Friday, January 31, 2014

Best Parenting Books of 2013: Momma Data's Reading List

Read a few book over the past year that might speak to parents keen on evidence and such. My annual reading list isn't meant as an exhaustive review of great parenting books, this is not the usual Best Parenting Books mainly because I cannot claim to be terribly interested in reading most parenting books and I doubt you are either. If they're not already on your Kindle or bedside table, check these out:

Expecting Better, Emily Oster

I heart this book. Oster debunks numerous claims about pregnancy from the dangers of caffeine, ultrasounds, epidurals, amniocentesis, deli meats, exercise and gardening. Girlfriend compares being pregnant to being a child with too many well-meaning adults issuing  "vague reassurances ('prenatal testing is very safe') or blanket bans ('no amount of alcohol has been proven safe')."  She finds plenty of misinformation and observes how questionable studies quickly become accepted part of the parenting canon. An economist, she wants data, hard numbers, and she wants women to start asking questions and taking down names and numbers:
Pregnancy and childbirth (and child rearing) are the among the most important and meaningful experiences most of us will ever have; probably the most important. Yet we are often not given the opportunity to think critically about the decisions we make. Instead, we are asked to follow a largely arbitrary script without question. It's time to take control: pick up a cup of coffee or, if you like, a glass of wine, and read on.
Some have suggested women leave the data and decisions to the experts but the argument doesn't fly here. Oster isn't asking to perform a C-section or decide which patient gets the harvested organ, she wants accurate, reliable evidenced-based information. Fingers crossed, Oster should be working on the toddler version right now.

Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, Emily Bazelon

Thank goodness, we needed a book laying out the complexities and data on bullying. Not to say Bazelon doesn't give it a human face, she does repeatedly to painful effect. I'll forgive the "character" part, that word makes me nervous, because Bazelon provides a nuanced look at bullying in all its forms, complications and consequences. I applaud her courage to caution against calling bullying an epidemic, the worst problem facing kids today or even being too quick to call a situation bullying. Of course she gets into the media's role in all this.

Eyes Wide Open, Noreena Hertz

No, not that soft-porn disaster with Tom Cruise. This is an engaging spin through some of the obstacles and biases that trip up people making decisions in a complicated, hectic, information-dense world. It's like Decision-Making 101 with plenty of real-life disastrous decisions (Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy, Lehman's collapse/financial melt-down). The factors that impeded rational judgments? Everything from too many distractions (should I check email now?), math anxiety, biased experts, lack of sleep and my favorite excuse, an empty belly. Hertz, like Oster, wants you to get your geek on and start kicking butt when it comes to understanding the evidence and data:
At a time when we increasingly have to behave as information-gatherers and fact-checkers ourselves, when traditional experts cannot be counted upon to translate the world for us accurately, when those trying to sell us ideas or products are ever more manipulative with the tool available - it is critical that we ditch any feelings of math anxiety and become much more number-savvy and confident.
Information-gatherers? Fact-checkers? Untrustworthy experts? OMG.

Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, ed. John Brockman 

This is a bunch of VIP Thinkers (Daniel Kahneman, Daniel Gilbert and Daniel Dennett) on thinking. It sounds boring, terrible title, but it's a fascinating array of topics, many of interest to parents like the adolescent brain and the effects of testosterone on the prenatal brain (and its link to autism) to an infant's sense of morality - and a bit by Philip Tetlock on essentially the inaccuracy of expert judgment (though in the world affairs/political realm). This might be my favorite book of the year and not just because the Descartes' Baby authors describe three-month olds as "blobs" and "meat loafs." The book's unusual format made me feel like I was eavesdropping on the experts who are speaking often in pretty normal English. It's a series of unedited transcripts of presentations and conversations from conferences put on by Edge.org. In the best parts, the big brains sound like that amazing college professor who made lectures feel like a good long story.


Still on my bedside table:

Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, Daniel Siegel
Hate to comment until I've read the whole thing but for what it' worth, I'm a few pages in and haven't tossed it aside yet.

Finally, I don't know that I can recommend them but I'd like to recognize a few other notable books by handing out some awards.

Most Likely to Succeed in the Media and Make Americans Feel Stupid: 

The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley

Suffice it to say, the smartest kids apparently are not American. Parents worried about their children's future, please see above selection for help in figuring out to what degree you should panic.

Most Surprising Ending: 

Breast or Bottle, Amy Koepler

I'm including this because although the author turns out to be an ardent formula-bashing, breastfeeding advocate the first part of the book delivers a fascinating account of how and why the AAP's breastfeeding recommendations have morphed  in past decades. She fooled me into believing she was going to present a relatively unbiased account of the breast versus bottle phenomenon. Why am I still surprised to find a biased academic?

Best Title:

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools, Diane Ravitch

What did you read this year?

2 comments:

Barbara TherExtras said...

Anything on the latest by the Tiger Mommy?

And that last one mentioned here - run out of steam or still reading it? Title screeches of "I wrote this to make money to tide me over until something more substantive comes along." Whacking.Dead.Horse.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hey Barbara! Happy New Year. Made my morning. Yeah, what's up with Diane Ravitch? Even liberals need to pay rent (esp in NYC!) and eat.

AYYY, Tiger Mom. Was dying to put it on the list but since I hadn't read it, just came out in February, I couldn't do it justice. Have you looked at it? I'll have to post on it at some point. It got a lot of press weeks before its official publication but not so much now. I thought it would have caused a stir in so far as I think it was meant to some degree to rile up the media and parents. Curious, no?