SALT LAKE CITY — Cheryl Cardall has a degree in early childhood education and has read “a ton” of parenting books, but she still wasn’t sure what to do when one of her children morphed into a full-blown teenager with anxiety and anger issues.
Instead of calling her mom, who had raised seven children of her own, Cardall sought help from a parenting coach near her home in Sandy, Utah.
Likewise, when Rachel Anderson, who lives in Minneapolis, grew tired of fighting with her 3-year-old every morning, she consulted a Florida parenting coach via videoconferencing.
“I talked with family and friends, and they all provided some little tips and advice, but the general consensus was that this was just a stage he's at and you’re going to have to endure and work through it. And I wasn’t OK with that answer,” Anderson said.
Cardall and Anderson are now enthusiastic proponents of parent coaching, which is one of the fastest growing segments of the $1.2 billion personal-coaching industry. Once a service offered mainly for divorcing or blended families, parent coaching is now available for any sort of parenting challenge, from getting a child to sleep to communicating with a taciturn teen.
Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, whose baby isn't due until spring, have reportedly hired an American parenting coach, “super nanny” Connie Simpson.
The growth of parent coaching has occurred amid a trifecta of change in family life: a desire for perfection driven by social media, a blitz of contradictory advice on the internet, and the emergence of technology as the No. 1 challenge facing parents.
“Our mothers were not raising us with the same challenges that parents raising their kids now have,” said Vicki Hoefle, a parent coach in Petaluma, California.
But skeptics see parent coaching as a dubious use of resources, and evidence that Americans are obsessing about parenting to unhealthy extremes.
“Through the years, you learn that overparenting doesn’t work,” said Elizabeth Wickham, a mother of two who writesabout parenting for the website SwimSwam, but says she can’t imagine anyone paying her hundreds of dollars for her advice.
Some parents, however, say that a coach transformed their family life and helped them to become more confident in their ability, like the late Dr. Benjamin Spock did for moms in the latter half of the 20th century.
"One of the nice things about Dr. Spock was that he told parents to have confidence, to trust themselves. There is no Dr. Spock today," said Paula Fass, the author of "The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child."
Hiring a parenting coach, however, requires some homework up front to find the best fit for your family, say coaches and people who’ve used them.
How coaching works
Search for parenting coaches on the internet, and you're presented with a bewildering range of options, including specialty coaches — like one who uses biblical principles and others who help parents of children with ADHD.
Many don't give their location because it doesn't matter; much parent coaching is done by telephone or a video link. And many coaches instruct parents without having met or observed their children, something that Fass, who is also the Margaret Byrne professor of history emerita at the University of California at Berkeley, finds a little disturbing.
But coaches say their job is to help the parents, not their children, which is one reason that Gloria DeGaetano, CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute and Parent Coach International, said she stresses that she’s a parent coach, not a parenting coach.
“They’re doing the parenting,” DeGaetano said, adding that coaches trained by her institute work to support the parent in multiple aspects of their lives, including self-care.
Added Hoefle, "The children are not the problem."
Hoefle said many of the parents she works with are overwhelmed by conflicting information they see on the internet or hear from friends. And unlike previous generations, they see perfection as attainable.
"They want perfect children by the time they're 4. They want children to be polite, they want them to go to bed on time, with no fuss, and they want to make every decision for the child without any pushback," Hoefle said.
"And they have very fragile egos when it comes to raising children. They take everything personally, so they make a mess of it very quickly."
While parents initially may be looking for help with one or two trouble spots, most have have something in common: a sense of fear. Parents fear that their children aren’t going to be able to make it in today’s economy, that their children will fall behind in school and that they, the parents, aren’t doing a good enough job, DeGaetano said.
Parenting isn’t harder than it was in the past, but “it’s different in its hardness,” she said. “Every generation has huge challenges, whether it’s financial, or two parents working, or divorce being more prominent than in previous generations."
But when confronted with the challenges of technology and other contemporary issues, parents can benefit from advances in brain science that weren't available to previous generations, and this information can be conveyed through a trained coach, DeGaetano said.
In fact, having an impartial coach can be more helpful than getting advice from a relative or friend since family advice can sometimes come across as judgmental, the coaches said.
“Sometimes it helps to have an outside pair of eyes that’s not in your family system, someone who has information that is research-based on what builds a strong and trusting relationship in a family. Why not get it?” said Georgia Anderson, the Utah coach who worked with Cardall.
