Plugging in Parents: Web Sites to Help Moms and Dads

When policymakers, pundits, and people of all political stripes rally around "family values" today, they usually aren't talking about a specific set of moral principles. What they're pining for is a return to an era when parents seemed to have more time and energy for family, and when neighbors, extended family, shopkeepers, and policemen instinctively took care of each other and of each other's kids.Whether that safety net was ever as broad or as fail-safe as people think they remember is subject to question. But today's parents do recognize that the communities they grew up in no longer exist -- and they miss them. In a quest to recreate picket-fence conversations, coffee klatches, and the family gatherings that they were raised on, parents are turning to some unconventional sources. One thing they're doing is flocking, by the thousands, to the World Wide Web.Whether you want to quiet a colicky baby, plan a family vacation, download a recipe for dinner, or chat with other parents trying to navigate the terrible twos, help is readily available on the Web. Savvy corporations, nonprofit groups, and mom-and-pop publishers alike have produced an impressive array of parenting Web sites and news groups. Demand for these sites is on the rise, and competition to corner the market is fierce.Parenting Web sites, for the most part, are designed to supplement, rather than replace, printed information and other resources with easily digestible bites of information for the busy parent on the go. Another dimension they offer parents, beyond information, is the opportunity to exchange ideas with and support one another.The phenomenon of online parenting raises a number of intriguing questions. How many parenting sites can co-exist, and for how long? Who is the audience? Is it the parents who stand to gain the most from the service? Are the sites dealing with the tougher issues and age groups, or sticking to safer subjects? Are they using advertising with discretion, or blurring the line between sponsorship and content? Is parents' privacy protected? How long will the sites be able to survive at little or no charge to the user? Are they teaching parents skills they need to interact with schools effectively? Are they doing anything to improve parents' access to technology, or help parents, children, and schools use it more effectively?The sites raise questions about parents as well. Is it expert advice they crave, or just sympathetic conversations? Are they relying on the Web to answer questions physicians should be answering? If so, is it because they aren't satisfied with or feel neglected by their doctors? Is there a danger that "cyber-parents" will surf the Web so much for tips on improving the quality of their family time that they'll wind up cutting deeply into the quantity of it?Why Parents Turn to the Web Experts say one of the most important things parents get from the Web is "community" -- the opportunity to discuss issues of common interest with each other on a timely basis.While child-rearing lore used to be passed down from generation to generation, many parents today don't live near their own parents, siblings, or extended family. And because economic needs have pulled so many mothers into the workplace, they no longer have the constant casual contact they once had with neighbors and friends. "What we are trying to do is really recreate the park bench," said Jonathan Carson, co-founder and president of the Family Education Network.Working parents strapped for time find it appealing to be able to click in a comment or question and get a quick answer any time of night or day. "These are busy people with families and full-time jobs -- they can ask a question when something is confusing, and get an immediate response," said Elizabeth Randolph, an analyst in Jupiter Communications' consumer content group and editor of the Digital Kids Report.The most popular sites offer very fast feedback: live chat groups, forums moderated by experts, bulletin boards, and database features where parents can zero in on articles and research. Most sites also have columnists and experts who dole out advice in a more "canned" way, responding to questions asked by many parents or gearing question-and-answer columns around a particular topic.A major Web commodity is expert opinion. "Parents today are not looking for just cutesy ideas, but substantial information -- and they don't want to wait three weeks" for an answer, said Jan Faull, a child-development expert who used to be a columnist for Starwave and now responds to parenting questions on Disney's Family.Com site. While erosion of extended family and community ties are part of what drives parents to the Web, the childbirth education movement has been another major impetus, Faull said. As hospitals, colleges, states, and communities have stepped up their childbirth and parenting classes, more and more parents are thirsting for knowledge about how to parent right, not just the way their parents did it."There is a desire more than ever to parent consciously, and the new medium is a perfect tool for that," noted Shiela Shayon, a creative director in brand development with ParentTime, a parenting site owned jointly by Time Warner and Procter & Gamble.While the Web may often present condensed or incomplete versions of information a bookstore or library has, but faster and in a more user-friendly format, it can also connect parents quickly with others who share particular concerns. "One nice thing about the Internet is that if a child has something especially rare -- like a rare type of allergy, for example -- the parents wouldn't be able to find people in real life with the same thing," noted Dr. Andy Spooner, a pediatrician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics.Dr. Michael Brody, a child psychiatrist who serves on the media committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said parents engage