Child Care Manuals leave moms hurt and confused

Katherine - posted on 03/21/2012 ( 8 moms have responded )




Their names have not only appeared on millions of bookshelves but have also been imprinted on the minds of tens of thousands of parents. Generations have been raised according to their edicts.

But new research has lifted the lid on the last great parenting taboo – childcare manuals by authors from Dr Spock to Gina Ford have been setting the bar too high and, for 50 years, mothers have felt more powerless, not less, after reading their words of wisdom.

Work by the University of Warwick into 50 years of parenting self-help books has revealed how, despite their differences, they have always issued advice as orders and set unattainably high standards for new mothers.

Angela Davis from Warwick's history department carried out 160 interviews with women of all ages and from all backgrounds to explore their experiences of motherhood. In Modern Motherhood: Women and Family in England, 1945-2000, she says every manual designed to offer support and advice to women has had the opposite effect, leaving them dispirited and feeling inadequate.

She spoke to women about the advice given by six childcare experts who had all published popular books on the best way to raise a baby. The authors were Sir Frederic Truby King – whose methods are still followed religiously in New Zealand – John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott, Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach and Gina Ford.

Davis found that, although the advice from these experts changed over the decades, the thing that did not change was the way it was delivered. Whether they advocated baby being laid on her back, front, side or head, it was not so much the message as how it was delivered.

Whatever the advice, she said, it was given as an order, with a threat of dire consequences if mother, or indeed the child, failed to behave as expected.

"Despite all the differences in advice advocated by these childcare 'bibles' over the years, it is interesting that they all have striking similarities in terms of how the experts presented their advice," Davis said. "Whatever the message, the advice was given in the form of an order and the authors highlighted extreme consequences if mothers did not follow the methods of child-rearing that they advocated.

"Levels of behaviour these childcare manuals set for mothers and babies are often unattainably high, meaning women could be left feeling like failures when these targets were not achieved. So while women could find supportive messages, some also found the advice more troubling."

During her research Davis said she spoke to many women who were in different generations in the same family. She found that when they reflected back upon the changes they had seen from when they were children to when they had their own children, and then to watching their children raise their own families, mothers of all ages were still unsure of what had really been the best approach and which "expert" held sway. There seemed to be no right way and no wrong way, despite differences in approach.

Davis said: "I was struck by the cyclical nature of these childcare bibles. We start out with quite strict rules as laid down by Frederic Truby King, whose influence is very much evident in the 1940s and following decades. The principal thread running through his books are that babies need strict routines. We then find the advice becomes less authoritarian and regimented as we go through the decades and the influences of Bowlby, Winnicott, Spock and Leach.

"However, when we reach the 1990s, when Gina Ford came to prominence, we come back to the strict, regimented approach of Frederic Truby King decades earlier.

"More than 50 years on, and experts still cannot agree on the best way to approach motherhood, and all this conflicting advice just leaves women feeling confused and disillusioned."


Tina - posted on 03/24/2012




There is no expert when it comes to parenting in my opinion simply because every child is different. You learn as you go with your child the best way to teach them, relax them, feed them etc. My mother has 10 kids and each is different. People can give you ideas that's about it. They may or may not work. Trust your intuition is all you can really do and learn from your baby.

Jenni - posted on 03/23/2012




I hate the infant guides that tell you, your child "should be doing this" at a certain age. While leaving out that it's still completely within the normal range for them to reach that milestone much later. The one book I had gave you the impression that your child should be walking between 9-12 months, when that is considered early-average time for an infant to walk. That's a lot for children to live up to!

I don't know how many posts I've seen on COM of mothers concerned their child is behind because he hasn't started walking at 12 months or only says 3-5 words at 18 months. How about that their child isn't potty trained fully at 2.5, after all "most European parents have their child potty trained by 18 months" (yes, I actually read that in The Baby Whisperer). I blame it all on those damn books, and the happiest day for me was when I packed them up in a box, went with the flow (in parenting) and stopped trying to live up to the perfection of a book.

I totally agree, when I first started reading these books while I was pregnant... I assumed their advice was the norm. But putting much of it into practice only led to unnecessary stress and expectations that were far too high. Which led to me feeling like a crappy mother when I couldn't reach these idealistic expectations. Actually, by talking to other mother's via COM I learned about the actual reality of parenting.


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Vicki - posted on 03/24/2012




I had heard enough about Gina Ford, Ferber and the like from other people to stay well away. The only books I read were those that I thought would help, not just make me feel inadequate. Elizabeth Pantley, Pinky McKay and the Sears were much more helpful and less prescriptive.

Katherine - posted on 03/23/2012




I felt the same way Deanna. That's why I posted this. Because sometimes it feels like you're the only one in the world that has these problems.

Deanna - posted on 03/23/2012




That is very fascinating. I was noticing the same thing when I was reading the books. I always felt bad after reading them because I felt I wasn't doing enough, or my daughter was behind. It was depressing. I stopped reading them and would ask other parents for advice. Some advice worked, some didn't. But I no longer felt I was doing it wrong. Other parents were making the same mistakes and their children were turning out good. Thank you for this!

Kay - posted on 03/21/2012




Whenever you are looking at an outside source on parenting--whether it is a publication or well-intenioned advice--I think it is crucial to maintain a sense of detachment. No family is the same, no parenting situation is the same, and no child is the same. There really isn't a right way, as we all know. Instead, it is about taking the information that is at your disposal and applying it in ways that allow you to be the best parent you can be, based on the situation and circumstances. Heck, I don't even parent both of my children the exact same as each other, how should Spock know any better? :)

Rebekah - posted on 03/21/2012




So, in essence stop reading self-help books and listen to the inner voice within you! God created you, God gave you the gift of a baby, which also means He put the ability for you to be the best mother that child. Your instincts within you are better and smarter than any self-help book! :)

Just my two cents.

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