CHILD Magazine, March 2005

By Elizabeth Fishel

Our children don’t come with an instruction manual, but a good book about parenthood can be the next best thing.  Here, 13 notable American writers reveal their favorites.  With a few classics, old and new, and a few surprises, these are the books that guide, inspire, reassure, and nudge us to grow as parents along with our children.

—Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon
The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.

“We like the emphasis this book places on the parents being the center of the wheel of the family and the importance of raising children who appreciate their place in the world and their obligation to be mensches [Yiddish for ‘people of integrity and honor’].” —Waldman is the author of Murder Plays House and Daughter’s Keeper; Chabon is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Final Solution, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and Summerland.  They are the parents of Sophie, 9, Zeke, 7, Ida-Rose, 3, and Abraham, 23 months.

—Joyce Maynard
Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

“This is a book I have reread more than once.  Beck tells the story of her discovery, early in her pregnancy with her second child (and while she was a student at Harvard Business School), that she was carrying a fetus with Down syndrome and of her decision not to abort.  In no way a treatise against choice, the book quietly explores what is to me the true essence of parenting: namely, that the decision to raise a child inevitably represents a huge risk, offering no guarantees, and that the ultimate joys of parenting have little—no, nothing—to do with your child’s IQ or potential to get into Harvard himself.  Written with a distance of enough years from the birth of her son that it had become clear what a gift he’d been to her family, the book stands as a soaringly optimistic affirmation of all the things our children give us that we weren’t asking for (which is lucky, given that so much we thought we’d get may elude us).  Beck reminds us that we do not simply raise our children.  They raise us too.”  —Maynard is the author of At Home in the World and The Usual Rules and the mother of three grown children.

—Jacquelyn Mitchard
Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care by Benjamin Spock, M.D.

“When I became a mother, I had no mother:  She’d died when I was 19.  And I had no mother-in-law, no older woman to show me the ropes.  And so I had to learn from Benjamin Spock literally how to put on a diaper and wash a bottle.  Dr. Spock has a special place in the souls of those of us who came to parenthood without role models (or with awful ones) for giving us the operating manual.  His reassurance was of inestimable comfort.  He told us babies couldn’t be ‘spoiled’ by picking them up when they cried.  He told us that fostering love and protectiveness in older siblings was more important than protecting a baby from germs.  He insisted that what we felt was important to do for our children probably was the right thing.  I once interviewed Ben Spock.  He said reflectively that he had not been, perhaps, the best parent he could have been.  I answered, ‘But you were a wonderful parent…to me.’  My copy of Baby and Child Care, tattered and much taped, lasted through the first five children; I had to buy a new one for the younger two.”  —Mitchard is the author of Twelve Times Blessed and The Deep End of the Ocean and the mother of Jocelyn, 28, Rob, 21, Dan, 18, Marty, 15, Francie, 8, Mimi, 5, and Will, 1.

—Po Bronson
Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott

“Prior to actually being a parent, but in the expecting phase, this book was—and remains—my favorite because it helped teach me that for the first year of my child’s life, I just need to give love and milk and shots, and I could do that.”  —Bronson is the author of What Should I Do With My Life? and the father of Luke, 4, and Thia, 9 months.

—Mollie Katzen
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

“I learned from this book how to ‘play back’ to my daughter her gripes and upsets instead of judging the situation or trying to fix it.  This was especially challenging in cases where she was totally irrational (often!) and had trouble calming down.  My solution, as gleaned from Faber and Mazlish, was to become neutral in demeanor and to let her tell me as best she could what was bothering her.  I would then try to say the whole thing back to her, in a ‘let me see if I understand this correctly’ framework.  I could not believe the calming effect this had on my explosive child.  To have a parent listen and then replay her story, with eye contact, soft tone, and zero judgment, created an emotional salve.  She felt heard and validated.”  —Katzen is the author of The Moosewood Cookbook and Honest Pretzels and the mother of Sam, 20, and Eve, 13.

—Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
All Kinds of Minds by Mel Levine, M.D.