in discussions on these sites that show the value they place on sharing with other parents. "People feel better when they know other people have similar kinds of concerns and tasks to deal with," he said.Electronic Coupling Some of the parenting Web sites are negotiating with each other to expand their repertoires and boost their traffic rates. Last spring, for example, Disney bought out Starwave's Family Planet site, thus adding more expertise and content for parents of infants and toddlers to its Family.Com site, which had focused more on entertainment and travel for families with school-age children. The buyout also signified, experts say, that industry giants are taking the parenting market seriously. "They see it as an important market because of the demographics of the online household," Randolph said. "This is a very lucrative market to advertise to, so it makes for a good business plan."At the time of this writing, the Family Education Network was also involved in discussions with America OnLine, AT&T, and Microsoft about various joint projects, and it was negotiating with ParentTime, the Web site sponsored jointly by Time Warner and Procter & Gamble, about a possible partnership.ParentTime also recently announced a partnership with PointCast, which broadcasts news on the Internet, to create "ParentTime@Work'' -- a channel offering parent-oriented news and features to help parents balance work and family. The PointCast Network is an example of "push" technology: the user no longer has to search for and "pull" desired information off the Web, but merely calls up data that is customized to his or her interests and demographic profile and is sent at regular intervals directly to the user's desktop.What's the Difference? Most major parenting sites offer a mix of community-building and advice from experts including child-rearing specialists and medical professionals. Other popular features include family activities, travel tips, recipes, and baby-naming ideas; links to local sites that offer information on events in the user's community or school district; and shopping marts to help users find and buy baby and children's products.Although the sites' content often overlaps, site owners and editors try hard to separate themselves from the pack. "There are subtle differences that make them able to exist," observed Randolph.Disney's site, Family.Com, is particularly strong on travel, entertainment, family fun, recipe planning, and other activities to nurture parent-child relationships. Parent Soup, run by iVillage and supported by America OnLine, focuses more heavily on building communities of users in many different categories, including the nontraditional. Stork Site, the brainchild of registered obstetrical nurse Tori Kropp, has a heavy community focus but offers more content on pre-pregnancy and fertility issues than many other sites (one-third of its parent users aren't even pregnant).ParentTime is strong on expert advice, from Q & A formats to moderated forums. The Family Education Network, published by the Educational Publishing Group, links schools and professional groups to help parents become advocates for their children and get more involved in their education. The Daily Parent, a small-scale Web site launched by a San Diego publisher and his wife, acts like a daily news service on parenting topics.Several other commercial sites answer parents' questions or offer expert advice, and many others offer parenting tips involving early-childhood education or special-needs children. The Usenet system of Internet discussion-group bulletin boards lists alt.parenting, misc.kids, misc.kidshealth, and many other subjects, allowing debate on parenting issues from the mundane to the controversial. Noncommercial sites run by academic institutions and professional groups also abound on the Net.So much is available, in fact, that more consolidation among the major commercial players appears likely. "The reality is that [the Internet] can't sustain that many different kinds of sites, because ultimately advertisers will have to choose where they are going to spend their money," said Tori Kropp of Stork Site.Parents: Be Wary Child-development experts raise concern about some of the material on news groups and Web sites dominated by those with a particular ax to grind -- opponents of child immunization or circumcision, for example. The chat sessions on these sites can be quite vitriolic, and the information dispensed medically questionable. But the better-known sites tend to have reputable medical advisors and try to keep the tone of debate civil and respectful. "If you go onto ParentsPlace, it's the same stuff you are going to get at Barnes and Noble," Spooner said. "For the most part, this is pretty benign."Brody argues that experts on these sites often give answers that are too brief and narrow to recognize the variations in development among children. "I'd like to see some disclaimer that all kids are unique," he said. The sites also don't give enough credit to the "unconscious motivations" behind the way people act as parents, he said. Although education is a good thing, "a big part of parenting is emotional," and therefore, Brody believes, the support parents get from other parents may be more valuable than the snippets of expert advice.Dianne Rothenberg, associate director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, thinks many sites provide good general information but steer a little too clear of tough topics. "They tend to concentrate on the easier portion of parenting, avoiding adolescent issues and really controversial, hard-to-deal-with issues," she said. Rothenberg, who has reviewed at least 200 sites of parenting resources, said the "preponderance" of information deals with infants, toddlers and preschoolers, while material dealing with school-age and older children, including teenagers, tends to lack depth and balance. Sites designed to focus on parenting older children, she