sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

June 2, 2011

The Relative Uselessness of Parenting Experts

I thought about writing a response to an American Housewife in London and No One’s comments about expert advise in the thread below, but then figured I have a post worth of material.

One area of parenting, especially parenting a baby, where an expert can be of use is sleep.  Unlike most anything that has to do with raising children, sleep is not commonsensical.  Who knew, for instance, that sleep begets sleep?  In fact, if you are not a parent and you are still with me, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about.  Without expert advice, most people would keep an infant up during the day so that he can sleep at night.  But, turns out, in this case infant’s brain will release hormones that will keep him up at night as well.

When I was pregnant with Yelena, my sister-in-law suggested that I read a good sleep book.  A good book is not the one that tells a new mother to sing lullabies, which she already knows, but one that gives her a plan.  I read Dr. Weissbluth and Dr. Ferber, and came up with a “cry it out” plan.  I had fabulous results.  Both doctors warned that the baby will cry for hours until she learns to fall asleep on her own, but it didn’t happen to us.  At four and a half months of age, Yelena fussed for a grand total of 10 minutes one night, and Ivan, with whom I admit I was inconsistent, cried 45 minutes first night, and 10 minutes the following night.  Our results are unlikely to be replicated in other families.  I wouldn’t have known to sleep train if I had only listened to my mother for advice.

Sleep books contain loads of fascinating information about the biology of human brain.  I read a few other books on early childhood development.  Liz Elliot’s What’s Going on in There is probably the best among them, although, given that the book is about a decade and a half old and neuroscience is a new and dynamic field, it’s time for a revised and updated edition.  Developmental psychology books satisfied my appetite for knowledge, but it didn’t tell me to do anything I wasn’t already doing.  That’s because biologists learned why babies need to be tickled, like to look at a book with mommy and build towers out of blocks.  Biologist didn’t discover how to build a better baby.  In fact, negative customer reviews of Elliot’s book are quite telling.  Here is one:

I was disappointed. It’s all about the scientific aspect of the brain [sic] (developing in the womb, how it compares to animals brains, how it develops in childhool [sic]). There’s only 1 chapter at the very end on what you can do as a parent to help positively affect the growth and development of your child’s brain. Skip this one!

If Elliot doesn’t give too many suggestions it’s because there isn’t much to suggest.  Her book is reassuring for a parent who wants to embrace a more hands off approach.  She does, I hear, have a lot of suggestions in Pink Brain Blue Brain which is on my night table right now.  One day I’ll have time to read it and blog about it.

When my daughter was still a baby I was reading every mainstream parenting magazine I could put my hands on.  I stayed away from Mothering because that one is sold at natural groceries, and if I pick up anything distributed in this manner my hands will fall off.  Mainstream parenting rags regularly run articles about early childhood development, and so Parenting and American Baby had me for a while.  As my children grew, I moved on to the articles about toddlers and pre-schoolers.  I was irritated by the non-judgmental tone: sure you can raise your child any way you want to raise it.  The writers interview a myriad of experts who give mutually exclusive discipline advice.  Unless mom already has an understanding about what works, these articles must be very confusing.  Ditto multiculturalism.  From time to time Parenting runs an article about assorted child-rearing customs (and superstitions) around the world.  I’m pretty close-minded when it comes to adopting foreign customs, I have to admit.  Maybe in Japan they do raise children without saying “no”, but that’s Japan, and this is the US.  And what else do they do differently in Japan, and, in any event, I came to live in the United States, not Japan, so why should I copy Japan?

And then there is “attachment”.  When I was reading Sears I couldn’t believe it was recommended.  I’d say Sears is over-recommended.  His “natural,” noble savage parenting is practically custom made for Bay Area moms.  He probably genuinely believes that women all over the world “wear” their babies in slings, but I happen to have some background in Anthropology, so I know it’s b.s.  Not even all third world mothers “wear” babies in slings.  Sears thinks that “co-sleeping” is great, but I hail from a country where parents are known to put chairs together to create makeshift beds for their children because they don’t want them in theirs.  A friend who is a graduate student in Psychology explained that what they call a secure attachment in psychology does not require following any of Dr. Sears’ rules, which makes a whole lot of sense to me because I wasn’t raised the way he suggests.

Native American cradleboard: A far cry from Sears' baby sling as a multicultural attachment devise.

