Manitoba Opinion

When it comes to parenting advice, the best tip may be to throw away the books

Parenting books are full of 'bad science and assumptions about culture, health, and basic needs': Joanne Seiff

Posted: December 30, 2018

The best parenting advice isn't always in a book, says Joanne Seiff. (A. and I. Kruk/Shutterstock)

Recently, a medical professional lent a parenting book to me. She felt it had potentially useful techniques.

Despite lacking time, I read it from cover to cover. When I finished, I felt seriously concerned about the content. When I Googled the book online, I found praise and summaries. Nobody listed any criticisms.

I figured I needed an expert. I emailed another mom friend who's also a psychology professor. Within just a couple exchanges, I learned that she also never reads parenting books — and we agreed on a few other points which I'm sharing, so you don't have to read a parenting book either.


1. Simplistic or dubious science

Parents can't know everything. In desperation, many of us grab a book to help us figure it out. However, sometimes self-help book authors grab a scientific concept and go crazy.

If you've had any science training, you've probably encountered this. When something in popular culture gets rolling, well, hard facts or actual scientific research can get left far behind. 

Joanne Seiff says parenting advice to never yell at children — or even tell them 'no' — ignores the importance of setting limits for kids. (KieferPix/Shutterstock)

You may wonder — which research study says this? Where?  How did this writer decide that applying a theory to my kid will work?

A great example would be all the suggestions about how to get your infant to sleep through the night — sleep is still an active research field. If one theory like "cry it out" worked for every child, it wouldn't be theoretical any more. It would be a fact.

Meanwhile, that baby may be wet, hungry, cold or sick. How long do you let the infant scream before you're smart enough to figure it out?


2. Cultural privileging

A startling number of advice guides want parents to avoid any kind of upset at all. Some suggest parents never raise their voices.

My hairdresser told me she'd heard of a family where the parents wouldn't use "no" with their preschoolers. (And this would be why the preschoolers demolished a Christmas tree, broke ornaments, and trashed someone's home!) 

I, for one, like a good firm NO! Setting limits is a good thing. Hearing "no" will likely prepare you for the rest of life's disappointments, too.

Another situation: sometimes, I need to go to the bathroom. When I return, if one kid is assaulting his brother, I might yell. It's how my mom reacted when she saw me do this. It's a surefire way of surprising both kids into, perhaps, stopping or even looking up for a moment before continuing to brawl.

Yet, if I believe one parenting guide, I'm letting my "downstairs" brain take over. Yes, my primal, emotional, reactive "fight or flight" instinct dives in.


Perhaps I should step away, it advises. I should practise deep breathing before I calmly speak to my offspring in a normal tone of voice.

I love reading, but the best advice isn't always in a parenting book. - Joanne Seiff

Horse feathers. This "no yelling" directive indicates that an emotionally detached, reserved household, perhaps British and upper class, is the ideal. By this measure, the response in an emotive family from a more expressive culture — quick, emotional and even physical separation of those siblings — is considered deficient.

If you follow that parenting guide's reasoning, emotional or loud parenting would mar all children's development — permanently.

After I questioned this privileging of one cultural norm over another, my partner pointed out that those reserved Brits often had nannies raise their children — so maybe the parents didn't yell or discipline, but the nannies could.

3. Assumption of neurotypical parents and children

A single parent of several kids with special needs told me about attending a parenting class. In each session, the instructors parroted great tips and ideas to try. My friend kept bringing up her reality and saying, "This works only if your child is neurotypical."

The response? They told her not to be so negative.


Many parenting books don't take into account kids with special needs, says Joanne Seiff. (Jaren Jai Wicklund/Shutterstock)

Most help manuals aren't written by special needs educators, experts, or even parents who have a kid with special needs.

If the book lacks even a paragraph about "exceptions" for kids with disabilities or differences, it's not addressing the truth of many families' challenges.

4. Assumption of time/money/skills

Another favourite advice section was titled something like "change your mindset" and it listed a frantic parent's to-do list. In between onerous tasks, the list repeated "I'm so tired." Just reading the list gave me a flashback to moments in my sleepless life with twins.

A parenting book assumes a lot. It assumes that a mom or dad has money to buy this, time to read it, and time to implement the suggestions.

The author of the parenting book that was lent to me didn't address the parent's cry for help. Instead, it suggested an exhausted mom focus on "how much she enjoys parenting" and "how lucky she is to have children."


Many parenting books assume that parents have the time and resources to implement their suggestions — which may ignore the actual needs of parents who might benefit from advice, says Joanne Seiff. (Creatista/Shutterstock)

That person needed help to meet her family's needs. Her chore list covered the necessary basics. You shouldn't ask a hungry and overtired person to reflect on how wonderful life is — until you've fed her family and given her a needed break.

People turn to self-help books because they need help. Yet perhaps the people who have the time and money to buy and read parenting books aren't the neediest. Those who really need the suggestions can't hear or implement them until their basic needs or values are addressed.

Answers may not be in books

Bad science and assumptions about culture, health, and basic needs —​ maybe these books aren't the answer.

Instead, we could acknowledge a deficit in modern culture. It's a fundamental lack of understanding or actual support for how to do this thing called parenting.

Families used to live in multi-generational groupings. Aunts, uncles, grandparents and older siblings lent a hand. Without elders, community support, or childcare to help parents, things can indeed feel desperate — and that's when consulting an "expert" feels necessary. Paying for help from a person or a book ends up being the only option.


I love reading, but the best advice isn't always in a parenting book.

When my twins were born, an acquaintance gave us a lifesaver — a Tupperware full of hearty stew. She told me to keep and reuse the container. Now I cook two meals at once so the container is ready in the freezer when we need it. This back-up meal was hands-on elder wisdom that really helped.

I might throw that parenting book across the room, but please — don't throw out that ready-to-eat dinner in the plastic container.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff

Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.