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

Article excerpt


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).

Analyzing how gender is treated in leading self-help parenting books is important because gender is a critical variable in the organization of family relationships and in the socialization of children (Haddock, Zimmerman, & Lyness, 2003). Feminist theorists maintain that gender inequality is promoted at all levels of society through the enforcement of expectations or limitations placed on both genders. These expectations prevent individuals from becoming fully actualized; they limit people's emotional expression, professional aspirations, family dynamics, and so on (Haddock et al., 2003). Enactment of these expectations also results in power differentials between men and women that undermine relationship quality (Gottman, 1999).

The way in which children are taught to "do gender" (West & Zimmerman, 1987) in the United States has significant consequences for their quality of life. Gender norms influence children's interests, play, education, occupations, and relationships (e.g., Campenni, 1999; Coltrane, 1998). Gender socialization influences children's self-esteem, self-image, and emotional reality (e.g., Kindlon & Thompson, 1999; Witt, 2000). Powerful social messages confront adolescent girls to conform to narrowly defined images of femininity (Pipher, 1994); these pressures have contributed to an epidemic of eating disorders, depression, self-harming behaviors, adolescent pregnancy, and drug and alcohol abuse (Kelly, 2002; Orenstein, 1994; Pipher). Kindlon and Thompson linked emotional illiteracy in boys, which can result from adherence to traditional gender norms, to depression, substance abuse and addiction, anger and violence, and difficulties in forming later relationships and in expressing emotional vulnerability.

Families often are seen as a primary site of gender socialization (Risman, 1998). Families play a major role in maintaining "our culturally agreed-upon notions of gender-appropriate (and gender-inappropriate) behaviors and traits" (Golombok & Fivush, 1996, p. 19). As a primary and influential socializing agent of children, parents teach children "appropriate" and "inappropriate" behavior for each gender, and how the genders should interact with one another. Children are taught to "do gender" (West & Zimmerman, 1987) both implicitly and explicitly by their parents. Children receive direct messages about appropriate behavior for girls and boys, and they also see gendered behavior modeled and reinforced by adult behavior. Connell (1987) asserted that the gender norms in families occur in the arenas of labor, control, and cathexis. Labor pertains to how work is distributed both within and outside the home. Control refers to the holding and use of authority and power-for instance, as related to decision-making and access to finances-and cathexis includes the emotional realm of relationships, including matters of interpersonal problems and emotional caretaking.

Gender shapes the quantity of time that parents spend with children, and the nature of those interactions. Researchers (Burns & Homel, 1989; Hochschild & Machung, 1997; Wille, 1995) have found that mothers are the primary caregivers of children in the United States. In fact, according to a study of 860 business professionals, mothers who were employed spent over three times as many hours per week on childcare activities than did men (Friedman & Greenhaus, 2000). In recent years, fathers' involvement in child care and household labor has increased, but most fathers still do not spend as much time as mothers caring for their children (Arendell, 1997; Coltrane, 1998). Other researchers have found that mothers tend to be closer to their children and more involved in their activities than fathers (Crouter, McHale, & Bartko, 1993). Mothers also tend to use more supportive language with their children than do fathers (Leaper, Anderson, & Sanders, 1998).

Parents often encourage appropriate gender behavior and discourage inappropriate gender behavior, influencing the development of gender-typed play styles, activities, and behaviors in children (Lindsey, Mize, & Petit, 1997; Lytton & Romney, 1991; Risman, 1998). Fagot and Hagan (1991) found that parents give boys less positive feedback when they engage in behavior that is not stereotypically viewed as masculine. Further, parents tend to discourage children, especially boys, from playing with cross-gender toys (Idle, Wood, & Desmarais, 1993). Girls participate in more traditionally feminine household tasks (Crouter et al., 1993), reinforcing the notion that girls must be skilled at domestic duties. In two longitudinal studies of over 2,000 families with children, parents were found to influence how children perceived their own academic and athletic competencies. The extent to which the parents endorsed gender stereotypes affected their children's actual competencies in these areas (Eccles, Jacobs, & Harold, 1990).

Given its powerful influence on children, parents should be informed about the process and outcomes of gender socialization. Knowledge of the process and outcomes of gender socialization allows parents to be mindful in raising their children and in helping them to critically analyze gender expectations and make informed choices about how to handle these expectations. Thus, attention to gender is ideally an important factor in successful parenting. To this end, we examined the degree and manner in which general parenting advice books address gender in parenting by investigating the following questions.

