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The expert faces reality

Lawrence Kutner has been a child psychologist for at least a dozen years, but he has been a parent for only 18 months. Now the advice that Kutner gives _ and spreads widely through his newspaper columns, lectures and a recently published book _ is tempered heavily with reality.

"What I've gained (from having a child) is not much more in the way of knowledge but much more in the way of empathy," said Kutner during a telephone interview from his office in Minneapolis. "The thing that struck me is how different it is to do things in the real world. I always knew the first few months of parenthood were exhausting, but I didn't know how exhausting."

Since 1987, Kutner has been writing "Parent & Child," a column of findings and advice on family relationships, that appears in the New York Times and about 300 other newspapers. This year, he published his first book, Parent & Child, Getting Through to Each Other, and is under contract to write four more books on parent-child communication.

Kutner also lectures widely, is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Minnesota and is president and executive producer of his own company that makes health videos.

Because of this demanding schedule, Kutner says "it would be unethical to take on a regular practice," but he does consider his work a public health practice.

In most lectures, he talks about nurturing a child's self-esteem, a concept that has become a popular part of child development in recent decades.

Self-esteem _ how a child thinks of himself and his abilities _ is often seen as a cure-all. "That's nonsense, but it is something very important," says Kutner.

A child's self-concept is built of "labels and feelings that quickly become as much a part of the child's identity as his name" Kutner writes in his book. "It is an image of himself or herself that the child will carry into adulthood."

Much of this image comes from a child's communication with adults _ words and actions that tell a child how he is thought of.

Self-esteem is, however, not one word or action, but many. It is "more like a scrapbook than a single snapshot," writes Kutner. "As the child matures, the number and variety of images in that scrapbook may be far more important than any individual picture pasted inside it."

Although helping families is Kutner's profession, he is basically optimistic about most parents' abilities.

"Parents are fundamentally good at raising children," he says.

He hopes his writing and lecturing will dispel some of the myths that plague today's parents, calm some of those parents' anxieties and give them some tools to make family life work well.

Anxious parents often think that, if they do one thing wrong, they are doing "irrevocable damage" to their children, Kutner says. In reality, parents "can screw up lots."

"Children are remarkably resilient," he said. "They don't shatter _ they bounce."