The Only Parenting Books You’ll Ever Need to Read

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I believe that if you’re going to invest your time and money in reading a parenting book, it should leave you feeling better than you did before — but not in an easy or cheap way, with ten steps or a “plan” for success. Instead, the best parenting books should make us feel better in a complicated, hard-truth way. We can’t really control things (like our kids), but at least we aren’t alone.

Parenting books, if they’re worth their salt (and most aren’t), tend to lead us back to ourselves and toward a reckoning with our own parentage. Stuff comes up. In this way, they’re a lot like parenting itself: We want to shape our children into something other than our own image (something better). Hoping for this is a trap, one that’s impossible to avoid.

The very best parenting books are better than the intentions we bring to them. The good ones are both consoling and challenging, reminding us that to be a parent who is present, and forgiving, and kind, you must first be all of these things to yourself. (Harder than you’d think.) The parenting books listed here are some of the best of the best.

This is book is part of a series of the best little books about child development. They’re all actually little — about 150 pages (a third of which are black-and-white photo illustrations of children from the ‘70s) — and follow the same general formula: here’s what you’re dealing with, here’s what tends to work, isn’t it fascinating!, do what works and it will get better soon. I goddamn love them.

The late co-authors, Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg, were psychologists and co-founders of the Gesell Child Development Institute at Yale, but their authority on the subject feels both colloquial and encyclopedic, like they’re describing a dear friend they’ve spent their whole lives observing and thinking about. But this friend just so happens to be your child, which means they must be spying on her from the great Yale tenure in the sky (then hopping in a time machine to publish these books in 1976, 40 years before she was born).

Your mom might have read these about you. If so, ask to borrow them. I promise they are not too boomer-authoritarian, and will only make you feel better about your kid. “Remember that television can be your friend,” Your Three Year Old: Friend or Enemy offers. “Wisely used, it can keep a child happy, well behaved, and out of difficulty for long periods.” This must be what Amazon commenters mean by the advice being out-of-date but I, for one, find it as relevant as ever. Do whatever it takes to get by without causing too much of a fuss, the book seems to argue. The authors promise smoother sailing in a few months when there’s difficulty, and affectionately sing the praises of the particular sweetness and creativity of young children. I find their tone to be tender but consoling, their approach the perfect mix of no-nonsense and wildly compassionate.

Read these books with a glass of wine after bedtime to remind yourself your kid is not a fact a monster. Revel in the fleeting particulars of him at this age. Laugh when the best advice the authors can come up with for stubborn 3.5-year-olds is this: Send them to preschool, because they’ll behave better for people who aren’t their parents.

Your Two-Year-Old by Louise Bates Ames & Frances L. Ilg

FURTHER READING

Becoming Attached by Robert Karen
$14, Amazon

This occasionally slow-going but fascinating book goes deep on the history of attachment theory and its current renaissance, raising questions like: In what specific ways did my parents ruin me for all future relationships?

This book is a great answer to every time you’ve ever wondered, “Is it just me, or is being a parent bad in a very particular way right now?” A leading question, maybe, but Senior has convinced me that the answer is “Yes.” Inspiring either a consoling self-forgiveness or a maddening fire under one’s ass (both, one hopes), former New York staff writer Senior winningly leads us through the world of modern parenthood with both depth and breadth, in a voice that is insightful, relatable, and genuinely searching.

Structuring her book around portraits of a handful of American families from all over the country, Senior goes with them to soccer games and PTA meetings, sits with them at dinner time, interviews them during nap time and right in the thick of things, capturing that deeply familiar day-to-day survival that characterizes the reality of life with kids. Senior weaves in existing research on the psychology and sociology of parenthood from the past 50 years, and highlights what’s changed and what hasn’t to great effect. (Her book’s bibliography would make an excellent syllabus.)