1. To what degree is gender an explicit focus of the leading self-help book on the general topic of parenting?

2. What are the salient themes about gender in these books?

3. To what degree does the content of these books contain implicit messages about gender?

4. What is the nature of this implicit content?



A content analysis was performed on six leading self-help books that provide general parenting advice. The books were chosen based on their popularity, as measured by the number of weeks over a 5-year period (March 1997 to March 2002) that each book appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List in the "Advice, How-To, and Miscellaneous" category. Thirty-five parenting-related books were identified and appear in the Appendix. Specific criteria were established to generate the appropriate sample for this study. Three types of books were omitted: those providing advice on general family issues (n = 4), inspirational books (n = 7), and books with a specific focus (n = 11), such as calming babies, financial planning, and sexuality. Books that focused specifically on gender also were omitted (n = 7). Applying these criteria resulted in a sample of six books, listed in order of popularity: Children Are From Heaven (Gray, 1999; 12 weeks on the Bestseller List); The 7 Worst Things Parents Do (Friel & Friel, 1999; 6 weeks); Parenthood by Proxy (Schlessinger, 1999; 4 weeks); How to Behave so Your Children Will Too (Severe, 2000; 4 weeks); I Refuse to Raise a Brat (Henner & Sharon, 1999; 3 weeks); and Giving the Love that Heals (Hendrix & Hunt, 1997; 1 week).

Coding Procedure

The entire contents of the books were analyzed. The coder first identified all passages that were relevant to gender. Next, for each relevant passage, the coder determined whether gender was discussed in an explicit or implicit manner. Explicit gender content was defined as content in which the author directly described or advised readers about gender. Some examples of explicit content are descriptions ("men are not good with infants" or "working moms feel guilty about leaving their children"), needs ("girls need more emotional support than boys"), advice ("it is better if both parents are actively raising their children"), or prescriptions of how families should be ("mothers should not work outside the home"). Implicit gender content was defined as more subtle messages about gender that often go unnoticed in a text; these were not overtly descriptive or prescriptive statements, but statements that contained gendered content imbedded in scenarios ("After Bonnie made dinner..."), examples ("Ned played with his army men"), and dialogue ("Mike, it's okay if you feel like crying").

Once each relevant passage was identified as either implicit or explicit, different analysis procedures were used to analyze the two kinds of content. Explicit gender content was analyzed inductively to capture the unique and salient gender themes contained in each book. Implicit gender content was analyzed deductively using a coding template developed for this study.

Coding and inductive data analysis on explicit gender content. For explicit gender content, an open code was assigned to the meaning unit that succinctly described the essence of the gendered meaning unit. An open code is a brief description that captures the meaning of the text in a succinct way (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Following the reading and open coding on all six books, a constant comparative analysis was performed to collapse the initial codes (Strauss & Corbin). As these passages were analyzed, the researcher identified the themes that emerged from each of the books and between books. As the themes were compared, relevant categories and meanings emerged, and as these categories evolved, the data were reorganized into second-level codes based on the initial codes. Second-level codes are more general, overarching codes that organize the open codes into themes (Strauss & Corbin). To better understand these codes, a second analysis of the data was conducted to identify the primary themes and concepts relevant to messages about gender and parenting advice. This inductive method allowed the meanings to emerge directly from the data, and the results were generated from this level of data. Because the process involved in generating these data was inductive, a simple classification of Stereotypie or nonstereotypic was not a logical consideration. The richness of the content was determined to be the meaningful element of the message, and the nature of the data itself did not lend itself to being classified in this dichotomous way.

Coding and deductive analysis of implicit gender content. A coding template was developed to examine implicit gender content on three dimensions: (a) whether the content was stereotypical or nonstereotypical, (b) whether the content was related to children or to parents, and (c) to which area of family life the content was relevant (labor, control, cathexis, or other).

Related to the first dimension, Stereotypic content was defined as content consistent with socially constructed gender expectations (Haddock et al., 2003; Haddock, Zimmerman, & MacPhee, 2000). For example, a family scenario in which the father is getting ready for work while the mother is making breakfast for children supports the stereotypes that father goes to work while mother stays at home. Nonstereotypic gender content was defined as content that provides an alternative to culturally defined gender expectations. For example, content about a mother who is a surgeon or a father who is staying at home with his children would be nonstereotypic. In nonstereotypic gender content, interactions, rules, or assignment of chores are not based on the gender of the child or parent.

