Two popular books on child-rearing offer different answers to questions like: What can you do when children act up in public or won’t put their shoes away?
“It’s not fair, Jeremy Spencer’s parents let him stay up all night!”: A Guide to the Tougher Parts of Parenting. By Anthony E. Wolf. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 264 pp., $14, paperback.
Parenting for Dummies: 2d Edition. By Sandra Hardin Gookin and Dan Gookin. Mary Jo Shaw and Tim Cavell, contributing editors. Hungry Minds, 408 pp., $21.99, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
Prime-time nanny shows have done American parents a favor: They’ve shown how much more you can often learn from somebody in a burgundy cape than from people who flaunt their Ph.D.s on book covers. Here, for example, is child psychologist Anthony Wolf’s response to a parent who reacts incredulously to his advice that you should “tough it out” when your child acts up at the mall:
Parent: “You mean if my kid acts up when we’re out in public, and if being nice, reasoning, and yelling all don’t work (which of course they rarely do), then there is nothing I can do? I just have to tough it out the whole rest of the time we’re out?”
Wolf: “Yes, not only is that all one should do, but as with temper tantrums, there are many things one should not do.” Among the things you shouldn’t do: go home, scold, offer rewards and threaten punishment.
Can you imagine what one of those burgundy-caped crusaders would say to this? Call Nanny 911! The TV nannies have shown over and over that you can respond effectively to children who act up in public. And the solution may start with setting up reward systems, which Wolf doesn’t like, or just teaching children manners.
“It’s not fair, Jeremy Spencer’s parents let him stay up all night!” looks like a book that might offer a fresh approach to child-rearing. The great title and terrific cover art by New Yorker cartoonist Lee Lorenz suggest that Wolf has a sense of humor. And some Amazon.com reviewers say that his book did help them a lot with problems like backtalk, sibling fights and children who say, “I hate you!”
But Wolf’s sense of humor soon gives way to psychobabble, and he tips his hand when he writes in his second chapter: “Most parents today subscribe to the belief that if children are treated well they will thrive – which is absolutely true.” Flip that idea around, and you’ll see the problem: It means that if your child isn’t thriving, you aren’t treating that child “well.” But we all know good parents whose children – for whatever reason – aren’t flourishing. Wolf finally allows why this may be so in his next-to-last chapter: “As is increasingly being shown by researchers in child development, children are born with varying psychological characteristics. We do not fully shape our children. Much they seem to bring with them.” Why didn’t he say so in the beginning?
Parenting for Dummies is much more practical than the ultra-permissive “It’s not fair …” I resisted the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” guides for years because of their titles — why buy a book that insults you on the cover? — but recently have had to read a lot of them as a critic. And most that I’ve read give you nuts-and-bolts advice that, if dumbed-down, is often less pretentious than in other books. If the “Dummies” and “Idiot’s” guides patronize you, they’re up front about it in a way that Wolf’s book isn’t. You know just by looking at their titles that their authors assume you’re a moron.
Consider how “It’s not fair …” and Parenting for Dummies deal with discipline. Wolf hits you with “shoulds.” Parenting for Dummies covers the subject a section called “Discipline and torture techniques.” Want to tell a child to put his or her shoes away? The authors suggest that you say, “Your shoes snuck out of your closet. Can you please help them find their way home?” Instead of scolding a child for leaving the milk out, try, “Why don’t you be the milk police? Your job is to make sure everyone follows the milk rules. Arrest whoever breaks this law!” These techniques wouldn’t work in all families, but I’d bet they would be a lot more effective in some than Wolf’s reminder that “there is nothing you can do” to make some situations better.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.