Senior concludes that this particular cultural moment is a unique intersection of high emotional investment (resulting from having children later, voluntarily, and expecting to be fulfilled by them) and low structural support. What Senior’s book clarifies, again and again, is that the thing that affects parents (and therefore children) the most is what gets lost in most conversations about “parenting”: the daily, lived experience of raising children.

In other words, it’s a good book to text passages of to your friends, especially mom friends who are exhausted and behind on work and ignoring the dishes but still up way too late and about to spend too much money on a bespoke Halloween costume from Etsy (let’s not even talk about the ones who sew them themselves). “Our expectations of mothers seem to have increases as our attitudes toward women in the workplace have liberalized.”

“YUP,” they’ll say. “Okay how bout this Moana one? It’s good right?”

All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior

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When Partners Become Parents by Carolyn Pape Cowan & Philip A. Cowan
$6, Amazon

Cited by Senior throughout her book, this ten-year longitudinal study of the effects of parenthood on romantic partnership is wildly affirming (it’s not just you). This book captures the ups and downs (mostly downs) of relationships during the crisis of new parenthood in a way that few books have since it was published in 1992.

This book is a classic parent troll, so you’ll need to be ready for that. Read it at a time of emotional fortitude, ideally at a moment when you think to yourself, “Okay, things are about to get easier soon. I feel like I can finally catch my breath. Is there a man somewhere who can Kondo my family life?” (The author’s first name is Kim and yes, I felt betrayed when I realized he was in fact an Australian man and not a Scandinavian woman sent to share the gospel of toys made from natural wood.)

In fact, what Payne calls for is reassuringly intuitive and well, nice. Payne advocates for fewer toys, less TV (okay, “no TV,” but I’ve already edited the book in my mind), more of a “daily rhythm,” fewer stressful extracurriculars, and filtering out too much adult information like the news or shop talk. Initially, I bristled at this last suggestion, but then I was driving to preschool with NPR on when my kid piped up from the backseat: “What do hurricanes do? I mean, what do they do to people — do they make them dead? Are there hurricanes here?” Okay fine. I get it.

Some of the book is too strident or out there (let’s just pretend the phrase “soul fever” doesn’t occur within these pages), but I found myself less interested in the particulars than in Payne’s underlying idea: that when we can — when we have the breathing room — it’s worth revisiting our long-abandoned ideas about what we imagined our family lives would look like.

In this way, Simplicity Parenting is a sort of late-capitalist “solution” to the problems introduced in All Joy and No Fun. Senior and Payne both seem to argue that we are too stressed, too busy, too focused on achievement and not enough on well-being. Payne takes these problems for granted, and spends his book offering practical suggestions to bring ease and space back into your life. While one might (and I would) argue that agitating for political change (paid family leave, universal health care, and child-care subsidies, for instance) would be a much, much more effective antidote, short-term actions you can put into motion yourself — baking a cake on Sundays, say, or making an after-dinner walk a family tradition — also sound nice.

“Even if some of the details were unrealistic,” Payne argues, “your dreams about your family had truth to them.” He may as well be talking about this book.

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

FURTHER READING

The Child, the Family, and the Outside World by D.W. Winnicott
$15, Amazon

Pay a corrective visit to the wildly influential pediatrician and psychoanalyst who introduced the world to the concept of the “good-enough mother.”

This book became an instant classic when it was published in 1980 and has sold millions of copies since. Show it to a bookseller and they might sigh audibly or say, “Oh yeah,” with an undercurrent of resentment over all the times a customer stood before them trying to recite the title. “It’s yellow? With block letters? What we talk about when we are … listening? About … talking?”

In any case, believe the long-running hype. Every time I think about this book I get a rush of tender feelings toward it, feelings that quickly shift into contending with my own urge to be re-parented, preferably by the book’s co-authors, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The two have six children between them but for purposes of simplicity, they write in the first person and have little composite children. The resulting voice is charming and funny, full of humility and compassion, like if Anne Lamott were leading a parents’ support group but without the Jesus stuff.

This book really is framed by a weekly support group, with each chapter covering a week of the authors’ real-life parenting workshop. If that sounds too corny for you, well, my god, consider the genre. But corny threshold notwithstanding, consider that this means voyeuristically reading about a bunch of ‘80s adults talk about their feelings and their extremely specific battles with their kids and their expectations and their frustrated powerlessness (all with a blessed lack of hand-wringing about The Dangers of The Internet). I ate it up.

The very first chapter is “Helping Children Deal With Their Feelings,” which made me sure my own boomer parents were not among the 3 million people who have purchased this book. Later comes “Alternatives to Punishment,” “Engaging Cooperation,” and “Encouraging Autonomy.” I must warn you: Sprinkled throughout are cartoons illustrating good and bad parent-child interactions (“INSTEAD OF DENYING THE FEELING, exhibit A, GIVE THE FEELING A NAME, exhibit B“), and they are drawn in a painfully amateurish style that didn’t bother me and in fact seemed to make the book feel more urgent, as if the co-authors’ eagerness overcame their embarrassment. It’s very on-message.

The authors’ little tips don’t necessarily come naturally, but if you do remember to try them, just try not to laugh when you see how well they work. It’s almost annoying, or would be if the book weren’t written in the spirit of generosity and in the interest of children and parents both feeling heard and respected and then forgiving each other when they both mess up more or less constantly. Corny, sure, but true.

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

FURTHER READING

The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
$12, Amazon

For the skeptic parent who is unmoved by anecdote (fine). This book features a similar approach of acceptance but makes use of basic neuroscience to back itself up — knowing what parts of the brain are activated mid-tantrum, for example, might change how we confront one.

Lansbury is a former actress and model who has taught parenting classes in Hollywood for decades, but found wider success as a prolific writer and podcaster and general toddler consigliere. A couple of my mom friends and I simply refer to her as “the guru” and I still don’t know if we’re joking or not. Her popular books are self-published compendiums of some of her best blog posts (when I filled out the contact form on her website to request a review copy, I got a prompt reply from Michael L., who introduced himself as “Janet’s husband and Mailroom Supervisor”). Lansbury’s general approach or “philosophy” is that we should treat children with respect, and, whenever possible, try to meet them where they are.

I am normally averse to “schools” of parenting (and anything overarching when it comes to kids), but I make an exception for Janet because: (1) The phrase “without shame” is in the title and shame might be one of the ruling negative emotions in my life and if there’s anything I’d like to spare my son it’s that, and (2) Lansbury brings a self-aware resistance to dogma that’s refreshing and reasonable. She seems to want to help our children blossom into their best, most authentic selves without totally fraying our nerves in the process.

It’s that last part that endears Janet to me most of all; without it, a lot of what she advocates for would seem foolishly optimistic or just absurd. You don’t need to “respectfully” tell your toddler to stop kicking you in the damned face, and you need to know the limits of your own patience before you let your child cross them. They’re kids, she argues, and they want to know that you’re in charge. A parent should embody, per the guru, the calm, “unruffled” bearing of a CEO.

Are there weird implications of aspiring to be a CEO-mom? Maybe … but let’s just say it’s a helpful image, something to come back to when you’re feeling worn down or having a tough week. There’s value in a parenting mentor who seems to more interested in process than product (or is it the other way around?). Unruffled, proud, self-confident. I never know if she means us or the children — how nice that both are taken into account.

No Bad Kids by Janet Lansbury

FURTHER READING

The Second Shift by Arlie Hochschild, with Anne Machung
$13, Amazon

Because it’s easier to be unruffled when you don’t have to do all the domestic labor yourself. This groundbreaking portrait of working parents and how they divide household tasks is a few decades old but sadly as relevant as ever. I first read this as a freshman in college, but I still think about it all the time.

The way we argue, what we value, our level of competitiveness, the amount and kind of guilt we possess — so much of our identities are determined by the crapshoot of sibling dynamics. This proved to be fertile ground for Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, the authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen … The authors’ book on siblings has the same instructive cartoons, the same entertaining group-therapy frame, and a similar unwillingness to sacrifice depth at the altar of the digestible message.