The content also was coded as pertaining to children or parents. For example, a passage that described a little girl who would only wear dresses would be coded as pertaining to child. A description of a father comforting his child would be coded for the parent.

For the last dimension, Connell's (1987) framework for conceptualizing how gender organizes family life was used. He argued that gender shaped the areas of labor, control, and cathexis; "other" was added to code any content that did not soundly fit into one of Connell's three areas.

To further exemplify the application of Connell's framework in our coding procedure, if a passage referred to a mother cooking dinner for her children, it would have been coded as Labor/Stereotypical/Parent. If the passage referred to an adolescent son cooking dinner for his family, it would have been coded as Labor/ Nonstereotypical/Child. Coding the data using this template allowed us to tabulate the number of messages in each category for each book and across books.

Strategies To Enhance Trustworthiness

To enhance the trustworthiness of the findings, several strategies were used. Interrater reliability was obtained, peer review was used, field notes were kept, and clarification of researcher perspective was conducted.

Interrater reliability. The first book in the sample was read and coded by the primary coder and first author. A second coder read and coded two randomly selected chapters from this book. The second coder was a graduate student with a particular interest in gender issues. A line-by-line comparison of the selected passages was conducted. This process yielded a total of 31 meaning units coded by one or both coders. Interrater reliability was assessed at 89% agreement (27 matches out of 31 meaning units). An analysis of the open codes revealed that the coders consistently interpreted the meaning unit.

To check for experimenter effect and help in identifying any biases or observer drift that may have occurred throughout the coding process, a recoding procedure was implemented. After reading four books, the primary coder recoded three randomly selected chapters from the first book. A line-by-line comparison of the first and second coding results was conducted. The results of this process produced an 84% agreement between the first coding and the second coding of the book.

Peer review. After codes were developed, the researcher invited two peer reviews of the coding procedure to assess for logical conceptualization and consistency in coding.

Field notes. Field notes were kept throughout the process. This added source of data enabled the researcher to document procedural issues that arose during the data collection process. The researcher also recorded overall and specific impressions generated while conducting the line-by-line analysis of each book.

Clarification of researcher perspective. Given the nature of qualitative research, the researcher's point of view is a critical part of the analysis (Josselson, Leiblich, & McAdams, 2003). Therefore, the qualifications and assumptions of the researcher are important. The researcher was a 34-year-old female graduate student in marriage and family therapy, and a candidate in the women's studies certificate program. This training provided her with a strong emphasis in feminist family therapy and gender issues. A feminist-informed perspective was used to examine the gender messages in this study because the researcher holds values that are pertinent here. She agrees with numerous scholars (e.g., Kimmel, 2000; Risman, 1998) that gender is an organizing principle in society and in families, that power differentials based on gender, race or ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation should be eradicated, and that children should be raised within families where expectations of family roles and responsibilities are not associated with gender (Risman), but based on skills, interests, and desires.


The results are organized by the four research questions. Regarding the degree to which gender is an explicit focus of the leading self-help books on the general topic of parenting, we report the number of explicit gender codes for each book. Regarding the salient themes about gender that emerged from the texts (three for Parenthood by Proxy; two for Children Are From Heaven; and secondary themes from the remaining texts) are reported. Regarding the degree to which the books contain implicit messages about gender, the number of implicit Stereotypie and nonstereotypic gender passages by area of family life and type of family member are reported. Last, the nature of this implicit content includes reports of the Stereotypic and nonstereotypic percentages with sample quotes.

Question 1: To what degree is gender an explicit focus of the leading self-help hook on the general topic of parenting?

The total number of explicit codes for each book was determined. Findings were that Parenthood by Proxy (Schlessinger, 2000) contained 311; Children Are From Heaven (Gray, 1999) contained 171; I Refuse to Raise a Brat (Henner & Sharon, 1999) contained 12; Giving the Love that Heals (Hendrix & Hunt, 1997) contained 10; and How to Behave so Your Children Will Too (Severe, 2000) and The 7 Worst Things Parents Do (Friel & Friel, 1999) contained none. In sum, two books had a relatively strong focus on gender, two books devoted only minimal attention, and the remaining two books contained no explicit focus.

Question 2: What are the salient themes about gender in these books?

To address this research question, within-case inductive analysis was conducted on the explicit gender content to determine the salient themes about gender. Salient themes emerged in only two books: Parenthood by Proxy and Children Are From Heaven.

