Advice on Parenting Books: Which Ones to Read and How to Use Them
December 2, 2016 9:36 AM   Subscribe

I'm having a baby! I'm looking for books on parenting. Not the feeding/changing etc. but the how-to-raise a human being aspects. So my two questions are: 1) What books on parenting did you find the most useful (birth through school-aged) both as general approaches to parenting and related to special issues I'll list inside and 2) The books will inevitably contradict each other. What strategies have you used to figure out what to draw from each set of ideas and what what works for you and what doesn't etc.?

I've interacted with many babies in my life, so I think I have a pretty good grip on the mechanical aspects of keeping a baby alive (feeding, changing, bathing etc.) and where I don't know things I feel like I know how to find out. But actually being responsible for a human being and turning them into a functioning adult and maintaining a strong relationship while doing it? That's intimidating!

I assume that for some time after the birth, I will lack the ability and energy to move my eyeballs across any page that does not have pictures, so I'm studying up now. Now that I've picked out cribs and car seats and playpens and breast pumps, it's time to figure out how to actually be a parent.

General Parenting
I'm already reading How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk. I have 1-2-3 Magic and Hold on to Your Kids on request at the library. What other general parenting books do you recommend?

Special Requests or Topics
I would also be especially interested in books on the following topics.

1. I remember a while back a book about how to praise kids that is less likely to make kids afraid to try things. The idea was to praise what the kid did, not say that they are just great. Like "nice job picking out colours!" not "you're a fantastic artist.". Now I can't figure out what book this would be.

2. I'll be a single mom by choice. I don't feel like this is a thing that needs a lot of reading about or mulling over, but I'm open to being told I'm wrong and I need to read X.

3. Raising a bilingual kid, especially as a single parent.

4. Values I'd like to encourage: A) Empathy/Kindness B) Self-discipline, self-motivation, delaying gratification etc. C) Curiosity

5. There are probably other values I'd like to encourage and just haven't thought about. How does one make a plan and figure out what one's parenting goals are.

6. Eating. I'm a picky eater. I wish my kid wouldn't be. I'm not sure how I'm going to manage this, but if someone has ideas, i'd like to hear about them. I already have First Bite and will be reading that, but I think it's more about the science of taste and less on concrete parenting advice.

How to use these books
The books will disagree on a bunch of things, I know. I already know that how to Talk so Kids will listen... says absolutely no punishment of any kind ever, and 1-2-3 Magic is all about the time outs. How does one go about picking and choosing from all the advice and figuring out what works best for your own parenting style and for your own kid (they're all different, right)? And how does one parent somewhat-consciously (which is kind of a weird thing to do -- we don't over think every other interaction we have, and presumably one is exhausted and occasionally irritated at the relevant moments) without turning into some weird robot helicopter parent that eventually drives their kid into therapy.


p.s. Yes, I know that I will not possibly remember everything I read when years later the time comes to apply it. I'm willing to brush up later, but no harm in getting a general sense of the field.

p.p.s. I've looked at the threads listed as parenting-related in the Read-Me section of the wiki.
posted by If only I had a penguin... to Human Relations (26 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
For eating in particular, I've had Ellyn Satter's books recommended to me countless times.
posted by potrzebie at 9:40 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just finished First Bite, and it has plenty of solid parenting advice that happens to be grounded in the science of taste. I don't have kids yet, but I'm definitely going to return to it when I do.
posted by coppermoss at 9:48 AM on December 2, 2016

Possibly not the best news but parenting is so exhausting that mostly you will tend to default into either how YOU were parented or, in some cases, into the opposite of that, if you have spent years planning how you will never parent how you were parented.

I have three kids, two of them have autism. I have never read a particularly useful parenting book. I have found useful snippets in loads of books, because they already matched what I thought deep down about a given topic.

Parenting is largely reactive in the moment. That is how you parent somewhat consciously - you react and then reflect and then sometimes apologise for how you reacted or plan a different reaction for next time. I, personally, lean towards the Gentle Parenting end of things, because my mother parented like that and because one of my autists has pretty low self esteem and harsher methods make it much worse. But that was a journey of discovery, and none of the books helped that much. It is a steep curve, and you learn on the job. You will do just fine.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 9:50 AM on December 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Seconding Ellyn Satter on eating, either Child of Mine or Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. You may find that her concepts help you become less picky yourself.

