Confessions of a child psychiatrist: Even I look for parenting advice online

February 14, 2014
February 14, 2014

As a child psychiatrist, I was once convinced that I wouldn’t need any advice when I became a mother. After all, I was an “expert”: I’d studied the psychology of parenting, and knew what a child needed—or so I thought. But after weeks of sleep deprivation with an unsettled infant, I reached for my phone in the middle of the night, opened up the internet browser and began searching for articles to figure out what I was doing wrong; I must have been doing something wrong, I thought, to feel so exhausted. I knew that I should have known what to do because of my profession, but also because surely all humans are naturally equipped to be parents. Why, then, do we need the internet to help us care for our own children?

There has been a proliferation of parents searching online for advice on every aspect of pregnancy and raising children. The UK’s biggest parenting website Netmums, has tripled its membership from 550,000 in 2009 to 1.6 million members today, and research by Yahoo reported that in 2005, 86% of prospective parents used the internet to find pregnancy information.

Last month, this article accused online parenting articles, such as this one, of being akin to sex-manuals for focusing purely on the mechanics of being a parent while neglecting to consider what the essence of raising a child really is. With 253 million hits today for a Google search on “parenting advice,” the quality of articles inevitably varies. Certainly, to suggest that formulaic instructions on how to reach an artificial measure of success—be it sleeping through the night or academic achievement—can be applied to every child is ludicrous. A child is not a computer with standardized parts, but an individual made up of a unique combination of genes, temperament and life experiences. But, by empirically stating that the majority of the population seek online advice just to “get your kid into Harvard,” we are failing to understand why these articles are so popular.

Mothers today are different from mothers of previous generations. They are typically older at the birth of their first child, and while this may mean more financial stability and life skills to better equip them to care for a child, they are often highly accustomed to independence. The loss of control over a woman’s life—an inevitability with a baby—can be challenging.

Women today, while undoubtedly having more opportunities than ever before, also experience higher expectations of success. They are told that they can do as well as any man: they can be the CEO, and also have children. But the responsibility of childcare and domestic work remains predominantly with mothers, so they struggle to maintain their careers along with managing a family. For women who have been successful in other aspects of life, failing to live up to being a textbook mother, by not having a textbook baby, can be very challenging, triggering the obsession to “fix” the problem rather than relaxing into parenthood.

Today, populations are increasingly mobile and parents are less likely to live near families or know their neighbors well, who in the past would have been the main source of support in child-rearing. The internet serves an important purpose by providing the virtual support of a community and reducing the isolation that today’s parents often feel.

I sought out parenting advice when I became a new mother not because I needed step-by-step instructions, and not because I wanted to make my child an academic success, but because I needed reassurance and support that was lacking elsewhere.

Now, when I am asked for parenting advice in clinical practice, I discuss the theories and practical aspects of raising a child, but also encourage new parents to trust their instincts, do what feels right, and enjoy learning about the world through their child’s eyes. It is the parents—not health professionals, books or articles—who are the experts.

You can follow Dawn on Twitter at @drdawnbarker. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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