added, "dwell too much on negative issues" like detecting drug use. "There is a dearth of sites that deal with the positive side of adolescents and their growth and development."Brody offered a more pragmatic rationale for the glut of sites aimed at parents of younger children. "The reason for these sites is to sell, and parents buy stuff for younger children," he said. "Older children buy stuff for themselves."Rothenberg agreed that commercial sites are "keyed to providing ideas that can be used to draw people into spending money." While they do offer tips and information that don't cost anything, "the direction is toward the commercialization of child and family life," she said. Still, many sites "don't take advantage of the interactive nature" of the medium as much as they could -- which, of course, would cost more to do, Randolph added.In the 200 sites Rothenberg studied, "there was much less live chat or interaction compared to canned material," she said. At the same time, "the canned information was the most useful and reliable" from an accuracy and research standpoint.Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, finds online parenting an exciting and beneficial trend for parents, but she cautioned them to exercise good judgment about its reliability. "Parents have to be particularly vigilant, and make sure they hear from a variety of sources," she said.Take Two Aspirin and E-mail me É While the advice doled out on these sites is mostly "benign," as Spooner puts it, the large number of parents surfing for answers to medical questions has implications for health care providers. "Many people who've already talked to their pediatricians are either unhappy with what they were told, or doubt it, or didn't ask enough questions," Rothenberg observed. Whether the insurance industry is squeezing out doctors' time with individual patients or doctors aren't attentive enough, "the medical community should not be let off the hook."Spooner agreed it's important to encourage more and better communication between doctor and patient. But traffic on the Internet doesn't necessarily prove erosion of parents' views about the quality of medical care. What's changed, he said, is that "people are turning to alternative sources that they didn't have before" to talk about these things.Some sites run by professional groups and academic institutions, like the National Parent Information Network, are incorporating more advice on ways to interact better with doctors. Commercial sites are also addressing the issue. A recent ParentTime Q & A, for example, responded to a parent's concern about being rushed by her child's doctor with insights into the managed care environment and tips on how to keep doctors accountable. "If you demand more from your medical providers, you will get it," wrote Drs. Bill and Martha Sears.Kropp of Stork Site said parenting sites with integrity can "enhance medical care" by providing better information. "Especially as managed care becomes more of an issue É it is true that doctors, even if they want to spend more time with patients, can't -- and if they can get good, reliable information other places, that's good." Besides, Kropp added, most people are less interested in medical facts than in knowing "if what they're experiencing is normal." Many sites, however, acknowledge the possibility of misinterpretation, offering disclaimers and warnings that advice contained on their pages should not be a substitute for medical care.Rothenberg still worries about the potential for misuse. "If anyone offers to diagnose problems you are having with your child on the Internet, that's an immediate red flag," she said. "People providing information for each other should not be diagnosing, prescribing, or engaging in other activities that really do require a one-on-one meeting between a parent and a child and an expert."Many Miss Out New research underscores the critical nature of the first few years of life to physical and mental development, making it all the more important for parents to be armed with reliable child-rearing information. Unfortunately, the Web isn't reaching a critical mass of parents who might benefit most -- poor and undereducated parents who lack the resources, access, or skills to tap into the technology. "That's the biggest issue in the whole industry," Randolph said."This hasn't changed in 100 years: people with money have access to better quality information," Spooner agreed. Although many sites have features aimed at fathers, the parenting-site audience is overwhelmingly female. And while most operators say they are targeting any adult whose life is touched by a child, the content is clearly geared toward a highly literate and relatively affluent clientele. Access to the Web is expanding for library users and students in schools and universities. But parents who use these sites tend to have computers at home, which automatically puts them in a certain income bracket. "We get a lot of moms who have stopped working toward the end of their pregnancies or because they have young children," Kropp said.Amirah Muhammad, a program associate with the National Black Child Development Institute, does not believe the sites are intentionally excluding racial and ethnic groups. But the content and advertising target higher income and educational levels, so the material simply is not reaching minority groups in large numbers. Some sites have made a conscious effort to address single parents, step-parents, and other nontraditional groups, but no wealth of material reflects or celebrates cultural diversity on the mainstream parenting Web sites, she said.Schools as Gateways for Parents Muhammad is hopeful that the gap will begin to close in the next few years, "because of people like Bill Gates and his wife donating funding for libraries to be on line" and President Clinton's push to get all schools linked up. Some parenting sites are trying to meet the need for increased access by working