The 7 Parenting Controversies that Changed the Way We Raised Our Kids in 2011

Here, the stories that affected our lives and our kids' lives the most this year, from 'superior' Chinese mothers to tainted apple juice.
Amy Chua

Peter Z Mahakian

Here's one thing most parents can agree on: there is no one right way to raise children. We are constantly tweaking, questioning, and adjusting to our growing, changing, challenging kids.

What's more, we're adjusting to the constantly changing world -- the endless stream of warnings, recommendations, and philosophies put forth by so-called parenting experts.

This year, readers were most engaged by and roiled up over seven parenting controversies. Read on to find out which big stories made our year-end list.

"Tiger Mother" Calls Parental Expectations into Question

What happened: Amy Chua, mother of two and author of "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," started a debate about how much pressure parents should put on their children to succeed. Her book, which was excerpted in January in the Wall Street Journal, attempt to explain why Chinese children are stereotypically such high achievers in math, music, and more. Chua's description of strict discipline and unyielding standards sparked fierce debate over whether American parenting culture is too permissive. "What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it," Chua wrote, "To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences."

Why it's controversial: The debate was fierce in the media and in moms' groups across the country. Some said Chua was a "mean mom" whose sky-high expectations were unhealthy and damaging to her children, who could never hope to please her. Others countered that Chua's technique was a refreshing change of pace from the self-esteem-first, "everybody's a winner" paradigm of modern American parenting.

How it impacted your life: The "Tiger Mother" discussions -- in the media and at playgrounds alike -- opened the door to self-reflection over where your parenting style falls on the "Tiger" spectrum. For some of you, Chua's argument was permission to be "harder" on your kids without feeling like you're scarring them for life. For others, Chua's perspective only increased your commitment to giving your kids a broad definition of "success."

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HPV Vaccine Debate Expands to Include Boys



What happened: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States; at least half of sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines that recommend the HPV vaccine for boys between ages 11 and 21 as well as girls between ages 11 and 26. The American Academy of Pediatrics joined in the CDC's recommendation that boys be routinely vaccinated against HPV, citing research that states the vaccine may protect boys against cancers of the penis and rectum, as well as head and neck cancers that are believed to be caused by HPV. A factor in the new recommendation was the CDC statistic, also released this year, that just under half of girls had received even one of the three-part vaccine against the virus, which can cause cervical cancer.

Why it's controversial: At age 11, it's hard to imagine your child's sexual future, let alone plan for it. Some parents put it even more bluntly: shouldn't we be teaching abstinence rather than planning for promiscuity? On the other hand, what parent doesn't want to protect their child from a deadly disease? The debate took on further weight this year when Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was challenged to defend his 2007 executive order requiring girls to receive the vaccine in Texas (the order was later rescinded). A swirl of misinformation about the safety of the vaccine followed, only confusing and upsetting parents more.

How it impacted your life: For parents of boys, the new recommendations brought you into a debate that you'd previously been able to ignore. And for all parents, the HPV debate became the main character in the two perennial issues of vaccine safety and sexuality.

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Arsenic in Your Apple Juice? Dr. Oz Raises Contamination Fears

apple juice

Blaine Moats

What happened: Dr. Mehmet Oz, the well-known integrative physician with a daily health-themed television talk show, announced this fall that he had conducted an independent study of several apple juice brands and discovered trace amounts of the cancer-causing heavy metal arsenic in the products. Gerber, Motts, Minute Maid, Apple & Eve, and Juicy Juice were among the brands tested, all of which contained detectable arsenic. Most were within the 23 parts per billion allowed by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, though Oz urged the FDA to lower the allowable level to 10 parts per billion.

Why it's controversial: The FDA objected to Oz's measurement of "total arsenic" in his study, saying that its standards are based on distinguishing between organic and inorganic arsenic compounds. Juice companies also took exception to Oz's methods, especially Gerber, whose products were found to have the highest arsenic level (36 parts per billion). Parents were left to assess their family's juice choices amid the flurry of information and debate.

How it impacted your life: You got an education in heavy metals you never thought you'd need when pouring juice for your kids. And many of you took the opportunity to follow nutritionists' recommendations that kids curb their juice intake altogether, choosing whole fruits to eat and water to drink.

