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.