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Taking Off the Kid Gloves

A Controversial Book Is in the Forefront of a Backlash Against Bend-Over-Backward Parenting and 'Psychological Correctness'

September 25, 1998|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some call it dangerous. Misguided. Unscientific. Untenable. Nonsense. A media event. Silly.

Yet, even the harshest critics of Judith Rich Harris' recent manifesto against parenting advice, "The Nurture Assumption" (Free Press), admit it has something positive to offer: a cool compress for feverish parents who fear their every action--from prenatal music lessons to divorce--will mark their child's psyche for life.

In her book, Harris, a New Jersey grandmother and former writer of child development textbooks, argues that genes, peers and the neighborhood environment are more influential than any parenting style in shaping children's character. Featured in the New Yorker and on the cover of Newsweek magazine, the book has sold 50,000 copies to date.

"It's a welcome relief. Today's parents are led to believe by mental health professionals that everything their children do stems back to parenting, good or bad," said John Rosemond, a North Carolina psychologist and busy national speaker who, like Harris and others, has tapped into a backlash against what he calls "psychological correctness."

UC Irvine professor Alison Clarke-Stewart calls the book another swing of the pendulum.

"Last year, it was the baby's brain. Now what's news is the opposite of that. It's a market overcorrection in the same way the baby stuff was," she said. "An extreme statement of something that's partly true."

During the last 30 years, child-rearing advice has proliferated through TV shows, countless books and magazine articles, Web sites, Internet chat groups and parent training classes. In the U.S., about 10 million books a year are sold on child care and family life, according to the American Booksellers Assn. The experts, usually drawing on clinical experiences or correlational studies, beat a common drum, telling parents to praise their children to help build their self-esteem, give them timeouts instead of spanking them and to spend quality time talking to them and listening to their feelings.

More advice--some of it contradictory--can be found on any aspect of parenting, from sleeping problems to tantrums, whining and how to talk about sex and drugs. Kerby T. Alvy, director of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring in Los Angeles, said there are so many parent guides on the market now, parents need a guide to the guides.

Alvy observed the backlash has developed in one quarter from parents who dislike others telling them how to raise their kids and in another quarter among parents who object to cookie-cutter advice that they say doesn't fit their kids in real life.

Others said dependence on expert advice creates a phony atmosphere at home or else leaves earnest parents exhausted and confused.

UCLA parenting instructor Cynthia Whitham said, "Parents have bent over backward listening to feelings, identifying feelings. Parents are afraid and cannot tolerate their child's anger. There's a lot of giving in, negotiating or allowing children to manipulate a situation."

Rosemond believes psychologically correct advice ignores children's free will and responsibility for making decisions and gives parents the illusion they can control their children.

Some therapists said parents have been walking on eggshells with their own children for decades. What if they haven't read "Goodnight Moon" to their child at bedtime? Responded to her scribbles with the neutral "Tell me about your picture?" instead of the potentially critical "What is it?"

What if their child watches too much TV without parent analysis? Eats too many dinners at the drive-thru? What if they themselves drink, smoke, get divorced or are otherwise lacking in the role model department?

What if they don't love all their children equally?

If the children become teenagers who run around with a bad crowd, misbehave and talk back, are unpopular, neurotic or pregnant, psychologists and society--including some school districts and police departments--are quick to blame parents. And parents--particularly college-educated, European Americans--tend to buy it.

According to Clarke-Stewart, Americans are particularly susceptible to parenting advice. Since the Pilgrims, they have believed in the "perfectibility" of children through better child-rearing techniques and have eagerly embraced "experts" who promise to help them achieve it.

The experts, however, have swung back and forth between liberal and conservative agendas, leniency and limits. And parents have commonly twisted advice to fit the goals of the era.

From Blank Slates to Flash Cards

The Pilgrims advocated strict discipline to achieve moral children; 18th century parents followed English philosopher John Locke, who stressed that infants were "blank slates" upon which parents should inscribe loving messages.

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