Don’t Miss Almost Missed You

Don’t Miss Almost Missed You

Holly Rizzuto Palker Interviews Jessica Strawser on her debut novel, Almost Missed  You.

Jessica Strawser Book CoverALMOST MISSED YOU by Jessica Strawser, is an intriguing novel involving a husband and two-year-old son disappearing while on a family vacation. I’m not sure how Jessica created this deliciously suspenseful book with so much else on her plate (she is the Editorial Director of Writer’s Digest magazine, and she and her very supportive husband are the parents of two children under age five).

As a mother to three young children myself,  I couldn’t help but catch up with Jessica to ask her some questions about her novel, her family, and her writing journey.

1. One of the most horrific experiences I can imagine would be for one of my children to go missing. What specific parenting moment sparked the idea for your premise?

Fortunately, there was no parenting moment that sparked the idea for my premise, but rather it grew out of a fascination with the idea of “meant to be” and the role of good/bad timing in an otherwise fated relationship. I wanted the relationship to be called into question in a way that would blindside everybody, and that’s where the more horrific premise of the husband running off with the child came from.

2. I’m sure you struggle with the balance between career performance and being a good mom. What makes a good mom?

I think every parent struggles with this, and I certainly wouldn’t hold myself up as an authority on what makes a good mom, though I do so try to be one. I always tell my children that being their mom is my most important job—they know where I stand. All any of us can do is love our children, keep their best interests at the forefront of our minds, and do our best.

3. What experience did you draw on or scenario did you imagine that gave you the ability to believably portray the anguish Violet must’ve felt when she discovered Bear was missing?

I think it would be all too easy for any mother to imagine that anguish—it’s one of the topmost comments I’ve gotten from readers so far, in fact.

4. Violet learns a lot about Finn throughout the course of your novel. Have you ever been in a relationship where you discovered you really didn’t ‘know’ the person. How did this affect you?

I’ve heard stories along those lines from people I know, and of course have read them from strangers, but fortunately it isn’t something I’ve experienced myself. Really there was very little in this novel that was autobiographical, which is part of what made it so enjoyable to write. I had an earlier, unsold novel that was inspired in part by a tragic circumstance in real life, and that writing took an emotional toll. I can also acknowledge from a craft standpoint that I may have been too close to the material. It was freeing, after years on that project, to write something that was pure imagination.

5. What is your view about the treatment of mental illness in America?

I took enough psychology credits for a minor when I was in journalism school, which of course covered only the tip of the iceberg, but certainly we could all benefit from more awareness and more support.

6. The name Bear is very unique. Why did you choose it for Violet’s child?

I just like the name, though Bear Grylls (the outdoor survival expert) is the only one I know of in real life. Some early reviewers have randomly noted their dislike for the name and so I suppose it’s lucky I didn’t choose it for either of my real children!

7. You write wistfully about Asheville, NC. When in your life did you spend time there? Was it a visit or did you live there for an extended period?

I have only visited Asheville, mostly en route to points further south from Cincinnati, but it’s one of my favorite places. Statistically (if I’m not mistaken), they have more sunny days than anywhere else in our region of the country, and I love the art and the nature and the mountain air and the music and the whole warm feel of the town. Any chance I get to stop there for a night, I do.

8. How did you seamlessly weave the non-linear structure and various points of view together in ALMOST MISSED YOU? Why did you choose to use these devices?

In order to get the whole story in ALMOST MISSED YOU, we need all three perspectives, because no one character knows the whole story at the outset. It was great fun trying to discern which points of view were key to reveal certain pieces and to put them all together like a puzzle. I’m not an outliner, and I had only a general idea of where I was going when I started, but I’d write whatever scene was most vivid to me, regardless of chronological order, and then later I made myself a timeline and better tracked the reveals at the revision stage.

9. How did you keep the reader in suspense while still giving her enough information to stay hooked?

I was hyper aware of what was being revealed and when, both to the other characters and to the reader, particularly in the revision stages. I also wanted to leave certain things to the reader’s imagination, to really invite the reader to participate in the world of the story.

10. I can barely find more than a few minutes to write each day with my busy family life. How and when were you able to finish this book with two young children running around and a full-time job?

I write mostly when they’re asleep and the house is quiet. It does take a lot of discipline, as I’m often tired myself, but I also have a wonderfully supportive spouse who helps to pick up the slack on nights when I guiltily shut the door to my writing room with the kitchen still not quite cleaned up from dinner.

11. How did your commitment to writing this book affect your family?

I wanted to show my children that it’s possible to go after a lifelong dream and achieve it, that hard work pays off, and that the creation of books (which they dearly love—bedtime stories are our mutual favorites) is a beautiful thing. The book is dedicated to them, and my oldest, at least, who (at five years old) is more able to understand what’s happening, is enormously proud. I think he was more excited when my author copies arrived than I was!

12. Which women’s fiction authors influenced you?

I’m influenced by authors across all genres, some of my favorites being Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, David Sedaris, Maggie O’Farrell and Alice Walker.

13. How long did it take you to write ALMOST MISSED YOU from your first word on paper to publication?

This summer will mark three years since I began my first draft.

14. How often do you write and for how many hours?

It depends on what kind of deadline I’m on (or what kind of roll I’m on—sometimes I’ll take a whole vacation day from my full-time job just to write in a quiet house), but typically 5 days a week, at least, most often for 90 minutes to two hours a day.

15. What did you edit out of this book?

This book was a rare case for me where the editing involved a lot more adding than cutting. Typically, it’s the other way around, but in this case, I can’t think of anything of note that was cut.

16. How does your career as the editor of Writer’s Digest shape the way you wrote ALMOST MISSED YOU?

Consider that in the course of editing Writer’s Digest, I’ve read each issue cover to cover no fewer than five times—that’s earnest, thorough repetition of written instruction and inspiration that has fueled my writing in ways both intentional and subconscious. The many conversations I’ve had along the way with bestselling authors (for the cover interviews I often conduct) and our contributing writing instructors alike have given me access to some of the best insights into the writing life around, straight from the sources. I could hardly underestimate its influence on me, and my work there has certainly been an asset to my writing life outside of the office.

Holly Rizzuto Palker is freelance writer and novelist. Her essays have appeared in Newsday and Kveller. She teaches movement and drama to children at a local pre-school while raising three of her own children. She’s working on a novel about an American expat living in London. Connect with her on twitter and at








Grace Without God

Grace Without God


By Katherine Ozment

Author’s Note: Several years ago, my son asked me what religion we were and I blurted out, “We’re nothing.” I’d long ago left the Christianity I’d grown up in and my husband had left his Jewish faith. We weren’t religious anymore, but what were we? I knew instantly that I needed a better answer for my son, his two sisters, my husband, and myself. So I began to explore how we could create a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging outside the traditional framework of organized religion, a journey that resulted in my first book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. For three years I traveled the country to bring back stories of secular pioneers who were creating new communities, forming meaningful rituals, and voicing clear answers their kids’ big questions. From hundreds of interviews and many hours of travels, I started to stitch together a new way to live in the world for myself and my family, which I explain in this, the concluding chapter of my book.


Make Your Own Sunday

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

—Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

From my many trips to learn about people who’d left religion and were creating new secular communities, one couple in particular stays in my mind. I met Allen and Brenda Glendenning, a couple in their fifties, at the American Atheists National Convention. Allen and Brenda live in Great Bend, Kansas, and were once active members of the Church of the Nazarene. They were sitting a few seats down from me in a session on secular grief when Allen raised his hand and shared that he was starting to worry about what he and Brenda would do when one of them died now that they didn’t have a religious community to fall back on. It was something I thought about, too, and after the session I asked him if he’d tell me his story.

We sat in upholstered chairs on the balcony overlooking the hotel lobby. Allen wore a crisp suit and square-framed glasses, and Brenda kept her hair in neat waves. They had met in third grade and were both raised in the church. Allen’s father was a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, and Allen attended a Nazarene university. He and Brenda said that their upbringings were very strict, with their parents training their thoughts on not upsetting God through evils such as social dancing. But Brenda said that her family had always been a bit more open-minded, more welcoming, and less judgmental compared to their very conservative religion.

After losing their faith, Allen and Brenda left the church and began to find fellowship on the road, at conventions like the one where I met them. They remained friends with another couple who had also left the church when they did, and they all got together on weekends and sometimes even took trips together. But they said they missed the larger community bonds they’d grown up with, and the music at the church. For a moment as Allen described how much he enjoyed singing in the choir, I sensed a touch of nostalgia. But then he looked me directly in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “I wish I had been raised the way you’re raising your kids,” he said. “And I wish I could have raised my kids that way.”

He said that if he had it to do all over again, he would spend his Sundays differently. Instead of going to church, where the kids went into one room for Sunday school and the parents went into another for the main services, and instead of obeying the strict religious culture all around him, he would spend that time with his kids one-on-one, pursuing the things he and his family really enjoyed, not what they were told they had to do. At the end of our interview, before getting up to go, he added, “I wish I could have all those Sundays back.”

It has been four years since my son asked me what we were, and I’d come up short. We have not gone out and joined a church or a synagogue. We haven’t prayed to the four directions or donned Buddhist robes. I didn’t make my kids meditate or prostrate themselves on prayer rugs or study the Torah. Nevertheless, everything in our lives had changed in ways both imperceptible and profound.

In our new neighborhood in Chicago, where we moved a year ago, we are connected to our past in a way that gives us a true sense of belonging. We live a block away from where my husband, Michael, grew up, and our children attend the school he and his brother went to. Our son plays basketball at the same Neighborhood Club where Michael and his brother once played, and our daughters take gymnastics there. The older two kids walk home from school each day past the brick apartment building where their great-grandparents lived after coming to the United States from Germany in the 1930s to escape the Holocaust. They also see their cousins regularly for sleepovers and the kind of hearty family meals I envied in my Catholic friends’ homes growing up. Even here, in a new place, our son has never said that he feels homesick.

Our children continue to try to find their places in the world, both real and imagined. Our youngest has a clutch of invisible friends who keep her company wherever she goes. When I ask her where they are, she looks as me as if I’m blind and says, “Can’t you see them?” Our older daughter recently told me that she has three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and gymnastics. Our son finds the Greek gods and goddesses fascinating, plays basketball, and loves math. This year he joined the school choir, and sometimes I hear him singing the religious songs he’s learned in class. The sweet notes remind me of the boys choir at the Episcopal church on the New Haven Green that I loved so much as a child. Detached from religion, yet somehow still connected to it, they waft through our house and are even more beautiful to me now.

At night when I tuck the kids into bed, we share two things from the day that we are thankful for and one story they want to hear about my childhood—or Michael’s when he tucks them in. They love these stories of their parents as kids, of our families, of who we were and what we did.

This year I joined the board of the Neighborhood Club, and I work to raise money so kids and their families can benefit from the club’s many programs. Our kids like to give, too. On warm weekends they often run a lemonade stand and donate the money they earn to an animal shelter, the Ronald McDonald House, or another worthy cause. We participate in school-led volunteer activities as well, recently packing hundreds of bag lunches for a homeless shelter and cleaning up a community center in an underserved area of our city. Our children seem to be soaking up the values modeled in our tight-knit community, where service, diversity, and giving are prized.

Occasionally, I take myself to church. There’s a United Church of Christ a block from our house, and on the first Friday of each month it holds a Taizé service, based on a form of worship created in a French monastery during World War II as a way to bring Catholics and Protestants together. The ecumenical service lasts an hour and consists of singing simple, repetitive hymns while holding lit candles in the dimmed light of the cavernous church. There are usually only about fifteen of us there, and we sit scattered as pairs and singles through the pews. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, only the sound of our voices lifting up, I feel at once infinitesimal and valuable beyond measure.

We continue to celebrate the Jewish and Christian holidays in our secular way, but with renewed interest in the history of the traditions. This year, on the final night of Hanukkah, Michael’s brother and his family, along with old friends of Michael’s parents and a dear high school friend of his, joined us for brisket, latkes, and kugel. Surrounded by our loved ones, the children took turns lighting the candles and later opened Hanukkah gifts around the Christmas tree.

Though our lives bear all the traces of the modern American family’s trademark busyness—work and school, errands and activities—we create pockets of togetherness, in nature, at home, in our neighborhood. As we make our way forward without religion, I still don’t have answers to all the big questions. But I’m starting to see that becoming more comfortable holding the questions is the only way that makes sense to me. I turn the questions over and over again until they are like smooth, solid stones.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson speaks of grace as a form of reverence for life. Her understanding of grace is based in Christian theology, but I believe I can find that same sort of grace, too. I know that’s what I found one morning when our younger daughter, then four, had risen before dawn and wrangled herself into her glittering blue-and-white princess outfit. The dress had a satiny bodice and a gauzy skirt that puffed out from her waist. A size too big, it hung to her ankles. She wanted to go out to the driveway and get the newspaper, her favorite errand. It was 5:30 AM, and, though I was in my rumpled pajamas and my head was still in its pre-coffee fog, I opened the front door and stood at the top of the steps as she floated down them. With her feet hidden beneath the fabric of her skirt, her movements gave the impression of a fairy-tale figure descending on air, her blond tangle of hair bouncing slightly as she went down the steps. There was no sound in the neighborhood except for a bird chirping in a nearby neighbor’s yard. I froze, suddenly awake. She was a shiny blue jewel rendered all the more brilliant because of the green and brown tones of the trees and yard surrounding her.

As I watched her bend to pick up the newspaper and turn back to face me, the flash of her crystal-blue eyes showing her pride and excitement, I didn’t need her to mean anything more than she was before me. I didn’t need our lives to be part of a divine, unfolding plan. I didn’t need to believe that God’s hand would guide us through that morning and ever after. Meaning came from the intense awareness of the moment itself, from my reverence for her, for this life we were joined in as family. I simply needed to remain still enough to notice.

GraceWithoutGodFlatCover (1) copyThis is an excerpt from Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. More of her writing can be found at

Katherine Ozment is an award-winning journalist whose essays and articles have been widely published. Grace Without God is her first book. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.



Illustration: Linda Willis






This Is Where You Belong

This Is Where You Belong

Art Street Chalk

By Beth Eakman

Book Review: This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick (Viking 2016)

After years of serial relocation, Melody Warnick and her professor husband, Quinn, thought they’d found a permanent home in Austin, Texas. They had two young daughters now, so they bought a house, made friends, and settled in. But only two years later, Quinn was offered his dream job in Blacksburg, VA, and the family was on the move, again.

Warnick, a freelance journalist who’s written for publications like Parents, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Psychology Today for a decade or so, found herself in a quandary familiar to moms. What was best for her kids—putting down roots—made her want to run. She did not love the town that the locals jokingly called “Bleaksburg.” She felt stuck.

