The Best Parenting Books of 2010: Books for Parents Who Dig Evidence and Science

Read any worthwhile parenting books this year?  Any besides those by Tiger moms or celebrity moms or baby whisperers.  It goes without saying how delightful and entertaining those reads can be.... cough, cough, guffaw. 

Wish I'd read more but did manage to find a few that rose above the usual pile of how-tos/what-to-expect/i'm-such-a-lousy-but totally hip-mom tomes.  Are they the most popular? No.  Most practical? Probably not.  Most well-written? Who knows.  They won't tell you how to potty train, get your tween to talk to you or make your marriage hot.  But if you care about the evidence behind the onslaught of expert advice and recommendations, these are like manna from heaven:

1.) Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us - And How to Know When Not to Trust Them (David H. Friedman)

Hands down one of my favorite books of the year (number one: Keith Richard's Life).  David Freedman, a science and business journalist, gives us the low-down on expertise or more specifically - how and why it goes wrong - from scientists and health officials to less informal experts like journalists and the pediatrician who instructed you to breastfeed/circumcise/not circumcise/co-sleep/throw out the tv or whatever.  Freedman highlights the biases in the research process, the publication process, and the media. 

How biased? Two-thirds of studies are inaccurate and/or get refuted. 

Now that might be an exaggeration but the point is clear.  Lots of studies just don't quite get it right.  Freedman also tells how to avoid falling for the flawed discoveries and advice although it's not much different from what we've been discussing here at Momma Data (e.g., be wary of freak findings, ground-breaking findings, blanket advice/findings without qualifications/limitations).  In fact he lists 11 handy rules for figuring out if you can believe a piece of expert advice.  He even has the sense to warn that he too may be wrong! 

LOVE this book. Could kiss this man. 

2.) Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs (Ellen Galinsky)

If you're wondering what kids really need to become thoughtful, independent, productive and well-adjusted adults (i.e. living on their own), look no further:

Self-Control and Focus
Perspective Taking Skills (empathy)
Communication Skills
Ability to Connect Ideas (creativity)
Critical Thinking skills
Willingness to Take on Challenges (motivation/perseverance)
Self-directed, Engaged Learning (curiosity)

You'll  note there was nothing in the list about how to feed, immunize or otherwise maintain the physical health and safety of your child.  It's comforting to know someone out there is tending to children's overall well-being and let's face it, real-life abilities and competencies.

All too often they get overlooked until Henry or Mary Grace ends up in the school guidance office.  No lie, these more subtle qualities aren't as easy to achieve as stocking the pantry with whole grains, getting your daughter to practice the piano or driving to occupational twice a week.  No, these take lots of attention and patience to foster over time.  They don't arrive on the doorstep the next day like the lastest in your queue from Netflix.

Galinsky, the cofounder and president of The Families and Work Institute, has been studying children for many decades.  She knows her stuff. 

Each chapter takes on one of the "essential skills." Galinsky gives plenty of examples how you can "teach" them in daily life, for instance through simple games, activities, or even more subtle behaviors.  She also incorporates personal narratives from other people to illustrate their own experiences.  I'm not a huge fan of these stories, probably because I'm always wondering whether they're the figment of the imagination of some twenty-year old intern.  Most important to us here, the author, a longtime psychologist and researcher, backs it all up with studies.  I bet a lot of it is familiar to you, in fact, things you already have done or still do (ask your child a lot of questions; have your preschooler count; talk, talk, talk to your child) and some you might not connect to prime child development (managing your own stress). 

My only regret is that this isn't exactly a perky best-seller with wide crowd appeal, it's no Belly Laughs for sure.  It's not chock full of technical speak, it's more an interesting seminar on Child Development with helpful hints, maybe a bit too academic for most tastes (anyone read it???).  Too bad, because it's valuable info.  The reviews seemed to indicate the general parenting crowd would love this book but I'm not so sure. If only the respected author would have yucked it up a bit.

As can also be said for the last book...

