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Do Spock and Other Parenting Experts Get It Right?

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January 11, 2006 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- With all the Web sites, books, magazines and even reality TV shows devoted to childrearing, it might seem an easy thing for today's moms and dads to find the answers to their parenting questions.

Not so, says Northwestern University researcher Jane Rankin. In her new book, “Parenting Experts: Their Advice, The Research and Getting It Right” (Praeger), the developmental psychologist compares the advice of five of the best-known parenting experts with 30 years of scientific research findings on child development and parenting.

“The advice out there is often contradictory. That leaves parents confused about what information they should consider and what they should ignore,” said Rankin, associate dean for research at Northwestern's School of Communication and mother of two.

In a detailed and systematic analysis of the best scientific research literature and of “best practice” consensus statements by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations, Rankin examines the advice of parenting gurus Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leach, James Dobson and John Rosemond on everything from spanking to television viewing and day care to sex education.

“By offering themselves as authoritative and accessible sources of parenting expertise, these five individuals have acquired enormous stature and reach an audience of millions,” Rankin said.

She found that all five experts give advice that at times deviates from the research literature and from professional guidelines.  What's more, the discrepancies often reflect the experts’ own philosophical perspectives that advice-seeking parents may neither recognize nor agree with.

In discussing discipline, for example, Dobson -- who believes in a family hierarchy in which parents socialize children to be obedient to them and, ultimately, God -- recommends physical punishment when children show defiance to their parents.

The research, however, finds that non-physical punishments -- strategies such as time outs or the removal of privileges -- appear as effective as spanking in preventing misbehavior and carry less risk of turning abusive. Frequent physical punishment is linked with higher levels of aggression in children.

Spock tells parents that infants in day care will do just fine, provided the quality of care is high. However, the best research on infant day care indicates that less than 15 per cent of infant childcare is of high quality The other experts are more conservative about substitute care for infants, because they are concerned about mother-infant attachment (Brazelton, Leach) or because they emphasize the exclusive role of families in early socialization (Dobson, Rosemond).

On the timing of toilet training, Spock, Brazelton and Leach focus on the child's “readiness,” recommending that parents wait until a child can imitate and follow directions. Rosemond now argues that only parents can determine when a child is “ready” and that training can be completed in one week. No systematic research supports his claim.

In her efforts to build bridges between the recommendations of experts and the immense, largely inaccessible research literature on child development and parenting, Rankin looks at infant crying, substitute child care, discipline, use of electronic media, adolescent sexual education, and substance use prevention.

Noting that seven out of every 10 parents of children aged three and younger seek expert guidance, Rankin recommends that parents understand the philosophical perspective that the experts bring to their advice.

“The five authors should be understood as participants in an ongoing public dialogue between fundamentalists and progressives, not just in this country but in many countries around the world,” Rankin said. “This dialogue permeates the experts' advice, even advice concerning infants. Parents may not understand all that comes with the advice they are getting. They need to read the experts and to become informed consumers of that advice.”

Topics: Research