Then, one evening as she was driving through the mountains, returning from an interview with an elderly woman who lived in the middle of nowhere, Warnick had an epiphany. She’d always assumed that people who lived in tiny, isolated places stayed because they were stuck, but this woman had had options. She loved her tiny hometown. She didn’t feel isolated; she felt connected.

Could connection to place be cultivated?

Warnick’s search for answers to these questions and her experiments applying what she learned form the foundation of This is Where You Belong (Viking 2016). The book is loaded with social science, advice, humor, and encouragement and reading it feels like a chatting with your smartest, funniest girlfriend.

When, with kids and husband in tow, Warnick hikes, attends festivals, and marches in a holiday parade, she feels increasingly connected to Blacksburg. When she doesn’t, she fakes it. That’s a thing, too. Acting like you love where you live works, by some magic that only psychologists really understand, and makes you love it more for real.

She calls out every recently relocated mom, starting with herself, for turning to the tawdry consolation of big box stores. No matter where you are in the world, nothing soothes a homesick, disoriented mom like popping the kids in that red cart and strolling the predictable grid of Target’s aisles. Warnick breaks to us gently what we already know: shopping locally is better.

In fact, investing in your community with time, money, skills, and creativity is good for more than just keeping money in the local economy. It’s a whole movement, called “place-making.” People are making their towns, old and new, into places they want to live. They participate in everything from the PTA to city planning committees. They initiate. They become “creative placemakers.”

In a beautifully written scene, Ella, Warnick’s twelve-year-old (and natural scene stealer), is flipping through Instgram photos.

“You know what we should have in Blacksburg?” Ella says. “A sidewalk chalk festival.”

When the Warnicks had lived in Austin, they’d gone to a street art event. “Sidewalk chalk,” in Ella’s own words, was her “true medium.” Their driveway in Blacksburg always “looked like someone was filming a Beatles movie….” Before her experiment, Warnick might have said, “That would be fun,” and returned to her novel. This time, she felt the call.

“Creative placemakers,” she writes, “…aren’t superheroes.” They’re just regular people, including moms and artistic twelve-year-olds. They make the leap from “That would be fun” to “Let’s give it a whirl.” I won’t spoil the fun of the rest of the chapter.

Movers and stayers alike will enjoy This is Where You Belong. I originally thought I’d pass my copy on to a friend who’s moving to Colorado, with teenagers, but I decided to keep it. I bought a couple more for housewarming gifts.

Beth Eakman teaches writing at St. Edward’s University and lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two teenagers who provide her simultaneously with inspiration and interruptions. Visit Beth at, or on Twitter @BethEakman.

Buy the book


photo — © vverve











Top 10 Audiobook Titles for Family Listening

Top 10 Audiobook Titles for Family Listening

audiobook 3Audiobook

By Robin Whitten and Sharon Grover

Whether you are taking a 5-hour road trip this weekend to see fireworks or driving a few miles to partake in a neighborhood BBQ, why not entertain the family with an audiobook? As the editor of AudioFile magazine, I’m excited to share our picks for middle-grade kids below—there are madcap adventures, familiar classics, and challenges facing friends and family. We can pretty much guarantee that the adult listeners will have just as much fun as the kids.


Written and narrated by Neil Gaiman

Harper Audio, 2002

A lonely, doleful girl discovers an alternative world in the apartment next door, complete with “other,” button-eyed parents who promise love and attention, not to mention better food than the girl’s preoccupied parents provide. When the malevolent “other” parents reveal themselves as evil, our unhappy heroine must sort things back to their rightful places. An intensely creepy story with eerie musical interludes by the Gothic Archies, makes this perfect fare for middle school listeners.

The Crossover

Written by Kwame Alexander

Narrated by Corey Allen

Recorded Books, 2014

Basketball teams with poetry in this 2015 Newbery winner that begs to be read aloud. Corey Allen is more than up to the task of taking twins Josh and Jordan Bell rushing down the court or dealing with family tragedy.

Diary of a Mad Brownie

The Enchanted Files

Written by Bruce Coville

Narrated by Euan Morton with Nancy O’Connor and a Full Cast

Listening Library, 2015

A 150-year-old brownie in Connecticut?! Bound to a very messy 11-year-old girl? Join the fun as a full cast explores the enchanted hijinks in Coville’s (My Teacher Is an Alien) latest supernatural journey linking magical Scottish creatures and an American family in an attempt to break a curse as old as time.

Masters of Disaster

Written by Gary Paulsen

Narrated by Nick Podehl

Brilliance Audio, 2010

What happens when three 12-year-old boys have too much time on their hands? Disaster, that’s what! Nick Podehl shines as he narrates these delightfully ridiculous escapades from the pen of Paulsen — a master raconteur specializing in the dare, the challenge, and the resulting chaos (think dumpsters and methane gas) in which boys excel.

Mutiny in Time

Infinity Ring, Book One
Written by James Dashner
Narrated by Dion Graham

Scholastic Audiobooks, 2012

Is The 39 Clues your cup of tea? Then listen to this series and play the game online. In a future where history is broken, three young friends must band together, travel in time, and save the world. The series has several authors, with narrator Graham providing the glue that binds them together in an exciting, roller coaster adventure.


Written by Sara Pennypacker

Narrated by Michael Curran-Dorsano

Harper Audio, 2016

A boy and a fox are the central characters in this heart-rending story of loss, friendship, and war, narrated with appropriate nuance by Curran-Dorsano. When his father enlists in an un-named war, Peter is sent to live with his grandfather and must leave his pet fox behind. Desolate at the loss of his companion, Peter sets out to find Pax, who is struggling to live in the wilderness. The emotional resonance of the story makes this an ideal choice for family listening.

Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes

Written by Rick Riordan

Narrated by Jesse Bernstein

Listening Library, 2015

Percy Jackson made Greek mythology cool and this long introduction to the heroes of old will be perfect for those rides to school or to sports — just enough time to dip in an out of a very tongue-in-cheek exploration of the likes of Hercules, Perseus, Jason, and Atalanta, with all of their extraordinary exploits.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book: The Mowgli Stories

Written by Rudyard Kipling

Narrated by Bill Bailey, Richard E. Grant, Colin Salmon, Tim McInnerny, Bernard Cribbins, Celia Imrie, Martin Shaw

Audible Digital Download, 2015

The real story of the man-child Mowgli, raised by wolves and hunted by a relentlessly evil tiger, unfolds in this full-cast aural delight. The lightweight Disney animated feature pales in comparison to this battle for jungle supremacy, complete with the sounds of the tropical rainforest and the frightful roaring of Shere Kahn.

Treasure Island

Written by Robert Louis Stevenson

Narrated by Alfred Molina

Listening Library, 2007

This swashbuckling exploits of a young boy, a foolish squire, an adventuresome doctor, a menacing pirate, and a search for buried treasure is truly the stuff of classic literature. Molina’s (Doctor Octopus in Spider Man 2) rich vocal characterizations brings this old-fashioned adventure to life for modern families.

Who Could That Be at This Hour?

All the Wrong Questions Series

Written by Lemony Snicket

Narrated by Liam Aiken

Hachette, 2012

A teenaged Lemony Snicket shares his (ahem) autobiographical story of how he became a famous sleuth in this hysterically morose first installment of a series sure to be as popular with his fans as were his adventures with the Baudelaire children. Cliffhangers abound, so be sure to sign up for all installments to get your burning questions answered!

Robin Whitten is the editor and founder of AudioFile magazine. AudioFile publishes a print magazine 6x a year, maintains an active web site,, featuring the curated booklist Audiobooks for Kids & Teens, and runs the popular program SYNC that gives free audiobooks to teens every week during the summer. She has seen audiobooks evolve over 25 years of writing about and reviewing them.

Sharon Grover is a Youth Services and Audiobook Literacy Consultant. She chaired the American Library Association’s Printz (2013) and Odyssey (2010) Committees. Her book, co-authored with Lizette Hannegan, LISTENING TO LEARN: Audiobooks Supporting Literacy was published in 2011.







Ten Classic (and Destined to Become Classic) Books to Read Aloud with Tweens and Teens

Ten Classic (and Destined to Become Classic) Books to Read Aloud with Tweens and Teens

Brown+Girl+DreamingBy Sally Allen

When it comes to reading to young children, advocacy abounds. I stumble on at least one article on the daily – whether in a magazine or newspaper, on a blog or website – emphasizing the importance of reading aloud for developing crucial early literacy skills and encouraging parent/child bonds. Yet when the picture book stage ends (typically between the ages of six through eight), reading together can lose steam or stall completely. Yet isn’t it just as crucial during the tween and teen years?

Sharing reading experiences with our older kids allows us to keep them close while giving them distance. If this sounds paradoxical, consider: Reading together during these years cultivates opportunities to share beautiful moments or discuss difficult subjects through the filter of characters’ experiences. Choices and implications can be explored and dissected in a way that would be infinitely more loaded if it were personal. These are 10 of my favorites for these purposes.

Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

White’s wry, elegant prose and timeless story of the friendship between a spider and a pig make for a magical read aloud. Fair-minded, eight-year-old Fern saves Wilbur, the runt of his litter, from the axe and does such a good job raising him that he is moved to her uncle’s farm down the road. There, he will eventually be slaughtered, except he meets Charlotte. The clever spider conspires to save Wilbur a second time, by using her cunning and forming alliances among a diverse cast of variously motivated animals (life lesson alert). Fair warning: May result in an aversion to bacon.

A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond

Most of us have encountered some version of Bond’s iconic bear. The first novel in the series reveals how Paddington was found and brought home to live with the Brown family and shares his (mis)adventures around town. These include learning to navigate the Underground and escalators, accidentally becoming a theater star, and generally attracting all manner of unintended, and sometimes unwelcome, attention to himself. The hidden gem in these whimsical episodes is their capacity to resonate with young readers who may also at times struggle to navigate a world that can seem overwhelming and strange.

01afb00ff0ab3a3098e05d50fbe2b6c550f6479a25All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

Taylor’s novel is the first in a series about five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side during the early 20th century. The chapters are largely episodic, finely wrought vignettes that bring history to vivid life. Readers spend a day at the New York Public Library, the junk shop of the sisters’ beloved Papa, Coney Island, and the busy market. They discover how Jewish and American holidays – among them Purim, Sukkot, Passover, and the Fourth of July – were celebrated 100 years ago. Threaded through these charming stories are gentle lessons about personal responsibility, family, community, and the importance of people over things in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

Unlike Disney’s rosy-cheeked, dulcet-toned nanny, the Mary Poppins of Travers’ imagination is mercurial, prone to fits of grumpiness, and exceedingly vain (favorite pastimes include staring at reflection in any reflective surface). Readers who have seen the film will enjoy familiar outings – having tea while bobbing gently near the ceiling at Uncle Albert’s house, jumping into one of Bert’s chalk paintings. They’ll also embark on new adventures, including a birthday party for Mary Poppins held at a zoo and an evening spent painting stars onto the night sky. The book’s episodic chapters are perfect for bedtime reading and brim with nonsense and whimsy that will spark the imaginations of readers of all ages.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

In Konigsburg’s 1968 Newbery Medal winning novel, 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid, feeling unappreciated by her parents (sound familiar, anyone?), runs away from home. With her nine-year-old brother (and his well-stuffed piggy bank) in tow, she takes up residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The siblings sleep in the opulent bedroom exhibits, bathe in the (now defunct) fountain, and refill their coffers with coins collected from said fountain. When a mysterious marble statue turns up at the museum, the kids resolve to uncover its origins. Along their journey, Claudia discovers several pertinent truths likely to resonate, almost 50 years later, with t(w)eens and their parents: While finding one’s place in the world involves a constant negotiation between the needs of self and community, it’s okay to want something of one’s own to cherish.

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon copyWhere the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Lin’s enchanting 2010 Newbery Honor novel was inspired by the Chinese folktales she enjoyed as a child, which also provide the inspiration for her protagonist, Minli. She and her parents live in the Village of Fruitless Mountain, where neither animal nor crop can thrive, save rice. Her father’s tales of dragons, kings, and fortunes lighten the day’s burdens for Minli and inspire her to seek the Man in the Moon, whose Book of Fortune is said to “hold all the knowledge of the world.” Along her journey, Minli befriends a dragon who longs to fly, a young boy with a mysterious friend, a mischievous king, and a vengeful dragon. Lin’s lush, sensory language and dramatic cliffhangers make this a delightful, and hard to put down, read aloud.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Winner of the 2014 National Book Award, Woodson’s memoir unfolds in vibrant poems that capture what memory feels like – imagistic and sensory. Individual details gradually accumulate to form larger pictures, as elements in pointillist paintings coalesce into wholes, as understanding dawns gradually from fragments. Woodson describes her experiences growing up between Brooklyn, NY and Greenville, South Carolina, creating powerful word paintings of the Civil War era South, city life in New York, sibling rivalry and love, friendship, jealousy, loss, respect, and discovering inspiration and finding one’s purpose. Woodson’s lyrical verse begs to be read aloud and the subjects she raises – from large scale to intimate – to be discussed.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang

Covering the years 1966 – 1968, her 12th – 14th years, Jiang’s memoir shares a deeply personal experience of national upheaval. During these first years of China’s Cultural Revolution, citizens were exhorted to stamp out the “Four Olds” – “old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.” With a landowning past, Jiang’s family had bad “class status” linking them to the very ideology the Cultural Revolution sought to root out and destroy. Her parents burn family photos and destroy heirlooms; still, her father is imprisoned. Jiang faces an unfathomable choice: To discredit and disown her family or face an uncertain future herself. Not an easy memoir to read, it’s an important one.

Enchanted-Air-672x1024Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle (15 – 17 years)

As with Woodson’s memoir, Engle renders her childhood experiences in verse. Raised by her American-born father and Cuban-born mother during the 1950s and 60s, Engle grew up feeling pulled in two directions: “Am I free to need both,” she asks, “or will I always have to choose / only one way / of thinking?” Her feelings intensify when hostilities between her two countries explode in the 1960s. Saturated with luxurious descriptions – often of the places she inhabits: Cuba during summer visits, California where she lives, Europe during a summer vacation after she is no longer able visit her mother’s home – her poems capture and cast into sharp relief the internal struggle immigrants and their children can experience, especially during times of international conflict.

Sally Allen holds a PhD from New York University. She teaches writing, literature, and communication and is the author of “Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers.” For more information, visit

Book Review — First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

Book Review — First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

March Book Review First BitReviewed by Hilary Levey Friedman

When I think about my childhood home I think about Buddy’s pizza, Leo’s Coney Island Greek salad, and Lelli’s zip sauce. In other words, I conjure up memories of food—tastes, settings, celebrations. According to Bee Wilson, food critic and historian and author of the recent book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, this is not at all surprising. Wilson writes, “Memory is the single most powerful driving force in how we learn to eat; it shapes all of our yearnings.”

