The gurus get real

Let's hear it for Ferber, Sears and other parenting experts who actually listen to parents

Did you hear about the alleged recantations of the two famous parenting docs, Richard Ferber and William Sears? Ferber, a paediatric sleep expert in Boston, has sold cratefuls of his book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (the revised edition is due in bookstores this month). He also unwittingly — perhaps unwillingly — lent his name to a new verb, ferberize, which is code for teaching babies to sleep through the night by leaving them for progressively longer periods of time — whether or not they cry.

California paediatrician William Sears and his wife, Martha, have done very well with several books promoting what they call “attachment” parenting, which includes extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping and responding quickly to your child — in other words, not leaving her alone to cry at night.

Last fall, The Wall Street Journal reported that the two pundits from opposite poles were both “softening their long-held positions.” Ferber was apparently allowing that leaving children to cry is not the solution to all sleep problems, while Sears was acknowledging that parents need to get some rest too.

Both have issued denials — Sears on his website and Ferber in a morning TV interview I happened to see, where he and an interviewer jousted about semantics (was it a retraction or a clarification?). I don’t actually care if either Sears or Ferber was admitting fault. The point is, there’s a good lesson here about expert advice.

High-profile parenting experts face certain risks. One is that, even when their advice is based on the soundest knowledge and professional experience, they have no way of knowing exactly how it will play out when real parents try to fit it into their daily (or nightly) lives.
We all come to parenting with values, assumptions, cultural backgrounds, knowledge and personalities. Our babies differ in temperament. Both Sears and Ferber failed to adequately acknowledge the exceptions — the kids and families for whom their advice would not work.

Ferber underestimated the difficulty some parents would have carrying out his approach, and the variability in babies’ responses. Sears, whose advice covered much more than sleep, underestimated the desperation of the subset of parents who were trying to be his kind of parent, but who weren’t getting enough sleep.

I think they see that now, so both are trying to make some necessary adjustments to their stances. Good on them, I say.

A subtler problem for experts is finding the balance between being authoritative and sounding like the all-knowing god of parenting. It’s tricky. Parents turn to books — and magazines — for answers. Haven’t we all, at times, wanted someone to hand us the solution to our problem in five sentences or less? If experts hedge too much or cite too many exceptions, we might wonder if they really have the courage of their convictions. But if they come across as too authoritative, they start to sound as if raising a child is a step-by-step method, like programming a computer.

The dirty little truth is that much of the time, most of us parents just muddle through, hoping to have a reasonably good time and maintain positive relationships with our kids, as we try to get done what we have to do. Experts should never forget that.

One of the wisest statements by a doctor I ever read was from a family doc in Great Expectations magazine (now called Today’s Parent Pregnancy & Birth). She said she’d like to hang a sign on the wall of her office: “But remember, I could be wrong.”

Sometimes I think all parenting authors should be required to put that in the subtitles of their books. That won’t happen, but when you peruse parenting tomes, watch for signs of inflexible single-mindedness. Trust those who seem to understand that kids are different, and that there are few one-size-fits-all rules for raising them.