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The New Parent Trap--Falling Victim to Uncertainty, Trends : Family: The plethora of guides and magazines show a growing reliance on experts, rather than intuition. Often a quick fix is sought.

November 24, 1994|LAURA SESSIONS STEPP | WASHINGTON POST

Ah, those parenting books. Written by psychiatrists and other physicians, grabbed by Mom and Dad on the run, consulted the way parents used to consult their parents or Mrs. Jones down the street.

Walk into any bookstore and you'll find hundreds of them, their titles reflecting the growing number of problems children have been "discovered" to have and the legions of professionals who feel qualified to solve them. "Why Johnny Can't Concentrate." "Raising Your Spirited Child." "The Misunderstood Child." "Children With Asthma," "Children With Epilepsy," even "The Emotional Problems of Normal Children."

"There seem to be more parenting books every year, and I find that alarming," says Ann Ruethling, who skims at least five new titles a week for her Chinaberry Book Service, a mail-order firm specializing in books for children and families. "It says to me that as parents we see problems, and we're groping. We don't know ourselves anymore, much less our children."

The world's most famous baby doctor, Benjamin Spock, who still travels and lectures despite his advanced years, says uncertainty is the most prevalent difficulty he observes in his audiences today. "American parents are losing more and more confidence in themselves," he says. "I don't think that's a healthy sign."

In addition to books, there are parenting magazines--97, according to the National Directory of Magazines. Some, such as Child, Parenting, and Parents--the grandmother of them all--have a broad circulation, but many more are local. The information-hungry parent can also cruise the info-highway and find at least a dozen electronic bulletin boards offering advice and conversation.

In the beginning, when today's parents were smearing oatmeal on their own high chairs, there was Spock. Period. "Trust yourself," he began "Baby and Child Care," published in 1946. But no one listened, and soon came Brazelton and Leach, Ginott and Faber, Eisenberg and hundreds more.

Parenting by intuition was gradually replaced with parenting by technique, says psychologist David Elkind, and responsibility for child-rearing shifted subtly from parent to Ph.D.

The early experts, such as Spock and Arnold Gesell, outlined general norms of development by age and assured parents they could translate these norms, Elkind says in his latest book, "Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance." Later authors, he says, became more "prescriptive in tone, judgmental in attitude and specific in their aims." The new breed appears to want to help parents modify, rather than understand, their children's behavior, says Elkind, who doesn't altogether approve of this trend.

Elkind suggests that many of today's parents prefer the quick technique because it's just that--quick. Freddi Greenberg, editor-in-chief of Child, agrees that that's one reason. "Sixty percent of our readers work full-time," says Greenberg, whose magazine articles combine a developmental approach with specific techniques. "They want to be told, 'Here are two or three choices that will make sense for your child.' " Greenberg, a mother of five, adds, "We (parents) really do try to make every minute count." Previous generations of parents spent more time at home, she says, and "they didn't obsess as much."

Lawyer Lisa West, 37, gave birth to Alex about a year ago, and like many of her contemporaries, she has attacked child-rearing with the same degree of seriousness with which she pursues her career--perhaps even more. She's the kind of reader that Peter Ginna, senior editor at Crown Books, has in mind when he peruses new manuscripts, because she wants to know not only what she is supposed to do but why.

Michelle Testani, a former psychiatric nurse, sees the same intensity in mothers who stay at home. She attributes this to the later age at which parents are having children. Older parents are both "more wise to the ways of the world" than mothers and fathers in their 20s, and more reflective, she says.

They're also more likely to have undergone psychological counseling, says Testani, and to have thought about the families in which they grew up and to want to not repeat past mistakes.

Yet parents can be too reflective, read too much and expect too much. As Elkind notes in his book, they can feel pressured to rush their children into skills prematurely and to expect certain behaviors the youngsters are not ready for, setting up their children for failure and themselves for deep disappointment. "Parents may become overly concerned about doing things the 'right' way and convey this inhibiting and constraining concern to their child," he notes.

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