I can confirm that when I was pregnant I indeed had yearnings for comfort food. After my boys arrived though thoughts changed to do things: how best to feed them and how best to lose my “baby weight.” In reading First Bite, I have come to see these desires as interrelated, and almost certainly in ways I still do not fully understand, but which will surely influence my children’s eating habits, and thus those of all my descendants.

Over eight chapters Wilson takes us on a food journey that roughly parallels a child’s development, with detours into disorders (turns out that “eating disorders are as numberless as snowflakes”) and meditations on hunger. After each analytic and reflective chapter, eight specific foods get a mini-essay about themselves, like beets, birthday cake, chocolate, and potato chips.

Two of these food mini-essays—chocolate and potato chips—capture the tone, factual research, and complexity of First Bite. When it comes to chocolate Wilson convincingly explains that, “Female chocolate cravings are an archetypal learned behavior.” As for potato chips, she argues that our love of them may go back to our primate ancestors for whom crunchy insects were an important source of protein.

In a somewhat controversial move, Wilson departs from the worldwide guidelines that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. But she rationally makes her case for this, explaining that between the ages of four and seven months, “there is a window when humans are extraordinarily receptive to flavor, but by following current guidelines on exclusive breastfeeding, parents tend to miss it.” While Wilson discusses Baby Led Weaning in Chapter 4 on feeding, she generally thinks that picture is not all positive, instead suggesting that parents expose children to a range of whole foods as early as four months, making repeated attempts even if a child first resists by making a face. The trick is persistence. And listening to a few simple “rules” like those listed in the epilogue. Two of my favorites include: 1) Eat soup, and 2) “Sugar is not love. But it can feel like it.”

For parents interested in learning more about how to feed their younger children the focus should be on the first half of the book, especially Chapter 1 on likes and dislikes and Chapter 5 on siblings. But parents should also be thinking about their own relationship with food, as that is essentially the single biggest predictor of how your little ones respond eat. In Chapter 6 on hunger, Wilson explains:

The latest January diets often claim that if only you follow all the steps, you will never feel hungry again. It’s taken me a long time to realize that part of eating well is making friends with hunger. We are not the starving children. To feel mildly hungry two or three times a day—when you are lucky enough to know that another meal is coming soon—is a good thing. All my life—except when I’d been attempting weight—I’d responded to the gentlest of tummy rumbles as something that needed to be urgently canceled out. It is only now that I see you can easily live with an hour or two of slight emptiness. In fact, it makes the next meal taste better (‘Hunger is the best sauce,’ as the proverb goes).

I have certainly become a more varied eater as I have gotten older, moved around, and reconstituted my social experiences from the restaurants of my suburban Detroit youth. But as I now seriously strive to last the last of that baby weight (or, more appropriately now, “toddler weight”), I am having to learn to live with some hunger again, and remind myself that this is not in and of itself a bad thing.

In reading First Bite I also learned why I am one of the few people I know who dislikes both coffee and beer. Wilson explains that I am likely a supertaster, or someone who tastes more, so bitter things (oh, like coffee and beer) aren’t my thing, despite being two of the most popular beverages in the world.

When people find out that I don’t drink any coffee at all they are often shocked, explaining they would be far less productive if they did not drink some brew each day. Somehow I get through each busy day without coffee (though I do consume caffeine through either Diet Coke or tea!), but starting next month I will have one less thing on my full plate as I will be stepping down as Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor. As I wrote in 2014 when I began this position, I hope books suggested by our magazine have helped you find meaning as both readers and parents, and not just in the words, but in the spaces in between them.

Whether it has been sharing books or meals with Brain, Child readers and writers I’ve enjoying our interactions. And, don’t worry, I won’t stop reading, writing, or eating for that matter, and you can continue to follow me through various forms of social media or on my website, linked below. Although I might be able to cut back on the caffeine just a touch…

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the outgoing Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Book Review: The Informed Parent

Book Review: The Informed Parent

51DnMpXkTqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_by Jennifer Richler

So much parenting writing these days comes off of as preachy or alarmist or both. Check out the parenting section of your local bookstore and you will find titles like The Collapse of Parenting. A quick Google search of “parenting” yields articles like “Six Ways Good Parents Contribute to their Child’s Anxiety.” The title alone makes me feel anxious.

The Informed Parent, a new book Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, is different. It is a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of the latest research on parenting young children. And it is completely non-judgmental. “[W]e don’t know your family and can’t say which route would be best for you and your child. But we give you the scientific information to map your own path,” they write. How refreshing.

If you’re about to be a parent or recently became one, poring over reams of research on everything from antidepressants in pregnancy to home births to breastfeeding to vaccines is probably the last thing you want to do. Luckily, authors have done it for you, and have translated it all into easy-to-understand terms.

The result is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking to a really smart friend, one who knows a lot more than you do, but never acts like a know-it-all.

As someone who spent many years conducting scientific research, I’m always skeptical when a book bills itself as ” science-based,” as this one does in its subtitle. I worry that it will mislead readers by oversimplifying the research or overstating what it can tell us.

But Haelle and Willingham deftly avoid these pitfalls, explaining the findings clearly and thoroughly, while repeatedly reminding the reader about the limitations of scientific research: variables the researchers didn’t or couldn’t control for, biases on the part of the researchers in terms of how they collected, analyzed, and interpreted the data. When the findings on a given topic are particularly scarce or messy, as is the case for many parenting issues, the authors come right out and say so.

Even when the data are clear, the authors avoid being prescriptive, acknowledging the many factors that influence people’s parenting decisions. They cite the evidence for the health benefits of breastfeeding, for example, but are quick to point out that “for an individual woman, those benefits may or may not outweigh other considerations or possible harms of breastfeeding,” such as the psychological stress a woman might experience if nursing proves especially difficult.

When they lay out the risks of certain practices, such as co-sleeping, the writers keep their tone practical, not preachy. As veteran parents themselves, they acknowledge that some will choose bed-sharing with their infants as a way to get a few precious hours of sleep. Instead of admonishing parents for the practice, they review the research in a clear-headed way, highlighting evidence on ways to reduce the risks (e.g. , avoiding waterbeds, smoking, sharing a bed with a preemie, and having multiple bed sharers). Refreshingly, they also suggest potential risks of not bed-sharing, including a higher chance of falling asleep with the baby on a couch, which is a dangerous practice.

In the spirit of showing that there are many ways to approach parenting, the writers include “What we did” paragraphs at the end of many sections, each describing various decisions they made in their children’s early years — where to give birth, how to feed their infant, how to manage postpartum depression (both experienced it). By revealing these personal choices in a matter-of-fact way, the authors lend credibility to the claim that there is no one “right” way to parent.

The authors balance this emphasis on personal decision-making with a healthy respect for scientific research and what it can tell us when carried out rigorously. They choose high-quality, well-controlled studies to review in depth and relate findings that might surprise many parents, even those who try to keep up with the latest developments. They cite an “incredibly detailed UK analysis” that found no environmental benefit to cloth diapers over disposables, for example. They also describe studies that found no evidence of harm to the fetus from a mother dying her hair while pregnant, and no evidence of health benefits from eating organic rather than conventional food. Among the most recent research they discuss is the evidence that early introduction of peanuts actually lowers risk of peanut allergy, contrary to what was previously thought. This led the American Academy of Pediatrics to revise their recommendations last year, advising parents to introduce peanut products to infants between 4 and 11 months instead of waiting until after 12 months. By highlighting the latest research, Haelle and Willingham remind us that research is a dynamic process, and that the “accepted wisdom” is always in flux.

This openness to challenging ideas leads the authors to entertain claims others might shy away from. Instead of the standard disapproval of all things screen-related that you’ll find in many parenting books and magazines, for example, they discuss the potential advantages of touch-screens over TV: interactivity, personalization, and progressive learning, which allows children to build on concepts they’ve already mastered. “It’s entirely reasonable that touch-screen devices could promote as much learning and traditional toys,” they write, showing their willingness to carefully consider an issue for which other parenting experts might have a knee-jerk reaction.

Screen time is one of the few topics relevant to parents of toddlers and preschoolers that the authors discuss. Despite describing itself in the subtitle as a guide for “your child’s first four years,” over two-thirds of the book is devoted to topics relevant to parents of infants. This is probably because the research on these topics is more abundant and somewhat cleaner; there’s simply more to say about the research on breastfeeding, circumcision, and medications during pregnancy than on complex topics like discipline.

Still, I was disappointed that the book didn’t go into more depth on certain topics, particularly developmental delays. There is a section about the possible causes of autism (the research is unambiguous that vaccines are NOT one of them, a fact the writers thankfully state plainly), and another on screening for delays. But given Willingham’s incisive writing about autism elsewhere, I expected more, particularly guidance for parents on when to be concerned about their child’s development without becoming unnecessarily alarmed.

Readers will find more discussion of certain topics on the, where the authors maintain a blog highlighting the latest studies on everything from migraines in pregnancy to hydrolyzed formula.

Overall, The Informed Parent succeeds as an informative, reassuring guide to parenting in the early years. Toward the end of the book, the authors say that they set out to create a “factual resource in the face of the relentless messages about ‘how you should be doing it’ and ‘what you’re doing wrong’ that no parent can escape in the modern age.” Mission accomplished.

Jennifer Richler received her PhD in clinical psychology and is now a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana with her husband and two kids. Follow her on Twitter.






Top Ten Book Picks To Celebrate Earth Day

Top Ten Book Picks To Celebrate Earth Day


By Christina Krost

Caring for the earth is important to me and my family. And I bet it’s important to you, too. My family’s interest in sustainability began with a desire to save money after my husband’s sudden job loss in late 2008. We exhaustively researched cloth diapering as a way to save money, which led to hunting for non-toxic detergent and personal care products, which led to choosing more organic food options, which increased our awareness of fair trade practices and environmental justice issues. Our change of heart and consumer habits took place over several years and continues to this day, influencing our choices at the grocery store and shopping mall.

But it’s a big wide world and we’re very, very small. How do we as parents instill a desire to care for our shared land, air, and water? How do we teach the connection of families all over the world? We can start by reading. I gave my library card a workout this month to compile a list of 10 books that cover varied topics about earth care including sustainable food & land use, water preservation, energy & climate change, and advocacy. These books are great ways to begin conversations at home about what small things every family can do to help reduce their impact on the earth. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. And you can start this Earth Month at home, with story time.

Common Ground: The Water, Earth, and Air We Share by Molly Bang (1997)

This book describes how our society has moved from one of community to one focused on self-preservation. Through simple words, concepts, and illustrations, author Molly Bang describes how we’ve taken what should belong to everyone—grass for grazing, fish from the sea, fossil fuels from the ground, water from lakes and rivers—and used it for short-term benefit. Our mentality that there will always be resources to use and land to live on is quickly drying up, and soon we’ll have nowhere else to go and no more resources to deplete. This book appeals to kids’ sense of justice and fairness and might inspire your school-aged children to advocate for clean air and water or find ways to better share the Earth’s resources.

On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole (2007)

This charming book follows Caroline and her family as they move into a new home. Caroline notices some wildflowers growing in the too-tall grass of her new yard, and as her father begins to mow she ropes off an area to save the flowers from certain death. As she notices more and more beauty and biodiversity in her yard, the roped off area becomes bigger and bigger until the family sells their lawnmower and builds up a small little nature preserve within the fence of their backyard. The idea to return Meadowview Street into an actual meadow catches on, and several other families join in until there is a home for everyone—plant, animal, and insect—in their neighborhood. The illustrations are soft and there are few words on a page, making this an excellent read for all ages.

The Earth Book by Todd Parr (2010)

New York Times bestselling author Todd Parr has written another family favorite (His book We Belong Together was reviewed here). His colorful and child-like illustrations catch the eye in this simple children’s book emphasizing ways even the youngest children can help care for the planet. He illustrates simple actions like turning off the faucet when brushing teeth or using both sides of paper to draw on to reflect the characters’ love for the plants, animals, and people around the world. Parr ends the book with this sentiment: “Remember: if we take care of it, it will take care of us.”

Compost Stew: An A to Z Recipe for the Earth by Mary McKenna Siddals (2010)

“Compost is a nature’s way of recycling,” states the author’s note at the beginning of the book. This truth will lead you and your children to discover the many things you can, and cannot, compost. Got a budding chef at home? This book can help make composting part of your food prep routine and make cooking an environmental exercise. Paying close attention to what is and is not compostable might lead to improvements in eating habits. This might spark discussion about one of the easiest ways to reduce your family’s carbon footprint–going meatless for one meal a week. The illustrations are charming and use recycled materials and papers. This book is suitable for preschool aged children and up.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982)

Winner of both the American Book Award and Caldecott Award in 1983, this classic story follows a little girl named Alice through her life in turn of the century New England. Alice longs for adventure and to live by the sea, but is ultimately encouraged by her beloved grandfather to “do something to make the world more beautiful.” Though Alice isn’t sure what that thing might be, the story reflects how her life choices and travels to faraway places are framed within these aspirations. When she returns to live by the sea in her old age, though frail, she finds a way to create beauty by planting beautiful blue, purple, and rose-colored flowers called lupine. Though others think her crazy, she ultimately becomes wise like her own grandfather and inspires children of a new generation to go and make the world a more beautiful place, though they don’t yet know what that might be. The soft illustrations and beautiful landscapes make this a book for the whole family to treasure.

Recycle: A Handbook for Kids by Gail Gibbons (1992)

Our children learn at school and at home that they should recycle their paper, plastic, glass, polystyrene, and aluminum, but do they know what happens to it after it’s sent to the recycling center or landfill? The bright and colorful illustrations will engage elementary students in a behind-the-scenes look at the steps our garbage and recyclables take on their journey to reuse and provides helpful tips on ways they can help clean up the environment. The illustrations include people of varied ages, genders, and colors, reinforcing the idea that everyone can do their part to recycle.

The Green Mother Goose: Saving the World One Rhyme at a Time by Jan Peck and David Davis (2011)

Who doesn’t love nursery rhymes? With familiar verses reworked to reflect a care for creation and whimsical recycled paper collage illustrations printed with soy-based ink on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, this book will charm your preschool and elementary-aged children. It’s become a new family favorite in my house! Familiar characters like Old Mother Hubbard, Mary Quite Contrary, and Little Jack Horner normalize earth-friendly actions like eating organic, using cloth shopping bags, composting, eliminating toxic pesticides, harnessing wind and solar energy, and upgrading to energy-efficient light bulbs. The overarching message is that care for our common land, air, and water can be fun when we work together.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971)

A favorite environmental book for more than four decades, The Lorax is always kid-approved for story time. Dr. Seuss’ imaginative landscapes and funny characters take us through the causes of an environmental catastrophe. Children can easily connect how deforestation and industry affects the animals, water, and air in the surrounding ecosystem. Though the book’s cheerful scenery ultimately ends in a grim landscape, there is encouragement for future generations: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Bag in the Wind by Ted Kooser (2010)

This book, written by a former US Poet Laureate, was inspired by an item that is often challenging to eliminate from daily life or to recycle. A thoughtful narrative of a lone plastic grocery bag that escapes a landfill, we follow the bag’s travels and interactions with people on the fringes of society and one industrious little girl. The book lends itself to conversations about compassion, conservation, and connection. Soft illustrations of wintry rural landscapes on 100% post-consumer waste paper add to the charming nature of this picture book. The author’s note at the end gives helpful information about why plastic bags are so difficult to get rid of and what simple changes we can make to keep them out of the garbage.