Parenthood by Proxy (Schlessinger, 2000). This book contained the greatest number of explicit statements about gender. Three themes emerged: (a) families should be traditional in structure (i.e., breadwinner father and stay-at-home mother); (b) working mothers are selfish and are poor mothers; and (c) mothers' use of child care is harmful to children.

Regarding the theme that families should be traditional in structure, Schlessinger (2000) argued that the traditional breadwinner father and homemaker mother family is the preferred family form. She lamented that "the subtle (and not so subtle) undermining of the traditional family is widespread" (p. 117), and that "homosexual activists are ... undermining the significance of the traditional definition of family as husband, wife, and children" (p. 16). Further, she claimed that because "society has abdicated its responsibility to support the traditional family ... the destructive results are all too evident" (p. 20). She stated that children raised in any family that is not traditional will have "emotional handicaps and psychological dysfunction" (p. 150), and live a "life of crime" (p. 172). She believes that "most delinquents are children who have been abandoned by their fathers and are often deprived of the love and affection they need from their mothers" (p. 171). The following statement further illustrates this theme.

Families are fast becoming whatever anyone says a family is. The concept of a family as a sacred vessel, strengthened by a ... covenantal relationship between a man and a woman, for the safe passage of moral, generous, and loving children, is no longer venerated or even aspired to. (p. 247)

Many other statements also exemplified this theme, including, "The nuclear family is the basic unit of civilization and of civilizing the young" (p. 213), "The mother's strong affectionate attachment to her child and the father's authority and involvement in raising his children are the best buffers against a life of crime" (p. 172), and "... Yet most parents end up doing a 'good enough' job if they ... [P]rovide a united mom-dad front" (p. 155).

Regarding the theme that working mothers are selfish and are poor mothers, Schlessinger (2000) repeatedly described working mothers as selfish, greedy, only caring about their own needs, and damaging their children by placing them in child care. She claimed that mothers who are employed are bad mothers and harm their children. Assuming they were women, readers were instructed that if they want a career, they should not have children. In fact, on her list of the "stupidest reasons to have children," number 9 (out of 21) was

So you can prove you can have children and a career [emphasis in original]. No modern day ensemble (high-paying career, SUV, country home, dog, husband, highlighted hair, British nanny, and acrylic nails) is complete without a kid (in daycare). (p. 111)

Single mothers, particularly those who intentionally parent solo, were under great criticism from Schlessinger. In her "three dumb arguments" for not marrying the man in the event of any pregnancy, she described the following reason as an unacceptable justification for parenting alone.

Good single mothers are rarely at home full-time raising their children because they're off earning a living. A better way to define a good mother is one who is actually physically there doing the job in order to get the rating. Another definition of a good mother is one who provides ... marriage and a father, (p. 131)

In response to a letter to Parenting magazine requesting advice for single parents to deal with the fatigue from parenting, Schlessinger (2000) suggested a title for the article: "The title of that next article should be 'Responsible Childbearing: Be Married, or Put the Child up for Adoption to a Two-Parent Family Who Can Do the Job'" (p. 126). Her message is clear: "Single motherhood may be more acceptable to society, but it is not acceptable to children; nor is it in their best interest" (p. 124).

Regarding the theme that mothers' use of day care is harmful to children, Schlessinger (2000) explained that children who spend time in any sort of care besides that of their mother would be adversely affected. The following passage described her perception of a child's experience at child care.

A small checklist in the bottom right-hand corner of the report card [from a daycare center] reads four choices: happy, talkative, quiet, and played well. This list falls a little short as I do not see included in the choices and descriptions as: abandoned, irreparably scarred, forsaken, discarded, rejected, and generally sad-but I suppose that wouldn't be good for business, (p. 256)

In response to a study suggesting that there are no differences "between children of working moms and those whose mothers stayed at home," Schlessinger (2000) expressed her views.

Oh, please. One only has to look at the expressions of the two children. The first is raptly focused on Mom's eyes. The second stares blankly into the universe. You've got to be kidding yourself to believe there's no difference in these two sentient beings. Worse, you've got to be lying to yourself, (p. 61)

These passages exemplify her judgment of women who, according to Schlessinger, "damage their children" by placing them in child care. In one example in which she uses the popular press to substantiate her views, Schlessinger stated,

The Boston Herald (December 5, 1999) published an article entitled "Familiarity Breeds Contentment." It was intended to reassure parents that their children's pain at being left in daycare would subside as it became routine. The accompanying photograph was pathetic. It showed a mother looking at a window against which her obviously agonized three-year-old daughter's nose and hands were beseechingly pressed, (p. 251-252)

