'Dr. Dad' eases stress of raising kids

February 23, 1993|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

Being perfect is one mistake parents should not try to make, Dr. Lawrence Kutner says. "One sign of a successful parent is that he or she makes many mistakes -- but they are new and improved mistakes instead of repetitions of the old ones," Dr. Kutner writes in his new book, "Pregnancy and Your Baby's First Year."

Mistakes can be healthy for children as well, he writes: "Knowing that they don't have to do everything perfectly, or even well, gives children the freedom to experiment, grow and gain confidence in themselves."

Such reassuring insights by Dr. Kutner, a clinical psychologist specializing in child care advice, have released many an anxious parent from the fear and guilt that comes with messing up.

"My premise is that parents basically do a very good job. [There are just] rough spots to frustrate us," he says.

Tomorrow, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Maryland Committee for Children, Dr. Kutner will speak about "Parenting Tricks of the Trade: Guiding Children's Behavior."

A latter-day Dr. Spock more concerned with meshing child psychology with families' singular personalities than with "what that funny little rash is," Dr. Kutner has found a niche as adviser to baby boom parents, whose lifestyles differ dramatically from those of their parents.

In many cases, these parents both work. And they no longer have extended family available to care for the kids in a pinch and exchange suggestions when a child is acting up. But they do read. And they do watch television. So chances are, they have access to "Dr. Dad," as Dr. Kutner is often referred to in the media.

His user-friendly, often humorous advice and ability to translate complex theoretical research for lay readers, has made Dr. Kutner an immensely popular writer, speaker and resource for journalists and researchers.

His weekly New York Times column, "Parent & Child," has run since 1987 and is carried in 300 newspapers. A columnist for Parents magazine who lectures widely, Dr. Kutner serves on the advisory board for a recently funded PBS project, "Parenting Works!" A regular on the talk-show circuit from Oprah to "New Zealand Tonight," his is also a familiar name on CBS anchor Paula Zahn's nationally syndicated radio spot about children.

Dr. Kutner is in the midst of writing the third of five books for William Morrow & Co.'s "Parent & Child Series" that will take readers through a child's adolescence. He is also on the faculty at Harvard Medical School.

And, as Dr. Kutner notes below the laurels on his "bio sheet," he is a dad. "One of my best teachers is my son, who keeps me humble," he says by phone from his Boston home/office, which he shares with his wife, Cheryl Olson, and son, Michael, 3 1/2 .

The foibles of fatherhood give him credibility, Dr. Kutner says. "If I were to come and give a speech wearing the mantle of a Harvard professor, I would lose my audience immediately."

In his explanations of psychological theory and practical suggestions, Dr. Kutner takes a developmental approach. That is, he embraces the theory that children "learn and grow in stages." With that in mind, it is important to take the individual qualities of a child into account when coping with frustrating stand-offs and waiting for milestones, like walking and first words.

"You don't want to force-fit a child into a preconceived model," Dr. Kutner says. "The misconception I hear from parents all the time is that earlier is better, that somehow it's better if a child learns how to walk by 11 months as opposed to 13 months."

In his new book, Dr. Kutner explains that an understanding of childhood's peaks and valleys helps the child and enhances parenthood: "Child development is a remarkable process to watch, especially in our own children. The more information we have to give us a sense of perspective on what our children are doing -- and why they are doing it at that particular stage of their lives -- the more fascinating and magical it becomes. And the more we know, the more fun and less stressful raising our children can be."

If Dr. Kutner is anything, he's flexible. Not everything he advises is guaranteed to work, he stresses. "There are lots of ways to raise children," he says. "It has to do with the way you and your child relate."

He is also a critic of "how-to" books, which promise the latest and only solution to child-rearing issues. "I get very, very nervous when I see books or articles . . . that claim to be the right answer."

In his weekly column and other articles, Dr. Kutner often relies on the research and opinions of other child-care experts who may or may not be in accord with his own opinions, he says. "I look for people doing cutting edge or clinical work and see how it fits together."

When he agreed to do the column for the New York Times, he told his editors, "I'm an arrogant guy, but not arrogant enough to suppose I'm an expert on 52 subjects a year."


What: "Tricks of the Trade: Guiding Children's Behavior," talk by Dr. Lawrence Kutner.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow.

Where: College of Notre Dame.

Admission: $10 for Maryland Committee for Children members; $12 for non-members.

Call: (410) 752-7588.

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