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In 1920, Psychologist John Watson left academia amidst reports of a scandalous extramarital affair, and found a new home in a slightly unorthodox space: advertising (and J. Walter Thompson specifically). Known as the “Father of Behaviorism” (think Pavlov’s Dog), Watson not only developed a point of view about the lives of children, but also about how parents should raise them. Along the way, he also pioneered the art of marketing childhood expertise. Other experts had already made a name for themselves as parenting experts, including G. Stanley Hall of Adolescence fame and L. Emmett Holt, who wrote one of the definitive texts on pediatrics. But none had embraced being an expert the way Watson did. He understood that complex arguments and caveats might make for good science and studies, but unabashed, unapologetic opinions sell books.

Watson may have been on to something…While his story seems like history, his approach is alive and well in today’s parenting controversies. Whether experts are debating picking up a crying baby versus letting your little one learn to self-soothe, or promoting unfettered play versus Tiger Momming it, for every parenting opinion there seems to be a quick counter from another expert. What’s a parent to do?

So if expertise is debatable, and more reflective of the mommy market than of the real lives of mommies, is there anything we can learn from parenting magazines, mommy blogs or the vast literature on everything from potty training to prepping your child for the Ivy League? History provides a few lessons in how to look at this data and what we might take from them…

  1. First, experts tend to have their pulse on the fears and anxieties, if not the actual experiences of today’s mothers. The stars in the field might not be accurate assessors of the realities of moms and dads, but they generally understand their angst. Needs aren’t always negative, but if you’re curious about the concerns facing parents’, it’s safe to assume that a theory that takes hold has tapped into a deep-seeded worry about what parents role is today. The key is to understand what’s on their mind – and most importantly, how their real desires and wishes measure up to the extreme advice they’re receiving.
  2. Second, we know that experts aren’t always heeded. In part, it’s the very extreme nature of expert advice in today’s culture that makes their council hard to fully embrace or apply. But parents generally look for a nugget that’s easy to hold, and that they can incorporate into their routines and rituals without really changing their approach. So to predict what strategies will take hold next, look at the literature with an eye towards what’s easy to do, not what’s essential to the theory. 
  3. Finally, we know that expertise doesn’t reach every parent in the same way. Parents adopt different parenting styles, and since they tend to agree with the experts whose ideas validate their own, it’s safe to assume that no single parenting trend will be adopted by all parents. As a brand or product that depends on predicting what moms and dads will want next, living in the middle (or choosing a niche target with all the accompanying risks) might be smartest space to occupy.