When actress Anne Heche and her ex-husband Coley Laffoon hired a court-ordered parenting coach earlier this fall, the online snickering reached fever pitch - and not just because Ms. Heche had described the father of her seven-year-old son as a "lazy ass" on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Bloggers called Ms. Heche a "pathetic excuse" for a mother, while parenting consultants blasted the coach for charging a whopping $375 an hour.
Despite all the brouhaha, however, the incident was yet another sign of how well entrenched parenting coaches have become.
The field was virtually unknown 10 years ago, but in the past few years, demand for childrearing help by phone and e-mail has steadily increased - even during the recession, according to parenting coaches and the schools that train them.
After all, when Molly refuses to eat anything but Cheddar Bunnies and four-year-old Jayden still isn't potty-trained, who ya gonna call?
For many Gen-X parents, it won't be Grandma.
"You only know how to parent as far as you were parented," says Mary Aldous, a Calgary mother who was spanked as a child. When her own daughter, now 4, became defiant, she says, "I figured there must be better ways."
Nearly two years ago, she called Julie Freedman Smith at Parenting Power, a Calgary-based coaching team.
Since then, Ms. Aldous has got help with everything from chaotic mealtimes to power struggles over what her daughter will wear in the morning.
"It's nice to talk to somebody who knows psychologically and behaviorally where your child should be at," Ms. Aldous says, "and how their little minds are working."
Parenting coaches usually consult by phone and in follow-up e-mails, although some meet face-to-face with clients in the same city. The going rate is $50 to $120 an hour.
Many coaches offer a discount in monthly packages calculated in minutes, like cellphone time.
The service is ideal for parents who lack strong support networks, says Terry Carson, a parenting coach in Toronto. Many parents are desperate for guidance on everyday dilemmas, such as how to limit kids' video-game time. Books and websites don't offer tailored solutions, and consensus is rare in the community playground, she adds.
"Parents actually get more confused when they compare what the Joneses and the Smiths are doing."
Coaches help filter the barrage of conflicting information directed at today's parents, who tend to be overanxious, Ms. Carson says. "In some cases, they're actually worried that their parenting skills will somehow damage their children."
Unlike family therapists, parenting coaches don't analyze why a problem exists. Instead, she explains, a coach helps parents identify their family's values and develop strategies that will fit.
Among her recent clients is Jenny, a Toronto mother who didn't want her last name published to protect her family's privacy. After a few coaching sessions, Jenny tried parenting techniques she would never have thought of herself, she says.
To discourage tantrums, for example, she locked herself in a room and let her two-year-old son bang on the door until his fury subsided. "I did it once and the tantrums stopped."
Some coaches are reluctant to recommend specific tactics, however.
"We're not giving advice," says Gloria DeGaetano, founder of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Parent Coaching Institute. A coach's job is to support and validate parents, she says, "and to draw out through very precise questioning what their inner wisdom is."
Since 2003, the non-profit institute has issued 142 certificates to graduates of its one-year program, which is rigorous compared to those at many schools. For example, the parent coach component of the Adler School of Professional Coaching consists of a three-day advanced course.
Critics note that parent coaching is still an emerging - and unregulated - field.
As Pamela Paul, author of Parenting, Inc., points out, "anybody can put up a shingle and say that they're a parent coach." Services such as sleep training may be invaluable to new mothers, but in general, parents should take a page from Benjamin Spock's books and trust their instincts, she says.
James White, an associate professor of social work at the University of British Columbia, cautions parents to be wary of unaccredited coaches who dole out quick advice. For problems such as aggression, for example, a child may need to see a registered psychologist, whereas sibling fighting is best resolved by a certified family life educator, he says. "Parenting is extremely complex."
Nevertheless, a good coach knows when to refer clients to a specialist - and when to cut off parents who get too clingy with their coach, says Gail Bell, co-founder of Parenting Power. "It's very rare but we have done it."
Ms. Bell predicts that one day parenting coaches will be as common as prenatal classes.
In the meantime, parents such as Jenny say that coaching has increased their confidence with their kids, and is worth the investment. "There's not a lot of airy-fairyness to it - it's very direct and very clear."