My Problem with Parenting Books

My husband and I were saying over dinner last night that it would be interesting if people organized their bookshelves by the year each book was added to their collection. (Alphabetization-addicts, like Shannon here at Raise a Mother, don’t panic – I’m not actually doing it!) But it would be a neat way to see the progression of your reading habits – how topics, authors, or genres of interest have shifted over time. If we did this, our newest section would be dominated by Parenting Books.

Parenting Books Collection

My bookshelf happens to be ordered so all Parenting Books are in the same section as it is.

I’ve acquired some of these books as gifts, others as hand-me-downs, and a few I’ve bought. The main issue I have with parenting books as a category is that too often a parenting book reads as a ‘manual,’ and this is, frankly, bullshit.

One book on this shelf (I won’t name names), started out great – it was reassuring and soothing to me as an anxious parent who wasn’t getting any sleep, as it explained that all babies can smoothly be taught to sleep through the night, if only you take the correct steps. Hah hah! Hah! I can scoff in retrospect. Desperate as I was, though, I devoutly followed the instructions laid out for me so clearly and reassuringly by the serene-looking writer on the book’s cover. At first, it seemed like it might work, but within a few weeks, my son’s sleep and mine had both deteriorated significantly. We were worse off than we had been at square one. We gave up on the expert advice of the author, and upon returning to our previous situation, it suddenly didn’t seem so bad (so maybe this was a ‘win’ after all?).

Now of course, this book was a bestseller because its advice had clearly worked for many people – the person who gave it to me even swore by it from personal experience! But for some reason it didn’t work for my kid, and when I stop to think about it, it makes sense that it didn’t. Because the author doesn’t know my kid. How could I expect that she knows exactly what will make him fall asleep and stay asleep all night long?!

Our children aren’t products. They’re not manufactured. They’re not one-size-fits-all. If they were, wouldn’t somebody have already written the perfect manual for raising a “Child,” and wouldn’t we all just be given a copy from our doctor or midwife upon birth and sent on our merry way?

The problem is, manuals, tutorials, and clearly defined steps are the way of our world today. Need to know how to change the bulb in your car headlight? Speed read? Poach an egg? Do a complicated braid? Pose a selfie? There are video tutorials and listicles with step-by-step instructions on how to do all of these things, and everything in between. This can be great: you can save money on mechanic service, whip through required reading, make delicious breakfasts, satisfy a kid’s Frozen obsession, and avoid ever again publicly sharing a photo of the insides of your nostrils, all without too much risk, because probably, if you follow the instructions, these sorts of outcomes are fairly reliable (Pinterest fails aside, which are, incidentally, a delightful waste of Internet time).

Unfortunately, we’ve become so wired to expect the ability to just follow-the-instructions and get reliable outcomes, that this trend has spread to things that by nature just aren’t that reliable. So the web is also full of listicles and how-to-steps on things like personal relationships, finding self-worth, being happy, and yes, raising children. Wikihow, for example, whose tagline is “How to do anything” (really?) has a whole relationship section:

Wikihow relationships

I seriously question that a single article is going to be able to reliably “restore my faith in humanity” if it’s truly been lost. Life’s just not that easy.

Our kids are individual people, and working with them on complicated things like anxiety, adapting to change, or managing their emotions (which, quite possibly, are at the heart of some struggles like not being able to sleep through the night), is likely going to be a process of trial-and-error, just like it is working on these things with adults.  Assuming that a simple checklist of steps is going to ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ such complexities, or reduce the need for us to actually struggle through teaching a tiny separate person how to be in the world, just seems silly in this light.

So what books do I think are useful?

Well, some of the tangible advice ones are, sure. For example, I found great, clear ‘instructions’ and tips that fortunately worked out well for me and my kid in books like Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber, or Baby-Led Weaning by Gill Rapley and Tracey Murkett. But I firmly believe now that these just happened to work for our particular context, our family, and our child, and I wouldn’t presume to tell another parent, “Oh, you definitely have to try this because it’s magic!” Sadly, I’ve heard too many parents express just this sentiment in real life and seen even more parents do so in the online blogging world. There is no one-size-fits-all magic – don’t believe it for a second, as glorious and reassuring as it sounds. If a particular tip or book works for you, embrace it and cherish it – just remember that this is a happy coincidence, and maybe let yourself feel a bit smug that you found your match, you lucky duck!

The books I’ve found the most useful, it turns out, are the broader ones. The ones that don’t claim to have any specific “answers” for the difficulties I’m facing, but instead encourage me to rethink my whole perspective on parenting, to allow myself to look beyond the scope of the particular irritation of the moment, to consider my kid and my relationship with him not as a collection of ‘symptoms’ to be addressed but in a more holistic way, for the long-term.

Yes, this requires more time to get through. It requires more time to sit and let the ideas sink in. It requires me to do the connect-the-dots work of figuring out how the bigger ideas presented fit into my life and my parenting ideas. It certainly doesn’t allow me to do a quick reference and fix a crisis in the moment. But it also has been, at least for me, a hell of a lot more effective to actually making change that feels better in my house, my family, and my life.

Now I know you might be thinking, really, Lindsay, that’s the end? Thanks for nothing helpful today... so hopefully I can make that better. This is sort of a two-part blog, because my next post is going to describe the two books I have personally found most useful, and how I have found them to be great companion books for one another. So in case you’re looking for some interesting reads on parenting, but like me, you’re disillusioned with the ‘manual’ approach, stay tuned! I promise to give you more.

 

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4 Comments

  1. Cassie says:

    I agree, the manual approach to parenting doesn’t work. I have three children who are all very different and what works for one doesn’t work for the other two. It’s so true that we live in a time where we expect to be able to look up instructions for everything!

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  2. Melissa Rose says:

    I see the same “manual” on your book shelf that I see on mine. I, too, was entertained and informed by it, thinking I was going to be the perfect mom by how I’d prepare myself from it, but after a discouraging chapter and then another and another, I closed the book to never return to it again. That was while I was pregnant. I’ve read a couple since actually being a mom, and I think some give great suggestions. In fact, one of them did advise me very well in getting my child to sleep through the night, but I also am smart enough to know that I’ve just been fortunate enough to have a good sleeper. My next child may not take to routine as well as her, and I’ll have to adjust accordingly. A book might help or it might not… I think what helps to get through the challenges (as well as the failed attempts to seemingly expert advice) is to understand babies are people just like us with preferences and attitudes…and no two children are the same. Not even siblings! But obviously you know that or you wouldn’t have written a whole blog post on it. 🙂

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    • raiseamother says:

      Thanks, Melissa! I’m about to have my second, and am constantly trying to remind myself that I have to be ready for him to be totally unlike his brother, especially in the sense that the things I’ve figured out worked with the first, might well not for the second! 😉

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