Why Should I Save Energy by Jen Green (2001)

Have your children ever experienced a power outage? Do they wonder where energy comes from and what might happen if it runs out? How can they conserve energy? This book helps answer such questions in a kid-friendly way. Humorous illustrations, simple text, and speech bubbles help make this book relatable and easy to understand for the preschool and elementary-aged child. The author’s note at the end gives tips on how to discuss energy use with children, suggests follow-up activities, and offers other books to read on this topic. Other books in the “Why Should I” series include topics on protecting nature, recycling, and saving water.

Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for Faith in Place, an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at


Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.


Top Ten Books To Welcome A New Baby

Top Ten Books To Welcome A New Baby

Your Were the First

By Christina Krost

As I sit at my computer typing, I hear Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood reboot on PBS, singing from the next room: “When a baby makes things different, find a way to make things fun.” It’s good advice even for me, an experienced mom of three who stopped having time to read parenting books before baby #3 came along.

My youngest daughter, Harper, is obsessed with all things Daniel Tiger and baby dolls, so this episode is pretty much on repeat all the live long day. She is my final baby, so she will never know what it’s like to transition from baby to big sister. But after preparing my two older daughters for this life change in the past I know that each girl reacted to the news differently: one with indifference, the other with absolute joy. As the wife of a mainline Christian pastor, I’ve observed many family configurations over the years and since all families are different, I’ve included books that span cultures and include adoption and fostering. So, once you’ve ordered the “I’m a Big Brother/Sister t-shirt,” add a few of these books that have helped my own children with this transition to your bookshelves. Start with some reading just for you and your partner and then move on to kids’ books.

The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D, David R. Cross, Ph.D, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine (2007)

If I were considering fostering or adopting a child, this would be the first book I picked up. It contains a balance of charts and graphs with narratives about what children may have experienced before coming to their new parent’s home. It’s full of practical solutions to common behavioral and social problems and offers clues about a child’s development that may have led to such behaviors. It’s well organized but might initially seem overwhelming. Note that a quick search through the table of contents might help give timely answers to pressing questions. I find the book to be a gentle, loving, and practical way to welcome your new child into your family.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings by Dr. Laura Markham (2015)

If I were looking for a list of ways to help my children adapt to a new sibling through birth or adoption, this would be my absolute first choice. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids has devoted the last third of her newest book to the time before welcoming the new baby and through the baby’s first year (previously reviewed at Brain, Child). She has a gentle approach to parenting that focuses on setting up a peaceful home environment and likens a child’s development to the rings of a tree: daily experiences and interactions are shaping your children into the people they will be for the rest of their lives. She focuses on peer modeling for how to cope with successes and failures so that our children can learn from us, and in turn model appropriate behavior for younger siblings. This is the book I wished I’d had before welcoming my second daughter in 2009.

I’m a Big Sister and I’m a Big Brother by Joanna Cole (1997)

I gave I’m a Big Sister to my oldest daughter when she came to meet her baby sister, Ava, in the hospital. It’s well-worn and loved and served us well when we welcomed daughter #3 almost 5 years later. It’s very light and easy for a toddler or preschooler to understand and attend to. Though it references bottles over breastfeeding, it also features a father in a nurturing role. There is a short note to parents on the last page with tips to ease the new baby transition and ends with, “A caring family has plenty of love to go around.”

My Mom’s Having a Baby! by Dori Hillestad Butler (2005)

This book is for older children and illustrates month-by-month how a baby grows and develops in utero. It is written from a child’s perspective. There is an age-appropriate discussion of how babies are made using correct anatomical names (penis, vagina, cervix, uterus, sperm, egg). The father is seen in a supportive role. This book would have been helpful for my then eight year-old when welcoming her baby sister, but probably would have been too much information for my four year-old.

You Were the First by Patricia MacLachlan (2013)

This beautifully illustrated hardcover from Patricia MacLachlan of Sarah, Plain and Tall fame is gentle and lovely and focuses on milestones in baby’s first year. Both mother and father are featured as loving and nurturing caregivers. The family pet is included on most pages as well, an important part of the transition in many families. The book is not written as if a new baby is imminent but as a reassurance that the first child will always have a special place in the family.

Welcoming Babies by Margy Burns Knight (1994)

This book is a wonderful treasury of global cultural practices around welcoming new babies. It includes activities like singing, kissing, touching, blessing, announcing, and promising. It is very inclusive and features Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. There are pages devoted to premature babies that do not get to come home to their families right away and adopted babies who have two special days: their birth date and their adoption date. Families of many different colors and ages are featured. The text is straightforward and encourages the reader to find commonalities in their birth celebrations. The additional notes section at the back of the book further explains these commonalities.

We Belong Together by Todd Parr (2007)

This book is for those who are expanding their family through adoption, but the book’s message is great for all families: a family is a place to share love. This book is also quite inclusive and includes an author’s note at the beginning instructing families to change pronouns to suit their needs. The illustrations are very bright and colorful and are made to look as if a child had drawn them and the language is very accessible for kids of all ages. This book, like most of Todd Parr’s other books such as The Family Book and It’s Okay to Make Mistakes, are family favorites.

The New Small Person by Lauren Child (2014)

Lauren Child’s characters Charlie and Lola are family favorites, so when I kid-tested this book it was quickly approved. It also sparked an interesting conversation with my oldest about what it was like to become a big sister for the first time. This book describes the transition an older only child, Elmore, makes when his little brother comes on the scene. Elmore loves being the “funniest, cleverist, most adorable person someone has ever seen.” But that all changes when the new small person arrives. He doesn’t like his brother touching his carefully lined-up things or changing the TV channel, but by the end of the story Elmore realizes life is more fun with two.

Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats (1967)

This book by Ezra Jack Keats, author of the classic The Snowy Day (the first full-color picture book to feature an African-American main character), takes on how hard life can be for a preschooler when a new baby arrives. Peter is admonished by his mother for making too much noise knocking over his block tower, so he decides to take what few things haven’t been repurposed for the new baby and run away. He grabs his chair, a picture of himself as a baby, and his dog. He sets up shop outside and realizes he’s too big for his chair. So he returns to his family and happily helps to paint his beloved chair pink for his new little sister. Both mom and dad are featured in nurturing roles. This classic book is a quick read and will hold the attention of preschool children and younger.

101 Things to Do with Baby by Jan Ormerod (1994)

This graphic-novel style book is a perfect way to show young children how to integrate a new baby into their regular routines like mealtime, laundry, playtime, and other small family moments. It is gentle and loving and illustrates how families have enough love for everyone. Both father and mother characters are shown in nurturing roles. There are even pages devoted to what to do when older children feel frustrated or jealous about the attention the new baby receives. This story is driven by the pictures and has limited text, making it suitable for children(and parents!) of all ages.

Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at

Top 10 Books for Parent-Child Book Clubs with Tweens and Teens

Top 10 Books for Parent-Child Book Clubs with Tweens and Teens

Silhoutte of a Sparrow coverBy Lori Day

As the author of a book about mother-daughter book clubs, and as a parent who often read books with my daughter at home, I cannot speak highly enough about the transformative power of literature. My favorite part of sharing books with my daughter is having a discussion that begins with some aspect of the plot or the characters, and then watching it shift seamlessly to a discussion about something similar that is going on in her own life. Whether during our book club meetings or in private historically these were conversations that might otherwise have never arisen. In those magical moments, the awkwardness and resistance that often prevent kids from talking directly to their parents about things that really matter just melted away thanks to the distance a “fictional” story presented.

Sharing books with my child helped me understand her world and opened up crucial lines of communication when she was in elementary school—lines that remained open throughout her tween and teen years, and to this very day. The benefits of connection and exploration of identity accrue to parents and children of all genders and gender identities, whether they are in a book club with other parents and children or whether they simply read books along with their kids at home.

The books I chose for this list touch upon some of the universal experiences of coming of age, and provide plentiful conversation starters for parents on the difficult issues kids are navigating in today’s society.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (ages 8+)Talking points: Disability and empathy

Auggie Pullman, Wonder‘s protagonist, was born with a facial deformity that has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. But come 5th grade, he no longer wants to be homeschooled and desperately wishes to be treated like an ordinary kid, so he enters his local public school. The book begins from Auggie’s perspective, but soon pivots to include the points of view of other important people in his life.

This book is about bullying, but it is also about much more. It is about kindness and hope and the trials and tribulations of friendship under extraordinary circumstances. As Auggie’s family and friends wrestle with how to deal with his difference in an empathetic and accepting way, Auggie himself rises above his disability through a series of big and small moments so authentic to the journey of any child who must suffer inevitable wounds and derive strength from their remaining scars.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (ages 8+) Talking points: Female leadership and egalitarian gender roles

In the scorching summer of 1899, in a small Texas town outside of Austin, eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is growing up in a well-to-do family as the only daughter sandwiched between three older brothers and three younger ones. As the Tate family rings in the new century, Calpurnia wrestles with what it means to be a girl in this era, and how to reconcile her mother’s aspirations for her to be a housewife with her own aspirations to be a scientist. Her close relationship with her grandfather is central to the book.

Set against a backdrop of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the story focuses on Calpurnia’s “evolution” into a budding young female naturalist who resents the gendered demands placed upon her to sew and cook and prepare for a domestic life she views as boring and monotonous compared to the excitement of studying nature and biology.

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (ages 10+) Talking points: War and religious extremism

Eleven-year-old Parvana, like other girls and women in Kabul, is not allowed to go to school, go shopping, or even play outside since the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan. She spends most of her time indoors, stuck in her family’s one-room home. When Taliban militants take her father away, Parvana must cut off her hair and pose as a boy in order to support her family.

Like many girls and women oppressed by the Taliban’s regime, Parvana actually comes from an educated family. The changes instituted under Sharia Law dismantle the rights and quality of life females experienced before the Taliban gained control. Although now dressing in a chador (veil), Parvana’s feelings about the repressive Muslim regime she now struggles against are always clear.

This is must-read literature for American children who have grown up during the war in Afghanistan and are curious about the lives of the people there, especially the plight of females.

Seedfolksby Paul Fleischman (ages 10+) Talking points: Poverty, social struggle, and the need for human connection

In this short, spare, beautifully written series of vignettes, a blighted vacant lot is transformed into a community garden and brings together the surrounding group of neighbors who are strangers to one another. The neglected patch of ground begins to come to life under the care of one young girl and then becomes a magnet for a dozen others who live nearby, each contributing a different planting. Each vignette is told by a different voice—young, old, male, female, Korean, Haitian, Hispanic—all living tough lives in need of something that speaks to their hearts and gives them hope.

This is a very moving book that describes multicultural, hardscrabble urban life in a socioeconomically disadvantaged environment. It will help you talk to your children about what it is to struggle with the basics of surviving when you have limited resources, and the resilience that can arise in those circumstances when people come together around a common cause.

The Giver by Lois Lowry (ages 12+) Talking points: Individuality, adversity and resilience

This is a haunting story about a futuristic society where life is rigidly structured and contentment comes at the cost of conformity. Parents all have exactly two children—one son and one daughter. Children are medicated so as not to develop romantic interests and at twelve they are assigned a career that has been chosen for them by the Elders. Anyone who is disabled or old is “released” for the benefit of all.

The story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, a model child whose life assignment is to become the Receiver of Memory. He is both burdened and enriched by the memories that are passed down to him during his training and he comes to see the hypocrisy of his community that has sacrificed creativity and individuality for order and predictability.

Parents who read The Giver with their kids will be able to discuss what it would be like to live without disease or pain or crime or wars, and whether such a utopia is actually in some ways dystopian, because without challenges and adversity and failures, we are not fully human.

The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (ages 12+) Talking points: Social media and platonic boy/girl friendships

Who remembers those CD-ROMs you’d get in the mail from AOL in the mid-’90s, giving you 100 free hours of this new thing called the Internet? This is the setting for The Future of Us, featuring two best-friend protagonists, Emma and Josh.

When Emma logs on to AOL for the first time, she somehow stumbles through a
wormhole to the future, where she discovers something called Facebook and has no idea what status update, poke, or friend request mean.

She soon realizes she can glimpse her own future as a thirty-one-year-old woman, as well as the futures of her high school friends. Soon, the teenagers start to understand “ripples”—the things they say and do in daily life that have observable effects on what they see in their future lives on Facebook. Josh sees a happily married adult version of himself, while Emma sees an adulthood she is desperate to change. Along the way, Josh and Emma realize that it is better to live in the present, especially because the future they decide they want is with each other.

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (ages 12+) Talking points: Bullying, individuality, and fitting in socially

Stargirl is one of my favorite books for tweens and young teens. It is as eccentric and enchanting as its protagonist, Susan “Stargirl” Caraway, whose unconventional life and worldview are at first mesmerizing to her classmates, but eventually backfire on her after she tries to conform, betraying her true self. There seems to be an element of magical realism in this book, although I’ve never heard or read anyone else express this same observation. The character of Stargirl is perhaps a metaphor for the inner tension all adolescents feel to some extent between going along with the crowd and daring to be unique.

This book addresses many important issues like individuality, bullying, bravery, diversity and acceptance. I’ve never read a book with a stronger message of nonconformity and staying true to who you are than Stargirl.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (ages 12+) Talking points: Bullying, the beauty ideal and self-actualization

Part Lord of the Flies, part America’s Next Top Model, and part Gilligan’s Island, Libba Bray’s fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek send-up of American girl culture, reality TV, and a beauty industry run amok is some of the smartest social commentary I’ve ever read in the YA Lit genre. Fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant are in a plane crash and find themselves surviving, Lost-style, on a desert island without make-up or cameras, and also without food, water, or shelter.

Their surreal adventures as they cope with their own human foibles without hairspray or the Internet are actually an interesting counterpoint to the descent into savagery seen among the boys in Lord of the Flies. For these beauty-obsessed “mean girls,” being cut off from civilization gives them the freedom from societal pressures to actually find themselves, and to come of age in a remote location where their appearance can no longer be the core of who they are.

Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (ages 12+) Talking points: Pressure on boys to prove bravery, and what it means to be a man

Written in 1941 and set in Polynesia, Call It Courage remains popular to this day. Fifteen-year-old Mafatu has had a crippling fear of the ocean ever since his mother drowned when he was a young child. His father is the chief of an island of seafaring people where courage is measured by a man’s ability to conquer the sea. Mafatu has had to endure teasing and ridicule his entire life. At 15, he can take it no longer, and sets out on a solitary journey by canoe in order to win the respect of his community. More important than that, he goes off on a quest to find courage within himself.