Children Are From Heaven (gray, 1999). two primary themes about gender emerged from this book: (a) females and males are different and have different needs, and (b) contradictory advice on how parents should address these needs based on gender, regarding the first theme, gray's basic thesis is that females and males have innate biological differences that make them different, according to gray, these biological differences create gender-typical behaviors and needs (particularly related to the emotional needs of children), for example, gray indicated that girls need to feel supported, cared for, understood, and helped, depicting an individual who is dependent on others, in contrast, he suggested that boys require independence, confidence, space, and opportunities to try to solve their own problems, and these qualities characterize someone who is an independent problem solver, gray's descriptions neglect to account for any individual differences in children and fail to acknowledge that all children, regardless of gender, require all of these traits to be successful individuals, in addition, he does not acknowledge the pivotal role of gender socialization in shaping the needs that society assigns to individuals, the following quote illustrated gray's thoughts on how to best parent children based on their gendered needs.

Regardless of age, boys need trust more while girls need caring. A boy tends to feel good about himself when he does something on his own. For example, he may willfully resist his mother's help in tying his shoes, so that he can get credit and assume responsibility for himself. On the other hand, a girl may feel more loved if you offer to help. Offering to help is a gesture of caring, while letting a boy do it himself is a gesture of trust, (p. 184)

However, Gray did acknowledge that girls need to feel competent and assume responsibility for themselves and that boys sometimes need and want help, too.

Regarding the second theme, contradictory advice on how parents should address children's needs based on gender, Gray (1999) made gendered observations throughout the text and subsequently offered confusing, contradictory, and paradoxical advice. For example, he noted that girls and women are not assertive because they were not taught to be. He suggested that girls and women should be taught to be more assertive; however, he also criticized women for expressing their opinions by providing advice or making suggestions to their children and husbands. This message is contradictory; on one hand, Gray argued that women should be more assertive, and on the other, he cautioned them that their assertiveness could have a negative affect on their partners and children.

Another example of contradiction involved boys' needs. Gray (1999) described boys as being independent, yet needing help to achieve independence. However, he cautioned parents (particularly mothers) to avoid helping boys because it makes them feel insulted. He later claimed that boys simply do not need help.

Remaining four books. In the other four books, gender was rarely addressed explicitly. Although some isolated statements explicitly addressed gender in two of the books (I Refuse to Raise a Brat, Henner & Sharon,1999; and Giving the Love that Heals, Hendrix & Hunt, 1997), no salient themes about gender emerged. Some examples of these isolated statements from Henner and Sharon are, "Be glad that you're such a good role model for your daughter. She'll grow up knowing a woman can be a successful mom and a successful career woman" (p. 54). Another example:

... families are different now. Parents are more likely to share the duties of child rearing because it is more common for both parents to be in the workforce. And in some cases, the mother works away at an office, and the father works at home on his computer so he gets to spend more time with the kids. (p. 50)

Hendrix and Hunt (1997) alternated the pronouns they used for describing parents so as not to suggest that only women are active parents. Some of their statements directly challenged stereotypic ways of managing emotions in our society. For instance, gender arose in their description of how parents work through different parenting styles.

Often we assume that it will be the father who is the minimizer parent and the mother who is the maximizer. But with Pat and Jeff [a couple used to illustrate these styles] the reverse was true. It's important to remember that parenting styles are more a matter of how one was parented than gender [Italics added], (p. 205)

In another passage about a father pushing his young son too far at a soccer game, they stated, '"Don't be a crybaby,' is a form of gender discrimination, is often verbalized to boys-whereas girls are often expected to be tender and tearful" (p. 139).

In the remaining two books (How to Behave so Your Children Will Too, Severe, 2000; and The 7 Worst Things Parents Do, Friel & Friel, 1999), no explicit gender statements were coded.

Question 3: To what degree do the books contain implicit messages about gender?

A total of 396 implicit gender messages were identified in the six-book sample. The implicit gender message count in each book was: The Seven Worst Things Parents Do (Friel & Friel, 1999) contained 49; Giving the Love that Heals (Hendrix & Hunt, 1997) contained 85; Parenthood by Proxy (Schlessinger, 1999) contained 61; Children Are From Heaven (Gray, 1999) contained 65; How to Behave so Your Children Will Too (Severe, 2000) contained 76; and I Refuse to Raise a Brat (Henner & Sharon, 1999) contained 81.