“When our daughter, Joanna, was struggling and unable to read in first and second grade, she became frustrated, discouraged, and ultimately depressed.  As psychologists, my wife Theresa, and I had explained learning disabilities to other families, but we weren’t having success explaining them to our own child.  Mel Levine’s book gave us a way to read to Joanna stories about other children who suffered from different kinds of disabilities, some of which she had and many of which she didn’t.  It was a great relief for her and for us.  She felt relieved not to be the only kid (after all, there was a book written about kids like her).  The book made us feel less helpless in our struggle to comfort her.”  —Dr. Thompson is co-author of Raising Cain and Best Friends, Worst Enemies and the father of Joanna, 19, and Will, 14.

—Jennifer Egan
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Mark Weissbluth, M.D.

“I waited to have kids till I was older, and one of the hardest things about parenting was dealing with sleep deficiency over months and years.  This book was useful in helping me figure out how much sleep my children needed.  I thought my first kid didn’t need a lot of sleep because he wouldn’t nap much.  Weissbluth says there is no such kid.  The more a child sleeps, the more he wants to sleep.  This book taught me how sleep cycles should work, and sleeping became more healthful for my sons and for me.”  —Egan is the author of Look At Me and Emerald City and the mother of Emmanuel, 3, and Raoul, 1 1/2.

—Cathi Hanauer and Daniel Jones
The Seven Worst Things Parents Do by John C. Friel, Ph.D., and Linda D. Friel

“Almost all the ‘worst things’ mentioned in this book were things that we were doing and that many parents of our generation do: baby your child, put your marriage last, be your child’s best friend.  The best-friend one particularly resonated with us.  All parents want their kids to like them, but his book taught us that kids need a parent much more than another friend.  It made us feel okay about not being perfect parents and offered suggestions to help without having to change our lives dramatically.”  —Hanauer is the editor of The Bitch in the House; Jones is the editor of The Bastard on the Couch.  They are the parents of Phoebe, 10, and Nathaniel, 6.

—David Denby
The Uses of Enchantment

by Bruno Bettelheim

“When my boys got older, this marvelous, imaginative book [about the meaning of fairy tales] really influenced how I thought about their learning.”  —Denby is the author of American Sucker and Great Books and the father of Max, 21, and Thomas, 17.

—Hope Edelman
Attachment Parenting by Katie Allison Granju

“As a motherless mother, I tend to rely on parenting books for guidance.  This book was not only instructive but also a good resource, listing Web sites and groups that led me in useful directions.  I did a home birth for my second child, and this book is for parents who believe in the family bed and the importance of holding their kids, as I do.  In theory the advice was good, but in practice it was more difficult to implement than I expected.  The family bed was a failure for me as a working mother—I was dangerously sleep-deprived at work after eight months of nursing the baby all night long—but the book itself offered a type of community and encouragement for me that was invaluable.”  —Edelman is the author of Motherless Daughters and Motherless Mothers (in progress) and the mother of Maya, 7, and Eden, 3.

—Jennifer Lauck
Night Lights by Phyllis Theroux

“Theroux was ahead of her time, a divine writer and mother with remarkable boundaries and a loving attitude.  In the last story in Night Lights, her youngest child has gone away to school and her older two have also left home.  She’s walking in her neighborhood where she’s raised her children and she realizes it’s done; there won’t be any more days of diapers or little hands reaching for her.  At the beginning of my mothering days, Theroux gave me a vision of what the end is going to be like.  It humbled me.  Even when parenting sometimes feels like an 18-year sentence, she impressed on me the value of savoring each precious moment and drinking it in.”  [Note: Night Lights is out of print but may be available at libraries and through used-book dealer.]  —Lauck is the author of Blackbird, Still Water, and Show Me the Way and the mother of Spencer, 7, and Josephine, 3.

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Elizabeth Fishel is the author of several books about families, including Sister and I Swore I’d Never Do That.  Her favorite parenthood book is Jane Lazarre’s The Mother Knot.  Says Fishel:  “Lazarre’s book showed me the tangled connections between the way we were parented and the way we parent and suggested how to begin untangling those patterns across generations.”

March 1, 2005