Caution: Parenting book. Read with care. (Part 1)

Recipe for one parenting book

Take one favourite and fashionable parenting philosophy.

Add 10 sets of 10 steps, five guarantees and six dire warnings.

Mix with one heaped tablespoon each of anxiety, fear and uncertainty.

Sprinkle with Bible verses and/or psychological studies.

Decorate with a cover shot of a perfect family. Top with a catchy title.

It’s done when it leaves a lingering taste of self-doubt.

Serve with lashings of guilt or pride.

I have far too many parenting books on my shelves. I have even read some of them. Like many educated parents, my motto is “When in doubt, research“.

I try not to read parenting books too often for, while some brim with biblical principles and wise advice, others should come with a health warning: “May produce unnecessary guilt and even despair in susceptible readers”.

My personal prize for ‘Parenting Book Title Most Likely to Produce Despair’ is awarded to any title including the words “If only we’d known”. Prize for ‘Parenting Book Most Likely to Induce Guilt’ goes to all those baby books which tell new parents how to care for their baby, right when they’re at their most inexperienced and desperate, and predict long-term damage if you reject their methods.

Parenting books address us at our most vulnerable. They promise a solution to the intense uncertainty and inadequacy we feel as parents. Everything we read in a parenting book carries more weight because our children matter so much to us.
We’re left questioning our methods. Will our children be teen rebels or psychologically scarred adults if we choose the wrong strategies? Is it too late? Have we already ruined our children’s lives?

If we’re convinced by what we read, we look down on parents who raise their children differently. I know of one church which split over which parenting model to follow.

Here are some promises and threats found in well-known parenting books. You may recognize some of them. No doubt you can add your own:

  • A baby who is left to cry himself/herself to sleep will be unable to form close emotional attachments when older.
  • A baby who is not left to cry himself/herself to sleep will lack self-discipline when older.
  • If you smack your child, you are abusing them, and they will learn to abuse others.
  • Time-out will produce emotionally needy or distant children.
  • Use modern reflective listening strategies or your children won’t want to communicate with you as teenagers.
  • Don’t interfere when children fight or when they’re facing difficulties, or they will never become independent and resilient.
  • If you praise your children, they will be approval junkies as adults.

And then there are suggestions which, while not presented as rules, may leave us feeling like we have doomed our children to lives of insecurity and unfulfilled possibilities:

  • Have a ‘family worship time’ every day.
  • Each parent should take each child out for one-on-one time once a month.
  • Create treasured memories for your children through special outings and scrapbooks.
  • Expose your children to great literature, classical music and theatre.
  • Mozart in the womb will make your child smarter.
  • Buy your children open-ended toys, and provide a rich learning environment.
  • Ensure that your children address all adults by their title.
  • Decorate your table beautifully whenever you eat as a family.

Don’t get me wrong, I love some of these suggestions, and have tried to implement them. But I have learned to regard them with caution. At their best, parenting books take biblical principles and apply them to real-life situations with self-deprecating wisdom. But the risk is always there: in a realm of life where we are so desperate for something—anything!—that will work, we turn their suggestions into rules, and their rules into grace-quelling legalism.

Even the best parenting book needs to be read with care.

Next: how should we read parenting books?

9 thoughts on “Caution: Parenting book. Read with care. (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for the post! I smirked at the list of dire warnings, but then winced at the guilt-inducing suggestions. I would love to have daily family worship before daily family Mozart time and then present each person with their own scrapbook…

  2. How true Jean. After reading a parenting book, I usually spend about 3 weeks trying desperately to implement all the great tips! During this time, I have to fight off the proud, judgemental thoughts as my kids are ‘obviously receiving much better parenting than everyone else’s’, then I fall into despair as I realize that I just can’t DO IT ALL!
    But then I fall back on God’s magnificent grace and remind myself that He who flung stars into space, can surely take care of my little ones, even when I’m a substandard parent.

  3. I enjoy reading anything on improving communication skills—with children OR adults. My husband recently published a book that is a helpful guide to those who are seriously interested in learning how to listen reflectively to others (of all ages). It’s titled PLEASE LISTEN TO ME! A CHRISTIAN’S GUIDE TO REFLECTIVE LISTENING. It’s written from a Christian viewpoint TO Christians and is quite practical. Check it out on any online bookstore or go to 
    God bless!

  4. I have a few comments.

    1.  If God had wanted us to espouse a particular parenting method, it would be clearly present in Scripture.  But when we look, Scripture espouses no method.  Therefore, any book which claims that a particular method is the One True Method for Christians is lying about Scripture.

    2.  A book which leaves you feeling guilty and overburdened, rather than that children are a blessing and a joy, is selling both children and the Gospel short.  Treat with extreme caution, then read Galatians again.

    3.  All truth is God’s truth—and the sciences can give us some guide to child development.  Do not despise secular parenting books just because they are secular.  The Mozart Effect has never been replicated, so listen to Mozart with thanksgiving and joy rather than vicarious academic ambition.

    4.  Remember that most Christian parenting books are both American and Arminian and keep your eyes peeled for the effects this has on the material.

  5. Having raised three children who are now grown and married, I am ready to reveal our “secrets for success!” Read a few books and then pray a lot for your kids and for your own faith and patience. Every child is different and so is every parent. Beyond the obvious, there are almost no universal rules.

  6. One thing that can be the unfortunate result of having read too many parenting books is that your methods tend to change with each “puff of the wind” as you read a new book with a differing or even an opposite view of the problem than the previous book.  Inconsistency leads to unsettled and ultimately disobedient kids…  Like one of the previous posters said, God did not specify a method of parenting, therefore no book can claim that it is “God’s Way” to parent…

  7. As a Mum to be – I have been thinking through and looking for a book or two to read with tips on parenting. 

    I have also spoken to lots of friends who are Christian and parents asking their advice on books and parenting.

    I have NO IDEA about being a parent because I am not one. The advice I have been given is to read the books with a pinch of salt but I have found one book in particular quite helpful. 

    I certainly don’t agree with everything they say but they have some practical advice and I have learned things I never knew before.

    So while I agree with you and see what you are saying – for a ‘mum-to-be’ parenting is a real unknown until it happens but some books can be helpful if read and taken in the right manner.

  8. Nicole, I agree, parenting books can be very helpful.

    I am planning to review some parenting books on my blog in the next month or so, as soon as I have time. 

    But if you’re keen to get started, could I recommend:

    Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart / Instructing a Child’s Heart

    Kent and Barbara Hughes, Disciplines of a Godly Family

    These are excellent – though as with all parenting books, don’t take them as gospel! You may or may not choose to follow their exact advice.

    The Bible gives fantastic, clear guidelines on parenting, allowing much room for freedom, as I will outline in part 2 of this post.

Comments are closed.