New York

The parenting books that helped me raise my son

I was born in Midwood, Brooklyn, 1963, and there was no such thing as “parenting.” Everyone had parents and it was your job, as a kid, to listen to your parents. It was certainly not their job, as parents, to listen to you, their kid. At Coney Island and along Ocean Parkway in the 1960s, my parents were young and fun, but when the late 1960s and early 1970s came along with drugs and free love, they became young, fun, and irresponsible. We had a warm home and good food, but, emotionally, things were haphazard and reckless. So, I grew up to be very responsible and reliable, as one of my friends said when we were in our twenties and she was already the overstressed mother of twins in Park Slope. I didn’t become a mom until I was 36, in 2000, after years of therapy and practice being an adult.

I became a “roots and wings” kind of mom. I wanted to give my son a warm, calm, peaceful, safe, loving home while, at the same time, I wanted to make sure he would one day leave and make a happy life for himself (a life he wants, not a life I want for him). I wanted a relationship that was neither too tight, nor too loose, as the Buddhists say. Now, I have an 18-year-old son who is not in college, but who is a hard worker and very independent. He buys himself what he needs and wants, and knows all sorts of life skills, including how to weld and put in ceiling vents. He’s a hands-on kind of guy who isn’t sure what he wants to be, but knows he doesn’t want to work in an office. I teach writing to college freshmen, and many of them work hard and have dreams of their own, but I also see about a third of them have no idea why they are in school or why they can’t stop drinking and doing drugs.

I have read more than a few parenting books both because I’ve written a couple (such as The Everything Guide to Raising a One-Year-Old) and I wanted to see what others had to say, and also because I always turn to books when I’m confused or know I’m not handling a situation correctly. So, from having a son who didn’t walk until he was 15 months old (perfectly fine) to when he was a teenager and using wildly inappropriate language with me (absolutely not okay), I turned to parenting books for advice, knowing that if I changed my behavior, my son would change his behavior. However, I usually put the books aside with an eye-roll because I think many experts and parents think the proof of good parenting is good grades and no experimentation or rebelliousness. I don’t believe that. I want my son to have a full, messy, fun, exciting life in which he becomes wise, kind, and learns how to love. So, you’ll notice my list is biased toward how to create a good person, not how to get into an Ivy League college. (Of course, in many instances, the two go together, but the relationship is correlative, not cause and effect.) These are my favorites:

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish not only changed my life as a parent, but changed my life as a daughter. I am sure that no one in my family, going back at least two generations, has ever been asked how they feel about anything. Everyone was too busy working to think about feelings. How to Talk taught me to a) ask my child what he thinks and feels and b) recognize that as a parent I may know more than he does so I can still make a decision that he doesn’t like, but that he must obey. Once, when my son was little and he was in car seat behind my mom and me, crying because I wouldn’t give him some candy, I said, “I know you want the sugar and I understand how you feel, but I also know you will end up not feeling well if I give you the candy, so I’m not going to because I want to take care of you.” He stopped crying and my mother gave me a stunned but appreciative look. Why? Because in her whole life no one had ever spoken to her with calm validation combined with authoritative caring. My grandmother was abandoned by her parents, my mother would never ask her parents for more, and I would have been yelled at for asking. I think I parented multiple generations in that moment. Thanks Adele.

The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting

The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting by Christie Mellor. I’m not a drinker, but when my son was little, we lived in a small, blue-collar town where helicopter parenting did not exist. In fact, my son grew up fishing and swimming in the ocean and quarry by himself far earlier than many children of his generation. This book reminds us that kids should not be catered to, and that, in fact, kids who grow up respecting adults will probably grow up to be adults, rather than children in adult bodies. Making yourself happy as a adult (which means having a martini with your friends while your children figure out how to entertain themselves) may be a better lesson for your kids than sitting on the sidelines yet again while your kids is at Tae-kwon-do, swim lessons, playdates, etc. Their life should be your life, not the other way around.

Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child

Speaking of balance, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman reminds us that good answers to the question, “How is your child?” are “Loving. Kind. Generous.” rather than “reading above grade level” or “got into Stanford.” We tend to think our kids are okay when they are “succeeding,” which leads us to missing signs that they aren’t actually maturing and feeling good about themselves. The difficult aspect of emotional intelligence, for parents these days, at least, is that we want to protect our children from pain, but, the truth is, we grow from struggle and disappointment. Of course, there is a balance of what helps us and what destroys us, but learning to navigate challenge, and to feel gratitude and understand ourselves is more likely to lead to happiness than having an external success, such as a good grade or getting into a “good” college.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting

Finally, for those days when you are worn out, isolated, and would do anything to have the time (and money) to get a good haircut or have a night out, I want to assure you that of all the titles in all the world, the most truthful title of any book ever in the history of publishing is this parenting book: All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting by Jennifer Senior. Talk about validation! While it isn’t a parenting book, per se, my friends and I frequently use this term when we commiserate about something stressful our kids are putting us through. This is not a hard to read book of research, but rather a magazine-style exploration of why most of us feel exhausted, both physically and emotionally, from what many consider our most significant experience as adults.  We may not enjoy, in the moment, cleaning up vomit from our beds or dealing with our children’s principal when they’ve been caught cheating on a test (no fun), but if we handle these situations elegantly and in a way that allows our children to feel loved and nurtured, then we look back on them with pride and fondness (joy).

Related: Parenting in Progress: An interview with Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun


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