I found Nurtureshock by Po Bronson to be very interesting. One of the chapters focuses on praise and Carol Dweck's research, which I think addresses your first point.
posted by Kriesa at 10:00 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

3. Raising a bilingual kid, especially as a single parent.

I'm raising a Bilingual kid, successfully. I read a book about it, alas I don't remember which one! The takeaway was: take it easy, don't stress yourself or the child, be consistent, ideally with one parent/caretaker speaking each language. I'm not sure how this would translate to single parenthood. Please feel free to memail me with any specific questions.

I posted a question about this and got a lot of good answers.
posted by signal at 10:11 AM on December 2, 2016

Every child is different and you just have to try a variety of approaches to see how they work with your kid's temperament and personality. As they get older and you have a better feel for how their brain works, you will instinctively know which methods to discount and what you might want to try.

The nice thing is that you can learn a lot from contradictory books and sometimes different methods will work at different times. The books I've learned the most from were sleep books - teaching babies how to sleep is not an intuitive task. The Ferber book taught me a lot about sleep associations and the method worked great for sleep training my son as a baby. When he had a regression at an older age, I ended up reading the No Cry Sleep Solution and those approaches made more sense for where my son was at that point in his life.

Best of luck!
posted by galvanized unicorn at 10:19 AM on December 2, 2016

I'm not a parent, but I thought that Gavin DeBecker's Protecting The Gift rework of "The Gift Of Fear" had a lot of useful/practical advice. And, since many parents say that they can no longer handle reading/watching media about harm to children once they have a child, best to read it before pregnancy, as some of the real-case examples he uses of scenarios are heartbreakers.
posted by oh yeah! at 10:24 AM on December 2, 2016

The Happiest Baby On The Block is a must-have for brand-new-babying, though the truth is, for us the DVD was even more helpful since you could see how the swaddling and the bouncing was supposed to look.

More philosophy than How-To, but I also love recommending Operating Instructions (also good for single parenting) and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
posted by Mchelly at 10:27 AM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I liked Nurtureshock because it summarizes studies. I like to make decisions based on data as much as possible. Sometimes parenting data are squishy. In that case, I find it useful to fall back on a general philosophy. That helps me narrow down my choices in any given situation. I find the Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) philosophy appealing for many reasons. You can find it in books by Magda Gerber and Janet Lansbury (she also has a good blog). It's really only for infants, but I have found it useful even in interacting with adults! My kid's elementary school uses Conscious Discipline, and I find that framing really useful, too. Congratulations and Good Luck!
posted by pizzazz at 10:30 AM on December 2, 2016

I asked a question recently about dealing with toddler emotions (which was really about managing my own emotions in the context of parenting a toddler) and got several recommendations for Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. It looks great although I haven't had a chance to read much of it yet.
posted by beandip at 10:36 AM on December 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Whole Brain Child is amazing in the way that it connects psychology and neuroscience research to specific practical strategies (with illustrated examples!) that you can use.
posted by medusa at 10:42 AM on December 2, 2016

I enjoyed The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting.

Whatever approach you take, know that you're not going to get it perfect. But that's OK. Nobody else ever does, either. You're not going to be perfectly consistent all the time- no parent ever has been, and no one ever will be.

Unfortunately, parenting is a game where there's nothing you can do to guarantee results. They come prewired with personalities, and you can't really change those. You might do everything right with respect to feeding and still end up with a super-picky eater, for example.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:59 AM on December 2, 2016

For your point number one, you may be interested in this book by Carol S. Dweck: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
posted by JenMarie at 11:24 AM on December 2, 2016

The Family Virtues Guide is a little woo, but does have some valuable practices. If you want to MeMail your address, I'll send you my copy.
posted by Ruki at 11:30 AM on December 2, 2016

I HIGHLY recommend RIE parenting - and, in particular, Janet Lansbury's blog, books, podcast and resources that she suggests.