Interestingly, three of the books that contained no explicit gender themes (Giving the Love That Heals, Hendrix & Hunt, 1997; How to Behave so Your Children Will Too, Severe, 2000; and I Refuse to Raise a Brat, Henner & Sharon, 1999) contained relatively high levels of implicit gender messages.

Question 4: What is the nature of this implicit content?

When examining the books as a whole, 82% of the implicit messages were stereotypical, and the remaining 18% were nonstereotypical. All of the books contained overwhelmingly more stereotypical passages than nonstereotypical ones. Some examples of stereotypical content are "A wife who constantly nags her husband about not spending enough time with the children..." (Giving the Love that Heals, Hendrix & Hunt, 1997, p. 99); and "My husband spends so much time at work that I have no partner in raising the children" (I Refuse to Raise a Brat, Henner & Sharon, 1999, p. 54). An example of a nonstereotypical passage includes "... when Mom comes home from work" (The 7 Worst Things Parents Do, Friel & Friel, 1999, p. 44).

Table 1 shows the number of implicit messages contained in the entire sample of books, according to (a) whether they were stereotypical or nonstereotypical, (b) which area of family life the message pertained, and (c) the family member (i.e., parent or child) to which the message pertained. The greatest concentrations of gender messages were in the areas of labor (39%) and cathexis (32%), followed by "other" (15%) and control (14%). Most of the labor messages (67.5%), whether stereotypical or nonstereotypical, pertained to parents, and 57.4% of the cathexis messages pertained to parents.


The purpose of this study was to describe the gendered content of the six best-selling parenting advice books during a 5-year period. In examining these books as a whole, several themes emerged. First, two books (Gray, 1999; Schlessinger, 2000)-the best selling of the sample-contained the most explicit, prescriptive, and stereotypic gender content. This content is contrary to empirical evidence about gender and family health, and is irrelevant to or even condemning of the majority of family types. A second theme is that the remaining four books in the sample did not overtly address the ramifications of parenting in a gendered world, remaining silent about one of the primary organizing principles of family relationships. A final theme was that all of the books contained implicit messages about gender, and the vast majority were Stereotypie in nature.

Gendered Agenda as Inconsistent with Demographic Trends and Empirical Evidence

Comparison of the explicit gender messages across books reveals that Schlessinger (2000) and Gray (1999) have what we call a gendered agenda. Schlessinger contained 311 and Gray contained 171 overt gender messages, whereas the remaining four books had a combined total of 22 such messages. Thus, Gray and Schlessinger actively promote stereotypically gendered ways of relating, parenting, and being in a family. They prescribe one option for families (i.e., closely following stereotypic gender norms), and they argue that if readers follow their parenting prescriptions, they will have healthy and happy family lives. Ironically, the kinds of families these authors promote are uncommon in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001), and empirical evidence does not support their recommendations for "guaranteed" family health and happiness (Walsh, 2003).

It is not uncommon for some self-help books to contain information that is inconsistent with demographic trends and empirical evidence (Rosen, 1993; Zimmerman, Holm, et al., 2001). However, this misinformation is particularly a cause for concern when it is presented by authors who have the "ear of the nation" and are considered by many to be credible sources for relational and familial advice. Dr. Laura and John Gray have become household names in recent years. According to Schlessinger's Web site, her syndicated radio show is "on approximately 300 stations with 12 million listeners ... [and Dr. Laura is] the second most popular radio talk show host in the country" (Premiere Radio Networks, 2003). Gray's official Web site states that Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) has sold more than 15 million copies and is a bestseller in 40 languages throughout the world. Dr. Gray's national syndicated column reaches 30 million readers in many newspapers. John Gray, Ph.D., is the best-selling relationship author of all time (John Gray &, 1998-2003).

Schlessinger's and Gray's message is inconsistent with demographic trends and empirical evidence. U.S. families are characterized by a great deal of diversity. The 2000 census showed that only 23.5% of U.S. families are married couples who live with their own minor children (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Two-thirds of two-parent families are dual-earners (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001), and almost half of all children are expected to live in a single-parent household at some point in their childhood (Bumpass & Raley, 1995). Other estimates are that 6-14 million children have lesbian or gay parents (Laird, 2003), over 26% of households are multigenerational (U.S. Census Bureau), and remarried families, stepfamilies (Ganong & Coleman, 1999), and adoptive families (Walsh, 2003) are becoming increasingly common.

