The flawless family

If you needed any persuading of just how big the parenting industry has become, try checking the relevant section at online bookseller Amazon.com.

There are more than 5,000 volumes targeted at parents anxious to do better with their children. From 1-2-3- Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 to the snappily titled Thank You For All You've Done For Me: A Book For Parents of Teens: A Compassionate Approach To Parenting Teens Changing What Some Have Labelled As Troubled Times Into Times Of Celebration, the outpouring of advice, coaching and counselling is staggering.

And that's without considering the endless numbers of websites, television shows and magazine and newspaper articles on the topic.

In the space of barely a generation, bringing up children has gone from being a process regarded as largely natural and instinctive to a skill that needs to be taught, corrected and analysed by experts.

Psychologist Renee Mill, whose latest book is No Sweat Parenting, says the media has influenced parents and created the concept of a "perfect parent" against which mums and dads should measure themselves.

She is a keen user of parenting forums where she can discuss issues with other parents.

"Just pick up any magazine and they will tell you that you can have a perfect life, a perfect body, a perfect anything if you just try hard enough, or follow these three tips or read that book," she says.

"Our own parents were much more relaxed - you got married, you had children and you just enjoyed life much more. It was simpler and more basic. You didn't seem to need an expert to tell you how to relate to the people around you."

Of course, there have been many benefits for children in having parents who are consciously trying to improve their skills but one of the unintended consequences has led some parents to lose confidence in their ability to do the right thing by their children.

In a 2006 survey of 5,000 Australian parents, more than half of all mums and dads questioned said they believed parenting skills did not come naturally to most people. And in another survey conducted by the Australian Childhood Foundation in 2004, 56 per cent of parents said they lacked confidence about their parenting.

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"Parenting is not viewed as an activity that comes naturally," the report's authors say. "It is often experienced as challenging and at times difficult."

However, they conclude, parents need to be encouraged to trust themselves and their instincts more.

"With reassurance that they are 'on the right track', parents can often come to realise that they already possess the skills and wisdom to raise their children."

Megan Webb from Forestville knows a thing or two about raising children. She has a 10-year-old and a three-year-old and the family will be joined by a new baby in just a few weeks. She is a keen user of parenting forums where she can discuss issues with other parents.

"I read books and I use websites," she says. "If you're going through something specific, there are usually other people there who have been through it as well. I think also being a home parent that you are a bit isolated so it's nice to have contact with other people." But, Webb says, the internet forums in particular can bring their own pressure to live up to unrealistic "perfect parenting" ideals because posters can hide behind anonymity.

"Sometimes I do wonder who is writing and what they really do," she says. "You can say you never feed your children junk food and you're a gentle parenting type and you never let your child cry but is it really like that?

"It should be taken with a pinch of salt. I don't believe everything I read but there are people who do get worried and think, 'I've got to be a better parent.' "

Mill says there is no harm in setting a goal to be a better parent but it's important not to be too hard on yourself along the way.

She draws an analogy with someone trying to lose weight who decides they can't possibly feel happy until they reach their goal weight.

"But each kilo you lose can be enjoyable as you go along towards that ideal," she says. "It's the same in relationships; you can work towards being a better parent and having a better relationship with your child but still enjoy it along the way and not feel, 'Only when I am doing it perfectly can I be happy or can I feel good about what's going on.' "

Parents can also fall into the trap of measuring themselves by the way their children behave. But it's important to remember that parental influence only goes so far - children are born with their own characters and personality traits.

"We can't be responsible for every little thing," Mill stresses. "Our children have their own ways of being in the world but some parents feel guilty about every behaviour and feel it's up to them and often it's not.

"The perfect parent is an oxymoron because parents are human beings and human beings are fallible, mortal and vulnerable. The ideal is to feel you are doing the best you can with the tools you have - but that's not an excuse not to try your best."

Discuss a range of parenting issues with hundreds of mums online in the Essential Kids forums.