with schools to connect parents with their company's resources and services.The Family Education Network has a network of partnerships with schools and school districts. With the U.S. Department of Education and groups like Communities in Schools, it is expanding the network into lower-income districts. It is also working with the National PTA to develop family information site templates as models for use by local and state PTAs. With the PTA, the American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, Communities in Schools, and other organizations, the Network is preparing a "best practices" feature that will highlight model approaches to curriculum, fundraising, school governance, and community involvement.Although it is clearly good business for a commercial site to forge links to the schools, it also has the potential to bring technology a step closer to parents. "We think one of the ways to answer the access problem is by working to see that schools become savvy and online," said Shayon of ParentTime. Susan Wyland, V.P. and Editorial Director of Family.Com, also believes schools and libraries are going to play a major role -- and says her site's links to schools are a step in the right direction.But linking with schools addresses only a piece of the problem. Parents have to be invited, and then they must have transportation and time in their schedules to get to the school. They need to be taught and then encouraged to use the technology. And school personnel must have training to make good use of it too. "This is really an adult education problem," said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National PTA."A lot of these school systems don't have the funding, nor do they have anyone on staff who is Internet savvy, to say the least," Muhammad agreed. Whether parents have access to computers in the schools is also a function of economics, she said, as schools in more affluent areas tend to offer more evening programs for parents.For parents in every income bracket and language category to get the information they need, parent advocates need to use "multiple mediums," Fege advised -- print materials, conferences and community gatherings among them.Business Cents For families already wired and online, parenting information on the Web is largely free -- at the moment. But as all online industry is seeking ways to become profitable, incremental charges are likely to appear soon for some kinds of information within a site. The Disney site, for example, already has a discrete set of services that users can only get to if they are on the Microsoft Network or pay a fee of $3.95 per month. (At this writing, these services were offered free for one month.)Once within Disney's restricted area, the subscriber is offered customized database searching for vacation ideas, kids' activities, and learning projects; parenting tips categorized by age and issue; a recipe engine that allows meal planning according to user-specified ingredients and time limits; and bulletin boards to share parenting advice. The fee also opens up Disney's Daily Blast, an entertainment service for children 3-12.Kropp once tried to charge Stork Site users $4.95 per month to avoid advertising, but she cut off the experiment after just 21 days in July 1996. "People weren't ready," she said. She and others agree, though, that sites are likely to charge for certain types of services. "My instinct is that there will be a model that offers basic information for free, with tiers of information at various price tags," predicted Shayon of ParentTime.The providers say it is unrealistic to think sophisticated sites can survive for free without lots of advertising or contributions. Remaining mum on the exact costs of maintaining Stork Site, for example, Kropp said a "really user friendly site" can eat up $300,000 to more than $1 million per year. Maintenance in her case involves paying the salaries of five full-time workers and an array of technical specialists. Jonathan Carson of the Family Education Network said maintaining the content, technology, and administration of his site costs roughly $3 million per year.Advertising Dollars As is generally the case on the Internet, the advertising that foots the bill for commercial parenting sites is largely unregulated. Sites insist that they aren't trying to ram products down user's throats, and many are adamant about imposing what they say is a solid line between advertising and content. "In my view, it's church and state," says Shayon of ParentTime."I will stake my reputation on the fact that that line is not going to be crossed," said Susan Wyland, V.P. and Editorial Director of Family.Com. "You really lose tremendous credibility when you put links to product names within the content area," she added. "Parents can smell that stuff. I don't want to do it, and there is no pressure on me to do it."But some sites do involve advertisers in some of their features, and others, while keeping advertising banners separate from content, invite users to take advantage of samples, discounts, sweepstakes, or other activities related to a product.Many sites, like Disney, display banner ads at the top or side of each page that the user must click for more information, and also offer special areas or links to sites where users can purchase a variety of family-related products. Some of the banners, while clearly identifying a particular product, also entice users -- both parents and children -- to participate in contests, games, chat sessions or activities involving the product. For example, an ad for Avery Dennison Office Products on the ParentTime site urges children to print cards using "Printertainment," and a Sony Station advertisement on Family.Com has games and prizes.Several sites use sponsored content -- areas where a sponsor is identified as the financial backer of the material presented. There are significant differences, however, in how "clean" these sites are. The Family Education