(A disclaimer before I begin. This column will focus on issues related to children and parenting, and experience tells me that interest in the topic is totally polarized -- either you're deeply fascinated or utterly uninterested (and perhaps even faintly offended). The most I'll request of those tending toward the uninterested camp is that if you know new parents who might find this information useful, please pass on the URL.)
About three years ago, my wife Tonya and I decided to have a child. It wasn't a decision we took lightly, and we spent hundreds of hours discussing the effects the decision (pros and cons) would have on our lives. Those discussions were useful, but even still, we've found the process of turning from adults (well, more or less) into parents to be highly challenging. We've held up pretty well under the stress, and in large part that's due to the Internet providing us both with a support community and with information about alternative approaches that we hadn't previously considered.
Going back past the last couple of generations, parenting was far more communal. Extended families commonly shared living quarters or lived in the same village. New parents weren't expected to know everything about raising children because older, more experienced parents were always around to offer both advice and help (though only from the pool of local knowledge). As we've become less community-oriented, and as the standard family group has become nuclear rather than extended, parenting knowledge has become increasingly difficult to find. Just look at the fact that Dr. Benjamin Spock's Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care , first published in 1946 and now in its 7th edition, is the second best-selling book of all time. Clearly Dr. Spock was filling a huge informational void.
Lacking much in the way of strong community or family involvement (due to distance), we too turned first to the numerous parenting books. But with a few rare exceptions, such as books by William and Martha Sears, we've found the quality of parenting books spotty at best, and believe me, when your newborn cries inconsolably unless one of you is holding him, you become desperate for information, advice, and confirmation that you're not doing anything truly stupid. Plus, our professional experience makes us uncomfortable accepting a single source's opinion, even if it's a parent, friend, or physician. (Good journalists require three unrelated sources for vital parts of an investigative story, and it's always important to seek out and evaluate alternative opinions to present a balanced piece; could we have done any less with what seemed at the time to be utterly important parenting decisions?)
The first place the Internet proved its value was, as is often the case, in e-mail. Shortly after becoming pregnant, Tonya found Pregnancy Today, a site that hosts mailing lists based on when your child is born. Tristan was born in January of 1999 right after Macworld Expo San Francisco, so Tonya had joined what she's come to call "the January list" while still pregnant.
During pregnancy, Tonya found the January list had far too much traffic and was driven by hormonally induced mood swings. Neither of us had much patience for hearing about pregnant wives who woke their husbands up at midnight to make them go on a Taco Bell run. But after all the children were born, the list fell to about 100 mothers and the volume dropped significantly. That's when it became truly valuable, since suddenly Tonya found herself in a community of women who were all going through the same things at the same times. They brought to the discussions different levels of child-rearing experience, different approaches to parenting, and access to different resources. Often, the most useful aspect of the list is merely letting you know that your problems aren't unique and others are having an even harder time. Just recently, we ran into a spate of frustrating clingyness on Tristan's part while my parents were visiting; although no solutions were forthcoming, a recent thread indicated that many of the kids were going through the same stage, irrespective of parenting approach.
In many ways, the January list has replaced traditional community in helping us feel less alone in dealing with the stresses and difficulties inherent in raising any child, and it has surpassed traditional community in exposing us (and everyone else on the list) to a wide variety of ideas and parenting approaches.
We've also found a vast number of parenting resources on the Web, most of which fell into two categories, concrete reference materials and learning about previously unknown approaches to aspects of parenting.
Many people use the Web to research medical information, and doctors often have mixed feelings when patients come in with oddly informed viewpoints about what's wrong. But when you're up at 3 a.m. with an unhappy baby, if you -- or the other parent -- can find some reassuring information that will let you relax until you can visit the doctor in the morning, that's a good thing. The site we've found most useful in this regard is Dr. Greene's HouseCalls, which does an excellent job of explaining maladies and their associated remedies. Whether it's an inexplicable rash or a suspected ear infection, we've found solid, well-written information and advice.
It's probably impossible not to enter parenthood with preconceived notions, but it doesn't take many disappointments before alternative ideas in general become worthy of investigation. Take the charged topic of immunizations -- the rules are set by the government for overall (and undeniable) public health reasons and followed closely by many doctors. On the other end of the spectrum are those who will never allow their child to receive any immunization. If you find yourself bothered by the blind zealotry on either end of the spectrum, Internet research can help you decide how you'll handle immunizations for your child. For instance, some vaccines are preserved with mercury (thimerosal), which in high doses is toxic. Our pediatrician never mentioned that to us (although the office later confirmed that they still used thimerosal-preserved vaccines), and when we found that out, it made us rather uncomfortable. Researching the topic further, we found that mercury-free versions are increasingly available now, thanks to the American Academy of Pediatrics having called for the elimination of mercury from all vaccines. (You may have to ask your doctor for them specifically, and they're likely to be more expensive, since they come in single-shot doses.) And since this issue was in flux in the middle of 1999, precisely when we had to decide about Tristan's immunizations, the speed with which information travels on the Internet was critical in allowing us to make the most informed decision possible.
But how does this topic vary from everything else that has been affected by the Internet? What's different is that the Internet is pulling us back in time to a point where people lived in tight-knit groups and simultaneously propelling us forward by promoting the exchange of ideas that never happened in times past. Community is important in general, but perhaps never more so than raising children, since the very act of having a child contributes a new member to the community. And even those people today who have helpful family and friends close by can benefit from being exposed to alternative ideas. There is no one "right" way to raise a child since every child -- and every family -- is different. Many of these ideas, such as the health and developmental benefits of breast-feeding, aren't even new, they're just being revived after having been submerged by other social, cultural, or economic imperatives of the recent past.
It's important to note that you must still be interested in asking the questions, doing the research, and evaluating the answers you find. I won't pretend it's easy, but we found that the effort was worthwhile in every case to make us comfortable with each decision. Thanks to the research made possible by the Internet, we have no regrets about the decisions we've made. Considering the significant effects at least some of those decisions will have on Tristan throughout his life, that makes me happy.
Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST publishes the online newsletter TidBits ( www.tidbits.com ).