in defense of parenting books

Before I became a parent, I unconsciously internalized a disdainful skepticism of parenting books and literature. After all, their advice is the fodder of comedies, and who hasn’t been told that “those books don’t tell you anything about real life” or “every child is unique, and no parenting book is going to tell you what you need to know about him/her.” I also remember hearing older parents (in my parents’ generation) bemoan the disconnect between reality and what they read about parenting.

Still, when I found out that I was pregnant, my natural drive to research pushed me toward the parenting section at my local library. I read, and read, and read. My husband even expressed disbelief that any of my reading would be helpful. He even worried that it would prevent me from seeing our child for who she truly was, since I had so many parenting “lenses” through which I might view her.

One positive: my voracious reading and his skepticism lead to some lively debates over parenting issues and questions that my reading brought up. After all, he and I both had the same goal: to be the best parents possible for our little one.

After River was born, I found that having an arsenal of infant-parenting tips and a general sense of developmental “norms” for babies was immensely helpful and allowed me to better process her behavior and understand her needs. This remained true, even though she was born 2 months early and dealt with several issues that aren’t common to the full-term babies that the books are written for.

This experience reminded me of when I went to Italy, in my senior year of college. In preparation, I took a semester of basic Italian. I cannot begin to describe how helpful that teeny, but vital bit of information was during my trip! Because I had a foundation on which to build, I was able to “pick up” additional vocabulary and to more effectively use my resources (traveler’s dictionary, local signs, etc) than if I had gone with no knowledge. Sure, there were plenty of situations in which I was still clueless or lost, but overall, the preparation was invaluable.

Incidentally, research backs up my experience–in one of my language acquisition classes, I read an article in which a linguist went to a country where he was completely unfamiliar with the language. As an experiment, he immersed himself in the language with great dedication (attempting conversations, befriending locals, going out and listening to the language for hours a day). Yet he found, to his dismay, that he made virtually no progress in learning the language because he knew nothing about how its grammar and syntax functioned, or even what its alphabet was. Just having (or not having, in his case) those bits of knowledge made all the difference.*

Now that River is a toddler, I’m back to my research and am devouring books on toddler activities, development, parenting, discipline, art, reading, Montessori activities, etc. And while she is definitely her own, strong person, the benefit of having some “hooks” on which to hang my new knowledge of her has been, once again, invaluable. In a way, it frees me to see her for the unique person that she is because I have a sense of the developmental “norms,” giving me something to build upon.

Reading so many books on parenting has also forced me to come to identify what issues are important to me and where I stand regarding them. There are so many strong opinions on both sides of any major parenting issue, and interacting with various authors via their books was a nice kick-in-the-pants reminder for me to consider my own stances.

I imagine that as River gets older, and the developmental milestones become less concrete (able to kick a ball) and more general (able to think in abstract terms), perhaps it will be harder to find books that are so directly applicable.

Still, for our infant and toddler experience, I’m beyond grateful for the wealth of written information available. I encourage any new (or experienced!) parent to NOT make the same assumptions that I started with (parenting books = useless) and to see if there are any that resonate with you.

Checking them out from the library is a great way to see which ones are helpful without blowing your diaper-toys-and-nursery-decorating budget! :) Even my badly stocked, underfunded library in CA had more than 30 parenting books on the shelves!


* sorry! I can’t remember the name of this article but will update when I find it! :)



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2 responses to “in defense of parenting books

  1. Interesting perspective Miriam. I’ve read my fair share of parenting books and find them somewhat helpful, but I also find they get in the way of me hearing my own intuition about N. I find it’s useful to get some sort of parameters for what to look for and what some options are for responding to things thrown my way as a parent, but ultimately I have to chuck each book and listen to what feels right to me when facing my own unique child.

    Sometimes I feel frustrated too at what an avalanche of parenting books exists. I think it feeds the notion that there is “one right way” to parent, and gets us worried that we will “mess up our kids” by not doing it “the right way,” as each viewpoint often poo-poo’s all the other notions (whereas if we listen to THIS book, we will succeed at being perfect parents); I find this to be a big drawback to all the parenting literature. Really I believe there is a wide variety of “right ways” to parent, and that each of us, no matter how well-intentioned and even well-attuned and well-prepared, will hurt our children and fail them. Yet this does not automatically mean we will have failed as parents.

    Not to be a downer, but for me personally it helps me to remember this and learn to accept it so I can just be the best parent I can be, letting go of the idea that a good parent = a flawless parent (my own personal false expectation of myself). I pray that all of my mistakes as a parent will someday teach N by example that to be human is to be imperfect, but that it’s ok to be imperfect and just be the best you that you can be.

    • Oooo. Thanks, Katie. My perspective on the avalanche of parenting books is somewhat similar. In a way, for me, learning that there’s an avalanche of parenting books that have little tidbits that are helpful, but whose overall philosophy or “system” is not “the perfect answer,” was freeing b/c I realized that I didn’t have to ascribe to everything in the book in order to benefit from reading it. Also, as I read more and more books, I realize that some of them are just completely absurd and some are completely counter to what I believe is healthy (in which case, I usually skim them). I’ve also found that the rhetoric of “THIS is the perfect parenting book” usually evaporates midway through the book in most of the ones that I’ve found to be truly helpful. This makes me think that many of the authors believe they’re sharing helpful hints and that the idea of this being “THE parenting book” is really a marketing technique that comes from the publisher, not the author.

      Thanks for the observation that some of the books actually occlude your natural intuition on what N needs–that is probably the BEST argument I’ve heard for toning down the reading!! Obviously, if that is happening, then YES, it’s time to chuck the books for a while! I haven’t experienced that (YET!); In fact, the entire pregnancy/parenting experience has brought me into so much more awareness of my intuition and the need to trust what it says (i.e., regretting every time I HAVEN’T trusted or listened to it). I’m still sort of reveling in the new-found awesomeness that is mother’s intuition.

      Thanks for the reminder that no parent is or ever will be perfect. I’m sadly aware of this too, but grateful that I have an inevitable, unavoidable “opportunity” to conquer (or at least work on) my lifelong dread of failure.

      ** Post Addendum** Currently, I find myself gravitating toward lots of more specific resources now that River’s a bit older. E.g., I look for “toddler activity” ideas, how to introduce her to music/art/literature, etc. And often, I find that what I’m already doing is fine. And usually, I get 2-3 new ideas that are a helpful addition to what I’m already doing. I’ve found that it’s possible to read toddler parenting books to the point that they all start repeating the same set of tenets or to the point where I realize that I don’t need more input yet and have reached a saturation point.

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