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Formaldehyde Derivatives Identified in Baby Shampoos

baby in bath

PhotoAlto/ Matton

What happened: This spring, the National Toxicology Program released its annual "Report on Carcinogens," which for the first time named formaldehyde and its derivatives as "known carcinogens." The revelation reignited efforts by product safety groups, led by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, to demand tougher government safeguards against toxins in consumer products. At the center of the discussion that followed was Johnson & Johnson's iconic baby shampoo, which contains both the formaldehyde-releasing preservative quaternium-15, and the chemical byproduct 1,4-dioxane. In November, Johnson & Johnson announced plans to remove both chemicals from its entire product line (their more expensive "Naturals" line is already free of the chemicals).

Why it's controversial: There's vociferous debate over whether the amount of exposure a child gets from regular use of a shampoo, soap, or lotion that contains small amounts of these toxic chemicals is actually a legitimate health threat. The products under fire all comply with current government regulations, but many are calling for those regulations to be changed in light of new information about the dangers of the chemicals.

How it impacted your life: You were of two minds about the news -- horrified, on the one hand, to think you may have exposed your children to even the smallest amount of a carcinogen, but skeptical, on the other, of allegations that products that have been used for generations could be truly dangerous. Many of you did not hesitate to change shampoo and lotion brands, choosing products that are free of chemical preservatives and cleansers.

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Rear-Facing Car Seats Recommended Until Age 2

toddler in car seat

Shannon Greer

What happened: In March, the American Academy of Pediatrics, together with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, came out with new guidelines on car seat safety, recommending that children remain in rear-facing car seats until age 2, a change from the previous recommendation of 1 year. This was based on crash test data that showed young kids -- who have relatively large heads and small necks -- are less likely to get hurt in an accident if they are rear-facing.

Why it's controversial: Parents expressed immediate frustration at the difficulty they foresaw in adhering to the new standards. Tall kids in rear-facing seats would be uncomfortable, many feared, and as every parent knows, an uncomfortable toddler is an unhappy toddler. Every parent wants his or her child to be as safe as possible, and this recommendation left many feeling unable to do just that.

How it impacted your life: This recommendation sparked earnest discussions between many of you and your pediatricians -- and delayed the big car seat turnaround for some.

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Physical Discipline Comes into the Spotlight

woman holding belt

Dan Saelinger

What happened: A number of vivid stories brought the issue of spanking and corporal punishment into focus in 2011. Perhaps the most discussed was the video posted this fall by 23-year-old Hillary Adams showing her as a teenager being cursed at and whipped with a belt by her father, a Texas judge. Among the other stories that made news:

  • Alaskan mom Jessica Beagley was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse charges for squirting hot sauce in her 7-year-old son's mouth as a punishment.
  • Three children whose parents had copies of a Tennessee pastor's pro-spanking book in their homes died after beatings. The parents of one of the children were convicted of homicide by abuse.
  • A mother of three was sentenced in Texas to three years probation by a judge who said, "You don't spank children today."

Why it's controversial: The issue of whether to use physical techniques for disciplining children is always a divisive one. Many parents, especially conservative Christians who believe that spanking is biblically mandated, advocate corporal punishment. But confronted with the disturbing image of Adams' beating and the spate of deaths, the line between discipline and abuse is a renewed source of controversy and debate.

How it impacted your life: In the wake of these stories, many of you defended your family's decision to either use spanking or not, and especially your right to make that decision for yourselves -- within the boundaries of safety and the law, of course.

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Anti-Circumcision Measures on Local Ballots

baby?s feet

PhotoAlto/ Matton

What happened: In the summer of 2011, after reaching out to legislators in 14 states, a grassroots movement collected thousands of signatures to get anti-circumcision measures onto ballots in both San Francisco and Santa Monica, California. If passed, the bans would have deemed circumcision, even for religious reasons, to be "male genital mutilation," punishable by a $1,000 penalty and up to a year in prison. By September, the measures had been removed from the ballots, and the California legislature voted to prevent local communities from banning the practice.

Why it's controversial: Circumcision rates have fallen in the last decade, with the CDC reporting a 6 percent drop in hospital circumcisions between 1999 and 2008. Anti-circumcision activists (who call themselves "intactivists") claim that the procedure is medically unnecessary, risky, and may lead to health and sexual problems later in life. Proponents of circumcision cite religious mandates, particularly for Jews and Muslims, as well as research that shows not only circumcision's safety, but its potential health benefits, including lowered risk of some cancers and sexually-transmitted diseases.

How it impacted your life: If you had a boy this year and were considering whether or not to circumcise him, you were more likely than ever to encounter strong arguments in your community and the media on both sides of this issue. Given that everything from religion to health is associated with circumcision, this debate is not likely to fade anytime soon.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi writes the Parents News Now blog for

Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.

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