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A Culture of Care

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Speeches & Media

Parenting in the Age of Information Overload

Choose your sources, trust yourself and accept the idea of “good enough”

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2019

As a developmental psychologist, I am often approached by people, including alumnae, with parenting questions. Some are confused by conflicting advice. When my mother had a parenting question, she simply turned to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s classic reference, Baby and Child Care. After reading a few pages, her research was done. Fast-forward 60 years, and my daughters, both mothers of infants and toddlers, are more likely to turn to the internet.

Google any parenting topic and your search yields links, videos, blog posts and more. New parents can spend hours or even days awash in advice, information, misinformation and debate—not to mention paid advertising—only to glean often contradictory guidance.

Parents today are armed with more facts, sources, opinions and ideas than any generation before them. Yet that knowledge comes at the cost of information overload. 

The biggest cost is to a parent’s time. Parenting itself is time consuming. Spending precious hours trying to search, read and reconcile the advice you find online takes a toll. Study after study shows that free time equals happiness. Millennials understand that equation, so they outsource all sorts of time-consuming activities.

Whereas young parents might rely on a favorite pizza restaurant as their go-to takeout spot, turning to a single resource for child-rearing advice is at odds with how they consume information. They curate sources for many questions, including those on parenting, by consulting websites, on line experts and blog writers; it’s a laborious process.

Another cost is stress. Surveys tell us that 58% of parents are overwhelmed by information. One study revealed that mothers who visit Facebook more often report higher levels of parenting stress. This tsunami of information isn’t all about parenting, of course; we’re slogging through snapshots and news feeds and recipes and work emails and funny videos as well as clickbait stories like “10 tips to tame your toddler.” The onslaught not only frazzles us, it confuses us.

What do parents want to learn? A lot. Eighty-four percent of mothers and 70% of fathers use social media or parenting sites to find answers on getting children to sleep (28% of questions), nutrition (26%), discipline (19%), child care (17%) and behavior problems (13%). One writer noted, “As a modern mother, I am required to obsess over every. single. aspect. of my children's lives. I have to make ALL THE CHOICES about ALL THE THINGS and I am EXHAUSTED.”

The final and perhaps most destructive cost is the shaming that parents endure on social media. While online parenting advice can yield social support from friends and strangers, the internet

is also full of trolls who are happy to tell you you’re doing everything wrong. Almost daily, we witness the online shaming of parents, and mothers are typically hit hardest. Even Beyoncé, beloved by all, was criticized online for having a drink at a restaurant several months after the birth of her twins, despite the fact that moderate drinking has been shown to be fine when breastfeeding. And what about the rest of us who are not famous? A sincere comment or question on social media can result in harmful judgments and name-calling.

So what’s a parent to do? Dare I give advice about ignoring most of the advice out there in cyberspace?

Here goes:

BE SELECTIVE. Curate your online sources carefully. Trust websites from established institutions, such as universities and hospitals, with reputations for excellence. And if a site or blog is trying to sell you a product, best to stay away because the site’s goal is marketing, not reliable advice. 

TAP YOUR INNER EXPERT. You know yourself best. What are your goals for your children? Do you want them to be cooperative or competitive? Gendered or gender neutral? Spirited or polite? Choose the source and type of advice that best fits your family and your values. There are no right answers to many parenting questions—like when to wean your baby or whether co-sleeping is OK—there are only decisions based on values. And we know from cross-cultural studies that children thrive across variations in child-rearing strategies.

EMBRACE THE IDEA OFTHE GOOD-ENOUGH PARENT. As a child development expert, I can tell you this with some authority: You only have to be a good-enough parent. In fact, good enough is better than perfect when it comes to raising children. Why? Because perfect would mean you have miraculously managed to shield your children from adversity and frustration, denying them the opportunity to learn to cope with life's obstacles and setbacks. In theory after theory, frustration is at the root of learning because it motivates us to change. The British pediatrician David Winnicott coined the phrase “the good-enough mother” to make this point. Whenever I made a parenting mistake, I would console myself by remembering Winnicott's words.

From time to time, parents may need expert advice from physicians, therapists and teachers. But most of our questions only require a little reading or a talk with a trusted family member or friend. There is no need to turn parenting into a research project.