I like to read books about parenting and raising kids. For one thing, it’s soothing. For another, well, it’s encouraging to learn that things can be so much worse. And that it’s never too late to start making changes for the better. I also enjoy casually paging through parenting books in some shops in Paris or London. Taking mental notes that the difference is not only in the way the word ‘parents’ is approached but also in the methods and relationships between parents and children. That’s why I have piles of books about parenting. From the well-worn Sears books (if you have teenagers now, you might as well remember this major work, basically the one of a kind back then) to the radical Summerhill – A Radical Approach to Child Rearing by Alexander Neil, so popular among parents whose children are homeschooled.
This huge variety of books can be roughly divided into 3 sectors:
1. Attachment theory books. This theory currently dominates the minds of modern parents.
2. How-to manuals. They help the parents to organize their daily routine with the minimal impact on those involved in this routine.
3. Books written by parents themselves based on their own experience and observations.
Attachment theory books.
I should mention that I’m not a big fan of this theory. Although I admit that all child-parent relationships should be grounded on love, trust and understanding. In fact, I believe, that all these books help to get the right mindset, especially when you are expecting your first child (makes me regret I didn’t have these books in my first years as a mother) or recognizing the symptoms of the so called parental burnout.
The right mindset is very important. It’s the cornerstone without which, for example, there’s not much use in reading my favorite Gippenreiter or Latta (both consider the right mindset a keystone, but they don’t elaborate on the attachment).
I should also confess that Neufeld (Hold On to Your Kids) and Petranovskaya (The Secret Prop), drive me into some never-ending mumbo jumbo with kids, and the feeling of guilt towards them progresses with every page I read. And even though the authors of such books keep talking about how it’s never too late to become attached to kids, sometimes it is. The perfectionist in me somehow gets stuck on the least pleasant moments of my maternity period. My practical mind gets confused trying to measure the unmeasurable and to feel the intangible parent-child bonding. I’m sorry to say this but as a restless soul I’m never certain that I really feel this bonding or that it isn’t there.
And to such self-reflecting parents in doubts I recommend the book Treating Attachment Disorders: From Theory to Therapy by Karl Brisch. The narrative is simple but coherent, and compared to other books this book stands out for its mood. Karl Brisch is a German psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has an increased focus on cross-generation transmission of traumatic experiences. It makes this book particularly useful for parents on the post-Soviet space. And it convinced me once again that going into psychoanalytic therapy was the best thing I could do for my children and myself (hell of a work, if you ask me).
Two of the Nigel Latta’s books – Before Your Kids Drive You Crazy and Before Your Teenagers Drive You Crazy – are my personal soothing favorites. I first read those books in the time of total parental despair on the verge of complete surrender. But these books lightened up my world (the author, like no other, is very convincing when he says that even the most critical situations have a way out, and he has a good sense of humor, too), they helped me see the saving light at the end of the tunnel and use simple but effective methods to cease the unacceptable behavior in children.
There are, of course, many authors (among most popular in Russian are Daniele Novara’s Do Not Yell At Children and Punishment is Useless) who cautiously remark that the method of stars and doomsday stairs (sounds ominous but weirdly accurate and not at all offending, at times children even enjoy it) reminds of puppy training. And if your relationship is based on trust, most problems won’t even arise. And even if they do, they can be solved with simple rules and ordinary active silence. But some children (including mine) like to get at the simplest rules while getting on your nerves. Latta himself writes a lot about the importance of parents-children relationships based on trust. She doesn’t cross the line, though, making sure you don’t start weeping and feeling guilty.
All I can say is that child-parent relationships, like any other kind of relationships, are not always smooth, they have their ups and downs. The majority of parents can’t hold on to enduring good mood and reactions. Or provide enough attention within the necessary boundaries. Or realize what’s important for a child at the moment and what’s not. Children grow up, they explore the world, themselves, people around them, push the limits and look for weak spots. Anything can happen in a relationship.
And when it happens – and a parent immediately suspects that this bonding and mutual understanding between him and the child was an illusion – here comes Latta and his simple logical recommendations. They don’t require complicated explanations and manipulations. My kids actually believe that Latta’s methods are some funny game. Probably because his methods offer rewards for a good behavior and not just negative implications for a bad one. These methods just work. They help parents and children remain calm. All the stars and stairs eventually get old, but good habits and abidance by rules stay on.
So much is written about boundaries. About how important they are and how we need them. About negative implications caused by relationships without strict boundaries. But little is written about how to set these boundaries and how to maintain them. Whereas Latta starts off with describing the boundaries, plain and clear to everyone. So when peace settles in your family, when your parental energy refills, only then you can read that Neufeld book and start working on your attachments.
And, of course, Julia Gippenreiter. She was the first to teach parents to listen to a child. Though at first I found this practice of active listening a little synthetic, heartless. Only when the attachment theory books came out it all became clear. Gippenreiter herself points out that attachment and trust-based relationships are the key without which all these methods are really pretty much a puppy training.
That’s why once you take the attachment theory as a basis the rest of the how-to manuals will work just fine as an additional help in critical situations – fast, reliable, efficient help.
Books written by parents.
For me, this is probably the most interesting sector of the parenting books. I’m always curious about other parents’ experiences, because it helps me get an outside look on ordinary and familiar daily routine of a parent: sleep, feeding, school, classes, separating good from bad. You can find new ideas and take a note to apply them.
Or you can disagree with the experience of other parents, proving your own way of parenting right. I remember once I read the glorious book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, I reconsidered my kids’ whole schedule of extracurricular activities (including the subjects and methods) and once again reread an excellent trilogy How to Mould a Cackle by Elena Makarova. It was an amazing experience. I recommend the works of the gentle and bright Elena Makarova about the importance of just drawing and not learning to draw, just moulding and not learning to mould, expressing your mind, your thoughts, your emotions. Just creating your own world. Get in the free fall. Feel this height and this personal unlimited power in your own world. Then read Amy Chua (a Harvard graduate and a law professor at Yale, fancy that), a revealing and honest book about the Chinese methods of raising children. It has the height theme too, but the height reached by a hard, exhausting work. The height which is certainly recognized by others, but may not be recognized by a child himself. I’m just saying, the more the children grow up, the more I can relate to this Chinese mother and often end up with Makarova’s books in my hands again.
Also, the books written by parents based on their own experience let you see yourself and your child from an absolutely different perspective. Which, in fact, is good for it sets for an unbiased and broad visualization. Like shifting from a flatland into a multi-dimensional world. And it’s not that a child punching back a bully in a sandbox, or a child sniveling in a kindergarten, cause completely opposite reactions in parents of different countries. The thing is that, perhaps, weeping in a kindergarten is not such a big problem after all, and standing up to a bully is not the only way to deal with him. This new viewpoint has a positive influence on both parents and their children.
Oh, yes, French children really don’t spit out food. We often have French kids coming over and they really always up for tasting something new and they are polite and nice when they refuse a meal if they don’t (yet) like it. That’s why I always make sure there’s fine fresh bread and a huge bowl of garden salad with a classic olive oil, lemon juice and honey dressing in the house. No French kid will ever resist it.