Network, for example, uses sponsors in much the same way public television does, listing the AT&T Learning Network, Nellie Mae, and Microsoft in Education as sponsors on various pages. But there's no specific relationship between sponsor and content. On the AT&T pages, for example, "you don't get things like teaching your kid math through phone calls," Carson said.At ParentTime, the site content being sponsored may be related indirectly to the product being advertised. For example, you can find a feature on family travel sponsored by Chevy. "The advertisers can provide information and live adjacent to content, but they are separate and distinct, and very clearly marked," insisted McDonald, ParentTime's marketing director.The Pampers Parenting Institute, another Procter & Gamble site, features advice and counsel from well-known pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton and other physicians. But there's also a substantial section devoted to Pampers products and how they can be used to keep babies healthy. The section includes such features as "Common Questions," "Talk to Pampers," "Diapering Tips," "Pampers' Story," and "Healthy Baby Skin."Parent Soup works openly with sponsors to generate material clearly focused around particular products. One site area called Polaroid and Parenting offers ideas for using Polaroid cameras in activities designed to build self-esteem. Another called "Join the Triaminic Parents' Club" asks the user for information about themselves and their children. A section on how to solve teething problems includes input from Baby Orajel teething pain medicine.Macdara MacColl, the managing director of Parent Soup, believes some sites try to make too rigid a distinction between advertising and content. This medium, she said, calls for "re-envisioning the relationship between consumer and sponsor" and allows site managers to "bring our editorial vision to bear on advertisers." It raises the stakes for advertisers when they know they must offer some information of value to the users, she said. "People want free content, and advertising will always be one of the main revenue streams."MacColl calls features like Polaroid's "supercontent," and said it is very popular with users. Collaboration with sponsors is appropriate and constructive, she said. "Whenever anything comes to you via a sponsor, it is made very clear." Such an approach "is more creative than just saying we have to make sure people don't know" that advertisers are involved.Melissa Henderson, a content manager in the information systems department of the National PTA, maintains that parents have many similar sites to choose from, and can visit the PTA's site or other noncommercial offerings if they're wary of advertising. (See sidebar: A Sampling of Noncommerical Parenting Sites.) However, the commercial sites -- largely because of advertising -- may be more visually appealing and offer more variety in their mix of news, lighter features and live chat.For Whose Eyes Only? Although some parenting sites require registration for certain services like bulletin boards and chat rooms, most insist they do not sell their lists of subscribers. Disney and Parent Soup both post explicit privacy policies stating that they collect information for editorial and feedback purposes but do not sell the data to third parties. Disney Online's privacy policy, which applies to Family.Com and its other sites, says identifying information is only for contest or sweepstakes registration and for services that require subscription. It also says children cannot provide information without parental notification; that information supplied by people over 16 can be used for marketing and promotional purposes only with permission; and that anyone may stop that use by E-mail or changing registration information online.Parent Soup's policy, laid out in a Q & A format, states that certain user information is required for "members only" site areas, but is "stored in a secure database on our server" and not sold to anyone. The site does make certain aggregated demographic information available to its advertisers, but does not identify any individual personally. Soup has a feature called Cyberfridges, in which users are asked to supply E-mail addresses as part of their profiles, and the policy cautions that this information is publicly available to other site visitors. The policy also acknowledges that the site uses "cookies" -- files that record which pages a user visits and for how long.ParentTime has no privacy policy posted, but McDonald said information collected through registration stays in its database. Other sites are less explicit about their use of cookies, and it may depend on their host service. But experts point out that users generally have the option, as part of the security preference section of their browsers, not to be included in such profiles."We are in some ways governed by whatever [Time Warner's] Pathfinder does -- so if they use cookies, I'm sure that we are using cookies," noted McDonald of ParentTime. "Cookie technology is all over the Web," she added -- but parents have the option of not accepting it.Parent Soup makes it clear, however, that refusing cookies may make it more cumbersome to use the site. "Depending on your browser, you may get an error message or be warned every time you open a new page on the site," the Soup's privacy policy states.Room for Improvement Parenting experts in general are comfortable with the kinds of information parents can find on the Web -- from what to expect and how to take care of oneself during pregnancy to how to deal with sibling rivalry, twins, or single parenthood. But some say the sites could do a better job on a subject they should be well equipped to cover -- using technology as a learning tool.The Internet -- and particularly parenting sites -- "should take on that responsibility," Randolph said, because conventional media have not done it justice and tend to "highlight