Best Parenting Books of 2014: Not Necessarily In The Parenting Aisle

Ah, the best parenting books of the year. Anyone can find those on Amazon in two seconds. I'll spare you those important works. Instead what you'll find on the annual Momma Data list aren't necessarily the most popular or well-received parenting tomes of 2014. A few are well-known names or titles and some have garnered critical acclaim but some aren't even parenting book per se or located in the parenting /family section. They all, however have something relevant for parents today whether they address our love affair with the brain, our ambivalent attitudes towards vaccines, existential angst and anxiety or misinformation in the media. Even NPR's Samantha Schoeck, who swore she'd never read another parenting book, might be tempted by these fine offerings.

New dad Ryan Gosling prepares to read 
I now present an expertly curated (ahem), extensively researched (ahem), entirely subjective and not in any way exhaustive collection of reading material worth perusing at your leisure (i.e. between travel sports, buying canned goods for school community service requirement and finding a summer camp that isn't a pit of frothing bacterial infections or a 5-star luxury retreat).

Happy reading or skimming.

Great Myths of the Brain, Christian Jarrett. 

Run, find this refreshing read about that super computer in your head, on second thought, trash that tired metaphor. Rethink what you know about the brain. Let Jarrett, neuroscience PhD and Brain Watch columnist at Wired, help you. He challenges myths from old timer notions about the brain and mental health (e.g., drilling holes into the cranium releases evil spirits) to perennial faves (e.g., the female brain, the pregnancy brain, the creative brain, the lefty brain, the aging brain, the sleeping brain, the vacant 10% used brain) to current Brainapalooza hits including the pernicious effects of social media, concussions, traumatic brain injury and last but not least how brain imaging (e.g., fMRIs) can solve mental illness, crime, poverty, in short, save the world.

In a single chapter (#6) Jarrett takes on brain scans, brain training, fatty acids in brain development, glucose and will power, sugar and hyperactivity, the health benefits of chocolate, the Internet, Facebook, Google, video games, vegetative patients, lie detection, mind-reading -  and be still my empirical evidence-loving heart -  the media's misinterpretation and exaggeration of neuroscience and the research community's role in both producing and calling out botched neuroscience. If talk of hemispheres and neurotransmitters turns you off, rest assured, the brain doesn't have to be so unpleasant. As Jarrett shows, it's almost but not quite as fascinating as the lore and hoopla around it.

Age of Opportunity: Lesson from the New Age of Adolescence, Laurence Steinberg 

Forget babies and toddlers. You can put them to bed early and throw them into the back of the car.  Plus there are enough books and websites about the stroller set anyhow. Now their older, acned, cranky siblings are equally complex and fascinating, no less challenging and yet receive less far less attention in print. Where's the love for them?

Enter noted psychologist and adolescence researcher Laurence Steinberg and his latest entry into the adolescent genre, Age of Opportunity. Some might remember I briefly wrote about the book after he penned an op-ed on In the book, Steinberg argues adolescence is not only longer than in the past (starting earlier, ending later, I still am not totally on board there but he makes a good case for both) but more perilous and given new insights from neuroscience, especially the malleability of the teenage brain, adults need to re-think this critical time period. And get prepared for a long haul.

Essentially a teen is a risk-taking man-child (or woman-child) with an intense emotional life, often intense social life with an underdeveloped cerebral cortex making him or her vulnerable/open to a wealth of new experiences and opportunities for growth/harm. 

Your teenager is probably as smart as you (maybe even smarter and could outscore you on the SAT) but not quite as rational when it comes to estimating say, the risk of jumping off the beach house roof (kid next door) or making a left turn into heavy traffic (hand raised). Oh and this curious situation lasts until the mid-twenties, possibly even later on average for the males of the species. So you still have some time to study up and possibly even influence your man-child or woman-child.

Also, Steinberg serves up the latest science on the teenage brain, be sure to read the chapter on brain plasticity. It's a great explanation of the phenomenon. Of course you already will have read Jarrett's brain myths book first so will be well versed in the latest neuro-scientific lingo. As for any concerns about the value of neuroscience, for instance, the exaggerated importance of brain research or its failure to add to existing knowledge about human behavior and development - rest assured Steinberg often agrees! Nor does he think a teen is merely an immature brain.

My intention in grounding this book in the science of adolescent brain development is not to reduce adolescence to little more than a network of neurons, to suggest that everything that adolescents do is dictated by biology alone, or to imply that that adolescents' behavior is fixed and not shaped by external forces. In fact, I argue just the opposite -that the main lesson we are learning from the study of adolescent brain development is that is it possible to influence young people's lives for the better. It was once said that advances in the study of genetics taught us just how important the environment is. What we're learning about the adolescent brain offers a similar message. 

Translation: the environment matters, experiences matter, people matter...e.g., friends, parents, school, proximity of alcohol, exposure to different cultures, great literature, music, an assortment of varied job, doing one's own laundry, cooking dinner, interacting with difficult teachers, coaches, classmates.

