There are just some things you don’t do without preparation. You’re not meant to drive a car without taking lessons and passing a test. You aren’t supposed to scuba dive without certification. You can’t teach—or practice law, or therapy, or cosmetology—without first proving your knowledge. But you can become a parent without any training at all—and that’s a pretty high-stakes position.
Parents today arguably face steeper expectations than ever before. Over the past half century or so, “intensive parenting” has become the norm in the United States: Child care, for many families, has turned into an all-consuming and hyper-expensive affair, not about just nurturing kids but cultivating them, with tutors and ballet and piano lessons. (Not every parent can afford to meet those standards, but even so, the majority aspire to them.) Advice books proliferate; TikTok influencers preach the benefits of different “parenting styles”; moms and dads now spend significantly more time with their kids than they did in the 1960s.
But they aren’t necessarily better equipped for the job. The ways that people used to learn parenting have started falling apart, and the alternatives are not accessible enough to fill the gaps left behind. American society hasn’t embraced the idea that child-rearing can or should be taught formally. Meanwhile, many parents are struggling to figure it out for themselves.
No one knows how to raise kids merely by instinct. But until roughly the mid-20th century, parenting might have felt somewhat intuitive for Americans, because many of them grew up observing caregiving all the time—not just from their own parents, but from others as well. Extended families were much likelier to live together; aunts, uncles, and grandparents might have all helped bring up a child. Many older kids had ample opportunities to help care for younger ones, too. The average family was bigger, so the typical kid would have more siblings and cousins—and may have also helped keep an eye on younger kids in the neighborhood. By the time you had your own family, you’d probably witnessed plenty of different ways to soothe a baby or respond to a toddler’s tantrum and even done so yourself. You’d also likely have that same network of people there to give parenting advice—not just family and neighbors, but also local authorities such as religious clergy and doctors, Andrew Bomback, the author of Long Days, Short Years: A Cultural History of Modern Parenting, told me.
Today, many people become parents without knowing much about child care at all beyond what they saw their own parents do. Kids spend more and more time in structured activities led by trained adults, which means fewer opportunities for teens to babysit. Home-economics classes are less common, they’re almost always elective rather than required, and they tend to deemphasize child-rearing in favor of “consumer science”—say, cooking for a food business, according to Dorian Traube, the dean of Washington University in St. Louis’s social-work school, who studies childhood and family health. And the old sources of communal parenting wisdom are disintegrating: Not only are families shrinking, but congregation membership and trust in doctors are in sharp decline.
Traube told me that when she had her first child, she was having a hard time breastfeeding, so she went to a lactation consultant. Feeling like a failure, she asked: “Why is this so hard?” And the consultant said: “Because your village has been completely eroded.” A hundred or so years ago, she told Traube, the other women in the area would have been walking her through this. Instead, Traube had been trying to figure it out herself, assuming it was supposed to come naturally.
So many people do—until issues start coming up that they didn’t even think to expect, Hillary Frank, the creator of the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time, told me. “And it’s constantly changing. So as soon as you master one stage, you’re thrust into another.” When the overwhelm hits, there’s a robust advice industry—parenting books, blogs, social-media accounts—designed to meet and capitalize on that need. But that’s a chaotic, unregulated learning landscape, filled with some great, expert guidance and also a whole lot of uninformed opinion. “I can read a 300-page parenting book, and if I get two or three pearls of wisdom,” that’s a success, Bomback, who has three kids, told me.
As plentiful as parenting advice is, structured, formal education is harder to come by, despite the fact that it’s linked to good outcomes for families. One research center’s literature review found parenting-education programs to be associated with more empathy, sharing, and helping among kids, and less aggression and hyperactivity; another program found that after attending a class series, parents reported that their children were more willing to follow rules, and they themselves felt better able to listen, play, set limits, and deal with parenting stress.
Of course, there are limits to how much you can really prepare for parenthood. Shauna Tominey, an Oregon State University professor focused on parenting education, told me that before she became a mom, she’d taught young kids, studied child development, and even helped design parenting classes—and with all of that background, she still had moments of feeling totally helpless when she had her own child. No matter what role models you’ve had or “how many books you’ve read,” she told me, parenting is dynamic and trying and often lonely. Classes can’t eliminate that—but they can help. Families can connect with one another, which is far less isolating than scrolling for tips online. And although class leaders can’t prepare group members for every challenge that will come up, they can help problem-solve on the fly.
