Rivers and Barnett

(WOMENSENEWS)–Happy Father’s Day, American dads!

But here’s a question to ask yourself: Is the parenting book you get this year from your wife, mother, sister or best friend–nicely wrapped and given with the best of intentions–nothing more than a witches’ brew of bad advice?

If the book was either of two best-selling parenting books that deal with gender issues published between 1997 and 2002, the answer is decidedly yes.

A team of psychologists headed by Dr. Toni Zimmerman from Colorado State University analyzed the top-selling parenting books. Using a feminist perspective, they trawled the books for hidden gender messages. (They counted up something called gender-meaning units.)

In findings published earlier this year, they concluded that the two mega-best sellers, John Gray’s "Children Are from Heaven" and Laura Schlessinger’s "Parenthood by Proxy: Don’t Have Them If You Won’t Raise Them" are filled with stereotypes, formulaic advice and information that does not conform to research findings. Because these authors are household names with such enormous presence in the media, many readers naturally assume the wisdom they impart is based on solid information.

But the researchers point out that both Gray and Schlessinger are themselves upfront about their rejection of empirical social science evidence. Instead, they rely on anecdotes, newspaper articles, "experts" of their own choosing and mainly their own personal experiences.

Both refer to themselves as "Doctor" but this identification is misleading. Gray’s doctorate in psychology came from a school closed down by California authorities as a fraudulent diploma mill.

"Dr." Laura is neither a psychologist nor a psychiatrist. Her doctorate is in physiology. She is a licensed MFCC (Marriage, Family, Child Counselor), which requires far less training than psychotherapists.

Pushing Traditional Gender Roles

Zimmerman and her colleagues contend that both Gray and Schlesinger are interested in promoting traditional gender roles, conservative political ideas and the rejection of any family other than the breadwinner-dad and stay-at-home mom.

In doing so, they reject as "harmful" the dual-earner family, which represents more than 60 percent of today’s couples. They ignore research showing these couples to be happy, healthy and thriving.

Schlessinger says that children raised in any family that is not traditional will have "emotional handicaps and psychological dysfunction."

This statement is absurd on its face. Hardly any social scientists would endorse such a notion. Years of research, for example, show no significant difference in emotional and cognitive development between children of mothers who work and those who stay at home.

A major study in 2000 of a representative sample of 1,000 kids from third through 12th grades by Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute found that children gave their working parents high grades on a range of parenting skills. Importantly, the kids’ views of their mothers did not differ, whether their mothers were employed or stayed at home. So you dad out there with working wives, don’t worry that your children will be scarred.

Schlessinger often uses scare stories about what happens when women work. For example, to illustrate her belief that dads can’t care for kids, she tells the tale of a father who forgets to drop his toddler off at child care and leaves her in his car all day. (Never mind the reams of research showing that men can provide excellent care for children.)

To push her theory that all day care harms children Schlessinger cites a news story about a child care center where an infant died. (No data confirms any of this. In fact, kids in high quality day care score well on cognitive skills.)

Stereotyping Specialty

Gray isn’t into scare stories; stereotypes are his specialty.

He writes that male and female children are very different from each other and have different needs. Girls need to be supported, cared for, understood and helped. He depicts all female children, the researchers say, as dependent on others.

In contrast, he portrays boys as requiring independence, space, and opportunities to solve their own problems.

Mothers should avoid helping boys, Gray says, because it "insults them" and boys don’t need help. Girls, in contrast, feel loved when they are helped.

"Gray’s descriptions neglect to account for any individual differences in children," say Zimmerman and her colleagues. They add that all children, regardless of gender, require independence, trust, and confidence to be successful individuals.

Fathers (and mothers) who buy into the advice offered by Schlessinger and Gray will get precious little help in equipping children for the lives they will lead in the 21st century.

The traditional family represents only a quarter of all American families today and two-thirds of mothers are working.

Research shows that fathers are increasingly involved with care of their children and that mothers, fathers and children are happier as a result.

Irrelevant, Possibly Harmful Advice

Setting up outdated models of the "ideal" family and offering advice more suited to the 1950s than to the present is, according to the researchers, "irrelevant at best and harmful at worst."

If parents read these books and take their stereotyped messages to heart, they may inadvertently harm their kids. Major studies have shown that when parents endorse gender stereotypes their children may become straitjacketed in their notions of what boys and girls are supposed to be like.

But on this Father’s Day, happily there is plenty of good news. Despite the warnings of these bestsellers, there’s no one surefire way to be a parent.

Many types of families do a good job at nurturing children. And children thrive when their parents are warm and caring, rejecting cookie-cutter ideas for raising boys and girls, instead treating them as the individuals they truly are.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are authors of "Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children and Our Jobs" (Basic Books 2004). Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University and Barnett is senior scientist at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University.

For more information:

Family Relations–
Best-selling Books Advising Parents about Gender: A Feminist Analysis: