Parenting By The Book

Comparing three recent study-based guides for parents.

Nov 06, 2012



Parenting By The Book

Nov 06, 2012

Don’t you wish children came with a user’s manual, maybe even a 1 800 number and an operator standing by? Of course you do. That’s why every year, publishers come out with dozens of parenting books. Here’s the scoop on three recent titles that back up their advice with research from decades of child development studies.


Content & Emphasis

The first is Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, by Ellen Galinsky, who spent 25 years on the faculty at the Bank Street School of Education. Her academic credentials are evident both in the substance of her information and the presentation of it. As the subtitle implies, Galinsky identifies what she believes to be the most important areas of development for children and teens, with an emphasis on cognitive aspects of the skills. They include focus/self control, communicating, critical thinking, and perspective taking.


In Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, popular author Po Bronson (What Should I Do With My Life?) teams up with journalist Ashley Merryman for an odyssey through the research on ten areas of child research, like praising children, talking about race, and making sure teenagers get enough sleep. The emphasis here is on how often our “common sense” ideas about child rearing are wrong, based on recent research (hence the “shock” of the title).


Although Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents has a narrower focus, it touches on many of the same ideas. According to author Christine Carter, kids who practice self-control and focus, who get praised correctly, etc. are happier (and so are their parents). Carter, Executive Director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, provides tips that not only build family happiness, but are intended to lead to more functional (and therefore successful) children.


Use of Research

Mind in the Making is the closest to being an actual academic textbook (including 16 pages of endnotes/references in teeny tiny type). The research informs how Galinsky describes each of her essential “life skills,” provides a foundation for her suggestions on how parents can develop these skills, and offers proven results that these skills are essential. For instance, her chapter on communicating (which includes literacy) contains more than 100 citations to dozens of sources.


Because the emphasis of Nurture Shock is on how research can prove “common sense” wrong, the studies and research are detailed and brought to life. Of course, the idea of “shocking” us with the study results is more pop journalism than academia. Are the research results really shocking? Not really, but that is actually one of the good things about Bronson and Merryman’s writing—they explain the research in a way that makes the anti-intuitive results seem like common sense, after all.


Carter bases many of her happiness steps in Raising Happiness on child development studies (including research on praise, gratitude, and dinner-table vocabulary), but mainly cites her sources to show the concrete benefits of happiness-inducing behaviors. She doesn’t go into a lot of detail about them (which makes the book more readable, frankly). But if you flip to the back and check out her extensive notes and bibliography, you’ll see there is solid basis for her advice.


Mind in the Making is the longest of the three books, and Galinsky’s exhaustive amount of information requires a complex structure for each chapter. The description and research for a skill is divided into different titled sections (“The Brain Basis for Perspective Taking”), interrupted by exercises and short “Parent Perspectives,” then followed by recommendations. Here’s an example: Galinsky’s 54 page chapter on communicating includes 17 explanatory sections, 11 “Perspectives,” six exercises, six “dos and don’ts” and 12 suggestions. Then she wraps up with an “In Sum!”


On the other hand, each of the ten chapters of Nurture Shock is only about 20 pages long. The topics covered in the book are focused enough to work with this laserbeam style analysis, and the writers are used to writing for subway readers. It may seem a little light at times (and occasionally overdramatic), but you can’t argue with their 82 page resource list the authors have done their homework.


Christine Carter’s chapters are also short, with bite-sized, boxed articles and heavy use of bullet points. Whether you find the book’s emphasis on happiness cloying or inspirational, Carter’s stories about her daughters and their Happiness Habits charts are endearing and amusing. This personal touch sets the book apart and makes it an enjoyable read.


Pick Your Favorite

Clearly, you can’t go wrong with these three books. But are any of them the ultimate user’s manual for your child? Only you can judge. Good luck!


Further Reading

Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman—Read the full review.


Raising Happines: 10 Steps For More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, by Christine Carter—Read the full review.


PBS: The Whole Child information for parents and caregivers on child development through age five.


Zero To Three a national, nonprofit organization that promotes the health and development of infants and toddlers.


Center for Child Well-Being see the “Parent/Family” links at the top for information on cognitive, physical, and emotional development.

Language Arts
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Self Control
Critical Thinking
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Child Development and Behavior