While specific tactics are provided for everything from handling violent physical fights to avoiding comparison and overdetermined family roles, the most effective parts are in-scene at their parenting workshops, where the parents depicted first express desperate exasperation and disbelief, then reveal a bounty of alluring interpersonal anecdotes from their own childhoods, and finally, arrive at an actual reckoning. Of course siblings fight. They’re natural rivals, competing for resources (actual and emotional). How many of us can spend more than a few days with our own siblings without regressing into moody teens?

The book ends with middle-aged moms and dads calling their siblings (sometimes estranged, often simply begrudged), and finding themselves able to forgive or at least sympathize and connect with them in a way they couldn’t before they saw the dynamics play out in their own children. There are ways to alleviate this, the book argues, to manage the inevitability and to make it less wounding, or less defining. This may sound grandiose, but that’s only because you haven’t read the book yet.

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

FURTHER READING

The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller
$10, Amazon

File under: books to help you straighten your own shit out before you repeat the cycle despite actively fearing it exactly (wooo!). Gifted kid or not, the particular family dynamic captured by this book is one that I notice all the time (especially in myself): Kids who learn all too quickly how to please their parents at the expense of actually knowing what they like or want.

This book served as the inspiration and source material for Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. Whether that serves as disclaimer or recommendation is up to you. Queen Bees seems to meet teens on their level, which is probably what makes it so effective (if not occasionally alarmist, or maybe that’s the super Christian nerd in me talking?).

Rosalind Wiseman had been visiting high schools and leading workshops with adolescents long before she introduced us to Girl World and the taxonomy of teenage girls. There’s the Mean Girl, The Wannabe, The Bystander, The Banker — Wiseman could be accused of many things but missing the opportunity for a coinage is not one of them.

Where others might be more dismissive, Wiseman takes the challenges and power dynamics and high-stakes anxieties of Girl World seriously. It’s clear she has keen empathy for and insight into not just the drama and the gunning for social status, but the bigger picture, too: questions of intimacy, self-worth, and trust.

My son is only in preschool, so I had the luxury of relating more to the teens than to the parents-of-teens, the latter of whom often seem to find themselves completely out of their element in a way that recalls the earliest days of parenting a newborn. If the glut of books about parenting teens is any indication (my personal favorite, by title if not painfully corny content: Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy!), this is a conundrum that’s inevitable and inherent to raising a child. But accepting that doesn’t make it any easier. For someone in the thick of parenting a teen, this book would be a small mercy, touching as it does on the subjects your kid would be too embarrassed or annoyed to explain to you on their own.

Queenbees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman

FURTHER READING

How to Hug a Porcupine by Julie A. Ross
$12, Amazon

For parents whose kids aren’t yet mean girls: This book is full of sympathy and brimming with tips (and an abundance of metaphors, be warned), and eases you in with an adorable cartoon porcupine.

This book is the ultimate compendium of magazine-style counterintuitive parenting-trend pieces. “Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark,” its marketing copy argues, promising real data and the always-beguiling shattering of conventional wisdom. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, as NurtureShock is both a great read and manages to make its points without trafficking in parental anxiety. If anything, the book — with chapters on kids needing more sleep, being praised too much, labeled gifted too early — seems to argue that it’s our own misplaced agita that causes problems. As I read it I was overflowing with the urge to share all of my new “actually” Child Facts with my husband, who would respond with a polite “Wow.”

If most of the book argues that parents should worry and interfere less, the standout chapter is a notable exception. Titled “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race,” it should be necessary reading for all those implicated. Kids do notice difference, especially race, and hoping to raise your own as “color-blind” is both naive and dangerous. If you avoid the subject, you risk your kids internalizing awkwardness and assuming you’re racist. This might sound intuitive to some, but we should all remember the powerful consequences of ideas we consider “instincts” or “conventional wisdom” or “convenient theories for me.”

