The Paradox of Parenting Books

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I have a lengthy love/hate relationship with the vast bibliography of “parenting books.” As a parent, and one who works with the children of others, I’ve always wanted to have the best insight into the art and science of parenting. The scope of offerings is ever-expanding, and as we have learned more about brain development in the last 10 years, the work has been truly groundbreaking. I’ve found so many of them helpful - both as a parent and a youth development professional.

My disdain for the genre stems from both personal and professional reasons. From the parent perspective it seemed that any advice I was offered so often “came too late.” A wonderful book on the pre-adolescent period is published just as my kids became teenagers! As I recall when I read these books (after it was “too late” for our own children), I found myself hoping I didn’t screw them up too badly by often doing the exact opposite of what was suggested. A groundbreaking book on “no drama” discipline using the latest on brain development science hits the shelves just as Julie and I win the parental academy award for Big Drama discipline!

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I often found the lesser offerings of the genre overly prescriptive and rigid - not accounting for the individuality of each child, or their family circumstances. The shelf in my office is lined with examples of parenting books, and even today when I gaze at them, I can’t help but feel a little regret (maybe even shame) that somehow we didn’t do enough to prepare our children as well as we might have. Sometimes just the title is provocative enough for me to cull it from the shelf, or at least turn it around!

My latest read, Never Enough, by Jennifer Breheny Wallace is not so much a “parenting book”, as it is a window into the emotional lives of children. It’s not prescriptive, but it does offer a framework for how we can support children, and still do our job as parents and educators.

It is in a parent’s DNA - hard-wired through eons of evolution - to protect their children from harm, elevate them whenever possible, and set them on a track to have a better life than we ourselves might have. There is no shortage of advice on just how we should do that as parents, but there’s limited good advice on just on how to raise children that are “happy” and “high achieving” in a culture that often forces children to make the choice between one or the other. I read recently that even Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, confessed that if she were forced to choose between her children being happy or high achieving that she would choose happiness.

It may seem all too self-serving, but the parenting books I have enjoyed, and benefited from the most, are the ones that acknowledge the value of a camp experience (or one like it) as we look to raise children that are both happy and high achieving, even if that achievement does not secure admission to an Ivy, or a spot on a super-select traveling all-star soccer squad. Things that matter in the longer-term development of a happy, well-adjusted adult are fostered at camp, including the opportunity for children to make a secure connection with a non-parent adult mentor and develop a sense of self that relies not on what they have achieved, but on who they are and that they matter. Summer camps may not have been invented for this purpose, but it’s a vital role they are filling today.

I venture to guess that any thoughtful grandparent would tell you that raising children is filled with ups and downs, pitfalls and promises, as well as what seem to be, in retrospect, false choices. Now there’s a book I’d gladly read!

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