As coming-of-age stories go, this one is classic, especially for boys. Girl-oriented books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves are classic survival stories starring brave girls who triumph in harsh circumstances. Parents who read Call It Courage with their kids can talk about what society expects of boys and girls as they “come of age,” how those things are similar or different, and how things are evolving.

Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin (ages 12+) Talking points: LGBT relationships; issues of racial, gender, and socioeconomic justice

In this beautifully written historical novel set in Prohibition-era Minnesota, sixteen-year-old Garnet must go live with snobby relatives at a lakeside resort for the summer to escape a polio epidemic in her hometown. It is to be her last hurrah—a summer of fun before her final year of high school, after which she is to get married and settle into being a housewife. Garnet has a passion for bird watching and dreams of one day going to college and becoming an ornithologist, despite her mother’s more traditional plans for her. When Garnet gets a summer job in a hat shop, she meets the beautiful flapper Isabella, and they fall in love and begin a secret relationship.

When the author, Molly Beth Griffin, was asked in an interview why she chose to write a lesbian coming-of-age story, she explained that most books about LGBT teens focus on their “coming out” stories, but that this should not be the only type of book out there. The relationship between Garnet and Isabella involves many of the same joys and challenges of teenage love experienced by heterosexual couples, and she wanted to show that. The book also revolves around many important and interesting social and historical facts beyond the sexual orientation of the main characters; it delves into issues of racial and gender inequality, as well as the economic dynamics of the Gilded Age that led to the Great Depression.


Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture.

Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting draws exclusively from the plays, and does not include any lines from sonnets. You can imagine that the tone of the book would change quite substantially if it included lines like, “Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” as opposed to, “My womb, my womb, my womb undoes me.”

The purpose of James Andrews’ illustrations and commentary in the end is to make you smile, and perhaps provide some reassurance for those days when you say to yourself in your head the line from The Tempest: “Good wombs have borne bad sons.”

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She has two good sons borne from her good womb.

Buy Shakespeare’s Guide to Parenting

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything—everything I did, everything you saw—because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.

—Kurtz to Willard, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I recently asked my kids about their first memories.

“What was it?” I asked. “What’s the first thing you can remember?” Without thinking, both recalled early images of bold blue macaroni and cheese boxes. They had consumed Kraft by the case at daycare.

“You don’t remember anything before eating macaroni and cheese?” I pressed. I was fishing for proof my parenting fuck-ups weren’t set in stone, floating around in their psyches like a laminated list already prepared for their future therapists.

“Nope,” Andrew, my youngest, assured me. “I just remember playing at Amy’s house and eating mac and cheese.”

Relief set in. Thank God for the hypnotic effect of video games, Finding Nemo, and processed cheese products. I hadn’t been discovered. They don’t know.

I hate babies. I fucking hate ’em. Though I birthed a couple, was one, and acknowledge that everyone I know must have been a baby, I’d rather take my rotund shape out bikini shopping in bright fluorescent lighting with my mother-in-law after eating three helpings of shrimp and broccoli Alfredo than coo over babies, pretend they’re cute, or lie to unsuspecting parents that their baby looks any different than every other swaddled and gurgling creature at the hospital. Babies, I’ve learned, rob us of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they’re anti-constitutional.


I’ve always hated babies. I didn’t even enjoy being a baby. My first memory is of standing in my own crib screaming my lungs out at my tired mother. Perhaps this explains why I’m an only child.

I grew up in Georgia, where the only moneymaking options for a gangly preteen girl were babysitting or prostitution. Since the latter was illegal and possibly dangerous, I chose the former to earn the money to buy a second copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, having thoroughly worn out and scratched up my first one. I learned early on that babysitting young kids wasn’t so bad. After all, they’re easily placated with television and macaroni and cheese. Babysitting actual babies, on the other hand, plunged one into the eighth circle of hell, which I believe is only one step above being frozen in your own shit.

Babies do one thing: they demand. Whether it’s food, wiping, shoulders to puke on, or pacifiers, they pull you into their own shit and demand more. After one particularly harrowing session of babysitting, Baby-in-Crib (whose name I’ve either forgotten or deliberately purged) screamed at me so loudly that I all I could do was curl up, fetal position, in the corner of its nursery. I pulled myself together enough to feed it and change it and keep it safe for a couple of hours until its owners returned from their date night. I stopped babysitting babies after that. Later, in college, I worked briefly as a nanny. There was a standoff with a six-month-old. I lost. That’s all I’m legally obliged to say.

I don’t have a good explanation for most of what I’ve done, including becoming a mother. Some primordial urge must have set in when I was three years into an otherwise blissful marriage. At least I think it was blissful. I’ve got kids now. I can’t remember.

A craving to propagate the species infects some of us at a vulnerable age for reasons that only God and Darwin understand. The copulating part of this whole process is great—over too soon, but great. However, the forty-eight-week gestation period followed by infancy? That first time around, it’s boot camp. You’ve got this outside force compelling you to obey, bending your will, breaking you down. That first tour of duty is the longest.


“The Horror! The Horror!”

William was born in the middle of a hell-hot August to parents with too few skills, living in a steamy, two-bedroom apartment near the University of Illinois. My husband Bryan and I were graduate students, working our way through various degree programs to put off the inevitability of real life. But real life can’t be delayed when you’re carrying nearly ten pounds of dude inside of you, a dude who eventually attempts an exit just below the left lung. William never turned, never got into position, never did anything but suck his thumb in utero, urinate, and kick the piss out of my bladder. He couldn’t even manage to get out on time. Two weeks past his due date, he was content just to sit there, contorting my torso and rewiring my colon to suit his emerging limbs. My OB/GYN was on vacation the week William was due, so I consoled myself that managing to hang on in the sweltering heat was good, since it meant Dr. Shepherd would be back to facilitate the “blessed event.”

The details of birth are redundant and repetitive: push, breathe, scream, curse, try not to take the sharp objects away from the medical professionals so you can stab the responsible party.

William didn’t cooperate, so they shot me up with Pitocin, the induction cocktail, which I endured for about twenty-two hours. Thankfully, Dr. Shepherd needed to get to a party that night, and when he decided he was bored waiting for me to deliver, the nurses pitched the Pitocin and slapped me down on the table for a speedy C-section. Actually, the chatter between Dr. Shepherd and his nurses about his impending party kept me preternaturally calm in the middle of the chaos that is surgical delivery. Emergency sections are very different beasts from planned ones; my second son, Andrew, with the giant-but-healthy head, arrived via a planned and particularly organized C-section. Those are downright leisurely. I’d do that again any morning: have baby extracted, do some mild nursing by midday, then enjoy a little happy-hour gin and tonic at four. But the last-minute emergency variety left me resentful of William, who necessitated the drugs, the shaving, the strapping down of my arms, and the colon cleanse a nurse performed on me because my bowels had shut down after the trauma. We were not on good terms when he got here, and his incessant screaming upon arrival didn’t endear him to us immediately. Yet we managed to get this squirming pile of flesh into the infant car seat and safely back to our suddenly tinier apartment.

As in my early babysitting endeavors, I managed to feed him, change him, and keep him healthy and safe—except this time, no parents were coming back after date night. No one was coming to relieve me. He stayed with us, curdling our nerves from five every afternoon until he passed out just before ten at night. He was inconsolable. What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t inform the reader that the life-sucking malady known as colic will steal your soul and tempt you to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads if only this kid will shut the fuck up. Seriously, editors, get that into the updated fifth edition.


“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Gas drops. Baby Tylenol. Rocking. Nursing. Nursing upside down, on the left side. Sleeping with the head in an upright position. Sleeping in the bouncy seat. Putting the baby down. Letting him cry it out. Picking the baby up. Driving around the neighborhood. Sound machines with whooshes of the ocean or a mother’s wombed-up heartbeat. Special bottles that limit air in the baby’s tummy. Trips to the pediatrician. (They love those, at $250 a visit). Listening to a mother-in-law, who claims everything will be fine, and talking to helpful neighbors, who prescribe shots of whiskey.

We tried them all. Some remedies worked for a tiny bit of time, but escape was the only consistent antidote. I resorted to making multiple trips to the grocery store between five and ten in the evening. I dashed to the store at 5:45 p.m. for diapers and again at 6:15 for gas drops, followed by a final 8:30 trip to get some toilet paper. Anything to avoid the baby. My husband would remember we needed milk and then, two hours later, he’d go back for a box of Cocoa Puffs. Between excursions, we managed. Barely. But only because of the Cocoa Puffs and The Waltons reruns, with their infectious family bonding. And boxed wine, left over from our friends’ wedding.

Late one hot August night, about two weeks after William was delivered, Bryan and I sat sobbing on the edge of our bed, the very same bed that had conspired with us in this act of procreation, wondering when those proverbial “real parents” would come and get him. We were grateful he was healthy and normal and had all those feelings parents are supposed to feel. But we wept.

“Damn it,” I cried, sobbing so hard the bed rocked. “This . . . feels . . . like . . . a war zone.”

“I know,” was all Bryan could get out through his own broken sobs. Bryan is quiet, introverted. He never complains because that would draw attention and take effort. Agreeing with me that he felt we had made a huge mistake was like Mother Teresa admitting publicly that cleaning the lepers in Calcutta sucked.

We were sure we were inadequate and inept. William was a perfect baby, except for the colic, and he deserved parents who knew what the fuck they were doing. Not us. We were losers.

“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” Martin Sheen’s improvised madness at the beginning of Apocalypse Now kept replaying in our heads day and night. They—in-laws, midwives, people from Walton’s Mountain—tell you that having a baby is the greatest moment in your life, a real turning point. That’s true. It is a turning point, but one with innumerable casualties. Bryan and I had to face the fact that we’d been attacked. We’d never been so vulnerable.


“Horror . . . Horror has a face . . . And you must make a friend of horror.”

Not only did I get hit from the front with William’s colic, I was flanked from the rear by postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is the face of horror.

Like a good scholar-mom, I researched solutions. My favorite helpful advice comes from the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Postpartum depression isn’t a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it’s simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms—and enjoy your baby.” Indeed, postpartum depression is a complication of birth. Enjoy your baby? You mean the blood-curdling screams, the engorged breasts that have to be pumped at work, the spit-up perma-stains on every article of your clothing, and the bondage to a colicky creature who keeps you from date night? I’ll be sure to remember all of that during my leisurely stay in rehab. Thanks, Mayo.

Friends, you think. You’ll call friends. Good idea. Wait, but your friends all adore rocking their little ones at two in the morning, quietly singing them back to a gentle sleep after nursing, listening to Baby Bach, and finally turning on the plastic fish aquarium that swirls magical realism all over the freshly painted nursery like an acid trip with Hunter S. Thompson. Your friends and family already think you’re an asshole because you’re not finding that the joys of infancy match the charming version of babyhood perpetuated by America’s Disney-addicted culture.

As a last resort, I checked with my doctor. After a month of uncontrollable crying, I figured this was beyond the “baby blues” What to Expect had described. This was dark. I was in the shit. Dr. Shepherd said it was normal and offered me a mild antidepressant. But again, I did my research, and—like my other new-mom friends—I was nervous about drugs in my breast milk. Even though it’s supposedly safe for babies, this particular antidepressant’s ever-increasing list of side effects includes sleepiness, nervousness, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, headache, diarrhea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, abnormal ejaculation, dry mouth, and weight loss. Great. So I’d be less sad but abnormally ejaculating. No thanks.


“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Babyhood invites mothers—the good ones—to spontaneously visit. Friends, your Episcopal priest’s wife, and your sweet cousin all seem to find their way to a mother in need. Babies can provoke terror in those of us under the influence of postpartum depression, but they can also inspire pure unadulterated kindness in people who have survived the Burroughsian Interzone of infancy and lived to tell about it. That is how we have survived as a species. Evolution be damned: we’ve survived because of the tenacity of hearty Episcopalian women.

It was week four of hell. I’d turned down Dr. Shepherd’s antidepressants. I was suffering from a horrific rash under my swollen, nursing breasts. I had already gone back to work just three weeks after William was delivered; I had no maternal leave, just a handful of sick days.

I was grading a set of papers on a Saturday in late September when I heard a quiet knock on our apartment door. It was Mary Hallett, the hearty, no-nonsense wife of Father Tim Hallett, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church on campus, where Bryan and I had been wed three years earlier. I expected the pastor’s wife to come calling. A few of the kindhearted church ladies had already delivered pans of lasagna and chicken casseroles, and I guessed (correctly) that Mary was here with her signature chicken-noodle soup, a particularly tasty version of the classic healing brew. She handed me the pot of soup and some fresh bread, nodded toward William in his bouncy seat, then turned to me and offered, “Let me grab your laundry while I’m here and I’ll take it home for a wash and fold.”

It struck me that, unlike all the other visitors, Mary wasn’t here to coo at the baby; she was here for me.

“Lord no,” I replied, blearily. “That’s okay, Mary. I got it. Bry and I are fine.”

She looked at me with her gray eyes, brushed her salt-and-pepper bangs to one side, and stated in her efficient Episcopalian voice, “No one is fine after they’ve had a baby.” She pulled out a big mesh bag she’d brought over.

I could see she was serious. I scurried and grabbed Bry’s jeans and my bra from the bathroom floor, underwear from a cardboard box in the closet currently serving as a laundry basket, and random shirts thrown off near the bed by two dazed parents flopping down at night in defeated exhaustion. I put everything in the mesh bag and sheepishly gave it all to this woman, my pastor’s wife, a woman I knew well but not well enough, I thought, to hand her our undies.

When Mary returned the next day with our fragrant, sorted, and neatly folded laundry, I nearly sobbed. It wasn’t anything like the war-zone feeling Bryan and I had a few weeks earlier in our bedroom. Mary handed over the mesh bag of laundry and hugged me. I was overwhelmed by her kindness, unable to even utter a “thank you.” I think she could tell I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did let go, my eyes welling with gratitude.

“I’ll be back next Saturday,” she said. And sure enough, there she was with her determined smile and her laundry bag.

I have never forgotten Mary’s matter-of-fact benevolence. I felt saved by soup and fresh laundry. Fortified with this reminder that the human heart heals, and nurtured by something as simple as the fresh scent of Tide mixed with a hint of lavender Snuggle, Bryan and I managed to get through those first months without binge drinking, overdosing on antidepressants, or running away to a cabin in Maine. We managed. I hadn’t conquered parenting, but I at least felt like this episode had ended with the kind of neighborly kindness so ubiquitous on Walton’s Mountain.