But most people never take these kinds of courses. Researchers I spoke with pointed out that childbirth classes, on the contrary, are quite common; we prepare people for labor, but not for all that comes after it. The problem is that parenting education isn’t always accessible to everyone—and even when it is, it’s typically seen not as an ordinary tool but as an extra measure for struggling parents. And no one wants to admit they’re struggling.
One obstacle is simply funding. Legislators and educators tend to have what Traube called a “scarcity mindset”: They assume that making classes accessible for everyone would be impossible, so they limit them, understandably, to certain populations—such as young or low-income parents, or parents who have had many children in a short amount of time, or all of the above. “For those multiply-stressed families, we tend to have some good resources,” Traube told me. “But the threshold to meet that’s pretty high.” The result is usually that the least wealthy families get more access to parenting programs, and the wealthiest ones can afford to hire nannies or other help, but a wide swath of people in between have no one to turn to.
When parenting education becomes associated with a low income, Traube told me, that can end up both stigmatizing the courses and unfairly treating poverty as a proxy for being a bad parent. It doesn’t help that parenting courses are also sometimes mandated after child abuse or neglect. Even when classes are free and easy to sign up for, many people just don’t think of them as a resource to casually take advantage of.
Asking for help with anything can be hard; for parents to “apply that to the most precious thing in our life” is especially tough, Tominey told me. Child-rearing is immensely personal and intimate, and bad-parent shaming is pervasive in American culture. Think of how many TV shows, Traube pointed out, essentially make fun of struggling or just atypical parents: Teen Mom, 19 Kids and Counting, any of the numerous nanny shows where a professional comes to save the day for a bungling couple.
People can be touchy about any efforts to help (especially if they’re coming from the state). “In the U.S., we consider parenting one of those personal freedoms that people have,” Traube told me. The idea of learning it in as regulated a way as, say, driver’s education doesn’t go over well, because the concept of a primal parenting instinct is highly romanticized. But when you’re new to something, following your instincts may not be the best move. Bomback gave me a comparison that he mentions in his book: When he first started doing a lot of public talks, a speaking coach told him, Look: You’re not a natural at this. Don’t stray from your lines; just memorize them. Following an expert’s parenting tips might seem to take away a bit of spontaneous joy, but “it actually takes away a lot of the panic and the anxiety as well,” he said.
Sometimes when people wing it, they end up silently drowning. By the time people do join a parenting class, researchers told me, they tend to have reached a point of crisis. It doesn’t need to be like that. Traube thinks that parenting education might follow the same arc that mental health has in the zeitgeist: People used to seek help mostly in times of acute need. You were either someone who dealt with mental illness or someone who didn’t. But as therapy has become more normalized, the divide seems less definite. And more and more people seek resources preventively, without worrying that they’ll be judged for it.
The experts I spoke with were hopeful, because they’ve seen what happens when people do come to class. Tominey works with a statewide program called the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, which partners with community groups to offer residents a whole menu of free short-term and long-term courses. “For some families, they just want a workshop on tantrums,” she told me. Some might want a class in Spanish, or to connect with other Latino parents; others want help supporting their kids with disabilities; others want to understand the mysteries of adolescence. Parenting educators are always thinking of ways to make joining seem less intimidating, she said. For example, during a parenting-themed trivia night that one of the Oregon collaborative’s partner organizations put on at a bar, the host said: “Anyone else want to continue this conversation? Because we’ve got parenting class starting next week.” Tominey said that “half the folks who were there participating signed up.”
Her team has found that the most successful way to refer parents, though, is just word of mouth from people they trust. (Ninety-seven percent of families who engage with the program say they’d recommend that others take classes, Tominey said.) Traube told me something similar: In the 1980s, Missouri had a free home-visitation program, meaning that educators would come to parents to help them work through caregiving challenges in real time. To this day, she still hears from families who loved it. “There is a sense of pride of having gone through it,” she told me about that program. “It’s a rite of passage.”
After all, Tominey said, most parents will do anything they can for their children. She’s even found that when the title of a class emphasizes what it offers the kid, rather than the parent—say, how to help kids manage big feelings—more people show up. If parents aren’t taking classes, it’s likely not because they’re putting themselves first, but because they’re putting themselves last. They don’t feel deserving of support.
But the benefits of parenting classes may even go beyond individual families. A community in which parents feel less shame, Tominey told me, is ultimately going to be a better community—more interconnected, more accepting, more compassionate—for everyone, nonparents included. We may not have the same networks and institutions we used to, but we can stitch together new ones. “We want that for our children,” she said. “But we also want it for ourselves.”