When “Parenting Experts” Need a Time-Out

A little while ago, I came across an article with a headline that is still stuck in my brain. It read, A Therapist Shares the 7 Biggest Parenting Mistakes That Destroy Kids’ Mental Strength. My eyes jumped from their sockets and I let out an audible gasp at every negative, demoralizing word of that shameful grabber… and then proceeded to do what any self-respecting masochist would do — I read the article.

As much as I didn’t want to take the bait, I was interested to see if the entire article was as negative as its title. Reading it did not leave me feeling more educated or empowered as a parent, and whatever value it had was overshadowed by its degrading title. I wondered why it couldn’t have had a positive spin on it to motivate instead of chastise parents (for example, 7 Things You Should Do More Often to Enhance Your Child’s Mental Strength.) I believe appealing to parents’ feelings of inadequacy can result in a lack of parenting confidence that in turn negatively affects children. All of this made me think about today’s growing market in the parenting space and what is genuinely helpful to parents and families.

Of all the thoughts this article provoked for me, it mostly made me consider how readers were baited with the advice of “an actual therapist.” It’s as if to say, “She’s a professional, so she’s literally licensed to prey on your insecurities.” What message are we sending parents if we sell advice from a holier-than-thou angle? The term “parenting expert” is being thrown around these days as a way to legitimize the advice of everyone from writers to social media influencers to even trained, licensed clinicians themselves. But what defines an “expert?” And can there really be such a thing as a parenting expert?

As a mother and a licensed family therapist myself, I have both personal and professional experience navigating the challenges of parenthood. I have four years of undergrad, two years of grad school, two years of post-grad supervised training, and fifteen years of professional clinical experience under my belt. I’ve facilitated countless parenting classes and workshops, attended dozens of trainings, and counseled hundreds and hundreds of parents seeking help with their children. But I don’t refer to myself as a parenting “expert.” 

Parenthood is the hardest job on the planet, and it doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all-families handbook. Parenthood is challenging for two reasons: 1) it is a formidable responsibility made up of huge decisions everyday that will impact an entire future generation, and 2) it requires a tremendous amount of physical and emotional work that involves us examining ourselves and our own childhoods. As both a parent and a professional, I look at situations and consider if the advice a clinician like myself would dole out to a client is practical and useful when I’m face to face with my own cherub’s occasional seething meltdown. Regardless of one’s credentials or amount of Instagram followers, I don’t believe any of us is exempt from the stressful unpredictability of parenthood.

To me, the term “parenting expert” is unsettling. It has a connotation of superiority that is frankly counterintuitive in reaching an audience who already may feel overwhelmed or inadequate in their very stressful role. And yet, I’ve recently noticed what seems like an increase in content across all media presented by self-proclaimed “parenting experts.” I suppose the stress of the pandemic and quarantining with our children has provided great opportunities for businesses in the parenting space. And while I respect that (and support anything that supports healthy families) I’d like to see it done the right way . . . with more motivation and less charlatans.

Brene Brown, a fellow social worker who is a renowned professor, author, and speaker, had this to say about the idea of “parenting experts:” 

“I’m not a parenting expert. In fact, I’m not sure that I even believe in the idea of ‘parenting experts.’ I’m an engaged, imperfect parent and a passionate researcher. I’m an experienced mapmaker and a stumbling traveler. Like many of you, parenting is by far my boldest and most daring adventure.”

Here are some practical things to consider when searching online for your own support:

  • Look for parenting voices you find relatable. If their videos or writings make you nod along in agreement, you’re likely to trust advisors with whom you feel a connection.
  • Take note of qualifications. Before you dive deep into a self-help book or religiously follow the advice of a parenting influencer, look into why they’re considered an authority on the subject. Trained clinicians are obviously most desirable, but authors and influencers can be valuable resources as long as their experience is credible. I’m wary of accounts that share zero information about its writers and use language that shames parents.
  • If someone presents an idea or statistic, consider if it’s actually rooted in evidence-based research or just an opinion or generalization the person is making.  
  • Beware of presenters who have gotten too big for their britches. Social media has conditioned us to believe that the more followers people have, the more qualified they are, and this is simply not true. I’ve noticed many parenting or mental health accounts on Instagram which have lost their integrity as their followings boomed. 3 million followers sometimes leads to flashy, entertaining Instagram reels with little or no substance.
  • Look for presenters who share the realistic side of parenting and recognize the fact that you and your children are perfectly imperfect humans. It’s not all nursery rhymes and cuddles, so avoid people who portray parenthood that way.
  • Don’t discredit presenters if you don’t agree with 100% of their approach. While you should follow people you generally relate to, every idea doesn’t have to match yours. I have a favorite psychologist who shares some opinions that I don’t personally follow, and I even think of her when I’m proudly doing the opposite with my own child! But I still value her based on the bigger picture, not just the occasional discrepancy.
  • Be wary of sites, accounts, or authors who don’t share any personal perspective. We clinicians are trained to withhold a lot of personal information, but good ones know how to share a bit of themselves while not divulging every detail. Advisors who never share their own challenges are not relatable and give off a vibe that can be discouraging to parents seeking motivation.
  • There is so much value in parents looking at our own childhoods to improve our job as parents. People who encourage that in a gentle way are going to motivate you to give your kids the best version of yourself. Steer clear of those who over-analyze and manipulate you into self-blame. These tactics are actually counterintuitive to good mental health. 
  • On the other hand, watch out for sites that rely too much on oversimplified praise jargon. “You’re doing your best” is wonderful encouragement all of us parents need, but parenting is an extremely individualized experience, and what if a parent really does need more support?  Some accounts that over-generalize all parents with “you’re doing fine” may send the wrong message to a parent who really needs individualized help for the safety of his or her children. 
  • While we all need to earn a living, be wary of accounts that seem to only want to offer support for the right price. If every post has a teaser and you can only unlock the “magic answer” with money, keep scrolling. 

Parenthood may be the hardest job in the world, but it is also the most important one. No other role should be more of a priority than our responsibility to shape a healthy, happy future member of society. While every day can’t be perfect, I believe it is the wish of most parents to do better everyday. A child who feels loved, respected, and safe has the foundation for a strong future.

The “parenting expert” terminology may not be disappearing anytime soon, but we parents have the right to be selective about the voices that influence us. While no parent is an “expert,” we owe it to our kids to be eternal students in the school of parenthood and make every effort to offer them the best version of ourselves.

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