Parents get their lives back only if they stop at one baby. Few do. Most of us are possessed by a demon that attacks when your kid is about two or three, infecting your soul and whispering: Your life can be like The Waltons. Every week a new adventure in which John Boy, accompanied by apprehensive younger brother Ben, pulls Elizabeth out of yet another creek while Mama makes her a new dress out of love, grandma’s old quilt scraps, and used kitchen towels. Have more kids. Have even more kids. It’ll be just like The Waltons.

The Dark Lord loves seventies television in syndication; it’s one of his favorite weapons of mass destruction. I couldn’t fight off the demon possession that talked us into a second one. He may have had colic too, I can’t remember. The second time around, I said to hell with the side effects and took the damn drugs. I was much happier.

Incredibly, there are moms who thrive on infancy, who continue making babies and manage to can ten quarts of pickles and tomatoes in the process. The Spillmans down the street made seven babies, and each one was a natural-born caretaker for the next brother or sister in line. The Spillmans do great babies; we don’t. Bryan and I stopped at two. (Actually, The Waltons’ demon encouraged me to go for more, but my body couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sustain another.)

But here’s the thing: Babies evolve into smart-ass kids who talk, memorize the track listing to Led Zeppelin IV by age three, learn piano, collect football cards, make heart models in sixth grade, and finally learn how not to trump their partners in euchre. Both of mine, now fourteen and eleven, weathered both infancy and toddlerhood and are nicely settled into the hormonal cauldron of high school and middle school, which is, compared to the flashback-inducing horror of babyhood, a cakewalk. (For me, at least, if not for them.)

Toward the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Willard hears on tape Kurtz narrating his symbolic nightmare/dream of a snail “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving.” I’ve lived on that straight edge, and let me tell you, it’s scary but bearable—if only you can laugh and let a nice Episcopalian lady do your laundry.

Amy Penne earned her PhD from the University of Illinois while carrying her son William—who inspired this essay—in her gut. She teaches, writes, and takes care of her husband and two boys in a frigid old house on the prairie. Even though she hates babies, she thinks being a mom is probably worth it.

This piece has been excerpted from Oh Baby! – Available now.

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Top 10 Books on Discipline and Parenting

Top 10 Books on Discipline and Parenting

Mindful Discipline ARTBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Vanessa Lapointe, a psychologist and author of the forthcoming Discipline without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up [LifeTree Media], writes, “Of all the workshop requests I receive, discipline is by far the most popular topic. Big people everywhere want to know how to discipline. By ‘big people’ I mean parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, aunties, uncles, caregivers, and any other adult who plays a significant role in the nurturing and growing up of a child.”

Various philosophies, versions, names, and age-targeted suggestions abound when it comes to discipline, especially for toddlers and teens. But one thing pretty much every book about discipline agrees upon is that discipline is not about punishment and is instead about teaching. Most also agree that a style of parenting that experts call “authoritative parenting” appears to work best for many families. The fourth book on this list, 8 Keys to Old-School Parenting, defines authoritative parents as those who, “Set high expectations and help children live up to those standards; they enforce high moral standards with loving acceptance. They promote self-control with social responsiveness; they teach children to make responsible choices within firmly established limits.”

This group of books about discipline starts with those targeted at the broadest age range, like 8 Keys to Old-School Parenting, then narrows in on the youngest kids, tweens, and teens. At the end a few books focus on targeted populations and how guidance learned in those arenas can help all parents.

The Soul of Discipline: The Simplicity Parenting Approach to Warm, Firm, and Calm Guidance—From Toddlers to Teens by Kim John Payne

Kim John Payne is well-known for his 2010 book Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids. Earlier this year he released The Soul of Discipline to help parents establish a strong foundation in early childhood that will help kids. Payne claims that in 30 years he has never met a truly disobedient child or teen, but he has met a lot of disoriented ones who react by being difficult. He details three phases of parental involvement that build upon one another: the Governor oversees the early years, the Gardener cultivates flowering of teen years, and the Guide oversees the teen years. He also contextualizes everything, like in Chapter 9 where he details the history of discipline, “Avoiding Discipline Fads.” In addition Payne offers concrete advice to parents (I especially loved the tips on pages 83-86 about how to handle serial interrupters!).

Mindful Discipline: A Loving Approach to Setting Limits & Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by Shauna Shapiro and Chris White

Unlike many other books on “discipline,” Mindful Discipline focuses not just on parents and what they can do, but also on what children can do. Shapiro and White emphasize the ways in which self-discipline enables children to learn to guide their own lives, what they call the five essential elements of Mindful Discipline: 1) unconditional love, 2) space, 3) mentorship, 4) healthy boundaries, and 5) mis-takes (this is not a typo, but their term for “missed takes instead of mistakes”). While discipline can help kids learn to be free, Shapiro and White remind is that, “Nature has intended for the parent-child relationship to be a loving hierarchy.” Each chapter ends with a mindfulness awareness practice that will help everyone in a family practice being more mindful.

Elements of Discipline: Nine Principles for Teachers and Parents by Stephen Greenspan

This short, but dense, book written by a Clinical Professor of Psychology near the end of his career is directed at all adult caregivers, so not just kin caregivers but also teachers. One of the strengths of this volume is its clear explanation of the history of discipline philosophies and its description of the three major psychological approaches when it comes to discipline—affective, behavioral, and cognitive. Greenspan places a lot of emphasis on socioemotional development and social competence, so it is no surprise that he thinks the three long-term outcomes of effective discipline include happiness, boldness, and niceness. This can be accomplished through warmth, tolerance, and influence, good advice for other pursuits throughout our lifetimes and not just while parenting growing youngsters.

8 Keys to Old School Parenting: For Modern-Day Families by Michael Mascolo

Mascolo focuses on “old school parenting,” but what exactly is that? To him it’s parenting techniques that have stood the test of time. One thing that has definitely been dropped is violence, but the sense of authority remains. Mascolo, also a psychology professor, begins 9 Keys to Old School Parenting by articulating the parenting attitude that informs the whole book: “I am your parent. I’m not your friend, your playmate, your maid, or your chauffeur. You are not my equal. I am responsible for your safety and development. I am here to teach you how to be successful in the world.” Not surprisingly the first key is to value your parental authority, but others include “cultivate your child’s character,” “solve problems,” and “foster emotional development,” and you definitely can’t go wrong there.

Discipline with Love & Limits: Calm, Practical Solutions to the 43 Most Common Childhood Behavior Problems by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara Unell

About 30 years ago Wyckoff and Unell published a book called Discipline without Shouting or Spanking. In the intervening years the book’s title and content have gone the way of more positive discipline, so now we focus on love and limits and do not even mention spanking. The authors position the book as one you will pick up when a problem arises, much like many books out there for health issues like rashes or sore throats. You can read the first 30 pages or so to set the scene, but then turn to the “problems” as they arise, like “plane travel stress” or “sibling rivalry.” Each problem section briefly defines the problem, gives advice to try to prevent the problem, and what to do (and what not to do) to solve the problem. The sections close with a case history, which are not always helpful. Overall this is a good little resource to keep on your shelf.

Nelsen, Jane, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Ann Duffy. Positive Discipline: The First Three Years, From Infant to Toddler—Laying the Foundation for Raising a Capable, Confident Child by Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, and Roslyn Ann Duffy

Back in the Winter 2015 print issue of Brain, Child I wrote about this book in a round-up of how to deal with the emotional storm of toddlerhood. Earlier editions or Nelsen et al’s work helped establish the positive discipline mentioned above that we know today. Different “positive discipline” books exist for different age groups and scenarios, but it’s always good to start at the beginning. Some of my favorite parenting advice that I have found to be so true is in this book: “No parenting tool works all the time. Be sure to have more than just time-out in your toolbox… There is never one tool—or three, or even ten—that is effective for every situation for every child.”

How to Unspoil Your Child Fast: A Speedy, Complete Guide to Contented Children and Happy Parents by Richard Bromfield

In this short book with lots of punchy advice, Bromfield lays out a 7-day plan to unspoil children aged 2-12. While not a discipline book in name, it is about discipline because spoiled children often do not listen or respect their parents. Bromfield focuses on natural consequences and less on concrete activities parents can do themselves or with children to change their behavior. Each chapter starts with an interesting quote that will speak to parents, making the book an easy one to digest in small doses. The advice is more general, but it is worthwhile, like suggesting parents study actions of those who have more control over your child that you do, like teachers.

1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 by Thomas Phelan

Now in its 6th edition with over 1.6 million copies sold, 1-2-3 Magic is certainly doing something right! In February 2016 the newest edition will be released, which continues to focus on what clinical psychologist Phelan denotes are the three jobs of parenthood: controlling obnoxious behavior, encouraging good behavior, and strengthening relationships with children. Previous edition have focused on start and stop behaviors and utilizing timers when raising kids, and presumably the newest edition will suggest using cell phone timers and not just egg timers. Phelan also provides simple, but effective, suggestions to parents, such as: agree to keep your child’s bedroom door closed so you won’t see the mess inside and nag, but in exchange your child has to pick it up once per week. Seems like everyone ends up happier when following advice in 1-2-3 Magic.

10 Days to a Less Defiant Child: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child’s Difficult Behavior by Jeffrey Bernstein

Bernstein says that in the past 25 years he has worked with over 2000 families who have defiant children. What is a defiant child? It is one who is quick to anger, overly dramatic, and almost constantly resistant to doing what is asked. A defiant child is different from a disobedient child, but s/he is also different from a child who has conduct disorder, destroying property or physically attacking animals or people (which would require being seen in person by a specialist). Targeted at ages 4-18, Bernstein suggests reading a chapter per day over the ten-day period. First published in 2006 and now in its second edition the book advises parents to think you are on a reality show, someone is always watching, so be careful of what you say and how you say it to model good behavior and emotional processing.

Parenting Children with Health Issues and Special Needs by Foster Cline and Lisa Greene

The first book on this year’s Top Ten Books for Parenting Children with Disabilities, this slim volume provides needed advice for all parents, regardless of their children’s needs. It reminds parents that to effectively communicate and influence their children they should strive to be consultants and not drill sergeants. And the best piece of advice for all of these situations, as Cline and Greene so succinctly state, “I love you too much to argue.”

Hilary Levey Friedman is Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor.




Excerpt: Situation Momedy

Excerpt: Situation Momedy

Situation Momedy CoverThe following is an excerpt from Situation Momedy by Jenna von Oy (2015 Medallion Press)

Chapter 1

Houston, We Have a Pregnancy!

A scenic view of my past

It was season four of The Parkers, the black sitcom on UPN on which I’d been costarring since episode one, and I still felt totally out of place. I didn’t fit in, and it made me insecure. You know the old Sesame Street song that went, “One of these things is not like the other”? I was “one of these things,” and I was having trouble letting that roll off my back. They could talk about things I couldn’t. They had stories to tell that I couldn’t relate to and special inside jokes to share that proved I wasn’t “one of them.” I wasn’t a member of their exclusive club. Every now and then, Countess Vaughn would even make a comment like, “You can’t possibly understand. You just haven’t been through the same struggles we have.” Gee, thanks. Way to make a girl feel like an outcast. Way to make me feel like . . . the nonparent I was. What, you thought I was referring to being the only white cast member? Ha! Not a chance. Skin color never made an ounce of difference to any of us. In fact, Mo’Nique often quipped that I wasn’t Caucasian, just “light-skinned.”

Being the only cast member on The Parkers without a kid made me feel like a petulant child in a roomful of working adults. I was the only one who didn’t have a family to go home to, who didn’t know what it was to be a parent and have that special love in my heart for a tiny human being. And I wanted it desperately.

So desperately, in fact, that I started adopting dogs. Lots of them. Which led me to believe, in all my twentysomething wisdom, that I knew what it meant to be a parent. Why alienate me just because my kids had four legs instead of two? Because they barked instead of crying? Because they left their toys strewn across every room of my house and drooled all over my furniture? (Technically the latter two examples cover both dogs and children, but you get the idea.) I thought parenting puppies should at least grant me a pass for their elite clique, but no one else seemed to take that notion seriously.

Single life was sucking big-time, and my biological clock was spinning out of control. I wanted a family to ground me; I wanted to finally belong . . .

Cut to . . .

So much for a feeling of belonging. Turns out I had no clue what to expect when I was expecting, dogs or no dogs. After all, my canine kids go to sleep when I tell them to, clean up any food that gets dropped on the floor, and were potty trained by two months old.

And wanting a family to ground me? What was I thinking? Impending mommydom made me feel like I’d been sent to orbit the moon for a while, armed with only fuzzy pink slippers and a casserole dish . . .

But hey, at least I was finally in on all the jokes.


My cradle chronicles

“So you’re having a baby.” In my experience, most instructional pregnancy books start out with this phrase or some equivalent of it. Thank you, faceless authors, for stating the obvious and handing me my sign. After peeing on a stick (or four), racing to the doctor faster than I could say “biological clock,” throwing out a refrigerator’s worth of soft cheese and deli meat, flagging every baby name site on the Internet, reading all the back issues of Parenting magazine, prematurely plotting a nursery design, and indulging my urge to tell every pregnant woman I saw that I was becoming a member of her club, I’m pretty sure I’d already established the fact that I was bringing a child into the world.

Or had I? It’s amazing how long it took my head to catch up to my heart.

But still, “So you’re having a baby” seemed like such an unceremonious introduction. After waiting for so many years to get knocked up (I was thirty-five when I gave birth to my first daughter, Gray), I wanted a parade in my honor, dammit! But one has to start somewhere, right? Parades take time to plan, and I suppose a float in the shape of a uterus would be a little weird. Also, “So you’re about to spend the next eighteen years letting a tiny human be the CEO of your life, huh?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

In retrospect, I guess there’s really no better conversation starter than the one they’ve all resorted to. But how about adding a little enthusiasm to the mix so it sinks in? I know it isn’t feasible to be showered in confetti or offered a congratulatory neon marquis via book pages, but some amount of excitement is nice. You know, slightly more than one might experience when one’s bologna is ready at the supermarket meat counter.

How about trying this version on for size: “So you’re having a baby. Holy hell!”

Or “So you’re having a baby? You did it! You got the little guy to swim upstream! Go kiss your spouse and celebrate with a pint of peanut-butter-and-chocolate ice cream, for heaven’s sake. You deserve it! Here’s a coupon for a complimentary cream puff!” I swear I’d send you all a bottle of champagne right this minute if it were feasible. On second thought, perhaps I’d send a nonalcoholic beverage such as sparkling apple cider, so the pediatric police don’t hunt me down. Either way, consider this my written version of a celebratory rally for you. I’m whistling “Hail to the Chief” as I type this.


Situation Momedy CoverClick here to read our Q&A with author Jenna von Oy

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Author Q&A: Jonathan Fast PhD

Author Q&A: Jonathan Fast PhD

Jonathan Fast, Wurztweiler School of Social Work - faculty headshots

We posed some questions for Jonathan about his new book Beyond Bullying.  Here is what he had to say.

What inspired you to write Beyond Bullying?