the negative." There are signs that the industry recognizes the problem. Susan Wyland noted that Family.Com has a computing category that offers guidance on using technology with children. Some recent topics included electronic reference tools, basic Internet skills, and software for children. "You would think that if [parents] are here, they know all about it," says Wyland, "but they really value guidance and direction."Edmark, an IBM company that develops educational software, recently launched "Dear Parents" -- a Web site for parents with questions about learning and technology. The ERIC System and its National Parent Information Network are sponsoring an October conference on Families, Technology, and Education.Fege of the National PTA suggested that school reform issues are among other topics that need more focused attention. "There is somewhat of a gap between what parents need in the field and what's being produced," he said. "Parents want something easy to use -- to go to a spot where they can pick up all they can on vouchers, charter schools, testing, special education referrals. It's there, but you have to really look for it." Another area that could be covered more extensively, Fege said, involves "problem-solving issues" like how to talk to school principals, start a parent-involvement program at a school, or get a child referred to special education. The sites might also offer resources for parents who don't speak English.Some Questions Remain As more people are connected online and electronic commerce grows in importance, parenting Web sites are likely to become an influential source of information. A tiny handful of major commercial Web sites may supplant smaller, noncommercial sites, becoming the only source of online information on a wide range of parenting issues. It is essential that those concerned with children and families closely examine how this new marketplace develops. Particular attention needs to be paid to the following:How do we ensure that there are information sources that serve the unique needs of all families, not just the most affluent demographic group? What mechanisms will be required to guarantee the reliability of the information being provided? Are new public policies needed to help support noncommercial sites? Will safeguards be necessary to protect editorial content from the undue influence of advertisers? What will be the relationship between electronic sources of health information and in-person professional care?In the years to come, parenting Web sites will grow in popularity and influence, generating greater amounts of online revenue. As this occurs, these are only some of the questions that must be debated before an information system serving the needs of all families will emerge.Sidebar OnePopular Commercial Sites for ParentsThe Daily Parent www.dailyparent.comRobert Hanczor, who has a Ph.D. in communication from the University of San Diego, launched the Daily Parent with his wife Rosemary, who was studying to be a school psychologist, when their baby daughter was about 8 months old. The site's main focus is news. Hanczor says television does not offer enough parenting information at opportune times for working parents, and that parents have to sift through a lot of extraneous material and advertising to find print articles tailored to their needs. The Daily Parent lacks the dazzling layout of Disney or StorkSite, but it is simple, direct, and quick to download.Users can call up articles on parenting, family, health, education, safety, and other topics -- including career planning -- from news services, press releases, and other sources, updated daily. Recent topics included parenting a premature baby, helping a stutterer, and the potential problems of Ritalin use by young boys. The site also has bulletin boards, including a "many parents" area for single, gay, foster, teenage and other nontraditional parents, including grandparents. The Daily Parent also has a shopping area, called "Internet Baby." Hanczor plans a winter launch for a supplemental site offering information on local schools and districtsFamily.com www.family.comThis site has a graphically impressive layout of family activities, expert advice, and database searching that helps parents plan vacations, outings, activities, and menus suited to their families' needs. In addition to its obvious Disney influence, two of the site's editors come from Martha Stewart Living, which accounts for its aesthetics and home-making focus.Although the site offers some free content, there's a set of services that cost $3.95 per month, including a drop-down list box that allows the user to seek out advice and activity ideas by the age of the child and area of interest. There's also a recipe planning feature that allows users to plan meals and find recipes by typing in main ingredients and how much time they have. The site also runs bulletin boards where parents can exchange ideas on everything from vacations to step-parenting, and offers links to a network of 105 local and regional parenting publications.Susan Wyland, Family.Com V.P. and Editorial Director, admits that the site has a reputation for being "stronger on the fun stuff." But she contends that Disney's buyout of Starwave's Family Planet site is rounding out the package with more expertise and resources for parents of infants and toddlers. The site now has a parenting category with advice from such experts as Penelope Leach and Jan Faull. In the parenting section, recent advice topics included how to deal with wakeful toddlers, how to volunteer at school even if you're a working parent, what to do if you have a gifted child, and how to deal with a good toddler who suddenly exhibits bad behavior. The site recently featured a back-to-school guide for parents. Other categories on Family.Com include computing, travel, food, and learning. There's also an electronic greeting card feature.Family Educational Network www.familyeducation.comThis