So, your infant has been wailing relentlessly for the last 20 minutes and you are about to snap. Do you a) summon deep reserves of patience and continue your hopeless efforts to soothe him, b) ignore him so he learns an early lesson that the world is not obliged to make him happy, c) follow the swaddle-swing-shush-suck formula, or d) take a warm bath with the baby?
The answer would depend on where your parenting advice is coming from: a) the child-centric Dr Spock b) the disciplinarian James Dobson c) quick-tips expert Dr Harvey Karb or d) howstuffworks.com. From feeding schedules to potty training to spanking, there is a flood of parenting advice available for the parent today and it does not come from the grandmother or the neighbour. Worse, a lot of it is contradictory and confusing.
“Many times, I have run into parents who are confused because so much information is available and contradictory advice is not uncommon,” says Jane Rankin, dean of research at Northwestern University’s School of Communication and author of Parenting Experts: Their Advice, the Research and Getting it Right, in an email interview. “Some parenting experts strongly endorse the use of physical punishment, often for religious reasons; others strongly oppose it. Some experts think that use of substitute (other than parent) care for infants is acceptable, provided the quality of care is high, but others reject it. Even when it comes to the question of whether there should be sexuality education in public schools, the leading experts that I reviewed were sharply divided.”
At her Mumbai clinic, psychotherapist Minnu Bhonsle often counsels parents who are overwhelmed by their own sense of inadequacy for not measuring up to the standards set by parenting experts. So, what is the parent to do? Common sense parenting, she says.
“I use the classic example of the in-flight safety demo. You are told that if you are with a small child, you should first wear the oxygen mask before dealing with the child. This is common sense, but parents find it horrifying because they can’t deal with the idea of putting themselves before the child even if it is better for him,” says Bhonsle.
Parents, says Bhonsle, instinctively know what to do in a crisis and how to deal with a dilemma, but they need to be secure about their own skills. “When should your love for the child be soft, when tough, when pliable—you will know intuitively. If you are a self-nurturing kind of person, it translates into good parenting. If you are edgy all the time, you will end up seeking counsel from elsewhere and then feel guilty you can’t measure up,” she says.
In the dark ages before paediatrician Spock wrote his parenting gospel, Baby and Childcare (1946), the behaviourists held sway. Parenting to them was a joyless, disciplined task: no cuddling, timely meals, sleeping alone and on time, and so on. Spock and Penelope Leach changed much of this with their child-friendly take on parenting. The two were later criticized for creating a whole generation of overindulged tykes.
Spock and Co. were no longer invincible to the next wave of experts who believed that raising a child could be a parent-friendly project, too. And while it may be a good idea to feed a baby every time it cried, the mother needed to rest, too. The next big name was Dr Richard Ferber, who counselled firm, habit-forming steps to help a child settle into routines such as sleep (even if it meant ignoring persistent crying). Dr Karp is a favoured parenting guru today who combines multiple sources of parenting advice, from traditional to modern, to create his own formula for the tough baby years—and many parents claim it works like magic.
“There are dozens of points of view and some 200 of these self-help books on parenting. I did read up many books when I was pregnant, but decided to play it by ear after she was born. Of course, you do look for tips on growth and illnesses, but when it came to dealing with attitudes and habits, I trusted my own instinct,” says Shobha Sah, mother of 10-year-old Shloka.
Nandini Sharma, mother of an 11-month-old boy, says she would look for expert advice, but would have it ratified by her mother and paediatrician. Flummoxed by her son’s tendency to spit up milk after every feed, she checked with mayoclinic.com for solutions. And found that it counselled more frequent feeding. She ran the advice past her paediatrician and took it.
Spock himself counselled parents to take a “common sense” approach. As he famously said in his Baby Book: “Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbours say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.... You should not take too literally what is said in this book.”