We obsess, therefore we buy

Parenting manuals multiply along with parental insecurities.

Published March 1, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Parents today are a mess. Never before have adults been so unsure of their abilities to raise their own children. Despite our education, sophistication and instincts, not to mention our access to the wisdom of our own parents, who must have had some idea how to raise children, we are unable to believe we're ever really doing it right.

The evidence is everywhere: support groups of mothers who devote their few minutes of free time each day to obsess over how long to breast-feed; e-mail buddies who fret exhaustively over the effectiveness of timeouts; daily online chats for parents of only children, large families, close-in-age siblings, circumcised boys and extra-tall girls; for Mormons, Catholics and practicing atheists.

And everyone, everywhere, is buying parenting books. Millions of them.

Over the past half-century, child-care manuals have become one of the publishing industry's cash cows. Although no one keeps specific figures on parenting books alone (they're grouped with psychology/recovery titles, which sold 63 million copies in 1998), there are at least 10,000 titles in print. And with a bestseller such as "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk" trumpeting "Over 2 million copies sold!" on its happy yellow cover, you can bet there aren't too many publishers losing money on the cuticle-chewing insecurity of America's parents.

Customer-savvy Amazon.com does such a rip-roaring business in parenting books that it has introduced a Parenting & Family section, including the Essential Bookshelf, Parenting Bestsellers and a featured "What We're Reading" selection. Among the site's thousands of titles, there are books on how to raise a moral child, a creative child, a joyful child, a responsible child, a sexually healthy child and an athletic child; on how to cope with spirited children, explosive children, strong-willed children, shy children, children with ADD (attention-deficit disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiance disorder, the newfangled term for kids who won't do what you tell them to do), children with special needs and children who are the siblings of children with special needs.

The books fall loosely into three categories: philosophies, operating manuals and buffet-style collections of tips.

The philosophies are based on the observations, opinions and experiences of someone who has at least (and sometimes only) minimal credentials, which are always ballyhooed on the back cover. Often, if the author has children, this also is mentioned to suggest that he or she, too, is in the trenches of parenthood. (Usually missing is any indication of how the author's children actually turned out.)

One of the hallmarks of the philosophies is the disingenuous caveat, which usually appears in the foreword, claiming the book offers no rules, plans or techniques, and that parents should follow their instincts or just use common sense.

In the foreword to "Attachment Parenting," author Katie Allison Granju asserts that the book is "fundamentally different" from other parenting books because the parents, in partnership with their child, are the "parenting experts." But if this were true, why would a parent need this book, or any other one?

The writers of the operating manuals, which always have upbeat titles like "8 Weeks to a Well-Behaved Child: A Failsafe Program for Toddlers Through Teens," dispense with all but the most rudimentary psychological information. They offer a method, a technique, a system that, if followed, will turn out exemplary children. In these books, the caveat in the introduction usually states that you must follow the program exactly.

In the "How to Use This Book" section of "1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12," author Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., says, "The methods must be used exactly as they are described here, especially with regard to the No-Talking and No-Emotion Rules." The subtext here is pernicious: If a child doesn't shape up, it's because the parent hasn't followed the method, not because it's impossible to raise human beings as if they were soufflis.

One current top seller among the operating manuals is the staggeringly comprehensive "The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide from Preschool through Eighth Grade" by the venerable William J. Bennett, secretary of education under Ronald Reagan. It's a terrifyingly huge tome whose only real purpose can be to flatten the corners of a poster. On Page 267 of 666 we are told that a first-grader should be able to talk about the use of color in Claude Monet's "Tulips in Holland." How can this be encouraging to anyone save a lifetime member of Mensa?

"While the writers of these books are usually bona fide practitioners in their field, the hook of the book is always more important than the qualifications of the author," says Irving Rein, co-author of "High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals Into Celebrities" and professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. "Never forget that the point of these books is to raise the visibility of the author, and create a name, which will in turn create a demand for both his services and his books."

The hook of the book is usually a phrase as catchy as a song lyric: tough love, smart love, parenting with love and logic, attachment parenting.

Books of tips may be the most genuinely useful, mostly because they function as security blankets as much as books. The "What to Expect" series is hugely popular in part because there's no pressure to digest complex ideas about human behavior or figure out when and where to apply Rule No. 7. There's not even any pressure to read the entire thing, which suggests that parents feel so shaky about their abilities that simply buying a popular book and having it on the shelf makes us feel better.

A literary agent who wishes to remain anonymous says that the parenting book industry is no different from the diet industry. "When the parenting technique or credo promoted by one book fails, you just go out and buy another one. If the all-protein diet doesn't work, try the grapefruit diet." If "1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12" -- which calls for counting to three, then sending shrieking Madeleine to her room for a timeout -- doesn't work, try "Time In: When Time-Out Doesn't Work."

Learning from our own experience, which is the only way anything is truly learned, is messy and time-consuming, and flies in the face of the American notion of efficiency. If there is some witty, photogenic Ph.D. who has dedicated his life to discovering the best way to parent, why shouldn't we take his advice? He has a publicist, moving anecdotes and a guest spot on "Oprah." All we have is the flimsy knowledge that when we give our daughter "the look," she stops crying and hangs up her coat.