site, operated by the Educational Publishing Group, focuses on helping children succeed in school. It offers pediatric advice for the parents of pre-schoolers and discussion groups on topics from special-needs children to college entrance exams, stressing parent involvement at every level. The site also includes information and discussion on college preparation issues.Founded by a company with a strong track record in educational products and programs for corporations and media outlets, the site links users to local school districts and schools. It operates projects with the National PTA and other professional groups to make the site useful and accessible for schools and parents. It also offers content on learning at school and home, health and safety, and nutrition; a "KidsZone" of learning activities and chat for children; and areas for parents of youngsters with disabilities. A recent user poll asked parents what their rules are for watching television when school starts.The site is strong on advocacy, offering a news section with updates on legislation and policy that affect families and schools, and easy-to-access information on state and national legislators' contact points and voting records. In a recent survey of about 500 parents by Family PC, Family Education Network earned the top rating among 13 parenting sites. One feature parents commended lets local schools to set up a version of the site for free, so that parents can keep in touch with the school.Parent Soup www.parentsoup.comParent Soup, operated by iVillage and supported by America On Line, has a strong community focus and aims to appeal to nontraditional parents as well as upscale two-parent couples. The site tries to provide comfortable niches for a parent of an attention deficit disorder child or a gifted child, for a single mom or a single dad, a working mom or one who stays at home. The site's emphasis is parent-to-parent support and communication, and discussion groups as well as live chat sessions and interactive polls let users weigh in on parenting issues.Recent chat room categories included military families, breastfeeding, and a parent poll whose topic was, "Do you think it's okay for someone in a marriage or serious relationship to flirt occasionally?" The site has a feature called "What would you do?" that poses scenarios and asks users how they would handle the situation. One parent recently described a visitation arrangement her husband's ex-wife had proposed for her step-daughter and expressed concern about how it would affect the rest of the family. The site has "cyberfridges" where parents can post photos and family stories, and there are areas for other family announcements; member opinions on books, baby products, movies, and Web sites; and relaxation tips.Parent Soup also has a Q & A feature offering advice from parenting experts such as Dr. Bill and Martha Sears and other experts in pediatrics, breastfeeding, nutrition, family counseling, education, and college. Some recent questions covered included what to do when a toddler goes too far in "parenting" a baby sister; whether playing Mozart before classes stimulates elementary school children's learning and test scores; and, in a special section on back-to-school anxiety, advice on handling the depression some parents experience at that time. The site also has online postcards and a baby-naming feature.ParentTime www.parenttime.comParentTime (Time Warner and Procter & Gamble) promotes its stellar roster of experts, from lactation consultant Kathleen Huggins to Dr. Bill and Martha Sears to sex therapist Ruth Westheimer. The site also draws on reference and feature material from sources like Parenting and Baby Talk magazines and Time Life Books' Successful Parenting series. After a slow start-up period, the site relaunched in April with a commitment to add more chat and lighter features -- "things that bring people back on a daily basis rather than just in a crisis," said Sheila Shayon, creative director in brand development for the site.The site's chat sessions are generally guided by experts on particular topics, from breastfeeding to fatherhood. The site initially targeted parents of birth-to-2-year-olds but has expanded its content through age 18, with a layout that allows parents to click on their child's age and get customized information. A feature called LocalTime offers content tied to local communities and resources, including high quality child care and elder care. Other features include a guide to childhood illnesses and other health issues, a news roundup with articles on topics from miscarriage treatment to kids and technology, and recommendations and information on parenting books, magazines, products, toys, and activities. A feature called "Dale Burg's Home Talk" allows users to exchange tips on aspects of family life from health and safety to outdoor activities to bath and beauty. Some end-of-summer subjects included back-to-school day care and separation, and morning short cuts in the kitchen.Stork Site www.storksite.comStork Site has a panel of experts to offer advice and a full medical library for reference, but it also has a heavy community focus that caters to parents from pre-pregnancy through the first year of the baby's life. Beyond bulletin boards and chat sessions, one distinguishing feature is the system's ability to alert users when "friends" are on line so they can exchange messages on the spot. Along with Seymour Stork, an animated mascot that helps guide the user, founder and registered nurse Tori Kropp prides herself on being "a strong presence" on the site, building personal relationships with users and acting as a host and confidante as much as an expert. In an "ask Tori" column, she answers several questions a week, many dealing with pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, sexuality, and childbirth issues.Another feature of the site is "BabyGrams" that describe the growth and development of the fetus at the