Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Parenting Books Are Mostly Bogus

I recently finished reading The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy, by Edward Hallowell. I disliked it very much.The information contained in the book, while not groundbreaking or new in any way, is accurate enough.

What I really hated was his glamorizing of parenting. He goes on (for pages) about how parenting is the world's greatest source of joy and recounts how a half hour he spent on the floor with a group of babies was "as close as I had come to finding heaven on earth in quite some time." But Hallowell never stayed at home with his children full time, and the jobs that he's held are intense, time consuming ones (like being the director of several treatment centers, a Harvard professor, and an internationally traveling speaker who commits "half his professional time to lecturing"=traveling extensively). There is no way he has ever been anything more than a strictly part time parent. I suspect that his wife does almost all of the actual work of parenting (especially because she has a far lower profile career). Sure, spending half an hour with babies is fun, if you aren't the one who has to feed them, change them, and wake up every 2-3 hours with them, every single day without fail.

If he really thought parenting was as much fun as he writes it is, then he would quit his jobs and dedicate his time and most of his effort to doing just that (after all, he has three children!). He doesn't do this, because he doesn't want to: because parenting, while gratifying and interesting, is mostly drudgery and frequently exceedingly stressful.

A big problem with the parenting genre is that many of its authors are just like Hallowell: parents, yes, but not the ones doing the actual work of childrearing. Dr. Sears (the attachment parenting guru), for example, has eight children. But during their childhoods he was working full time as a doctor: and not just as a doctor, but as ward chief of a large hospital and a professor (meaning he would have been working very long hours indeed). So his advocacy of attachment parenting is just for other people (women): he himself has more interesting/important things to do!

This doesn't matter if an author's recommendations are based primarily on scientific research, as then personal experience is irrelevant. However, this is very rarely the case (for instance, there isn't really any evidence that attachment parenting is either helpful or harmful, but that doesn't stop authors from writing large tomes on its use). Parenting books almost never provide any kind of evidence for their assertions, beyond the ubiquitous "Studies say..." (without naming the studies, their authors, or explaining the results: Hallowell does this constantly, even though he should know better as an academic).

I always wonder how the parenting authors' children actually turn out, because for the most part I don't have much confidence in them (the ideas usually sound good, but after all so do Communism, self-regulating industries and living off the land). But there's no real way to know (since even if I could discover what sort of careers/education they had, it doesn't answer the more important questions about their character and psychological well-being).


  1. The one parenting book we found extremely helpful was Baby Wise. We've used those methods with both of our children and we've had a great success. I'm going to order Toddler Wise as well. I also thought the methods were great because a woman (Baby Wise Mom) has a HUGE library of posts about her use of the methods with her own family.

    But I like this post because I never thought of it this way but you're right. A lot of these authors have such hectic jobs that they aren't full time parents at all.

    I do think that comment about heaven on Earth is creepy. But being in a similiar field as this author, I can relate that perhaps this 30 minutes was a wonderful break from the stress of his job and so when he does activities like this, they do a lot for his mental health.

    1. I haven't read Baby Wise, but don't plan to as it's not really suitable for our family (since it's written from an evangelical perspective and we're both atheists). I'm glad you found it useful though!

      Spending a little time with babies who aren't yours is great (even if it's nothing like actually being a parent). There was a program I read about a while ago where young babies were brought into the school system once a month (with a parent of course) to help teach the elementary schoolkids about emotional intelligence (in particular, how to identify emotions and develop empathy). It apparently was really successful. It sounded like a beautiful idea and I would love to have R participate in something like that, as I do think everyone (even young children) has a natural empathy with babies.

  2. I had to laugh about the Dr. Sears stuff- so true. I am not a fan of attachment parenting myself, and you make a good point about him himself not really following it. It would be much more interesting to see his wife's perspective!

    1. I like some things about attachment parenting (babywearing, for instance, because it's so much easier) and dislike others (co-sleeping, for instance). The main problem about it for me is that it's only appropriate for very small children, yet often people fail to change their parenting approach as the children get bigger.

      In traditional societies (the supposed inspiration for AP), they follow a very AP style with babies. But once children become toddlers they are quickly weaned and expected to spend almost all of their waking hours in the company of other children, learning all skills from them, to the point that they spend almost no time in the company of their parents. If a mother tries to keep her child at home (instead of semi-kicking him out), she will be mocked by the rest of the village. I don't know about this approach in a modern American context, but it's certainly not AP as usually described.

  3. @Amy - Dr. William (Bill) Sears' wife is Martha Sears, RN. She has co-written his most popular books with him, if you want to read what she has to say.

    Their website:

    Books by Martha Sears, RN on Amazon: