Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2009

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The Down to Earth Dad

'Clueless' Parents Are Hungry for Good Information

By Patrick Mitchell

I have a new reason to worry about dads and kids since Heather Paradis MD told me about the study she led with the University of Rochester and the Children's Institute in Rochester, New York. It turns out nearly one-third (31.2%) of parents of 9- to 13-month-olds have a mistaken understanding of when babies should be potty-trained, start talking, play cooperatively with others, and learn right from wrong.

The 10,000 survey-takers--98% of who were moms--showed confusion about developmental milestones. Children's cognitive stimulation, as well as social and emotional growth, may be impaired because of the confusion, the study suggests. "Take the toilet training question, for instance," Paradis told me. "If you have the expectation that a 12-month-old child is going to be successful at toilet training, I think that sets a parent up for frustration when their child is not able to achieve that." (Most children aren't ready to be potty-trained until they are between two and three years old, she notes.)

This frustration, born of low parenting knowledge, doesn't bode well for children. "Low parental knowledge was independently and strongly associated with poorer quality interactions with a child and less cognitive stimulation," Paradis says. "Improving parent knowledge may represent an opportunity for intervention that could demonstrably enhance parent-child interactions."

Paradis was intrigued by the apparent disconnect between what child- and family-serving programs, practitioners, and pediatricians think they're providing to parents of young children with regard to information on developmental milestones, and what they're actually providing in terms of usable information. "The biggest surprise is that even though there are numerous parenting books telling people what to expect when they're pregnant, once a baby is born, an astonishing number of parents are not only unsure of what to anticipate as their child develops, but they are also uncertain of how much they are to help their babies reach various milestones, such as talking, grabbing, discerning right from wrong, or even potty-training. Some parents expect too much of babies too soon and grow frustrated," she says. "Others underestimate their child's abilities, preventing them from learning on their own."

Results from the study--A National Perspective on Parents' Knowledge of Child Development, Its Relation to Parent-Child Interaction and Associated Parenting Characteristics--concern me in two ways. First, if so many moms are ostensibly clueless about developmental milestones, then how many dads are missing those milestones? And my other concern is that these weren't just first-time parents; many had other kids already.

According to Paradis, getting creative in the way information is presented to parents is necessary. "This is a wake-up call for pediatricians and parent educators. The medical community in particular needs to adapt to the technologies, and we've been lagging behind, relying on traditional (print) methods of information. There's definitely a movement from within the pediatric community to examine the way that we deliver well-child care to kids and incorporate the use of media and digital technology," she says. She suggests that telephone recordings while parents are on hold waiting to talk to receptionists at doctor's offices and websites like www.KidsHealth.org are examples of resources for parents that can showcase developmental milestones in non-print ways.

"In the old days, one's extended family network provided the bulk of the parenting information a new parent received," Paradis says. "Nowadays, though, with family members being relatively more fragmented and living geographically separate from one another, outside sources like books, the Internet, videos on parenting, and non-family members in their community play a much bigger parent-education role than in the past. Giving parents information when it's appropriate is the key."

A regular contributor to Children's Voice, Patrick Mitchell publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, and facilitates the Dads Matter!™ Project for early childhood programs, schools, and child- and family-serving organizations. He conducts keynote addresses, workshops, and inservice and preservice trainings. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements, or to implement the Dads Matter!™ Project for your families and community partners, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS, or e-mail him at patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

To comment on this story, e-mail voice@cwla.org.




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