The book’s ideas — children are contradictory and complex, cannot be hacked, and should be allowed to develop on their own time — make for a less-than-straightforward read. That the authors managed to write such a commercially successful book (the aggressive title doesn’t hurt) is a testament to their deft skill as much as their genuine intentions.

NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

FURTHER READING

Unequal Childhoods by Annette Lareau
$11, Amazon

Cited by everyone from Jennifer Senior to Malcolm Gladwell, this book was a watershed examination of the sometimes unexpected (to some!) roles class and race play in American childhoods, and along the way questions the “concerted cultivation” approach of the middle-class parent.

If you haven’t noticed or made fun of them yet, parenting culture’s trendiest desired attributes are GRIT and RESILIENCE. Grit is, of course, the goofier of the two, evocative of both dirt and a southern breakfast food. But who doesn’t want to be resilient? Who doesn’t want their children to be?

With this book, longtime clinical psychologist Meg Jay challenges us to interrogate our assumptions about resilience, to grapple with what’s really going on inside a kid we want to praise for overcoming adversity. Children adapt well, almost too well in some cases, and the coping skills that help children survive may be the ones preventing them from relating as adults. When adapting becomes a way of life, do you ever feel confident that other people will adapt to you? Would we rather our children hide behind their accomplishments or have a sense of inherent self-worth?

Jay weaves new brain research, celebrity anecdotes (Marilyn Monroe’s childhood spent in foster care, for example), and some choice psychoanalytical wisdom, but the narrative centers around anonymized former clients. Jay introduces us to each of her extremely high-achieving patients and then walks us through their painful but often common circumstances — they are children whose parents are divorced, or alcoholics, or dead; kids with disabled siblings, or abusive coaches — and then, their current feelings of isolation, exhaustion, or depression.

Over half of adults experienced adversity in their childhoods, according to research Jay cites, so these patients are not abnormal, despite feeling that way, and despite our romanticization of their resilience. These kids grow up to be most of us, actually, to whatever degree. Perhaps we all need to focus on our own shit to be the kind of parents who can really see and accept our children, to  escape the trap of choosing the appearance of “doing well” at the cost of feeling okay.

Supernormal by Meg Jay

FURTHER READING

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
$12, Amazon

This one is not about parenting per se, but my experience with childbirth left me mildly traumatized in ways I only truly understood after reading this book. I feel better for having read it, and better equipped, as a parent and a citizen, to see the way trauma — beyond the buzzword — is at work in so many of our experiences.

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik
$11, Amazon

Gopnik is a professor of both philosophy and psychology at UC Berkeley. In her latest book, she explores “the new science of child development” and what it tells us about the parent-child relationship. She opens with a criticism of the way we talk about raising children — “parenting” is a word, and a cottage industry, invented in the past 30 years. We should be discussing our children in language that more closely resembles a gardener’s, as in tending to and caring for one’s garden. A gardener harbors no illusions of control, and is open to — cherishes even — the vicissitudes of her plants. She is willing to be surprised. She knows the plants grow on their own.

Gopnik uses evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and animal behaviorism to argue that we must have such vulnerable babies with such extended childhoods for a reason. Children, she explains with the blissful detachment of someone whose children could only be grown, are meant to be messy chaos agents. They are meant to learn through play and exploration, and they are great at it, and will, overwhelmingly, turn out just fine, no matter how many parenting books we read. It’s a nice idea, and a welcome corrective, though one I can imagine it might take becoming a grandmother before fully inhabiting.

FURTHER READING

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik
$14, Amazon

Read Gopnik’s earlier book as a reminder that children give as much as they get, and not just because they’re cute. Gopnik brings us on a tour of the awakening consciousness of babies and shows us how much we can learn about the essential questions of human nature by looking to the small, screaming friends we are trying our best to keep alive.

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The Only Parenting Books You Should Actually Read