user's stage of pregnancy, along with information on what to expect and tips on what to do at that stage. The site's "Storkzine" features articles on topics such as spanking and IQ, herpes and pregnancy, and maternity chic, as well as a calendar of events and a "newly hatched" section welcoming the newest "storkie" babies. There's also a baby-naming area.More Dot Coms for Moms (and Dads)The CyberMom Dot Com www.thecybermom.comThis is an interesting, creative site organized as a large house where each room offers ideas and information from recipes and entertainment to health, fitness, book and software reviews, guest experts, chat forums, and user polls. The site, a sister site to Parenting Q&A, has a less technical and more "woman to woman" appeal than many other Web offerings. There's material to help moms balance work and family, manage money, and be informed about day care. There are also areas for talking about sex and relationships or getting advice from beauty specialists.The National Parenting Information Center www.tnpc.comHosted by ParentsPlace, this site is the home of ParenTalk Newsletter, which offers current articles on medical, behavioral, and educational issues written by physicians, psychologists, and other experts. The site also has a shopping area, live chat and bulletin boards, and a "seal of approval" program that rates products for children and families and reviews travel resorts for family-friendliness.Pampers Parenting Institute www.totalbabycare.comNoted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, Dr. Suzanne Dixon and Dr. Alfred Lane answer questions by age and topic on the various stages of infant development, well baby care, and healthy baby skin on this site, which also describes and promotes various Pampers products.ParenthoodWeb www.parenthoodweb.comThe most striking feature of this information-packed, if cluttered, site is its "Ask the Pros" area, an eclectic roster of experts answering questions. The group includes not just doctors and nurses but fitness educators, relationship specialists, and childbirth and home birth experts. The site also has news and feature articles, bulletin boards, greeting cards, reader polls, baby naming ideas, product recall notices, and parenting Web site award citations.Parenting Q&A www.parenting-qa.comThis site specializes in answering questions quickly on almost any subject relating to parenting. Organized alphabetically by topic, it offers background information, resources, tips, and facts for each category. Along with the usual topics are morals and values, finances, computing, and religion and spirituality.ParentsPlace www.parentsplace.comRun by iVillage as a companion site to ParentSoup, this site has a similar emphasis on community but more of a down-home, family recreation-room feel. There are numerous chat sessions and bulletin boards as well as feature articles, a shopping mall, toy and baby product recall notices, and reading rooms that give the site the ambiance of a neighborhood library. One of the reading rooms is on parent humor. The site was started by a couple that wanted to stay home with their infant son.Positive Parenting Online www.positiveparenting.comDeveloped by Deborah Critzer, a certified parenting instructor, and Christopher Stroh, a designer and programmer, Positive Parenting focuses on "resources and information to make parenting rewarding, effective, and fun!" The site reflects the philosophy of Kathryn Kvols, author of Redirecting Children's Behavior. It offers referrals to organizations, classes, and other resources for those wanting to learn more about positive parenting and becoming a certified instructor. The site is also home to The Positive Parenting Newsletter and offers feature articles, bulletin boards and live chat sessions with certified parent educators.A Sampling of Noncommercial Parenting SitesAmerican Academy of Pediatrics www.aap.orgThe AAP's online area offers information on health issues of interest to parents, such as immunization, car seat safety, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It also describes AAP projects and policies; highlights books, research, and other resource materials; and offers AAP publications and other products.I Am Your Child www.iamyourchild.orgThe site focuses on new brain research about the importance of a child's first years, offering information on aspects of child development. The site is part of a campaign to make early childhood development a top national priority. It is coordinated by the Families and Work Institute, led by Rob Reiner and other entertainers as well as health professionals, foundations, and corporations. The campaign, launched in April, generated an ABC television special and a Newsweek issue.National Parent Information Network http://ericps.crc.uiuc.edu/npin/npinhome.htmlSponsored jointly by two clearinghouses that are part of the federally funded Educational Resource Information Center (ERIC) system, this is the world's largest database on education. The site is a summa of knowledge for parents and professionals who work with parents, and presents full-text articles, reference materials, and resource information on a comprehensive range of parenting and education topics. Also available are news, book reviews, event calendars, discussion sessions, and Q & A features.National PTA www.pta.orgBesides featuring PTA programs, policies, publications, activities, and links to local and state PTA's, this site can link you to many other sites related to child advocacy. It highlights action on children, family, and education-related legislation and policy of interest to parents.Zero to Three www.zerotothree.orgThis site, maintained by a Washington, DC-based organization dedicated to advancing healthy child development, offers research, information, and resources for parents and professionals on the social, physical, and cognitive development of infants and toddlers.

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