In 2008 I wrote a book called, Ceremonial Violence, about the “epidemic” of school rampage shootings that occurred between 1974 and 1999 (the year of the Columbine high school shooting.) In the course of writing it, I realized that there was some commonality between cases that had eluded me and others who had written about these tragic events, but I was having trouble articulating it. It was very frustrating! Soon after publication, my research led me to the works of Tom Scheff, James Gilligan, Donald Nathanson and others who suggested that violence was the result of mismanaged shame. I realized that these school shootings were examples of children accumulating massive amounts of shame (mostly from bullying), which they were unable to manage because of problems in communicating. These ideas shaped the first, second and seventh chapter of Beyond Bullying. It took me about six years to turn them into a coherent theory. Once I had worked out the principles involved, I saw that I could also apply it to the scapegoating of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ teens, Blacks, immigrants, and victims of domestic violence. Those became the subjects of the remaining chapters of my book.

What was the hardest part of writing the book?

The hardest part for me was writing about the LGBTQ teenagers who had committed suicide as a result of being bullied. For me there is nothing more tragic than parents losing an adolescent child to suicide. When I write about it, I try to ignore the grief and concentrate on the facts and the ideas I am trying to convey. But then, when I least expect it, the utter sadness of it hits me in the gut. Then I go talk about it with my wife, who is a minister and a wonderful therapist.

What was the greatest challenge bringing the book to market?

Of the 10 or so books I’ve written, this was the easiest to publish. Dana Bliss, the editor who acquired it, was extremely encouraging from the very start. It’s hard to publicize any book if you’re not a celebrity, but I am fortunate to have two terrific publicists, Bruce Bobbins, from DKC Public Relations, who works with Yeshiva University, where I teach, and Marlena Brown who is a publicist at OUP.

What do you wish the reader to take away after reading Beyond Bullying?

  1. Shame and status are two forbidden topics in our culture. This is no coincidence. They are closely related. Shame is what we experience when our membership in a group or community becomes tenuous, or when we try to enter a group of a higher status and fail. If we can recognize this process for what it is, it’s easier to understand what’s going on. Life becomes less fraught.
  2. If your kid is being viciously bullied and the school won’t do anything about it, put him or her in another school. If the bullying continues, home school. Someday they will thank you.
  3. Affirmative action isn’t a gift; it’s reparations for all the crap that blacks have had to endure over the past centuries. Support it.
  4. When your son or daughter announces that they are “trans,” that is the time for heaps of unquestioning, non-judgmental love and support on your part. As hard as it may be for you to accept it, it’s going to be that much harder for them. God bless Caitlyn Jenner.

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

Different books in different periods of my life. I’ve always loved Charles Dickens because his characters are incredibly entertaining, his language is beautiful and vivid, deals with social problems and advocates for the poor and downtrodden. I discovered Thomas Hardy while I was developing my theory of shame management. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure all deal with unsuccessful attempts to improve the protagonist’s status in life, and managing the shame that results from the failure to do so.

How do you balance fatherhood and writing?

Actually, I stopped writing novels soon after my second son was born because I could no longer support my family on my meager advances. I haven’t written narrative fiction since then. I did work as a contract writer for Disney feature animation for two years, which was great fun. These days my children all support themselves, and are all successful in their chosen careers. My wife and I both have full time jobs, but my teaching schedule allows me time to write. And of course writing non-fiction is a very different activity from writing fiction.

What is your advice to mother parents who are writers?

It’s a difficult balancing act when your children are pre-school and it does not get much easier when they are in school. It’s not simply schlepping them from one activity to the next, it’s having the freedom to devote your thoughts completely to the project at hand. I grew up with a father who some consider a Great Writer (I am among them). He was often there, in the house with us, but his mind and formidable imagination were elsewhere. This was even the case when he was driving, which made being in a car with him at the wheel a terrifying experience.

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Excerpt: Beyond Bullying

Excerpt: Beyond Bullying

Beyond BullyingBelow is an excerpt from Beyond Bullying by Jonathan Fast, PhD.

Bullying In and Out of Schools

What Makes a Bully?

The Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus, long associated with the University of Bergen in Norway, is considered the foremost authority on bullying. In 1970 he conducted the first large-scale scientific study of the subject. In 1983, when three adolescent boys in Northern Norway committed suicide in response to bullying, Olweus was recruited to create an intervention to stop bullying. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has subsequently been used throughout Norway with some success (30 to 70 percent). Its results have been less impressive in the United States, Germany, and Belgium (5 to 30 percent), possibly because of cultural differences. Despite this, his research regarding bullies remains the gold standard. Olweus sees bullying as a “component of a more generally antisocial and rule-breaking (‘conduct-disordered’) behavior pattern.” Aggressive behavior is a stabile trait, meaning that an aggressive child usually grows up to be an aggressive adult. Bullies have an increased risk of alcoholism and criminality later in life. A Finnish study, “From a Boy to a Man,” followed 2,540 boys from the age of eight for a decade. Boys identified as bullies in middle school often exhibited antisocial personality disorder (criminal behavior), substance abuse, and problems of anxiety and depression as young adults. Olweus, following 87 boys from age 12 to age 24, found that over half of those who were bullies in grades 6 through 9 had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24, and over a third had three or more convictions (this compared to a criminal conviction rate among non-bullies of about 1 out of 10).

While those who were bullied as children can often escape their tormentors as adults, they cannot escape themselves. They are likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem. While girls are bullied less frequently than boys, their outcomes are worse. A Finnish study found them more likely to have had at least one psychiatric hospitalization and been prescribed antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antianxiety drugs as adults.

Olweus has identified five risk factors that predispose a child to becoming a bully:

  1. Parents did not bond with the child when he or she was an infant.
  2. Parents failed to inhibit the child’s aggression.
  3. Parents model aggression and physical violence as their pri¬mary problem-solving strategies (Olweus calls it “power-assertive child-rearing methods”).
  4. The child has an inborn penchant toward aggressive and impulsive behavior (Olweus calls it “an active and ‘hot-headed’ temperament”).
  5. The child is larger and stronger than other children his age.

Let’s examine these risk factors more closely.

Lack of a Parental Bond

Olweus refers to parental bonding as the “basic emotional attitude of the primary caretaker” to the infant. He goes on to say that this kind of parent-child relationship is “characterized by lack of warmth and involvement.” John Bowlby, who wrote copiously about this subject, calls it “insecure attachment.” In prefeminist writings, the caregiver is always assumed to be the mother, but in the current culture we believe it can as easily be the father, grandparent, nanny, or adoptive parent. In chapter 1 we talked about the human longing to be part of a group. The parent-child “dyad” (a group of two) is everyone’s first experience of a group. Most children first show awareness of this around six months of age when the architecture of the brain has reached a certain level of complexity, about the same time that infants become toddlers. Before that age, children seem equally happy with any caretaker who comforts or amuses them. After that, they want and need their mothers and become anxious around strangers. The importance of the mother-child dyad may seem obvious to us but was more or less ignored by the scientific community prior to the twentieth century. It only became a worthy object of investigation because of society’s changing attitude toward children after World War I and public concern over the many children orphaned and displaced by that terrible conflict.

Orphaned infants who had been hospitalized during the war lost weight on diets that should have helped them grow, grew quiet and sad despite their clean and organized surroundings, and had a shockingly high mortality rate (as high as 75 percent for two-year-olds in a report from 1915).Such children also showed language deficits and lower IQs than their nonhospitalized peers. The condition was referred to as “hospitalism” and, later, “failure to thrive.” The cause was thought to be malnutrition or infection of some kind. Efforts were made to further isolate babies to prevent the spread of infection, but that only made them more listless. In 1931 Harry Bakwin, a doctor in charge of the pediatric unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and a professor at New York University Medical School, reasoned that these infants were responding to a lack of human contact. He took down signs that had been placed around the ward emphasizing antisepsis (“Wash your hands twice before entering this ward”) and replaced them with signs encouraging cuddling and cooing (“Do not enter this nursery without picking up a baby”).

The problems of maternal deprivation were not only physiological. Psychological damage was also evident, not just in the form of depression, which was often obvious, but more subtly in a lack of empathy. An early example of this was noted in a scientific paper by David Levy published in 1937. Levy, a prominent New York psychoanalyst and one of the leaders of the child guidance movement, described an eight-year-old girl who had been adopted after years of being shuttled between foster homes who showed antisocial traits such as lying, manipulation, and superficial emotionality. He speculated as to whether there might be a “deficiency disease of the emotional life, comparable to a deficiency of vital nutritional elements within the developing organism.” Many child welfare workers reported that they were familiar with this kind of behavior in children separated from their mothers at an early age or shuttled between foster homes.

Meanwhile in England, John Bowlby, a perceptive and gifted psychiatrist, graduate of the Tavistock Psychoanalytic Institute, and director of the London Child Guidance Clinic, had noticed commonalities in 44 children who had been referred to his agency for thievery. In his own words:

in several cases sympathetic discussions with the mothers of the children revealed that their apparent love for their child was only one aspect of their feelings about him. Often an intense, though perhaps unadmitted, dislike and rejection of him also came to light. Furthermore very careful enquiries showed a remarkable proportion of children who, for one reason or another, had not lived securely in one home all their lives but had spent long periods away from home.

Every new mother wants to be part of the group that might be called Good Mothers. The first rule for membership is that the Good Mother loves her child so much that she would give up her life for him or her. Some of these mothers did not feel that way about their children, although they hid the truth beneath a layer of socially acceptable patter. In other cases, chaotic family lives and frequent relocations had interfered with the creation of a stabile caregiver bond.

Other caregivers may substitute for mothers, an issue that is becoming more pertinent as our culture comes to accept the idea that a same-sex couple can successfully raise a family. Neither a blood relationship nor a particular gender is necessary. For centuries the children of the British upper class have been raised by devoted nannies. In situations where parents are preoccupied with other concerns, grandparents and aunts and uncles are often successful substitutes. Extended families, a rarity in this country, offer a variety of individuals who are willing to form a strong attachment with an infant.

Shortly after the publication of my previous book on school shooters, I received an email from a young man (we will call him Carter). I include the letter verbatim because the process of his writing it was as important as its content.

Dear Dr. Fast,

[Your book] dredged up an old memory, one whose details I could stand to be free of. I must apologize, but I need to tell someone this, and you may be in a position to appreciate my story. If not, I am sorry for wasting your time, and I wish you the best of luck with your book.

I almost disemboweled Matt P. in seventh grade, and I’ve spent years regretting it.

For the first few years, I regretted being unable to carry out the act; later I was upset that I was willing to do such a thing. My motivations switched one hundred eighty degrees, but the guilt was constant.

Matt P. was a year older than I was, bigger, and less bookish. I wasn’t particularly sociable or charismatic in middle school, and was physically dominated by those further along in puberty, like Matt. I suppose this is the wont of every teenager in my position, but I was frightened and furious. I had fully expected that the adults, who I had imagined up until that time controlled the universe, would have in their foresight forbidden such actions, but they had failed … and I got beat up. Every time I was bounced off the lockers or shoved to the ground or called a faggot, I kept thinking that it was an unsympathetic Fate, in the person of Matt P., challenging me to do something about the apparent insouciance of the universe.

“I’m going to kick your ass, and what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

So, after getting socked in the gut one time too many after gym class, I went home, and by accident, I found the knife. When my dad left, he hadn’t taken all of his tools. Under his workbench, I found a Buck Special with a drop point and a nine-inch blade, sharp as the day it was bought, lying dusty and forgotten in its sheath next to the spackle and the block planes.

I cannot explain how comforting it was to pull the knife from its sheath, and to feel the cool mass of it in my hand, and to hear the soft ringing of the blade when I brushed my thumb-tip against it. I knew then that I found my answer for Matt.

Nobody noticed that I had taken the knife. I put it in my gym bag, next to my socks and my cup, and I immediately felt better. I kept it there for a few weeks. I knew, I just knew, that I’d get assaulted again, and I just had to have the bag next to me, and be curled up on the ground at the feet of my attacker, where I could draw the knife forth.

I thought about a stab to the heart second. I first thought of the throat, which I immediately deprecated—Matt was taller than I was, and I hadn’t the length of arm. I had little arm of any sort. We had learned that the heart was behind a heavy curtain of ribs, and inside a tough pericardial sac—our Life Science teacher, an ex-nurse, taught us about how tough the chest cavity was for surgeons with skill and the right tools to get through. Let alone amateurs acting under duress with hunting knives.

No, it’d have to be the gut.

My plan was to let him hit me. I’d curl up around my gym bag, with my right hand slid inside, gripping the knife. Knowing Matt, a helpless victim in a fetal position would be an invitation to lean over and deliver a wedgie or a just a thin filament of spit down the back of the neck, or perhaps just a whispered invidious remark about one’s parentage. Then, I would pull the knife, brace the heel of my left hand against the pommel, and, rolling back onto my heels and standing up, I’d drive the point of the knife into his stomach, right below the xiphoid process. The trick then would be to keep the blade angled down, and let him stand up to complete the evisceration. He’d be surprised, and then he’d die, painfully.

My thoughts past this point weren’t terribly clear. Matt P. would be dead, and I wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. I had very little concern for the future, which was for me at least a foreshortened and not terribly interesting place. I had the present to worry about.

I was never able to do it. Mostly, the opportunity was never right. My plan was predicated on a particular choreography of bully and bully-ee that never came out quite right. At first, I was waiting for the perfect place and time … and then, there was the dinner.

My school had a Grandparent’s Dinner every year. Students were expected to bring their grandparents or great-aunts or uncles in for a rubber chicken dinner and a speech from the Principle. There was an exhibit of athletic trophies and academic awards and student artwork. Everybody left with a better feeling of community and some indigestion. My grandparents would not have missed Grandparent’s Dinner for the world, and so I went to sign up. The reservation sheet was tacked to the Principle’s door, and Matt P.’s name was on it.

Up until that point, I really didn’t consider Matt to be human. He was just the entity who made my life miserable Monday through Friday, eight to two-fifteen. The notion of him having grandparents was an epiphany, pregnant with implications, like NASA finding an empty Fresca can on Mars. Were I to kill, or seriously injure Matt, some old Italian Nana I’d never met would likely be very upset. Unlike her grandson, I didn’t wish her any harm at all.

To say nothing of the reaction from my own grandparents …

Then, as now, the thought of sorrowful old people upsets me terribly. I realized with growing frustration that I could endure more bullying than I could the thought of weeping old ladies. The knife stayed in the bottom of my locker until the last day of school, when I brought it home in a shoebox underneath a stack of old quizzes.

I’d like to say that Matt P. had a similar revelation, and he made up with me and everyone else he had kicked the shit out of. To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t. The funny thing was, even as I got beat up, I’d think about why I could never make Matt regret what he was doing; and I’d start to laugh. Sometimes that made him hit me harder, but eventually he started to think me laughing was funny too. I learned, quite by accident, that comedy could keep the bullies off me, and that worked until I was big enough to take care of myself.