I am of the mind that we spend time getting educated on a million things but we somehow think that parenting will just come naturally. I definitely think there is intuition and "gut" feelings involved once you start to get in the groove and get to know the personality of your child. That said, there is new research everyday about how the brain works, how we learn, how we internalize information and our outside world, etc. and that means that there are times when intuition is just doing what we (or our parents) have always done - without taking into account whether that's the best way or most effective way to help our kids become functional, empathetic, caring, independent, resourceful, resilient kids. I find RIE to be extremely useful and practical and it also happens to line up with my sense that children are capable of effectively handling a lot more than we tend to give them credit for (often the complete antithesis of helicopter parenting...let kids work things out!). Almost without fail, when I've run into issues that I'd like some help/perspective with (our boy is 3 - so there are lots of them these days) and I follow the advice of RIE, we have a complete reset and are able to connect much better. Like any "method" there are zealots but the general foundation of the work makes complete sense to me and has been effective thus far in helping my wife and I create a pretty great relationship with our son who seems to be pretty emotionally secure. There are a few RIE Facebook groups that can also be useful but I think the website is a great place to start (especially since the groups can get a bit dogmatic for my liking) - see if the philosophy lines up with your thoughts on the relationship you'd like to have with your child.

There are some great resource sites and just general good reading not necessarily RIE - a few of my favorites are below (the websites/blogs almost all give resource suggestions as well and there is a lot of overlap in book recs. I've included ones that I've enjoyed and found useful as well.

Common Sense Media
Hand in Hand Parenting
Brain, Child Magazine ( I hate their slogan "The Magazine for Thinking Mothers" (elitist much?!) but there's some good stuff there.

n-thing NurtureShock
The Whole Brain Child - I read this early on though and definitely think I'll return to it later...a little more for when he gets a little older.
Catastrophic Happiness - Funny and really well written - more about toddler through preteen but worth every second. It's more of a memoir of the author's experiences but some great takeaways about the blurry lines of where children end and parents begin.
Operating Instructions (On preview - seconding) This was one I read when we were in the throws of being new parents and wondering what the hell we were thinking - it honesty made me feel more secure about not being enamored from go and she is a single mother so I assume you'll get some added benefit. Her writing is always wonderful.
Similarly, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Memoir of Early Motherhood blew me away in its honesty and beautifully written ability to capture the complete mishmash of emotion and love and devastation and rawness that comes with becoming a parent.
Simplicity Parenting - again more for older but some real, practical advice about not getting bogged down in the rat race that has become being a kid these days - the tide is seeming to shift a bit on this (studies on play being the most important part of childhood development, kids taking a "gap" year before college, etc).
The Book of New Family Traditions is great for coming up with ways to create secular traditions in your family. (Could be religious too but I wanted to find ways to make non-religious traditions in our home)
Right now I'm reading How to Raise an Adult and it's pretty fantastic as well - gets at a lot of what's discussed above about letting our kids succeed and fail on their own - written by a parent and former dean of admissions at Stanford.

For eating - we had great success with Baby-led weaning when the time came. It's not for everyone (especially if you get really anxious about your child choking - but it's most certainly worth reading about to see whether it will work for you and the book addresses the choking fears as well. It explains the history of mashed foods and how they came about).

Finally - if you have a boy (or even if you don't):
Raising Cain: Preserving the Emotional Life of Boys is a must read.
Also check out The Mask You Live In and the site generally.

I will say that on the "time out" question - it's funny because we had very clear ideas about not wanting to use time outs and when our son turned 2 our pediatrician instantly said that now was the time to start including them. It was more a realization that sometimes pediatricians should stick to the MD stuff...I find the argument very compelling that the last thing you want to do to a kid who is acting out for some reason is to send them off on their own - the argument that it somehow relays that our love is "conditional" makes sense to me and honestly, I've not ever had a point where I thought it was necessary - Lansbury has some great advice on this. Similarly, so often you hear parents instantly saying "you're okay" when even the smallest infant is upset and I think this is a total inability on our part (in my case, as raised by a boomer) to be okay with raw emotions. It also has the effect of invalidating what feels very much not okay to our kids in that moment. Inside Out drives this home really well if you haven't already seen it.

Four bits of advice that I think about daily:

1. Often you hear people say "oh, don't pay any attention to him/her they are just doing that for attention/just looking for attention". I once read an article where the author said - can you imagine if when a child was crying for food we said "oh - don't pay him/her any attention - he/she is just hungry"! Ridiculous, right? Connection between parent and child is so important when they're little they don't often have the developmental ability to put into words what they need but sometimes it is just a need to connect and I think it's really important to honor that need.

