Best-Selling Books Advising Parents about Gender: A Feminist Analysis

Article excerpt

Abstract:

To determine how gender in parenting was addressed, a content analysis was conducted on the six best-selling self-help books (1997-2002) that provide general parenting advice. A feminist perspective was used to code gendered meaning units in the six books. Findings were that 82% of the implicit gender messages across all books were stereotypical, and that Parenthood by Proxy (Schlessinger, 2000) and Children Are From Heaven (Gray, 1999) had a gendered agenda in that they contained highly prescriptive content about gender. Practitioners can use these findings in selecting parenting advice books to increase their understanding of the information about gender that parents may glean from these books, and to address these messages with families with whom they work.

Key Words: gender, parenting, popular press, self-help literature.

The purpose of this study was to analyze the six best-selling self-help books, published between 1997 and 2002, that provide general parenting advice in order to determine how the authors addressed the topic of gender. Parenting is challenging, and many parents read selfhelp books to obtain advice on how to enhance their efficacy as parents. Research shows that gender is an important variable in the socialization of children and in parent-child interactions (Coltrane, 1998; Risman, 1998). In recent years, an increase in the publication of self-help books written for parents is evident, specifically on the topic of gender, such as Reviving Ophelia (Pipher, 1994), Real Boys (Pollack, 1998), and Raising Cain (Kindlon & Thompson, 1999). The popularity of this genre of book indicates that many parents are seeking information about how to help their children function in a gendered society. However, no prior empirical study has examined the amount and nature of advice related to gender in general best-selling parenting self-help books. The results of this study can assist family professionals and parents in critically analyzing the gender content of parenting advice books and in selecting books that reflect their own ideologies. Family professionals can gain a deeper understanding of the messages that clients who have read these books have consumed, and can use the information as a springboard for discussion.

Literature Review

Many parents want to increase their competence as parents, and they seek information, support, and concrete skills to improve their parenting (Norcross et al., 2000). Today's fast-paced culture in which many parents are overextended demands that parenting advice be accessible, economical, and likely to succeed (Starker, 1989). Self-help authors have attempted to meet this demand of busy parents by publishing books on parenting. In fact, parenting books represent the largest category of self-help resources (Norcross).

To become better parents, individuals also seek support from family specialists, and in many cases, bibliotherapy is recommended. Studies show that 85%-88% of psychologists recommended self-help books to their clients to complement therapy (Norcross et al., 2000; Starker, 1989). Although these books may expedite therapy by educating clients on a range of topics, the quality of self-help books can vary greatly. Rosen (1993) found that over 95% of these books lack any empirical basis for their claims of efficacy.

A scholarly precedent was set by researchers who explored the nature of self-help literature and its consumers. One study examined advice on integrating a second child into the family (Kramer & Ramsburg, 2002). Other studies have investigated the characteristics of parents who read parenting advice books, the value that they place on these books (Clarke-Stewart, 1978), and the content of self-help books for parents of adolescents (Smith, Vartanian, DeFrates-Densch, Van Loon, & Locke, 2003). Other research examined the advice related to gender in the leading self-help books of the past decade, and found that the most popular self-help relationship books promoted traditional gender stereotypes, encouraged relationships that were based on gendered power differentials, and provided advice that contradicts the literature on building high-quality intimate relationships (Zimmerman, Haddock, & McGeorge, 2001; Zimmerman, Holm, Daniels, & Haddock, 2002; Zimmerman, Holm, & Haddock, 2001). …