Summer Reading for Parents: New Perspectives on Childhood

Eliza Clark
July 17, 2011

I began my summer reading this year with two new(ish) books about childhood and parenting. Having already read lots excellent and helpful parenting books, and feeling, generally, that my kids are pretty much doing fine for now, I am not always the first in line to pick up each new parenting book that comes along. First of all, there are so many! How could anyone who has small children and many additional responsibilities ever manage to keep up with all of the new titles that come out every year?  It's simply not possible, nor does it seem advisable to use all of one's precious reading time on books about child development.  We already spend so many hours thinking about our kids, do we really need to spend the few quiet moments we have also reading about them?

And yet, allowing this feeling of parenting information-overload to take over doesn't seem right either. So after a year of plowing through lots of novels and a few memoirs, I decided to kick off my summer reading with a visit to the well-curated shelf of parenting books at my cherished, local independent bookstore. I'm glad I did.

The first book I picked up was Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children.  This book came out in 2009, and since has garnered so much praise and press that I feel remiss for not having read it months ago. 

The central premise of Nurture Shock is that many of the parenting behaviors we practice by "instinct" are, in fact, based on false assumptions and contradicted by the best recent research into child development. Rather than providing lists of how-to's and don't do's with your kids, this books provokes us to think and think again about ten crucial issues. These include how we praise our kids; the effects on kids of insufficient sleep; talking about race; children's lying; early childhood testing; and several other equally pressing topics. What I appreciate the most about Bronson and Merryman's approach is that they introduce us to the researchers, walk us through the studies behind their claims, and so give readers a chance to decide for ourselves how persuasive we find their conclusions.

In some cases, I simply found a lot of scientific explanation for why things that most parents already do work (like listening and responding to the vocalizations of babies) and confirmation of hunches we'd already had (i.e. that didactic prosocial books such as the Berenstein Bears actually promote bad behavior and exaggerate fears rather than allaying them). 

In other instances, however, the book really gave me something new to think about. In an excellent chapter on race, the authors argue that parents who avoid talking with their children about race are allowing their kids to fill the void with their own observations, which sadly often lead them to racist conclusions. Placing children in a racially diverse environment is not enough; it also needs to go along with explicit parental messages about equality and friendship between people who look different from one another. 

Another worthwhile chapter diffuses some of the tension parents may feel around their children's "social aggression." Newer research is looking not just at young children's relational aggression (i.e. verbal rather than physical), but also at their prosocial (or positive) interactions with their peers.  What they find is that many of the children who are the most aggressive are also the ones initiating the most fun and positive social interactions. This certainly puts an interesting spin on parental worries that one's child may have bullying or "mean girl" tendencies. 

The book is loaded with comparable insights and twists on received wisdom.  And even if you don't end up agreeing with the points made here, spending time with the research and turning it around in your mind is stimulating and absorbing in its own right, especially with such deft writers as Bronson and Merryman as guides.

Alison Gopnik's The Philosophical Baby was the next item of interest I spied on the tightly packed shelf of parenting titles at the bookstore. What a delight, I must say, to read a book that is devoted entirely to babies and young children, yet utters scarcely a sentence about parenting techniques.

Gopnik is a professor of psychology at Berkeley whose dual interests in infant cognition and broad philosophical questions lead her to take seriously a question that every parent asks: "What is it like to be a baby?" Rather than concluding that babies are irrational, limited creatures, she comes to see that "in some ways young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults are." 

Harnessing numerous cutting-edge studies of infant behavior, Gopnik reveals that babies use statistical thinking and probability to draw conclusions about the world; she shows how all forms of pretend play, including and especially imaginary friends, reflect the development of young kids' social thinking; and especially interesting, she describes the "lantern consciousness" of babies -- a cast of mind akin to that of an adult traveling in a completely foreign culture for the first time, or to the consciousness sought by practitioners of open-awareness meditation. Gopnik argues that the development of imagination, curiosity and the ability to experiment and to learn is the essential work of childhood. In her words, "this protracted period of immaturity is intimately tied up with the human capacity for change." 

For parents, the points Alison Gopnik makes here may seem at once self-evident and also profoundly revealing. We sense in an inchoate way that the time we are spending with these young beings is deeply meaningful, even magical, but can't quite articulate how or why. Gopnik does this for us, with rigorous methods and clear, luminous prose.  The book provides scientific and philosophical confirmation of something that many parents and caregivers would say: "our children give point and purpose to our lives."

And while the book is mercifully free of parenting advice, Gopnik does tell us something about the stakes involved in care-giving. She notes that while there is nothing parents can do that will guarantee their kids a happy future, by giving them a childhood full of "leafy playgrounds and picnics and affectionate parents," we can "try to ensure that they will have a happy past." She continues: "There is a kind of immunity about a happy childhood....  As parents, we can at least give our children a happy childhood, a gift that is as certain, unchanging, as rock solid, as any human good."

And for humanity as a whole the stakes are just as high: "It isn't just that without mothering humans would lack nurturance, warmth and emotional security.  They would also lack culture, history, morality, science, and literature."

So, all you care-givers out there, the next time you doubt the significance of what you are doing, read or (hopefully) reread this wonderful book.

From the Parents

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