Giving "the look" works. Or does it? We only have our little girl here, in this moment, at this age. She may be our first, our only. We can't help worrying that giving the look may also turn her into a woman who will only love men who make foolish choices.

Why are modern parents so susceptible to all this hogwash and hype? The readership for these manuals has always been the middle class; historically the lower classes have never looked to books for answers, and the upper classes have had nannies and nurses to do their child rearing for them.

As Barbara Ehrenreich notes in "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class," middle-class parents have always been anxious about parenting (which, incidentally, became a verb only around 1960) in part because the middle class tends to have particularly ambitious aspirations for its children. "It is one thing to have children, and another thing ... to have children who will be disciplined enough to devote the first 20 or 30 years of their lives to scaling the educational obstacles to a middle-class career."

"Parents today are more insecure than their parents were, and with good reason," adds Benson Schaeffer, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children and adolescents. "Growing up has never been so competitive.

"A lot of parental anxiety is not around problems, but about opportunities for enrichment," he says. "They're trying to raise not just a well-adjusted kid but also one who has the goods to get into Harvard."

Add to this desire a parallel and conflicting feeling that children shouldn't just be fine-tuned achieving machines but also spontaneous and creative -- the baby boomer signature values. Mix with that a feeling of dread that we might just be raising the kid who shows up at high school and guns down his or her classmates, and you've got a recipe for ongoing anxiety and confusion.

The people who position and market parenting books know this recipe well.

"There are genuine problems a child faces now that a parent never has faced or never will," says Schaeffer. "Good parents, smart parents, know this and, when faced with all the books out there, may feel that if they don't make use of them, they're being a bad parent. Just the existence of so many books makes a parent feel as if a simple, strong relationship with his child isn't enough, that it needs to be shored up by all this outside opinion."

Which brings us to the crushing presence of the media in all its forms, as well as the marketing of baby doctors and child psychologists as celebrities.

Experts are nothing new, but never have experts been so beguiling. "We believe experts because a lot of money goes into making us believe them," says Rein, the Northwestern professor. "They're not movie stars, but the kind of doctors and psychologists who write books and work hard to promote them tend to have movie-star personalities. It's all very seductive."

Before we became enamored of science and scientists in the 20th century, preachers and poets routinely weighed in on the correct way to raise kids. The prevailing wisdom, depending on the era, viewed children as either depraved beasts -- the issue of original sin whose natural impulses needed to be controlled (via scheduled feedings, limited cuddling, enforced toilet training by age 1 and the binding of wrists to prevent thumb sucking) -- or charming bundles from heaven whose impulses were naturally wise and therefore to be indulged (via feeding on demand, a daily round of singing and playing, and waking and sleeping whenever).

In the teens and '20s, parents were advised to be strict; in the '40s, after World War II, the pendulum swung the other way and permissiveness was in vogue. In those days, you went either with the flow or against it. Only recently have schools of thought on raising children become a commodity, something to be consumed. There aren't just dozens of "correct" methods of child rearing out there, but hundreds. It's no longer a question of who is right, but of how many opinions, systems and personalities the market will bear.

The first of the celebrity baby doctors was Benjamin Spock, whose book and presence in American culture paved the way for all other parenting guides. The classic "Baby and Child Care" remains the world's second-bestselling book, topped only by the Bible. First published as "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care" in 1946, and currently in its seventh edition (with updated sections on divorce and adolescence), it remains a must-have in any conscientious parent's library.

"Dr. Spock was a visibility machine," says Rein. "He was on talk shows, he used the media, he crafted his images."

It would be nice to think that Spock caught on because his approach to child rearing struck a balance between strictness bordering on cruelty and brainless permissiveness -- a sort of Goldilocks this-porridge-is-just-right scenario -- but his phenomenal success was due in large part to his being in the right place at the right time.

It just so happens that Pocket Books, which published "Baby and Child Care," was actively searching for a baby book to market before Spock had even begun to think of writing a book. He was approached first by what Spock biographer Thomas Maier characterizes as "an enterprising editor at Doubleday" and a second time by Donald Geddes, an editor at Pocket Books, whose boss, impressed by the sales figures of a government pamphlet called "Infant Care," ordered him to find a child-rearing expert. According to Maier, the people at Pocket Books reassured Spock by telling him that the book didn't even need to be very good. (To his credit, Spock was outraged by that.)

The book was released to a world flush with postwar affluence; parents suddenly had the time and the money to lavish on child rearing. Spock became a reluctant and benevolent purveyor of advice and, later, anti-war messages. He died in 1998 at the age of 94.

Long before Spock left us, we had forsaken him, or at least two-timed him, in our search for the next best advice. It is ironic that in our mad dash to find someone, anyone, to tell us how to successfully raise successful children, we lost one of the doctor's prime bits of advice in the ether of marketing hype and parental insecurity. The first thing Spock told his readers, his signature slogan for the bearers of children, was: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think."

By Karen Karbo

Karen Karbo, a contributing editor at Women's Sports and Fitness magazine, is the author of two novels and has a non-fiction book, "The Next Wife's Tale," coming out from Crown next year.

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