Parenting guides leave mothers in a muddle as they set standards too high, says study
01:20 GMT, 19 March 2012
Ask any mother and, most likely, she will confess to spending hours of her pregnancy reading so-called ‘parenting bibles’ to work out how best to raise her newborn.
But rather than reassuring mothers, the manuals are more likely to make them feel inadequate by setting unattainably high standards, a study has found.
And while the advice may differ from book to book, the stern way it is delivered remains the same.
Confusing: Rather than reassuring mothers, 'parenting bibles' are more likely to make them feel inadequate by setting unattainably high standards, a study has found
Mothers of all ages, including grandmothers who compared notes with their daughters, told researchers they were left uncertain as to the correct way to raise a family and which ‘expert’ they should believe.
Historian Dr Angela Davis, who led the study, said manuals differ on what the best parenting techniques are – for example on issues such as whether babies should sleep on their front, side or back – but are always insistent their advice must be followed.
‘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,’ she said.
‘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.’ Dr Davis and fellow academics from the University of Warwick studied six childcare manuals dating back almost a century.
They then interviewed 160 women from a mix of generations and backgrounds over how they felt about raising their children after they read parenting guides written by Sir Frederic Truby King, Donald Winnicott, Benjamin Spock, John Bowlby, Penelope Leach and Gina Ford.
They found that, although the manuals were designed to offer support and advice, they often had the opposite effect – making some mothers feel like failures.
And the advice is often cyclical, with the idea of a strict regime, similar to that recommended by Sir Frederic Truby King in 1913, making a reappearance in Gina Ford’s 1999 Contented Little Baby Book.
‘More than 50 years on and experts still cannot agree on the best way to approach motherhood. All this conflicting advice just leaves women feeling confused and disillusioned,’ said Dr Davis.
A parenting handbook published this week will further inflame the debate.
The guide says that toddlers who misbehave should not be placed on a ‘naughty step’ or punished.
It recommends ‘self discipline’ and says adults should ‘follow the child’s lead’ by giving them the freedom and support to do things for themselves.
The Learning Together handbook is published by the Montessori movement, whose 600 nurseries are popular with many middle-class parents.
Babies fed on demand are brighter than those whose mothers practise a strict routine approach to feeding, research has found.
Children fed when they were hungry had IQs four or five points higher by the age of eight than those on scheduled feeding times, according to Dr Maria Iacovou, of the Institute for Social and Economic Research.