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A mother and daughter read a book they received as part of the United Way of Dane County's Parent-Child Home Program in this 2012 photo.

Sometimes I hear comments that the talks I do seem to span a variety of topics — child development, literacy, digital media, poverty, etc. It’s easy to think that these are only vaguely connected to each other, but in my view, there’s a common thread: the ever-challenging job of parenting.

Think about it: How many occupations are there out there where you are given no instructions, the specific challenges you have to deal with are unpredictable, advice from experts and those who have been in the job often conflict, and both science and myth can sound suspiciously close to one another? Oh, and in case I forgot, the implications of “not getting it right” last literally a lifetime.

Both before I became a parent — and after — I empathized with the difficulty of the role. One universal truth that I’ve observed, time and time again, is that virtually every parent loves their child and wants the best for them. There’s no socioeconomic, racial, cultural or other demographic group that has cornered the market on loving their children better than anyone else loves their own. Yet, while love is the foundation for the strong, responsive, nurturing relationships that allows young children to thrive, love alone can’t accomplish everything.

There’s often an assumption that interacting with your young child is a natural and instinctual act, and that when some parents don’t do it, it must be either out of ignorance or due to a moral failing. It’s not the latter. To address the former, we do informational campaigns: billboards, ads, and pamphlets exhorting parents to talk, read, play, and sing with their young child. You know what? They largely work. I’ve run into virtually no parents in the last decade that haven’t heard this message. They’ve know it, and they want to follow through with it. We’ve mostly successfully spanned the “information gap.”

There’s a larger issue present, however. If you haven’t seen anyone talk to a young baby, you have no model for what successful interaction may look like. Talking to a 6-month-old may rapidly seem silly — clearly they’re not going to talk back! How do you know you’re doing it right? And perhaps there’s a little voice in your head remembering your own struggles in school, and hence doubting your ability to teach your child anything well. That parent who puts their child in front of one of those fraudulent “learning DVDs” isn’t being lazy — they’re worried they won’t get it right for their kid.

This issue of a “skills gap” isn’t unusual — we see it in professional training routinely. You wouldn’t want us to assume health professions students should somehow already know how to start an intravenous line, and that we simply need to tell them to do it — repeatedly — would you? That would be remarkably poor educational policy, to say the least.

The answer is to offer nonjudgmental, supportive modeling, coaching, and encouragement. This can consist of brief supportive interventions (like what we train clinicians to do in the Reach Out and Read program), or more involved, formal, structured curricula. I think it’s important to always be careful with how you do this, because no one likes to be told (even indirectly) that they’re deficient as a parent. But when done well, and with calling out and reinforcing the positives, it can not only support, but lay the groundwork for mutual trust that allows for further work together.

Lastly, programs and policies should steer clear of making it seem that there’s always one right answer. While there are many things that are overwhelmingly clear in the parenting world, there are even more that aren’t so clear-cut. Admitting that there’s often no one right way, and offering guidance to the extent it’s possible, works best.

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Because, you know what? There’s no such thing as a perfect parent. We’re all fumbling our way forward and hoping we’re “just good enough.”

And often…we are.

Dr. Dipesh Navsaria, MPH, MSLIS, MD, FAAP, is an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and also holds master’s degrees in public health and children’s librarianship. Engaged in primary care pediatrics, early literacy, medical education, and advocacy, he covers a variety of topics related to the health and well-being of children and families.

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