Steinberg labels adolescence the "new zero to three." Parents, prepare yourselves, because your kids will undergo a second stage of highly malleable brain development (plasticity) in adolescence - and it holds great potential for your teen's future unless of course you or they, and they and you probably will screw it up at least some of the time but hopefully not in a major way (drugs, arrest, teen pregnancy). At least this time around you won't have to endure any Mommy and Me classes or Baby Mozart.

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss

This is an unusual book, don't miss it. Biss, a much lauded non-fiction writer, weaves together her personal experience, facts about disease plus insights on the militaristic or violent jargon associated with vaccination (shots) and the immune system (viruses as invaders attacking the body) and the preference for natural parenting (i.e. no vaccinations, no childbirth drugs, no formula). Also many literary references because this is an English major's take on immunity and illness (a non-fiction writing major to be specific). So no surprise it reads in parts like a literary dissertation, at other times, a health or science article.

It also happens to be a perfectly reasonable examination of why people, including the author, fear shooting up their kids with potential toxins despite the risk of some pretty terrible diseases. And Biss did, by the way, vaccinate. On Immunity garnered high praise (landing on the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014). The work is unusual as I said. The writing is beautiful, lyrical to my non-lyrical self. It is reassuring to read an intelligent, seemingly objective examination of a hotly debated topic. It's not an extremist view one way or the other and for that I am grateful.

It's taken some time but this book has grown on me. I'm not accustomed to the juxtaposition of poetics and science, especially on the topic of immunizations and Biss is right, this was an inoculation of sorts! In addition to its striking nature, I also highlight the work here because it illustrates the challenges of writing about complex science, especially with an author coming from the humanities wing. Thought it might not be entirely fair, I can't help but judge the work as a piece of science writing, and thus in terms of its scientific accuracy, well, I wish it had been a bit tighter particularly the parts dealing with the now debunked link between autism and vaccines. 

Take the discussion of Andrew Wakefield and the infamous 1998 Lancet article. Biss refers to Wakefield's "inconclusive work" as if further research into the MMR and vaccines is needed though she does mention there has been plentiful research refuting it, she doesn't use language that precise - I'll get to that in a minute. Later on she calls the botched study "one small, inconclusive study" and "the now-retracted case study." Those descriptions doesn't fully capture the extent of the situation. It was a very small, flawed, perhaps fraudulent if you believe some accounts, set of data lacking in scientific rigor that should never have been published, especially not in a premier journal and that later, was retracted, a very rare event. Anyhow, an inconclusive study is not necessary poor or flawed, it is just that, inconclusive.

I wish Biss could have been more precise in her discussion of why science can never prove something doesn't exist (the null hypothesis, no difference, no link between vaccines and autism). If I weren't familiar with research methods and statistics I'm not sure what I'd surmise from this explanation of why scientists can't prove vaccines don't cause autism:

What vaccines do not cause, the [2012 Institute of Medicine] report explained, is significantly harder to establish than what they do cause. While a substantial amount of evidence is acceptable as proof that an event does and can happen, there is never enough evidence to prove that an event cannot happen. Even so, the evidence reviewed by the [IOM] committee "favors rejection" of the theory that the MMR causes autism. 

This sounds like science just can't make any strong conclusions when it comes to a potential link between autism and the MMR and that the scientific community has lingering uncertainty over the issue. It  leaves room for doubt, an opening.

In part Biss writes about the Wakefield study to make a good point about why people still support the de-frocked doctor and his lame study -  people cling to the theory (and "weak science") because they affirm what they want to believe (e.g., autism is caused by vaccines, pharmaceutical companies are evil, etc.). Maybe she's taking her argument to heart, and feels it unnecessary or counter-productive to write about science in a precise manner, especially highly relevant concepts and facts, when many people are not persuaded by science.

Does Biss not fully believe the science debunking the link between vaccines and autism? It's hard to tell if the language is imprecise due to a non-scientist writing about science or an ambivalence about a link. In any event, if I'm interested in knowing how a non-scientist thinks of immunity and vaccines, these passages, this account could be helpful. So is this what most people think about vaccines and disease? Possibly to some degree but most people don’t associate Dracula, Karl Marx and Freud with getting their baby inoculated. 

Biss addresses the mass of scientific information and studies in the news and laments the media's sensationalized portrayal of findings and thirst for anxiety-producing stories - all good, right - and even uses the word "misinformation." She then segues into how studies shouldn't be taken out of context and need to be replicated to gain more validity, the full measure of a study is only as good as the next ones that come out...bravo. Even mentions John Ionnidis 2007 study "Most Published Research Findings Are False."  Just when I started to get excited, in the next breath, she launches into a several page discussion of Dracula. I wasn't an English major, mea culpa, and sort of zoned out in those more literary passages, for better or worse.

