This might sound odd coming from someone who has made his living in the parenting information business for 20 years, but I think that our society is betting to heavily on information as the way to improve parenting. I’m not saying information isn’t important. I know parents want it. I wanted it. Parents need information — often. But, if we want to help parents parent well we need to spend less time telling them what to do and more time supporting them.
There is more information about parenting and child development out there (and it’s easier to get) than ever before. So, logically, if information was the best way to improve parenting and child outcomes, we should have far fewer problems with children than ever before. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. In fact, many child development experts and educators believe we’re seeing more child behaviour problems than in the past.
I’m not going to blame parents for that. But I think we’ve got pretty good de facto evidence that more and more and more information is not the best way to foster successful parenting and optimal child development. So what do parents really need?
If there’s one thing I’m sure of about what’s different in modern parenting it’s that parents are raising children with less support in the past. People are less likely to have extended family available to give them support and practical help with child-rearing. Mothers used to benefit from the support and help of female networks – neighbours, friends and relatives – who looked after each others kids and supported each other socially. I wouldn’t say that these networks have evaporated completely, but they are much less available to parents than in the past. Even family resource centres, which were originally developed around the idea of supporting parents, are being pushed more and more in the direction of dispensing information and teaching parenting skills, and away from providing support (even though I know the people who work in these centres all know the importance of supporting parents). I know a mom name Claire Zlobin, who had so much trouble finding the kind of support network she needed that she (and another mom named Joanna Vernick) had to invent it. It’s called Life with a Baby and it has mushroomed. Check it out.
There’s a fair bit of research that shows that when parents are well-supported, they tend to be better parents regardless of how much they know about neurons, synaptic pruning or what the best “evidence-based” parenting strategies are.
One of my favourite examples of this is a research program that has been going on in California for over 30 years (launched by ex-pat Canucks, Phil and Carolyn Cowan). They started out trying to save marriages by helping couples navigate the relationship challenges of new parenthood. But what they found out was that when they helped mothers and fathers be more supportive of each other, parents started using more effective parenting strategies, even though the program made no attempt to teach parenting skills.
Somewhat similarly, in a national survey of Canadian parents Invest in Kids found a) that many parents did not feel they were getting enough support from their families, friends, partners and communities and also that parents who were well supported were more likely to use positive parenting strategies and less likely to use negative ones.
Jay Belsky, a well-known, articulate and sometimes controversial (for his view on daycare) psychologist and blogger at Psychology Today, has done extensive research into the social determinants of good parenting. Obviously there are many factors that affect parents (include characteristics of their individual children), but he concluded that the level of support parents had was arguably the most important. Here’s a direct quote: “What was most important to understanding why parents parented the way they did was the accumulation of stresses and supports.”
I could cite lots of other examples, but you get the gist. Besides, I think this idea will make intuitive sense to most parents.
The other day Tracy Cassels, of the thoughtful and intelligent blog, Evolutionary Parenting, posted this question to her Twitter followers: If you could share one piece of advice with a new mom, what would it be?
For me it’s a no-brainer: Get as much social, emotional and practical support as you can. If you don’t have it, I’m not saying you can’t be a good parent, but it will be harder. And if you do have support, I like your chances of being a pretty decent parent whether or not you’re a mother or father, heterosexual or non-heterosexual, breastfeed or formula feed, believe in sleep training or the family bed, practice a parenting philosophy attachment parenting or follow the “just try to muddle through” school of child-wrangling.
I’m not dismissing information (nor the value of parenting courses, which I recommend, by the way). It has it’s place for sure. But information is readily available. Mind you, I do think information overload has become a problem for parents these days. (More about that some other time).
Bottom line: parents need more support, not more information.
What has support meant to you as a parent?