Parenting, by the book: The enemy is perfection

The Argument

The best of the genre can help in dealing with the miniature tyrant who has invaded your home.

January 14, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,Sun Staff

A baby is born in the U.S. every eight seconds. And so it would seem, with similar frequency, is a parenting book. Groaning shelves in the parenting section of bookstores suggest all an aspiring child-rearing book author need do is have a kid -- and although it's probably better if that child is photogenic and can be on the book's back cover, even that doesn't really matter.

It's not surprising that there are so many parenting books. There is no job more important than raising children. Shaping tiny beings into fine, upstanding members of society is the stuff that builds civilizations.

That said, parenting has got to be, hands down, the most difficult, wonderful, frustrating, rewarding, brain-numbing, taxing job I have ever done in my life. That's where all the books come in. No sooner did I learn I was pregnant with my son than I began voraciously consuming texts that I hoped would give me the skills I thought I needed to be a good parent. I read about breast feeding and the eating habits of toddlers. I read about what books to read and what toys to buy. I read about how and when and why to say no.

Now that Nicholas is 3 and my house is littered with books whose covers are graced with images of the authors and their perfect families and whose pages are covered with lists of how to, I have come to this conclusion: "How to" parenting books are about as necessary as "Barney" when it comes to raising children. The best, most useful books, are the ones that inspire a parent to continue scraping oatmeal out of hair, finding wayward puzzle pieces and endlessly reciting "Goodnight Moon."

The best parenting books aren't by perfect parents who want you to become perfect too. The best parenting books are by parents who are unafraid to admit, proud even, that parenting is hard and they aren't always up to the task. What separates the good from the bad? Mostly it's a matter of tone and honesty.

Think of it as the playground theory of parenting books. Who would you rather sit next to at the sandbox: a parent who brags about how smart, polite, gifted, talented their little Tommy is, or a parent who confesses that he feeds his kids waffles for dinner, lost the family hamster and doesn't always remember to floss.

Consider the evidence, starting with traditional parenting books:

There are parenting books on divorce and discipline ("I'm Okay, You're a Brat" by Susan Jeffers [Renaissance, 280 pages, $21.95]). There are books that mix recipes and child rearing: ("Food and Whine: Confessions of an End of the Millennium Mom" by Jennifer Moses [Simon and Schuster, 221 pages, $23]). There are books on babies and boys ("Speaking of Boys" by Michael Thompson [Ballantine, 331 pages, $14]). All are designed to inform and empower. These books are OK, but unremarkable.

Many parenting books do little more than painfully state the obvious, such as "You Are Your Child's First Teacher" by Rahima Baldwin Dancy (Celestial Arts, 384 pages, $14.95) and Sal Severe's "How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!" Viking, 266 pages, $23.95). These books break absolutely no new ground with such chestnuts of advice as "Children are not tiny adults!" and "Children learn what they live -- your children do as you do." Don't waste your $38.90.

Other books, like "Expecting: One Man's Uncensored Memoir of Pregnancy" by Gordon Churchwell (ReganBooks, 296 pages, $24), attempt to offer insight about having a baby by using highly personalized accounts of the author that are meant to somehow be representative of the reader's personal experience.

The result is about as necessary as those scary childbirth stories experienced parents like to tell first-timers.

Where else would one find such musings as that of Churchwell in his book "Expecting": "Why do I feel like a bystander in the most important 280 days of my life?" he asks. Uh, well, maybe because you are a bystander, daddy dearest.

And then there are the books that are supposed to be so different, so creative like Lisa Whelchel's "Creative Correction, Extraordinary Ideas for Everyday Discipline" (Focus on the Family, 295 pages, $15.99). The title by the former "Facts of Life" actress is billed as a discipline book "beyond time outs and spankings." For example, if a toddler is overly independent, tell the child you will either hold his hand or his hair -- his choice. Whelchel should stick to bad TV and give up writing.

What is it about parenting that lends itself to such dismal reading? It probably doesn't help that having a child is an irrational act. Surrendering sleep, privacy and a giant chunk of one's life to a miniature tyrant who has invaded your home may be rewarding and wonderful, but it's hardly sane. And while practical information is useful when it comes to alleviating fevers or choosing a storybook, it's not enough.

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