Let the baby cry; never let the baby cry.
Praise profusely; avoid over-the-top approbation.
Do not coddle older children; indulge grown kids.
Parenting advice flows in all directions in endless floods of verbiage on the web, in books, and among fretting, counsel-seeking moms and dads at Gymboree play classes.
For lots of mothers and fathers, much of what’s presented seems random and contradictory — sowing confusion more than imparting wisdom.
What’s worse, any one line from a survey, any single sentence in a magazine article, can kick off jagged lightning storms of anxiety in already self-doubting parents who read the findings as confirmation that they’re just not doing it right.
“There is so much out there,” said Erin Barnes, 40, a cellist and married mother of three from Bala Cynwyd. “Cut out gluten. Use probiotics. I asked a question online about one bad night’s sleep for my son, and I got 28 different comments that just combined into white noise."
Sometimes it’s worse than that.
Two years ago, Barnes shared with a local mother’s group online that she told her son, whom she described as having high-functioning autism, that he had her permission to climb up a park slide backward as long as no one was sliding down. Some 350 parents responded, many of them incensed.
“If I see your special-needs child on the playground,” one wrote, “I would tell my son to go down the slide and kick his teeth out.”
Barnes concluded: “It gets ugly on parenting sites.”
Some of the stuff is straight-up nutty. A woman wrote to an advice column on Slate.com that her sister had told the woman’s son that the correct spelling of the word “dilemma” is actually “dilemna” and that people were too dumb to know the difference.
Because of her sister’s sin of bad spelling, the angry mother asked: "Do I need to keep...[my son] away from her?” The answer, mercifully sane, read: “I think you should probably limit the number of family estrangements you initiate over linguistic prescriptivism....”
A Parents.com article from earlier this year promisingly titled “50 Easy Ways to Be a Fantastic Parent" offered a lame clutch of “Well, duh” nuggets like, “Play with your children,” and “Don’t raise a spoiled kid.”
It also issued a proclamation unlikely to inspire parental joy: “Your child will probably not remember anything that you say to them.”
The world wasn’t always chock-a-block with baby-raising experts. For the longest time, the foremost authority was Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of what’s been called the bible of parenting, “Baby and Child Care,” published in 1946. In subsequent years, Penelope Leach, T. Berry Brazelton, and Richard Ferber weighed in, according to research psychologist Peggy Drexler in the Huffington Post.
Only lately, she says, has the culture exploded with know-it-alls holding opinions on everything from how to swaddle to how to get your 35-year-old son out of the basement apartment.
Things were a lot easier, some grandmas and grandpas would tell you, when you only had Spock and your gut to propel a kid from crib to college.
As it happens, much of this parenting information can be dispiriting.
For example, in a nearly quarter-century-long study by San Diego State University, conducted from roughly 1982 through 2006, researchers asked 16,474 U.S. college students how likely they were to agree with the following three statements:
“If I ruled the world, it would be a better place”; “I think I am a special person”; and “I like to be the center of attention.” The questions are from a survey that measures narcissism.
Millennials, it turns out, were more likely to agree with these statements than anyone before, researchers found. Why? Because, researchers said, their baby boomer parents told them since they were tadpoles that their sweat doesn’t stink — that they were the centers of the universe, and that Galileo and Einstein were wrong about what revolves around what.
So, that single study managed to demean the two largest generations in the history of the Earth, including the parents — absorbing the biggest “OK, boomer” put-down ever — and the children, whom study author Jean Twenge described as being both “entitled and miserable.”
She summed up her research with a warning: “You do not want to tell a kid, ‘You’re special for being you.’”
Missing out on the fun
A survey published earlier this month in the New York Post said that more than half of parents are too busy to enjoy the fun of parenting.
“That’s sad,” said clinical psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a parenting expert in Princeton.
She added that the standards for what constitutes a good parent these days have “expanded horrifically.”
In her grandmother’s day, Kennedy-Moore said, a parent was doing well if the kids were “reasonably clean.” In her mother’s day, it was a win if the child was “reasonably obedient.”
“But today, parents feel they have to cultivate the perfect child, responsible for their intellectual, athletic, religious, social, and emotional development, on their way toward creating a better boy or girl," she said.
"In truth, parents have very little influence long-term on creating a child’s personality. It’s peers and genetics that do it.”
Not everything in the modern parenting canon is deep or disquieting. A few offerings, in fact, are pretty light reads, such as Jessica Denay’s inadvertently hilarious “The Hot Mom’s Handbook: Laugh and Feel Great from Bump to Baby.” One piece of advice in the book is “how to look gorgeous in a hot nursing bra.”
“Hot” is a very important concept for Denay, and she repeats it often.
Genuine laughs, based on authentic parenting experiences, emanate from Susan Jeffers’ “I’m Okay, You’re a Brat,” and the infamous bedtime book “Go the F**k to Sleep” by Adam Mansbach, which manages to be loving and profanely subversive at the same time.
And CNBC apparently inspired a few guffaws (and possible gasps) when it announced that New Jersey is the third-best place to bring up a baby in America, behind Utah and Wyoming. The ever-surprising Garden State earns high marks for its kid-friendly neighborhoods and for childhood education achievements.
Nurture and love
Ultimately, all the parenting tips and suggestions you see in the world constitute “pretty generic, commonsense stuff,” said Lesley Curtis, 40, the married mother of a 5-year-old girl in South Philadelphia, and the owner of a communications company.
“I don’t really look at parenting books," she said. "Your kid is an individual, and looking for outside advice may not even work.”
Earnest parents searching for answers on how to handle everything from temper tantrums to a teenager’s broken heart should understand that there may be no simple solution, said Mark Roberts, a professor emeritus of psychology and parent-training expert at Idaho State University.
“There are countless efforts by people publishing books to help others,” Roberts said. “But some of it is simply people trying to sell stuff.”
In the end, we can’t stop the proliferation of parenting material getting pumped into the universe, said psychologist Robin Goodman of New York City.
“And that can make parenting harder," she added. "But the job hasn’t changed. Keep your children safe, make them into thoughtful citizens, and, of course, keep them nurtured.
"And always loved.”