My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and The Search For Peace of Mind, Scott Stossel

Stossel, an editor of the The Atlantic magazine chronicles his personal experience with chronic anxiety including panic attacks and an astonishing array of phobias including but not limited to heights, enclosed/tight places, fainting, flying, public speak and cheese. One of his oldest and most intense fears? Emetophobia. Vomiting, though he hasn't vomited in almost 40 years. He also fears vomiting while flying (great, now maybe I will develop this one too). In between stories from his life that would make for excellent sitcom material (including an unforgettable toilet incident at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port), Stossel opines on the nature of anxiety, it's socio-cultural and history context, and of course, a few statistics:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some forty million Americans, nearly one in seven of us, are suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder at any given time, accounting for 31 percent of the expenditures on mental health care in the United States. According to recent epidemiological data, the “lifetime incidence” of anxiety disorder is more than 25 percent — which, if true, means that one in four of us can expect to be stricken by debilitating anxiety at some point in our lifetimes. And it is debilitating: Recent academic papers have argued that the psychic and physical impairment tied to living with an anxiety disorder is equivalent to living with diabetes — usually manageable, sometimes fatal, and always a pain to deal with.

So chances are you will know someone who suffers from anxiety. As Stossels points out, there is genetic component to anxiety disorders, they tend to run in families including his own, on both his paternal and maternal sides. His daughter and son both have encountered anxiety disorders and he suspects his mother struggled with anxiety too but didn't know how to deal with it personally or in her child. Heartbreaking to learn because there are some rather effective treatments, cognitive behavioral therapy chief among them with an increasing pile of empirical evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating anxiety, even phobias. Of course he's tried just about treatment out there including self-medicating.

According to any number of commentators, authors and psychologists, parents are stressed out in today's fast-paced, 24/7 global marketplace of ideas, tutors and Mandarin-speaking socially-conscious and creative scholars competing for their kids' future. Who knows, I don't think my grandmother, saddled with 7 kids, a teacher's salary and no dishwasher had it easy. I'm not sure the challenges I face are more intense or plentiful, but sure, I have anxieties and I know a lot of tense adults and children, who doesn't, so I enjoyed this book on many levels.

For teaser, read his article in The Atlantic from last January, Surviving Anxiety. Sure it's long, it might seem like he's covered everything but the book is chock full. It won't disappoint.

Guilt-free Bottle Feeding, Madeleine Morris and Sasha Howard

An award-winning former BBC reporter and friend of Momma Data, Morris and her co-author, paediatrician Dr. Sasha Howard, joined forces to challenge the Breast Is Best ideology and offer ample evidence children who are bottle-fed (even with formula!) can grow up happy, health and smart too. The duo also provide practical advice for bottle-feeding but make no mistake, this book offers valuable knowledge for all parents such as infant feeding research, the culture of parenting and yes, the media. I’m a big fan of the book and should also note Madeleine Morris interviewed me for the book. Check out my Q and A with Madeleine about her book and her answers to the Momma Data Experteze Interview.


The News: A User's Manual, Alain De Botton

A look at the news, including an all too short bit on health stories from the man who brought us How Proust Can Change Your Life.  I kept waiting for the parenting/children's health section but maybe that's in the next addition. Anyhow, if you want to know what's wrong with the media, have at it.

The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson 

Daily life might seem a challenge but at least no one's asking most of us to solve the mysteries of human life, now there's a hard one. The famed biologist and naturalist pleas for the sciences and the humanities to get along and join forces to figure out the human race. If only he could help me figure out why 14-year olds are so unpredictable. Here's your chance for a post-collegiate interdisciplinary challenge. Pack it for that weekend get-away. Yeah, as if.


Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth about Talent, Practice and Creativity and The Many Paths to Greatness, Scott Barry Kaufman

Everything you wanted to know about talent, practice, creativity, greatness, intelligence, genius and more from a Yale Ph.D. who spent the first part of his life trapped in special education, a remarkable personal story behind a remarkable career (he's still young) and riveting book. 

The Sports Gene, David Epstein

It's about sports yes but an engaging portrait of the interplay between genes and environment. Bought it for hubby, read it myself. If you think your kid is a future Olympian, read this and get back to me. I'm waiting for the parent version of this book to come out. Surely Mr. Epstein has something to say to soccer moms and hockey dads, or travel team coaches. I already have a title in mind - The Sports Gene: Your Child Is Not A Future Olympian. 

Or a gentler tone: 

Why your kid doesn't need to play travel soccer/hockey/lacrosse etc. all year from age 10 on even if they are future Olympians.


Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women's Stories of Trauma and Growth, Walker Karraa

A book from the Founder of, friend of Momma Data and courageous maternal mental health advocate and activist. Karraa, a provocative thought leader, tells why the current medical model of understanding and treating - heck, even thinking, writing and talking about - postpartum depression is broken and offers a more positive model of postpartum transformation and growth. 

Look for my Q and A with Walker next week.

So what did I miss? What books do you recommend?

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