Shortly before I got pregnant, I was browsing through a discount table at a bookstore and found The Epidemic by Robert Shaw.  I was drawn in by the cover, and as I read it I recognizing what  was wrong with some people I know: their parents were too permissive.  Like Mellor (h/t An American Housewife in London), Shaw urges fellow liberals to discipline their children.  It’s a good book, and from time to time I still leaf through it, just to get a sense if we are on the right track.  It’s too bad The Epidemic didn’t generate much attention.

Since I mentioned the cover...

I pretty much read these books out of nerdiness.  I don’t so much look for advice as want to see what kind of advice is out there.  My last employer shared office space with a child shrink.  She told me that these days no matter how you want to raise your child, you’d find some sort of an “expert” to justify your decision.  So I was warned about the “experts”.  The same shrink thought that it doesn’t really matter which way you raise your child because genetics will take over.  I disagree with that.  There is good advice and bad advice, good and bad ways to raise a middle class child in English-speaking North America in early 21st century.  Most of what parenting gurus have to say is more about selling books and recruiting followers than producing results.



  1. Good morning. Did you really post this at 3am? Anyway, the topic is easily an essay’s worth of material. I think the pivot point of the issue comes where you discuss mainstream parenting mags that have conflicting advice that confuses mothers until they have their own experience about how it all works together. Calling for more feminist bashing, but when women started valuing advanced degrees over motherhood, well teenagers started valuing internships over babysitting. I could write a post about this, but one of the problems for modern women is that we rarely have extensive experience with children before we have our own. That is the reason we are susceptible to all the experts in the first place. We don’t know what we are doing. So as doctors and lawyers and accountants who consult textbooks and rules, we flock to Dr. Sears. An experienced mom friend got me on John Rosemond who often laments that he not so much an expert but the guy who is bringing our grandmothers’ advice to us after it got drowned out by the experts for a few generations.
    I did a post on Erica Jong and attachment parenting that ties in here too.
    Funny aside, Yasha and I have just stared watching Mad Men. Last night I was cracking up at the smoking and drinking pregnant gals when the 4 year old comes in wearing a dry cleaning bag as a spacesuit, while the moms just want to make sure the dry cleaning that was in it isn’t in a pile on the floor and that the 2 year old, in the other room, is still in the playpen. Not that I endorse any of those things, but it is shocking that they were once so normal.

    Comment by AHLondon — June 2, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

    • Ummm… no, I didn’t write it as 3am. My bedtime is fairly regular these days. I have to fix my time stamp.
      A few years ago there was a conversation about babysitting on a local mommy list. Mothers were complaining that babysitters are too expensive and plotting to not hire any teen sitters who charge too much. Talking about economic literacy and consistent liberal worldview! Then a teenage girl wrote a post explaining that high school students are now overscheduled, except she didn’t use the word “overscheduled”.
      It’s true that we don’t know what we are doing, and Sears gives a convenient checklist.
      I have a feeling that a lot of women flock to Sears because they have an issue with their mothers. Sears’s advise is very different from the way they were raised, so what a lot of women get from his book is “Oh, if only my mom would breastfeed me, my IQ’d be 5 points higher and I’d now have a Harvard diploma.”
      Can I ask how did you pick a monicker for your husband? I assume it’s a monicker. Yasha is a Russian name.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — June 2, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

      • My husband worked in Moscow for years (before I met him). You probably know, but when English speakers work in places like China or Russia, the locals often give them common names. Yakov was his Russian name and all his buddies called him Yasha. He used it for his yahoo email and when he set up my blog it just made sense. His Chinese name means something like wise law man, but he once got the tones wrong and introduced himself as ‘grouchy old woman’. Fun with nicknames.

        Comment by AHLondon — June 2, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

  2. I also loved “what’s going on in there.” Forgot all about that one. Didn’t know she had a new one. Title sounds like it’s about the born differences between males and females. Dobson’s Bringing up Boys was very good in that regard.

    Great post.

    Comment by nooneofanyimport — June 6, 2011 @ 9:17 am

    • I expect “Pink Brain Blue Brain” to be a disappointment. Several reviews said that although Eliot pointed to a several studies that confirm differences in boys and girls brain, so goes on to say that the differences are small. I’m going to read the book anyways.

      Comment by edge of the sandbox — June 6, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

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