3.) Is Breast Best? (Joan B. Wolf)

Where was this book ten years ago when I painfully proceeded into parenthood?  Come to think of it, why hasn't it been all over the media?  It's a controversial take on a timely issue we can't seem to stop discussing.  Wolf, a political scientist in the Woman and Gender Studies department (yes, a feminist!) down in Texas A&M wrote this book after looking into the breastfeeding literature and being suprised by the lack of convincing evidence for all the hoopla.  She'd been wondering how it had come to be that so many women who'd fought for their rights, their careers, and their bodies could accept the medical establishment's call to breastfeed, an act that takes considerable time and effort, without seriously questioning the evidence. 

Ah, the evidence. She devotes a chapter to the scientific evidence but sprinkles references to it through out the entire book.  More than a simple overview of the science, Wolf places our cultural craze for breast milk in socio-historical perspective. 

Our obession with breast milk is a component of Total Motherhood, basically our contemporary approach to childrearing as a 24/7 endeavor to protect kids from every conceivable risk, including the perils of formula. 

Remarkably, this book has been virtually ignored by mainstream media though thoroughly bashed in the blogosphere.  Even the Booklist reviewer front and center on Amazon couldn't hide her contempt:
This heavily footnoted defense of formula feeding will undoubtedly fan the fire between those who believe “breast is best” versus those who think manufactured food is just fine, thank you. Wolf, a political scientist, is on strongest ground when she discusses the history of this emotionally charged topic. Unfortunately, she seems out of her element when describing perceived flaws in medical studies of breast milk and talking about financial issues. Inexplicably, she fails to discuss the price of formula, which can easily run $1,000 to $2,000 a year. Instead, she talks about what she sees as the “exorbitant” costs of breastfeeding. (Presumably, she is referring to how it’s tricky for poor women to hold down a job and nurse their babies.) An expansion of a 2007 article Wolf wrote for the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, this pro-formula book treatise would have benefited from a more nuanced argument. For a better book, see Dr. Naomi Baumslag’s Milk, Money, and Madness (1995). --Karen Springen
Wolf's book is not a "pro-formula treatise" - she doesn't argue the case for formula but seriously examines our adoration of breastfeeding - and it is quite nuanced, in fact, as nuanced (in detail and scope) as anything else on the topic and a lot more than many articles you will likely read, including journal articles.  Did you catch how Karen Springen, the reviewer, referred to the actual flaws in the science as "perceived flaws."  And of course that's where Wolf is "out of her element".  Big surprise.  By the way, the book the reviewer perceives as more nuanced? Milk, Money and Madness.  You guessed it, a rather aggressive pro-breastfeeding "treatise".  Did Amazon expect an objective review?

Joan, many thanks. You rock.

Read a piece by Joan on Babble, essentially a mini-version of Is Breast Best?

Okay, peeps, keep me up-to-date on your own not-to-missed reads. 


Anonymous said...

I am going to check out Ellen Galinsky's book, sounds very insightful.
I am in the middle of Nurture Shock by Po Bronson. Have you read it?
Loved the chapters on race and why kids lie. The book shows us we need to kids alot more credit for their independent thinking than we actually do.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Anony! Curious to see how you find Mind in the Making. Yes, really enjoyed Nuture Shock too (great title, no?) - and put it on my Best list last year. The topics were very interesting. I'm waiting to see if they do a follow-up.

Jen said...


This is completely off topic and I'm sorry about that! I don't know if you've already seen this horror show of a post on The Stir:

The author of the post seems to be under the impression that, since the authors of original study evaluated attachment styles (i.e. Ainsworth)- that means the same thing as "attachment parenting." Of course, she has entitled her post "Attachment Parenting Proven Best for Your Child."

I want to poke my eyeballs out with a stick.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Jen! Wowzee. Good catch! Infant bonding predicts relationships twenty years later. Hhhmm. The mommy blogger not only confused Ainsworth's Attachment Styles with Attachment Parenting - bad enough- but is obviously very impressed w the "effects" of bonding bc they have shown up two decades later - w/o regard to the numerous intervening variables. Impressive botching of the results. And of course she was not surprised by the results! Uggh.