For these families, we see their formulaic advice as irrelevant at best and harmful at worst. For many of these families, Schlessinger's (2000) suggestions are impossible to comply with, and her extreme examples and warnings may feel like indictments of the parents. For instance, she argued that alternative family forms result in delinquency among children. In contrast, "[m]ore than ninety percent of children from intact, stable homes do not become delinquent ..." (p. 171). Although it may be that single-parent families face more Stressors related to finances and time than do two-parent families, it does not logically follow that children of single parents will necessarily experience the grave outcomes that she predicts (see Anderson, 2003).

Many readers might be unaware that much of the advice in these books is contradicted by the empirical literature on family well-being. For instance, Schlessinger (2000) suggested repeatedly that employed mothers are not "there doing the job to get the rating" (p. 131). She claimed that children of employed mothers will have behavioral, psychological, and relational problems. However, comprehensive reviews of the literature (e.g., Coltrane, 1998; Galinsky, 1999) have shown that maternal employment typically either has no influence or a positive influence on these same outcomes for children. In fact, Galinsky's research revealed that maternal employment does not negatively influence the mother-child relationship, the influence of parents on children, or the quality of the parenting as perceived by the child. She found that the children of stay-at-home mothers and the children of employed mothers report similar perceptions related to the amount of time they have with their mothers.

It is important to note that some research has found that contextual factors influence the relationship between parental employment and child outcomes. For instance, socioeconomic level, maternal sensitivity and responsiveness, and the quality of child care influence outcomes for children who spend time in childcare settings (Fraenkel, 2003; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1997; Scarr, 1998). Specifically, children from middle- and upper-income families who are placed in lower quality childcare facilities experience short-term negative outcomes (Scarr). Low maternal sensitivity and responsiveness, combined with poor quality child care, results in less secure infants (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network). However, the majority of research suggests that "children who receive good- to high-quality child care do as well or even better than children receiving full-time marernal care" (Fraenkel, p. 78). Therefore, the relation between child care and outcomes for children is more complex than Schlessinger claims.

Schlessinger (2000) actually argued that the empirical literature on families is invalid. She accused scholars of conducting biased research that promotes the acceptance of diversity in families. She wrote,

I have been quite vocal on my radio program about the willingness of psychological and sociological journals to publish advocacy research and the number of universities and colleges willing to hire and promote advocacy researchers. We are being manipulated into accepting the goals and ideals of a small but powerful group of social radicals, who apparently perceive the traditional two-parent, heterosexual home as hostile to the rights of those who won't or can't live up to Homo sapiens ideal norm. (p. 158)

Rather than relying on empirical evidence to make their points about gender, Schlessinger (2000) and Gray (1999) used other sources of information. On numerous occasions in her book, Schlessinger used examples derived from callers, newspaper articles, or "experts" to support her views. She often used extreme stories that were cast as common occurrences to make her point. For example, to make her case against maternal employment, Schlessinger referred to a father who forgets to drop his toddler off at child care and leaves her in the car all day (p. 87), a corporate executive who is away from her children 48 weeks a year (pp. 14, 102), childcare settings where an infant dies (p. 253), and a mom who forgets her baby at the grocery store (p. 246). Although such incidences are not unheard of, they are hardly the norm. The use of scare tactics to convince readers that employed mothers put their children at risk sends a potentially harmful message to many parents.

Whereas Schlessinger (2000) relied on exaggerated examples, scare tactics, and the impossibility of family well-being for nontraditional family forms, Gray (1999) relied on stereotypes and the status quo to promote the gendered agenda. In Children Are From Heaven, his primary message is that males and females are innately and biologically different. This argument serves to perpetuate power differentials between men and women. However, empirical research has found that gender differences (e.g., emotional, learning, needs, behaviors) are minimal and are primarily due to socialization rather than innate predisposition (Risman, 1998). MacGeorge, Graves, Feng, Gillihan, and Burleson (2004) argued that in terms of comforting one another, Gray's ideology is wrong. Their research showed that, for the most part, males and females use and prefer the same ways of listening, sympathizing, and giving advice. Hare-Mustin (1987) asserted that the arguments about gender differences are popular because people tend to readily accept theories based on stereotypic gender differences. Theories about gender difference "preserve the status-quo and do not demand that society or individuals change" (p. 23).