2. Don't take the tantrums etc personally - it's really hard to not think that kids are doing something specifically to annoy us, frustrate us, etc but testing is part of establishing the relationship and the boundaries. Kids want to know that we are in control and that we can help them navigate the world safely. They are not trying to be manipulative (lansbury talks about this a lot too and suggests pretending you have an impenatrable super hero suit on in order to stay calm in situations that seem really frustrating/maddening to you as a parent) and 9 times out of 10 when I stop and think about "why" our son is acting out, I can find a reason and then a way to reconnect with him - usually by identifying what he's feeling and honoring that he's feeling it. The world is a crazy place when you're 3 (or 2, or 1, or 40) and we all need help figuring out how to navigate it.

3. Re: teenagers (but applicable to kids at all ages) - when you get on a roller coaster and you pull on the harness to make sure it's locked - you're not pulling on it to see if it will open - you're pulling on it TO MAKE SURE it will hold. A subtle difference but applied to parenting - makes the "testing" so much more understandable. They want to know that we will be there to hold them close and to keep them safe and that there isn't anything they can do that will cause us to open the harness.

4. Our doula said that - for her - the best part of parenting was getting to relive childhood in all the ways that one would have wanted to live their own childhood. I think about this all of the time and seeing the world through his eyes and perspective definitely makes me love the world a lot more (ever more important these days). It's wonderful!

I'll shut up now - as you can tell, I feel a bit passionately about this and love learning about what's going on in that amazing growing brain and body. It is the most rewarding adventure of my life thus far.
posted by jasbet07 at 11:58 AM on December 2, 2016 [12 favorites]

Oh - and congratulations!
posted by jasbet07 at 12:04 PM on December 2, 2016

Eventually, someone will give you some parenting advice that you REALLY disagree with. Probably about feeding, discipline, vaccinations, or sleep, but it could be about other things, too. When this happens, the thing to do is to say something noncommittal that gives the impression that you're going to consider what they said, with the goal of ending this conversation or redirecting it to some other topic. Then do what you were going to do anyway.

You are allowed to change the way you're parenting, if what you're doing just isn't working. Problem is, there's no one approach that works for every parent and every kid. There will be something that sounds great on paper but just doesn't work for you and your kid. For me and my daughter, the first thing like that was exclusive breastfeeding. (Breastfeeding is, by the way, harder than most people think it is. Don't feel bad if you don't get the hang of it right away, if that's something you're planning to try.) Eventually, something will happen that will show you that you're not in charge of what happens- if your preferred approach doesn't work for you and your kid, you have to change.
posted by Anne Neville at 12:31 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I really like and Laura Markham's related books for the recognition that parents are human and may screw up some/most days without that being a total disaster, and that self-care is not a luxury. Also the emails you can subscribe to from there are eerily on the nose about whatever issue I'm dealing with at that point (confirmation bias, i know). However, be aware that Aha like some other attachment-parenting proponents can be a bit blind to most people's economic realities, and to the daily business of working mothers in particular (prob x10 for single parents): the sense of guilt that that can induce is less than helpful. Hadley Freeman had a good bit on this in The Guardian not long ago (a apologies for horrid link) And more generally, as this great piece by Jendella Benson today puts it, "There are entire industries built on the anxieties of parents, but right now you are doing the best that you can do, and that’s all anyone can ask of you." See here for the rest -
posted by melisande at 12:44 PM on December 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Congratulations. I was pretty unhappy with my well meaning but not particularly well educated or thoughtful parents' parenting. So I read a lot. The most useful books - the ones I went back to when I felt myself falling into the same traps as my parents did were: Being the Parent You Want to Be and Talking so Kids will Listen and Listening so your Kids Will Talk. Both books helped me develop a parenting philosophy and both helped me rescript my own reactions to common kid behavior. Good luck!!!
posted by songs_about_rainbows at 4:13 PM on December 2, 2016

Two parenting books NOT to read (or, if you do read them, don't follow their advice): On Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo and To Train Up A Child by Michael and Debi Pearl. They have advice that is bordering on abuse (if not actual abuse) that can harm your baby.
posted by Anne Neville at 5:44 PM on December 2, 2016

