New parenting books focus on the big picture

October 13, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

It used to be that most parenting books fell into two categories.

First there were the baby-and-child-care manuals. Written by beloved figures such as Benjamin Spock, T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach, these authoritative tomes offer answers to the essential questions of child-rearing.

Then, shorter and snappier how-to books zeroed in on specific problems, such as coping with a toddler's tantrums or talking to your teen-ager.

Now another type of parenting guide has emerged. More philosophical than their baby-manual forebears, focused less on narrow problems and more on big issues, exploring cultural values instead of offering trouble-shooting tips, these books are aimed at nothing less than enlightening parents, strengthening families and creating a better world for our children.

With so much in the news about the plummeting self-esteem of adolescent girls and violence among young men, it's no surprise that a hot topic of this new genre is gender roles and their importance in a child's development.

Evelyn S. Bassoff, author of "Between Mothers and Sons: The Making of Vital and Loving Men" (Dutton), says parents need to )) realize that equality of the sexes doesn't mean sameness.

"In our laudable efforts to create an equal, nonsexist society in which girls are given as many opportunities as boys," she writes, "many of us have downplayed or denied altogether sex-related differences between our daughters and our sons."

In Ms. Bassoff's book, and others, such as "All That She Can Be: Helping Your Daughter Maintain Her Self-Esteem" by Dr. Carol J. Eagle and Carol Colman (Fireside) and "Boys! Shaping Ordinary Boys Into Extraordinary Men," by William Beausay 2nd (Thomas Nelson), the differing biologies, challenges and cultural messages that boys and girls contend with -- and how parents can best guide them -- are explored.

Also weighing in are Jeanne and Don Elium, with "Raising a Daughter: Parents and the Awakening of a Healthy Woman" (Celestial Arts). According to the Eliums, the idea for this book and their first book, "Raising a Son," arose from parenting workshops the couple gave.

"So many of the questions that came up were gender-specific," Don Elium says. "Yet, in 1991, when we looked at the parenting books available, there were none that talked about boys' and girls' distinct needs."

Author Richard Louv sees the wide-scale absence of fathers in the lives of America's children as a genuine societal crisis. In "Father Love" (Pocket Books), he proposes ways that men can turn that crisis around.

Fathers aren't the only ones under scrutiny in these new releases. Motherhood -- especially the conflicts of working mothers -- is being re-examined in such books as Melinda M. Marshall's "Good Enough Mothers: Changing Expectations for Ourselves" (Peterson's).

Ms. Marshall offers personal accounts from hundreds of women who have made peace with their choices and found solutions to the problems of balancing the demands of children and work.

Taking an even deeper look at motherhood is "The Mother's Voice: Strengthening Intimacy in Families" by Kathy Weingarten (Harcourt Brace). Ms. Weingarten, a family therapist, examines the cultural idea of the "good" mother and how that idea encourages women to present a false self to their families.

Another family-related topic that has been getting heightened attention recently is the role of grandparents. In "On Becoming a Grandparent: A Diary of Family Discovery" (Bridge Works), psychoanalyst Alma H. Bond looks at her first grandchild's effect on her life and on family dynamics.

But for one of the most comprehensive and passionate books on the subject to date, pick up a copy of Arthur Kornhaber's "Grandparent Power!: How to Strengthen the Vital Connection Among Grandparents, Parents, and Children" (Crown).

Beyond revamping fatherhood, empowering motherhood and embracing grandparents, strengthening families seems to be the more general subject of a whole new sub-genre of parenting books.

With its emphasis on shared activities and relaxed fun, Marge Kennedy's "100 Things You Can Do to Keep Your Family Together When It Sometimes Seems Like the Whole World Is Trying to Pull It Apart" (Peterson's) encourages parents to look at children and family life as a source of enrichment and renewal.

Linda and Richard Eyre's "3 Steps to a Strong Family" (Simon & Schuster) offers their ideas for establishing a family legal system, setting up a family economy, and creating vital family traditions.

Steven W. Vannoy was just another absent, fast-track father until bankruptcy and divorce brought him an epiphany about his role as a parent.

Now he's sharing his insights in "The 10 Greatest Gifts I Give My Children: Parenting From the Heart" (Fireside Books). Mounting social ills, such as teen pregnancy, suicide and escalating violence, Mr. Vannoy suggests, are, in part, an outgrowth of our legions of unhappy, dysfunctional families.

The venerable Benjamin Spock would agree. Dr. Spock, 91, began the parenting-book boom in 1946 with his classic "Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care," which became one of the best-selling books in U.S. history. Now he has combined his later career as a political activist with his concerns as a pediatrician in "A Better World for Our Children: Rebuilding American Family Values" (National Press).

The most "crucial area for making a better world," Dr. Spock writes, "is for parents to rear their children with love and understanding, teaching them by their own example the ideals of helpfulness, kindliness and service to others."

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