What makes a great parenting book?

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The ‘expert’ versus ‘the been-there-done-that-mom’

In the lead up to my first child’s birth, I was one of those moms-to-be that read anything and everything that I could get my hands on regarding childbirth and childrearing. I read books on pre and post-natal nutrition, child psychology and hypnobirth. I subscribed to RSS feeds on pregnancy health and infant well-being. I read academic research papers and alternative medicine blogs.

What I learned from that experience shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: there are a lot of whack jobs on the internet and a lot of those popular parenting books are incredibly condescending.

As an expat mom-to-be, and the first amongst my close girlfriends to have a baby, I had nowhere else to go to for advice during my pregnancy other than the bookstore and the internet.

For your perusal, here are just two of my favourite books on child rearing in general. These books are from both ends of the spectrum: one written by an expert in the study of child development and one written by battle scarred mom.

The ‘expert’ with a common sense approach

The New First Three Years of LifeThe New First Three Years of Life by Burton L. White. This book was given to me by someone whom I respect very much both as an educator and as a parent. It has been one of those books that I go back to periodically to review at the end of and at the beginning of each new developmental stage. The information in this book has been collated by the author from decades of experience as a research driven child development practitioner. Moreover, I really appreciate the easy writing style and his tell-it-like-it-is no nonsense approach. I’m thinking now of the bit where he talks about crib mobiles. He describes how parents can easily get sucked into buying beautiful pastel shaded mobiles that match perfectly with baby’s nursery decor. He points out that toy manufacturers know that you’ll be swayed by pretty colours but that very young infants actually process sharply contrasting colours best. And that you’d do better to save your money, cut up a cereal box, draw patterns on it with a Sharpie and hang that over the baby’s crib. Now this is the type of advice that I can relate to!

Don’t get me wrong, this book is more than just advice on what toys to buy. The first two thirds of the book are devoted to what White has defined as the 7 Phases of development from birth to three years of age. I like that equal attention is given to emotional, social and physical development of children throughout each phase. Plus, about a third of the book is given over to other related topics to child rearing during the first three years (sibling rivalry, developmental delays, breastfeeding, older first-time moms etc.). It’s sort of like the What to Expect books but from a guy who has carved a career at such institutions as Brandeis, MIT, and Harvard and who has represented the US at UNESCO.

The battle hardened mom

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherPublished in 2011, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua got a lot of press. A LOT! Most of it negative and reactionary. Excerpts of the book first appeared in a Wall Street Journal article on January 8th, 2011 under the title “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” Never let it be said that professional journalists don’t know how to write a great title.

Not knowing much more about it other than the book was ‘controversial,’ I set out to read it. I bought it in hardcover and sat down to see what all the fuss was about. Honestly, I read the first (very short) chapter and laughed out loud! It seems that Amy Chua and I share a similar sense of humour. That this sense of humour, and use of irony, were lost on some of the initial reviewers seems to me to be responsible for most of those initial angry reviews.

This is essentially a very honest memoir of a first generation TCK #Chinese-American woman navigating the perilous world of parenting two precocious daughters in the best way that she knew how. Yes, stereotypes abound, but is there not some sliver of truth in stereotypes? Otherwise, they wouldn’t exist.

In my opinion, Chua manages to expose the weaknesses (and strengths) in both parenting style extremes – the typical Chinese way and the typical Western way. And that’s what I took away from reading her story…extremes may not always be the best way to go. A fact that I think she would agree with.

As Chua points out (rather vividly and with a lot of self-deprecating humour), is that as parents, we need to pick our battles carefully but we need to also know, and accept, that sometimes we will lose. This doesn’t mean that we’ve lost the war.

As a parent of a very self-aware 4 year old and a precocious 13 month old, I know that there are certain things in our household that are non-negotiable (respect, fairness and safety issues spring to mind). But at the same time, my husband and I also work very hard to foster an environment where consistency provides the emotional backdrop for the freedoms that our boys have to discover the world around them.

To me, that’s the best of both worlds.

Featured Image Credit: By Alan Cleaver via Compfight cc

My name is Jodie. I'm a 38 year old Canadian working and living in Bangkok, Thailand. My husband and I are both international teachers - though I'm taking this year off to be a full-time mom.

When we're not busy with other people's kids, we try our hand at raising our own very curious nearly four year old son and his 9 and half month old brother. When it comes to parenting, like most of us, I’m making a lot of it up as I go along .

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