"We get continuing education for other things in our life. Why not do it for our most important job, which is our family?" Georgia Anderson said. "We don't just have to parent the way we were parented."
A product of fear?
Fass, the historian of parenting, said her initial reaction to the concept of coaching was outrage that anyone would pay for the service. But, after thinking it over, she sees coaching as an “almost predictable” facet of modern family life, born of several concurrent trends.
“There’s been a lot of outsourcing by parents, such as birthday parties and other parts of home life that earlier had just been taken for granted. This is another form of that. And it continues a long 20th-century trend of parents turning to various kinds of professional advisors on issues of childcare.”
Parents who turn to the internet for advice are also being intimidated by the illusion of perfection they see there, she said.
“There are a lot of parents who don’t have any confidence in their ability to handle contemporary life. Things have changed very rapidly throughout the 20th century. Any historian will tell you, there’s an explosion of fear and anxiety in the internet age.”
But, she added, “Anyone who’s been a parent or grandparent knows that the some of the fundamentals are pretty much the same. ... Teaching your children how to deal with life, how to cope with it, is a basic skill that all parents should be able to provide their children.”
On that, Naomi Schaefer Riley, the mother of three and author of the 2018 book “Be the Parent,” agrees.
“In another era, people would befriend someone with older kids who turned out OK and then asked their parenting advice. Now it’s all professionalized," Riley said.
"I’m pretty sure when it comes to parenting there’s nothing new under the sun. So before you go hiring someone, try the old-fashioned route. Or ask your own parents.”
Fass, a mother of two and the grandmother of three, stresses that she does not blame parents who feel they need a professional’s help, especially since they no longer live in a society in which many mothers were home with their children all day and an entire neighborhood was looking out for children.
“It’s hard today. Mothers are working, and they’re not with their children as much, and that’s part of what has undermined their confidence," she said.
"I understand the parents’ dilemma. I just wish they had more confidence. If it takes a coach, maybe that’s the way to do it.”
'If it's not a good fit, run'
A mother of four and stepmother of three grown children, Georgia Anderson was trained through Active Parenting and The Gottman Institute, which offers research-based strategies for repairing fractured relationships. She notes, however, that there is no oversight of the profession.
While many coaches have extensive backgrounds in child development or psychology, Georgia Anderson recommends that people ask for a 5- or 10-minute interview. “If they’re not willing to do that, they’re probably not worth hiring.”
Likewise, Hoefle says parents should be prepared to “kick the tires” and ask hard questions before hiring a coach.
“Make the coach prove themselves to you, and if you get a little bit of an inkling that it’s not a good fit, run.”
And keep in mind that a good coach won't tell you how to parent your children, but help develop your skills, DeGaetano said.
That’s how it worked for Rachel Anderson, the mother of a 4-year-old and an infant near Minneapolis, when she used a parenting coach to help her develop a better relationship with her son when he was 3.
“Really, the advice and tips she provided weren’t really that revolutionary,” she said. “Most of the time, it was me thinking and working it through out loud, and her (asking) probing questions that would give me the aha moment.”
For example, one strategy that came out of the sessions was using cards with pictures of three things that Rachel Anderson’s son needed to do in the morning: brush his teeth, read a book and get dressed. Because having control was important to her son at that time, giving him a choice of the order in which he would do the tasks made for a more peaceful morning for both of them.
"It made my time with my son so much more enjoyable," Anderson said.
Of course, not all parenting challenges can be resolved with a coach, DeGaetano said. Issues that arise from trauma or a psychological condition may require a mental-health professional, and a good coach will refer parents elsewhere in cases like that.
“Counseling is about healing. We don’t do that; we’re not licensed counselors, and I make that clear,” she said.
Wickham, who lives in Palm Springs, California, and whose children are 22 and 25, said she’s never used a parent coach and doesn’t know anyone who has.
But she said she understands the desire for input from an impartial, nonjudgmental expert, and said maybe she could have benefited from one.
“I wish I had done less for my kids — for example, when kids forget their homework, don’t drive to school with it, let them suffer the consequences. That’s one thing I really wish I’d learned, from a coach or anybody, but I never got that advice,” she said.
Parent coach Georgia Anderson's website is called Know How Mom. An earlier version of this article said that she calls herself that.