Raising kids can be tricky enough, which may leave some parents wondering why Dr. David Rettew chose to name his new book Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows About the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood. But if moms and dads want a research-based parenting guide that's tailored to each child's temperament, they shouldn't be put off by the title.
Dr. Rettew is a child psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. Eschewing the quick sound bites that pervade many parenting books, he asserts that there's no one-size-fits-all approach to raising kids.
Instead, Rettew delves into what researchers know, and don't know, about the effectiveness of different childrearing styles — helicopter parenting, old-school parenting, free-range parenting and the like — and which are most effective on different personality types. Many parents discover this on their own: What worked well with their gregarious and happy-go-lucky daughter may not be as effective with their anxious and introverted son.
Though packed with information, Parenting Made Complicated is eminently readable, practical, jargon free and even funny. Just don't expect straightforward, cookie-cutter answers.
KIDS VT: What's the best way for parents to approach this book?
DAVID RETTEW: I tried to provide some tools to help parents make a pretty good guess at what their child's temperament looks like, and their own [temperament]. From there, they can arrive at one of five temperament types. Then, as parents go through the various topics, whether it be sleep training, breastfeeding, screen time or daycare, at the end of each chapter I say something about how things might be different for kids of different temperaments. The very last chapter explains how to put all of this into practice.
KVT: Why did you choose the topics you did?
DR: I wanted to cover a lot of ground because I understand that parents, especially those with young children, don't have a lot of time to read. Many parenting books focus on just one or two of these topics, and that requires an awful lot of reading. Also, I'm a practicing child psychiatrist at UVM, and these are issues that come up often in my discussions with parents. They're also ones where I see a lot of misinformation, confusion and contradictory advice online.
KVT: What about parenting two or more kids, when each sibling has a different temperament?
DR: It's a tricky area. Kids are exquisitely sensitive at detecting unfairness and will often point it out. But I think there is merit to not parenting the same way for different kids. You've heard the adage, fair does not mean equal. Sometimes it's a hard concept for kids to understand. But if you're clear about what that means, kids can accept it most of the time.
KVT: What should parents do in a two-parent household, where each has a different parenting style?
DR: This is somewhat contradictory advice than what most parents are used to hearing, but in some ways it's good to parent in a way that's unnatural to them. We've all been told to just follow our instincts. That's what Dr. Benjamin Spock advised. I'm not refuting that, but I think there are a lot of times when parents need to take a step or two in the opposite direction.
Let's say you're a parent with high levels of anxiety yourself, and you have a child who, based on genetics and environment, also tends to have high levels of anxiety. There may be a lot of momentum toward overprotecting your kid. But one of the things we know about overcoming anxiety is, it's very hard to do if you don't expose yourself to some of those feared situations in a supportive way. So you may need to make sure that your child is getting that supportive nudging to confront some of their discomfort.
When you have two parents with different temperaments, sometimes that other parent can help fulfill the role that doesn't come as naturally to you. Consistency in parenting is good. As I often tell parents, you don't necessarily need to be on the same page, but you do need to be in the same book.
KVT: Which parts of your book have been the most controversial?
DR: The place where I've gotten the most discussion has been the chapter on discipline and corporal punishment. My conclusion, based on the data, is that there isn't much science out there to support the use of spanking. But I also get into different techniques such as time-outs. There are a lot of people who also consider behavioral modification techniques such as time-outs to be cruel and unusual punishments. Some even claim that they have brain-damaging effects. I feel like that's taking the scientific literature way too far. There are certain kids, in certain situations, where I totally agree that time-outs are not effective and end up getting parents into "wrestling matches" with their kids. But there are also kids who, in some moments, are pushing buttons and testing limits, and sometimes those techniques can be very effective.
KVT: What parenting behaviors inflict actual harm on children? For example, you cite the relationship between co-sleeping and the increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
DR: Another topic is praise: Are we overpraising or underpraising kids? There's this belief that parents are running around saying "Good job!" to kids just for breathing, and that may be true for some. But one of the things the research tells us is that serious problems don't arise from overpraising. It's those harsh and critical things we say to our kids in our not-so-great moments as parents that are problematic. You can say "Great job!" 10 times, but when they hear one "What's wrong with you?" it can really undermine a lot of good work you've done up to that point. Walking around in public, I still hear some really harsh comments from parents, and I cringe every time.