Book Notes: Paranoid Parenting (Part 3)

I’m mostly writing notes to evaluate Furedi’s arguments and add my own thoughts. If you’re interested, you can check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Chapter 3: Parents as Gods
In chapter 3, Furedi goes deeper into a concept he introduced in the previous chapter – infant determinism (also referred to by Furedi as “parental determinism”.) This idea purports that parents are uniquely responsible for all sorts of childhood and adult behavior – and that therefore parents should take a strong role in actively shaping their children’s lives (because if they don’t do it intentionally, they will be sure to mess up their children!)

“Today, parenting has been transformed into an all-purpose independent variable that seems to explain everything about an infant’s development.”

The author goes through a huge list of things that modern science blames on parenting – the terrible twos, school failure, depression, eating disorders, and more. Here’s where he starts talking a bit on my area of expertise: nutrition.

“Nutritionists claim that many parents are mistaken in the belief that a healthy diet for an adult is a healthy diet for children. It is claimed that babies and toddlers who receive normal adult fare are deprived of energy-dense food and therefore lack the right calorie intake….Parents not only have to constantly monitor the food they give to their toddlers, they also have to set the right example during meals.”

Here’s where I wonder if these are the messages parents are really receiving – because they’re certainly not the messages I’m sharing. The truth is that many people are mistaken in their beliefs about what constitutes a healthy diet, period. While extreme low-fat diets were popular, there were indeed parents who mistakenly thought that their infants and toddlers should go low-fat too – and those infants ended up with essential fatty acid deficiencies. But extremely low-fat diets actually aren’t healthy for anyone (and hopefully, no dietitians are spouting that in 2014!) – and children are actually uniquely vulnerable to nutritional deficiencies (as opposed to adults) because they’re still building their bodies (as opposed to maintaining them as adults are.) And setting a good example? Is he really complaining about that advice? It seems like common sense that if you expect your kid to eat vegetables, it helps if they see you eating vegetables too.

The disconnect between what I share as nutritional parenting advice (and really, my job is to give parenting advice) and what Furedi perceives as current nutritional parenting advice makes me wonder where else the messages researchers and educators give are transformed into paranoia.

And then I look at Furedi’s sources: Mother & Baby magazine, Prima Baby magazine, Baby magazine, Parents magazine. These magazines were purportedly quoting experts or giving advice based on research – but I’m not at all confident that journalists have the skills required to give advice based on scientific research. I see it all the time with nutrition. A new study comes out suggesting that high intake of cinnamon increases insulin sensitivity. This is interesting, but hardly something to start giving nutritional advice based upon. Yet Fitness magazine has a big feature full of cinnamon-rich recipes announcing that this is a scientific way to prevent diabetes. The advice, of course, pays no attention to the minimum dose required for response, the magnitude of the response, or the quality of the study. I suspect that much of the “scientific” parenting advice one reads in parenting magazines is similar.

But don’t blame it on the experts, this time. If you want someone to tar and feather, tar and feather the journalists who prey on parent’s fears and inappropriately translate research into guidelines.

That said, Furedi does have a good point to make: children tend to be remarkably resilient. The magnitude of these parenting effects is nowhere near as large as the popular media would have you think. My parents didn’t follow all the nutritional advice I give my clients (and I actually give them good advice :-P) – and I’m not a fatso with an eating disorder. It’s okay to relax – you don’t have to follow every new fad the parenting magazines tout in order to not mess up your child.

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