My mom, who was a child and family therapist for decades, always recommends The Magic Years: Understanding and Handling the Problems of Early Childhood, by Selma Fraiberg, as the best book for new parents to read as it explains what things are like from the child's point of view.
posted by unsub at 6:14 PM on December 2, 2016

I'm not a parent, but JenMarie is right that your point 1. is Dweck's mindset work. The actual finding is less about being specific to what the kid did, and more particularly to praise effort, not success. E.g., "Wow, you're really working hard at filling up the whole page with lots of colors."
posted by daisyace at 7:06 PM on December 3, 2016

This is an interesting article about how to use time outs. I'm not a parent admittedly but I think that this notion that we shouldn't discipline children is absolutely absurd. Time out, if done correctly, is not cruel. Children do not have the ability to regulate their emotions very well and taking a moment to just sit away from whatever is making them overstimulated or overexcited is an excellent way to help them re-regulate and calm down.

I'm not looking to turn this into a debate - just offering a different perspective. As a parent you will learn to tell when your child needs you and when they need to calm down. Helping them regulate their emotions by giving them a break is an incredibly healthy way to approach parenting if done correctly, and the article I posted cites scientific evidence showing that the use of time out/time is very effective.

You care a lot. Trust yourself. You're gonna do great.
posted by Amy93 at 10:55 AM on December 5, 2016

I think that this notion that we shouldn't discipline children is absolutely absurd

Just clarifying that I didn't say that time-outs were cruel nor did I say that we don't discipline our child - just said that we decided that using time-outs was not right for us and then linked to an article about why I found the arguments against time-outs compelling. Helping them to regulate emotions and giving them a break is possible to do without a time-out (in the traditional, go sit by yourself in another room sense) and the blog link explains what those are and why children act out in the first place - I wouldn't describe the following as non-discipline:

* Focus on helping our children when they can’t help themselves.

* Set limits calmly and early, expect impulsivity.

* Be ready to physically follow through with limits by preventing unsafe or inappropriate behavior, heroically removing children from situations when they’re clearly unraveling (which is “time-in” rather than timeout, akin to what my son’s British soccer coach calls “taking a breather”).

* Accept and acknowledge feelings without judgment, so that children can trust us as their empathic leaders and themselves as good people.
posted by jasbet07 at 4:01 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Jasbet - very true, and I think that what you call time in is what I consider time out. This just shows that there are different ways to approach things. I just really like the idea of turning their lives into such an enriching environment that they are always in"time in".

I just wanted to clarify that timeout is not putting a crying, genuinely upset child in a room by themselves. Its gotten a bad rep that I find underserved. Time out as I see it is just.... a break. Maybe a less stimulating activity or just sitting quietly, if the kid is too worked up to handle that.

Anywho I'm not trying to derail, just offer a different perspective. I just really believe in discipline and limits--the kids I see who don't get any spend much more time being crying, screaming messes. OP if you're interested, there's a concept called "positive time out" which is basically about creating a safe space full of warm, cozy, comforting things where kids can calm down or take a break. It's not a book but if you Google it you'll find a lot of information.
posted by Amy93 at 9:53 PM on December 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

A series of books I read is titled, "Your Six Year Old," "Your Two Year Old," etc. These were bizarrely accurate books, and their value for me was knowing that my daughter's seemingly random, strange, surprising behavior was totally normal. A word of caution: these books are extremely sexist. I practically had to hold my nose reading them. But despite that, they were great. Really, truly great. They are especially great when reading the "What to Expect" series, which is like a very long list of all the bad things that could happen to your child. These freaked me out (and yet were very, very helpful when one of those bad things actually did happen).

I loved "The Scientist in the Crib," "Good Music Brighter Children," and "The Read Aloud Handbook." The latter: Seriously? I need a book to teach me how to read out loud? YES! I picked this up in a waiting room where it was the only thing written for an audience older than four, and could not put it down. It was surprising, well written, and utterly transformative for my family — a family that reads aloud all the time. This was a wonderful surprise. Absolutely amazing. And now I want to go and read it again.
posted by Capri at 8:36 PM on December 7, 2016

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