Despite the popularity of these exaggerated gender differences in the mass media, most couples today want relationships that adhere less to these stereotypic gender notions (Haddock et al., 2003), and research has found that more equal relationships with less restrictive gender expectations are more intimate and satisfying (Gottman, 1999; Rabin, 1996; Steil, 1997). Many parents strive to raise their children more free of gender constraints (Risman, 1998; Risman & Johnson-Sumerford, 1998), and research has shown that when children are encouraged to resist gender norms, they do better in multiple areas, including school, friendships, self-esteem, and future relationships (see Coltrane, 1998; Gottman, 1997).

Problems with Gender Neutrality

By neglecting to address gender in families, the authors of four of the best-selling books perpetuated a "null environment" (Betz, 1989) that does not support or encourage individuals to explore nonstereotypic life choices. Because stereotypic gender norms are so powerful and accepted in the United States, when an author does not actively address these norms, they implicitly collude in the perpetuation of these norms. As such, these authors miss an opportunity to help parents think critically and creatively about gender as an organizing principle of family life. Empirical evidence shows that the family is one of the primary ways that children learn about gender norms, because most parents reinforce traditional gender expectations. However, strict compliance with these norms and expectations often is harmful to children and adults (Haddock et al., 2003).

Implicit Promotion of Gender Stereotypes

Our findings supported Council's (1987) framework for the organizing of gender in family relationships into the areas of labor, control, and cathexis. The implicit messages in each of the three areas were heavily gendered in a stereotypic fashion. The vast majority (82%) of implicit gender messages of the books examined here involved stereotypical examples of gender in families. The number of implicit stereotypic gender messages in labor, control, and cathexis is cause for concern, because readers are less likely to notice these more subtle messages at a conscious level, making these messages more difficult to analyze critically. The implicit messages in the books related to how labor should be divided in families, how control and power should be handled, and how emotions should be managed and expressed are another medium by which readers gain this subtle socialization. Again, the authors missed an important opportunity to help parents realize and explore alternative possibilities for dividing labor, negotiating power, and managing emotions.

Implications for Practice

Parenting authors and family practitioners ideally should be informed about the implications of living in a gendered society. This information could be integrated into all support services offered to families. The ways in which professionals can help clients explore alternative expectations are limitless, but a few examples follow. Practitioners can ask boys about a full range of emotions and encourage them to become emotionally literate. They can discuss what happens if a boy cries at school and support him in expressing vulnerable emotions and help him to develop a caring and nurturing side. Girls need to hear that their bodies are strong and capable; they need to know, from professionals who emphasize intellectual or academic skills, athletic accomplishments, or community service, that they are more than their physical appearance. Family professionals can help girls learn to expect to share power in relationships and to be respected by their partners by teaching them what healthy relationships look like and by critically analyzing popular culture couples and couples they know. Girls also should be supported in obtaining their goals related to professional aspiration, particularly in fields that are male dominated.

Family professionals who are working with parents can use the results of this study in the context of their work to illustrate the potential risks of relying on the advice of some self-help books. A reader should not blindly accept information espoused by a best-selling author as valuable simply based on the popularity of the author. Although there are many good parenting books available, there are limited options for teaching parents how to resist destructive gender norms. No formal content analysis was conducted, but the first author reviewed several books and believes that they address the ramifications of gender socialization, and offer parents advice from this perspective. The following books offer gender-informed parenting advice: Reviving Ophelia (Pipher, 1994), Real Boys (Pollack, 1998), Raising Cain (Kindlon & Thompson, 1999), Dads and Daughters (Kelly, 2002), Girls Will Be Girls (Deak, 2002), Growing a Girl (Mackoff, 1996), The Field Guide to Boys and Girls (Gilbert, 2001), Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character (Schwartz & Cappello, 2000), and Integrating Gender and Culture into Parenting (Zimmerman, 2003).

Admittedly, our study has several limitations that are important to address. The generalizability of the results is limited because each parenting advice book was different. Different authors with different experiences, training, and perspectives have written these books, and no two books are the same. Therefore, it is not realistic to assume, based on these findings, that all self-help books written for parents have similar messages about gender. Further, the design of the study also had some limitations. Gender is difficult to conceptually define in the context of identifying text passages. As with all qualitative studies, there is subjectivity and potential bias inherent in the coding process, despite attempts to be transparent. Although the reliability of the study was maximized as much as possible, it is possible to imagine that another with a different perspective might have interpreted the messages differently.



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[Author Affiliation]

Jennifer L. Krafchick Toni Schindler Zimmerman* Shelley A. Haddock James H. Banning

[Author Affiliation]

* Address correspondence to Dr. Toni Zimmerman, 119E GifFord Building, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523 (Zimmerman@


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