Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Seven fascinating books about our parenting culture

Lenore Skenazy is a syndicated columnist, founder of www.freerangekids.com, and author of Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry.

Here is her list of fascinating books about our parenting culture:
The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t – and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner

This book explains why some of the least likely scenarios – from plane crashes to child abductions – dominate our brains and make us worse than irrational. They make us paranoid. Gardner points out that with over 6 billion people on the planet, something horrible is happening somewhere every day. And thanks to non-stop media, we will be shown it. The fight-or-flight part of our brains can’t distinguish between likely and unlikely, or even between fact and fiction (like what we see on Law & Order, or CSI). So once a scary image gets lodged in the noggin, it ends up affecting our perception of risk. Especially the risks to our kids! Great stuff – and fun to read, too. Even, amazingly enough, the part about our fears of what could cause cancer. (Namely: Everything.)

Parenting, Inc. How We Are Sold on $800 Strollers, Fetal Education, Baby Sign Language, Sleeping Coaches, Toddler Couture, and Diaper Wipe Warmers – and What It Means for Our Children by Pamela Paul

I can tell you what all this means for our children: nothing good. If we think that kids should not experience even the trauma of a room-temperature wipe, we are forgetting that little kids need to deal with little adversities so that as they grow up they can deal with bigger ones. This book not only details all the wacky items marketed to gobsmacked parents, it asks the bigger questions: Do we WANT to raise children this pampered? What are we NOT giving them when we give them the very “best” of everything? And, by the way, who can afford all this junk?

The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris

What a reassuring book. It is the perfect antidote to rows and rows of books in the “parenting” section that tell us exactly what to do, say, eat and buy to raise a perfect kid. “Guess what?” says Harris (who used to write those other books about parental influence on child development until one day she realized -- she didn’t believe them!): We don’t “create” our kids anyway. Our kids come out genetically pre-programmed to be pretty much who they will end up being, barring huge traumas or deprivation along the way. Then they are shaped, to a certain extent, by their friends, siblings AND us – but we are just part of the equation, not God with a hammer and chisel and a boulder that is Baby. This is good news for those of us worried about that one time last year when we said, “You can do better,” when we think we should have said, “You did a great job!” Our kids are not solely shaped by our input – good OR bad. And certainly not by every little thing we say and do, “right” or “wrong.”

The Case for Make Believe by Susan Linn

Linn is one of the founders of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood – the Harvard group that successfully sued Baby Einstein to take the word “educational” off its web site, and has campaigned against commercial TV in the schools, commercial radio on school buses, and stupid products (like Hannah Montana nail polish) in the Scholastic Book flyers kids get in their classrooms. (Did you know that up to a third of Scholastic’s items aren’t even reading material anymore?) In this book she gathers all the research on how important just plain PLAYING is – how it stimulates everything from creativity to communication skills to leadership – and why we have to leave time for our kids to do some of it. Even if that means letting Junior drop out of Mandarin, at least on Wednesdays.

Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting by Carl Honore

Honore became famous in England a few years back for his bestseller, ‘In Praise of Slowness.” This book looks at the same issue – our crazed, pressured lives – from the point of view of parenting, and asks why we think our kids should all be overachievers. The book grew out of his own frank dismay at himself. One day he was at parent-teacher conferences at his son’s school and the teacher mentioned that his boy had some artistic ability. Immediately Carl started thinking he’d better put his son in special art classes to nurture this astounding talent. His son grumbled something like, “Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?” And here, Honore asks the same question.

A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting by Hara Estroff Marano

When people ask me, “What do kids lose if we don’t let them go Free-Range?” I usually answer something like, “The joy of childhood! The exhilaration of shouting, ‘I DID IT MYSELF!!’” But in this book, Marano, an editor at Psychology Today, actually visits campuses to see how overprotected kids do once they are out on their own. She is troubled by what she finds: A lot of young adults unable to function, and even breaking down in record numbers. When parents try to do too much for their kids, she says, they end up hurting more than helping. Hers is a cautionary tale.

How To Live Dangerously: Why We Should All Stop Worrying and Start Living by Warwick Cairns

Sort of the happy-go-lucky flip side of “A Nation of Wimps.” Cairns is also in favor of letting kids take more risks. Not nasty, pointless ones (though it sure does sound like he took some himself), but the kind that most kids have always taken, until recently. He rails against creepy laws in his country – Britain – that have, for instance, outlawed an age-old tradition of pre-school plays wherein the witch on stage throws candy into the audience. Now this is considered “too dangerous.” He also makes one of my very favorite points in ANY parenting book (which is why I quote it in my own): If, for some reason, you actually WANTED your child to be abducted by a stranger, do you know how many years you would have to leave him outside, unattended, for this to be statistically LIKELY to happen? Answer: 600,000 years. I think of his book as the British version of “Free-Range Kids”: A fun and funny plea for us to remember we are living in safe times. Our children deserve a chance to enjoy them – and gain some lovely self-confidence – by us letting go of the handlebars. (But they can still wear helmets. I love helmets.)
Learn more about Lenore Skenazy and her work at www.freerangekids.com.

--Marshal Zeringue