It's no secret that I love to read, but it is super difficult for me to actually get through a real book anymore, because of the interruptions of parenting and the distractions provided by short, compelling online articles that I can read in the space of five minutes. And I'm sure I'm not alone in this! But I do think it's valuable to read full-length books, to hear from journalists and experts who have done extensive research and invested the time to write carefully crafted, edited and published books on parenting issues. I have a shelf full of library books that I keep renewing and manage to read gradually. Here's a list of my favorite parenting books I've read in the past two years (all available at the Indianapolis Public Library, by the way):
1. It's OK Not to Share! and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids
Basic message: Unstructured play is important. Children have rights, and the right to free, unstructured play is one that's endangered today by many factors (helicopter parenting, overscheduling extra-curriculars at young ages, hyper-safety awareness or parental fear of childhood risks). The attention-grabbing headline is not a plea to allow our kids to act selfishly, but rather to teach them that they don't need to fear having toys arbitrarily taken away from them without being able to finish their play (which is a child's work and necessary for cognitive development). The author advocates teaching kids to take "long turns" which means they ask for, and patiently wait for, a turn with whatever toy the other child is currently playing with. When the other child is finished, he/she hands it over to the waiting child personally (an adult does not intervene and transfer the toy) and gains a sense of the satisfaction of giving. I found many other helpful tips in this book, like the mantra "If it's not hurting people or property, it's okay."
2. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder
Basic message: Nature is important for kids' development, and these days most American kids are getting far too little access or exposure to nature. "Sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally 'scared children straight out of the woods and fields', while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favors 'safe' regimented sports over imaginative play. . . . Causes for the phenomenon include parental fears, restricted access to natural areas, and the lure of the screen." I covered this issue of kids in nature briefly in an earlier post. I've been seeing a lot of articles and memes on social media about this issue recently, so I'm guessing it's nothing new to most of you parents. It feels like new research is published every week just to make us feel guilty about not getting our children to spend enough time outdoors! I just saw something the other day about a link between organized sports throughout childhood and decreased creativity in adulthood. My kindergartner lives for soccer, and his season starts this week. So, you can take all this with a grain of salt, but in general I do think the author makes an important point and we need to be aware of this issue. Let your kids play outside without worrying (and without supervision, at an appropriate age), because by banishing your own fears about their safety now, you'll actually be helping to reduce their risk of mental health issues like anxiety and depression in the future.
3. The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money
Basic message: Understanding the costs and benefits of things we decide to buy is important for kids. Give kids some money, starting at an early age, and help them understand what to do with it, so that they have many years of handling money while still under your roof. This gives them the opportunity to make mistakes that are not too damaging and to learn from those mistakes. This book is an excellent resource for parents who are either 1) concerned about helping our kids navigate cultural attitudes towards money and things, including how to interpret/decode advertising messages, or 2) looking for practical tips on giving kids an allowance, tooth fairy visits, getting kids to help with household chores, and teaching them charitable giving at a young age.
4. Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts With Worry
Basic message: Independence is important for kids' development. This basic freedom has been effectively lost in the past three decades; our children don't have the same carefree experience of childhood that we parents had growing up in the early 1980s. Most of us could play outside unsupervised, walk to the park by ourselves (with friends or siblings), wander around the neighborhood on our own, and ride our bikes to friend's houses without fear of being abducted. Our kids don't get to do any of that, because it seems crazily unsafe to most people today. Author Lenore Skenazy lays out the reasons for this decline in kids' freedom, how it is negatively affecting children, and what we as parents can do to combat or reverse this trend. (I also follow her blog at FreeRangeKids.com for news on this issue, like the recent law passed by Congress to allow kids to walk to and from school by themselves without being picked up by police or CPS.) The power of this book lies in the statistical evidence: the things we're afraid of as parents, like abductions by strangers, are statistically extremely rare. Yet the things we do every day that are statistically quite dangerous, like driving our kids around in motor vehicles, don't seem frightening. We need to realign our perspectives on danger and child safety so that they are based on facts and hard data, rather than cultural norms driven by media hype and TV-crime-show paranoia.
5. Bringing Up GEEKs: Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids
Basic message: Resisting peer pressure and the drive to be popular is important for kids's growth into healthy, happy adults. The author states, "As I articulate my commitment to shielding my kids from the cynicism and exploitation that permeate our culture, I realize there's a desire among parents to resist what's cool in favor of what's good. . . . By saying loudly and proudly, 'I'm bringing up geeks!' we stand for our kids' individuality; for their right to be themselves in a world that would have them conform to something less." [emphasis added] I enjoyed the author's no-nonsense approach as she delved into areas of character development in childhood such as intellect, innocence, uniqueness, civility, friendship, family and integrity. The premise of the book is that raising an "uncool" kid produces a "cool" adult, or rather one who is more likely to be happy, well-adjusted and successful. "Childhood popularity now is dictated by materialism, competition, and exposure to the adult world. Being popular seems like the road to happiness, especially to a young girl, but popularity can lead to some poor choices. Research confirms that popular kids are more likely to engage in experimental or deviant behaviors in order to keep their elevated status. They succumb more easily to peer pressure than their unpopular counterparts and they're more willing to take behavioral risks in order to impress their friends." (This was certainly the case in my high school!) If this is true, the author argues, then no parent with any common sense should want their child to be popular in this dangerous way. Here's the alternative she presents: "In my mind, a geek is an empowered kid enjoying an innocent childhood, and a parent raising a geek is choosing and doing the right things: promoting a family system in which innocence is protected, media is limited, pop culture is regulated, consumerism is held in check, relationships are fostered, spirituality is encouraged, and an ideal of excellent behavior is taught and expected."
Summary: Methods vs. Mindset
As you may have gathered from this list, there's a common thread all these books share: although they all contain practical tips for parents, they are definitely not how-to books. Each one is not ultimately about a parenting method, but rather a parenting mindset. Methods can be helpful, such as practical systems for potty training or sleep training or what foods to feed your children or how to discipline or how to organize a chore chart or ten thousand other things all over Pinterest and the blogosphere. But methodology helps in the physical realm only; it is ultimately unable to reach our children's minds and emotions like the parenting ideas and and concepts described above. Each book on the list elevates intangible things in the lives of our children, like free time, independence, responsibility, curiosity and enjoying the outdoors, over material things like toys, clothes, gadgets and screens. Amid the noise and chaos of the parenting culture wars, mindfulness and careful thinking are important in the process of determining what your family's priorities and lifestyle will be.