Babies don’t come with instruction manuals, so here are 5 tips for choosing a parenting book
Babies don’t come with instruction manuals. Children are both happy, sad, confusing, predictable, generous, selfish, sweet and mean. What should a parent do when faced with such a bewildering offspring? Given the complex interactions of the parent, the child and the environment, parents often feel lost. Many can look for answers in parenting books.
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Books for parents are big companies, and there are tens of thousands of titles for sale. The big question, however, is: are parenting books helpful? Their effectiveness is a matter of debate, especially given the lack of scientific evidence regarding their usefulness. Limited research has shown that problem-focused self-help books can be helpful to readers – think tips on time management or healthy eating. And studies show that the independent use of books to improve well-being – what psychologists call bibliotherapy – is somewhat effective in combating stress, anxiety and depression.
So it makes sense that reading a book on parenting could be helpful. In terms of quality and usefulness, however, they exist on a continuum.
We are human development specialists, have taught thousands of students about parenting and writing about family, parenting and lifelong development. One of us (Bethany) is a mother of six, while the other of us (Denise) has two adult children, one of whom is Bethany. We believe parents can become critical thinkers and choose the books that will work best for them. Here are five questions to think about when looking for the best parenting book for you.
A good parent doesn’t need a doctorate; neither does an author. However, a graduate degree in a field related to parenthood helps to understand and interpret relevant research.
Another consideration is the experience of the author. Having one or a dozen children does not make someone an expert. Doing more parenting doesn’t necessarily make you better at it. Not having children doesn’t prevent someone from being an expert either, but it should be considered carefully. We taught parenting classes before we had kids, and it’s fair to say that our own parenting experiences have added depth, insight, and even grace to what we teach.
The reason someone wrote a book on parenting can also be informative. Advice from authors who write out of anxiety about their own education or failed parenting should be taken with a grain of salt.
Finally, don’t be fooled by celebrity books. Most of them are written by ghostwriters and are primarily designed to sell books or build a brand.
Psychology researcher and parenting expert Laurence Steinberg writes that scientists have studied parenting for more than 75 years, and the findings related to effective parenting are among the most consistent and oldest in the social sciences. If you notice inconsistencies between parenting books, it’s because “few popular books are based on well-researched science.” How do you know if a book is science-based? Search citations, names of researchers, sources and an index. Also learn the basic principles of effective parenting determined by decades of research and outlined by Steinberg. They include: setting rules, being consistent, being loving, treating children with respect, and avoiding harsh discipline.
If the book you’re considering doesn’t meet these guidelines, rethink its parenting advice. It is likely that this is not based on science, but on personal opinion or belief. Opinion and belief have their place, but Science is better in this space.
If the book isn’t interesting, you’re unlikely to finish it, let alone learn from it. Before you bring a book home, read the first page and skip to a middle page to see if it grabs your attention. Try to find books that you can read in small chunks, skim through, and come back to later.
Avoid books that contain “psychobabble,” pseudo-scientific jargon that has an air of authenticity but lacks clarity. For example, the publisher’s description of the book “The Indigo Children: The New Kids are Arrived” reads: “The Indigo Child is a child who displays a new and unusual set of psychological attributes that reveal a pattern of behaviour usually undocumented before.
This pattern has common but unique factors that require parents and teachers to modify their treatment and education in order to achieve balance. Ignoring these new patterns is potentially creating great frustration in the minds of these precious new lives. Pass.
Run, don’t walk, from any book that tells you that his method always works or that all failure is because of you – or even worse, ignore failure.
It is impossible to give advice for every parent, every child and every situation! An effective parenting book appreciates context and complexity and lets the reader know that not all the answers are in the book. No parent is perfect, but recognizing weaknesses and failures leads to growth and improvement, and no child is completely malleable. Even parents who do everything right can have children who become fussy.
Make sure the book gives you detailed information instructions and things to do, as well as ways to track improvements. In other words, make sure it’s actionable.
Finally, a parenting book must respect a parent’s instinct.
Some parenting books offer information on general behavior, such as “Raising Good Humans.” Others offer information on specific issues, such as “Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions.” You will likely be more motivated to read a book that reflects your specific needs and values and gives you hope.
A word of warning, however. A study found that parenting books that insist on strict routines for sleeping, feeding and general infant care may actually make parents feel worse by increasing depression, stress and self-doubt. Parenting research doesn’t support overly strict routines, and it’s easy to see why most of these parents didn’t find these books helpful.
When you read a book about parenting, the goal is to feel empowered, more confident, excited and even relieved. You are not alone and you are not the only parent having questions.
Psychologist Edward Zigler has described parenthood as “the most difficult and complex of all adulthood tasks”. Yes, parenthood can be difficult. In your parenting adventures, you’ll probably need all the resources and tools you can muster. Through thoughtful and critical explorations, you can find books that enhance your personal wisdom and intuition to help you raise these delightfully complicated little humans.
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