefit from a renewable audience of new parents and an endless array of issues to be explored and updated, she said.

Upcoming segments of "American Baby," for example, which began its 10th season in April, include a repeat of the 13-week "The First Year of Life," an ACE-Award winning 1985 series dealing with emotional and physical development from a child's first week of life to its first birthday.

"Healthy Kids," taping a second set of episodes this summer, will include updated information about immunizations.

"What Every Baby Knows," kicking off its sixth season this summer, will spend 26 episodes on the road, looking at the different ways American families raise their children.

And "Growing Up Together" promises to answer questions ranging from "How long should I breast-feed my child?" to "Why won't my toddler sleep through the night?"

"There are always new things to feed this need parents have for information," said "American Baby's" Nolte.

Stern pointed out, however, that the shows provide such information with varying degrees of skill: "One of the problems I find with any informational TV show is that the average three-minute segment isn't always an appropriate time to really delve into an issue."

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