I could never hurt him, but at the same time, I could never stop hating him. I’m a coward for never going through with it, and I’m a lunatic for how intent I was on killing him for so long. I know I chose right, but I can see how tremendously appealing the wrong choice is.

As for the mechanism—eh. My dad kept his guns locked up. I’d have used ’em in a heartbeat, but I didn’t want to drag my parents into it, and I figured the gun would’ve drawn more attention than the knife. Besides, guns were a little too impersonal. I wanted to be able to see him die, and for him to know that it was me that killed him. Had I two dozen bullies to make an end of, expediency would’ve pushed me towards firearms.

This would have been a ceremony indeed; for whatever psychological or societal reasons I came close to killing for (and others DID kill for), these will always be feasts for Baal; if this kind of action is so horrible, why was his cult once so popular?

Thank you Doctor, for listening to me.

The letter itself is an example of positively managing shame by processing, or confessing. Carter wrote about “an old memory, one whose details I could stand to be free of” and how he “needed to tell someone this.” Even now, years after the event, he still needed to talk about it, to manage it. Because I seemed knowledgeable, sympathetic, and nonjudgmental regarding people with violent impulses, Carter decided to confide in me. According to his letter, he was small and a late bloomer, and was repeatedly bullied by Matt, who was “bigger and less bookish.” This is an example of the unequal power differential that is always present in bullying. For Carter, his father’s knife promised a way of managing the shame through “attack other.” Carter seems to have strongly bonded with his grandparents, and the fact that Matt had grandparents too humanized him. One could speculate that if Carter had grown up with no adult bond, Matt might have remained less than human, and a target for Carter’s father’s knife. Carter also learned that shame can be managed through humor.

A few questions occurred to me while reading this, and I wrote back asking him about resilience factors, such as friendships and memberships in groups. This was his response:

I didn’t have that many friends growing up. Most of the time, the problem is me. I didn’t like social occasions from an early age, and to this day I have a problem with people. I can deal with one or two other persons in a room with me at an informal gathering, but any more than that, and I start to get nervous. Classrooms are a little easier (only a little), but parties are torture. Given the choice, I’d rather go someplace quiet and read a book. I hate doing that though, I don’t want people to think I’m rude or haughty. So I smile, and endure. So I made few friends—what ones I had I was (and am) very attached to.

I also asked Carter about his connection with his parents. Carter replied that his home life had been chaotic. His parents did not earn enough money to support a family and were often in conflict. During the first eight years of Carter’s life, they moved three times. He rarely saw his father, who worked double shifts through the night, or his mother, who worked part-time and had gone back to college.

Very often, they would be tired, and frustrated and angry. My sister and I were hit when necessary, but sometimes Mom or Dad would fly off the handle and start throwing things, or slamming doors or Mom would be crying and Dad would peel out of the driveway, and come home very late at night. There would be much weeping and shouting, especially as I got older. I was never certain what mood either of my parents was going to be in when I got home from school. Depression? Hair-trigger rage? Something like ordinary moods?

Carter and his younger sister often stayed with their maternal or paternal grandparents, who were loving and attentive. Another source of resilience for him was a golden retriever he got when he was eight.

For the next sixteen years, he [the golden retriever] was the most even-tempered and reliable member of my family, even though he couldn’t speak English and had trouble answering the phone. He was often the only one my sister and I could go to when we were upset, and while he couldn’t give advice, he was a good listener.

Years later, reflecting on my mother’s depression throughout my childhood and adolescence, and my father’s long absence, someone remarked that, effectively, I had been raised by the dog.

I still prefer golden retrievers to people, most of the time.

So while his parental bond may have been fragile, his attachment to his grandparents was robust, and he could use it as a basis for understanding the sentience and humanity of another human being. Once he had experienced this revelation, he could transfer his empathic feelings to others.

The dependability of the caregiver bond also shapes our response to temporary loss of the caregiver, a common event in everyone’s life. Consider a toddler who has formed a successful bond with his father. He approaches his father with the expectation of a piggyback ride around the backyard. The father, who is engrossed by a phone call about the bake sale he is organizing for daycare, gently pushes him aside.

Depending on his temperament, he may cry and scream as though his heart is broken. Rejection seems tragic and permanent for a little guy with a foggy sense of past and future. When his father gets off the phone, he comforts him and takes him for a piggyback ride around the yard. Soon the child is giggling, and the temporary rejection is forgotten. The child has learned that people are reliable, that a few moments of being ignored may not be a sign of permanent abandonment, that hugging and comforting by a close companion can ease the pain. The next time, separation will be easier for him. A year from now he will be able to think to himself, Well, Daddy is busy right now but he will play with me later, with only a hint of sadness and no shame at all. He knows, after a number of repetitions, that his membership in the dyad of Me and My Dad is secure.

Now imagine a different kind of caregiver, a woman who, for whatever reasons, numbs herself to her shame with some kind of addiction. Her toddler may never learn how to properly manage the discomfort of temporary separation because the addiction has made her unreliable. Her judgment may be impaired, her memory subject to lapses, her perception of reality altered. She says, I’ll be with you in a minute, but often the minutes stretch into hours, and sometimes she remains emotionally or physically unavailable for days. Other people, alleged providers of childcare, come and go but do not stay long enough to create a real caregiver bond. To complicate matters, this mother’s feelings toward her toddler may be ambivalent or resentful. Children may be viewed as nothing more than an impediment to her getting high.

All children realize that they should be loved by their caregivers. Toddlers blame the absence of this love on themselves and attribute it to a personal deficit: I am not loved because something is wrong with me. As a result, toddlers may find it difficult to believe that any person would love someone as damaged as they are. This kind of shame is not easily managed. It may endure for a lifetime, shaping one’s personality in myriad ways that spoil the quality of life. Such people may consider themselves unworthy of a good job, a loving spouse, or other satisfactions. Their anger toward the hand they have been dealt may be turned against themselves in the form of anorexia, cutting, and suicide attempts. If the anger is turned outward, they may be unable to accept responsibility for their own failures and shortcomings. They may come to resent those who might have aided and befriended them. In the worst cases, their thoughts may become confused, they may harm others for reasons that temporarily seem logical with no sense of the consequences, as was very nearly the case with Carter.

Which of these scenarios becomes the reality depends on the balance of risk factors and resilience factors. Having an extended family is often a resilience factor because many adults are available for the child to attach to, if the parents are in crisis of some kind. Special talent in the arts or sports is also a resilience factor because they increase a child’s sense of self-worth. Being born into a middle-class or wealthy family is a resilience factor because parents have more resources when a crisis arises. When Donald Trump was expelled from high school, for example, his parents had the resources to send him to a military academy where experienced teachers “straightened him out.” Unfortunately, resilience factors do not balance out risk factors in a tidy or calculable way. There are no algorithms to predict who will become a delinquent and who an asset to society. James Garbarino, an authority on violence and children, reminds us that “Rarely, if ever, does one single risk factor tell the whole story or determine a person’s future. Rather, it is the buildup of negative influences and experiences that accounts for differences in how youth turn out.” He likens dealing with risk factors to juggling balls. One can manage two easily, or three with a little practice, but add a fourth and keeping the balls in the air becomes a challenge. The more risk factors, the greater the likelihood of dropping the ball.

Parents’ Failure to Inhibit Child’s Aggression

Little children naturally express themselves physically, and sometimes violently, because their responses are unfiltered, quick, and thoughtless. Because they the patience, self-moderation, impulse control, and verbal skills required to identify and articulate what they are experiencing, they act out. They perform a mime show choreographed by anger or frustration. When a parent tells a child to “Use your words,” rather than to strike out, he or she is acknowledging that talk is a safer, more socially acceptable and precise means of communicating feelings—including negative, frightening feelings like shame and anger—and one that, when it becomes habit, will help the child attain a better life. Children who have learned to identify their own feelings and have the self-control to step back and formulate their thoughts—and the vocabulary to express them—are less likely to engage in a violent act than children who do not have these resources.

If the parent tolerates a child’s acts of aggression, or encourages them, the aggression is likely to increase. Some children are harder to rein in because of developmental delays, autism, impulsivity, or attention deficit disorder. Again, wealthy parents have the advantage in obtaining specialized help. Some children may consider parental tolerance of their aggression as an expression of indifference, a lack of love and caring, or even rejection. Children who feel unloved are willing to go anywhere for a sense of family. They may obtain this in school, if they are appealing to teachers and have a hunger to learn, or they might find it in a neighborhood street gang, often a stepping stone to a criminal career.

Parents Model Aggression and Physical Violence

Some parents model aggression and physical violence as their primary problem-solving strategy (“power-assertive child-rearing methods” in Olweus’s words). Such parents are often raised “by the stick” themselves. The way our parents disciplined us is imprinted in our own child minds as the “right way,” and it is often difficult, despite our best intentions, to avoid falling under their spell when we ourselves become parents. The distinguished criminologist Cathy Widom has demonstrated convincingly that violent parents do, more often than not, rear violent children, but how much of that is genetic, or related to parenting style, remains unclear.

A parent who responds violently to provocations is modeling a style of problem-solving based on superior size and strength and the power to intimidate. Violent behavior comes with a beguiling reward—an intoxicating sense of power—but one gained at a high price. The writings of extremely violent people continually describe the self-respect they attain through their misbehavior. An act of violence makes the offender feel that he is acting in a decisive way, that he or she has taken control of the situation through his or her own strength, directly, immediately, and incontestably. Shame is replaced by a feeling of grandiosity. A second, neurological process occurs at the same time. The body is pumped up with adrenalin and neurotransmitters are released, creating a highly pleasurable sensation that indiscriminately obliterates bad feelings in the same way as alcohol or drugs. On Nathanson’s compass of shame, it combines two poles, avoidance and attack other. Caregivers who violently enforce their dictums are attempting to manage their own shame at the expense of their family. They reinforce a cycle of violence and a cycle of shame.

Child Has an Inborn Penchant Toward Aggressive and Impulsive Behavior

Some children are born more aggressive or headstrong than others. Whether children are ever born without any capacity for empathy and what we call conscience remains to be seen. At certain times in history, psychologists have espoused a “bed seed” theory of antisocial behavior. There seems to be a pendulum in thinking about this subject that swings back and forth between the decades. In 1954, when the pendulum was in full swing toward nature (as opposed to nurture), William March wrote a best-selling novel called The Bad Seed28 about a little girl, the product of an affluent home and loving parents, who murders a playmate out of spite. People found the idea creepy enough to propel it to best-sellerdom. It became a hit Broadway show and a popular movie.

Authorities on antisocial behavior, including Hervey Cleckly, who wrote the classic treatise on the subject,29 and Robert Hare, who created the “psychopath checklist,” agree that both biological and environmental factors contribute to the making of the psychopath or sociopath (a term used informally to identify a milder level of the problem).

The best evidence for this comes from an area of research called “twin studies.” In a twin study, researchers locate pairs of identical and non-identical twins who were separated at birth and adopted by different families. The quality in question—in this case psychopathic—is measured for each of the twins, often by a questionnaire, and the results are compared. If the scores are more equal between identical twins than fraternal twins, that suggests that the problem is genetic, since identical twins share all their DNA while fraternal twins share only half. If their scores vary randomly, it suggests that the effect may be due to the environment. Twin studies of psychopathic behavior suggest that psychopathy is biological and environmental, nature and half nurture. However, we do not know what genes, or combinations of genes (alleles), are responsible and precisely how they affect behavior to bring about these conditions.

The idea that children are born with a criminal inclination is offensive to some who choose to believe, based on experience or ideology, that all children are born good or are blank slates upon which any future can be writ. Some years ago I gave a lecture at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, the organization that provides services to children of families who have been reported for violent or neglectful treatment of their children. I spoke to a group of 20 women employees who had dedicated their lives to working with children who had been taken from their homes because of conditions dreadful beyond what most of us can imagine. I asked them how many believed that some children were born bad. Not one raised her hand.

When Olweus writes of this factor, he emphasizes that the “temperament of the child… is in part inherited… The effect of this factor is less powerful than those of the [previously] mentioned conditions” (my italics). I believe he makes this point because he does not want to give the impression that any child, regardless of the temperament with which he or she is born, lacks the potential to be a worthy and productive adult.

Size and Strength of the Child

The fifth factor concerns the size and strength of the child. A male bully is usually physically stronger and larger than others his age. That is usually the source of his authority.

Angus Watson, a British journalist who writes on a variety of subjects, described his own experience as a school bully when he was nine. While he appeared as a good citizen to his teachers and older students, he was feared by his classmates—and rightly so. He was bigger and stronger than others in his class and, by his own admission, nastier.

I discovered that one way of amusing my friends was to taunt other children. I became a ringleader and people began to look up to me, which suited me just fine.

I became an expert at giving boys dead arms, dead legs and knuckle dusters (a stiff rap to the skull with the central knuckle). I could hit an earlobe from five yards with a high-velocity elastic band, push a boy over in the mud and mock him for any physical defect. Several boys would look up nervously when I came into a teacher-free room.

It’s possible I helped make life a misery for several other children. Weaker boys were just accessories to my fun. My cronies and I didn’t think of ourselves as unpleasant thugs but as heroes: as far as we could see, we were the winners and weaker people were there for our amusement, to add glory to our adventures. What to an observer may have seemed horrific was, for us, innocent fun. It didn’t seem we were doing anything wrong; it was just how things worked. I was a bigger boy fulfilling his role in child culture. Violence was currency passed from strong to weak.

After describing a particularly nasty and theatrical act of cruelty committed by a fellow bully, Watson escalated his aggression.

Bullying took on a crueller and more imaginative twist. Breaking expensive Caran d’Ache pencils while their owners watched, teasing them about their mothers’ hairstyles, throwing sticks dipped in sheep-poo at them, and so on. Pretty horrible stuff, and certainly nothing to remember with pride. So why did I do it? …

It was part of my childhood culture. My big brother whacked me with happy regularity, as did all my dormitory captains at boarding school. One particular prefect would make us drink water until we were sick. Another made my friend cut me with an army tin opener.

My friends and I used to stab each other, and ourselves, with compasses for amusement. We used to spray deodorant from very close on to our skin, making it blister. I still have scars from that. Pain was all around. Bullying, I suppose, was a way of passing this on to the weaker boys.

Watson had been shamed by a variety of older children, and this was his opportunity to manage the emotion by inflicting it on other, smaller children and also on his friends and himself. Using one shame management strategy (attack other) does not stop a bully from occasionally using another (attack self).

By his own account, the event that cured Watson of his bullying involved the discovery of girls.

Then, in the summer holidays when I was 12, I hung out with a group of girls for the first time, in the seaside village where we used to go on holiday … For their amusement, I roughed up a couple of younger boys down on the seafront. The girls pointed out what an idiot I was and said they didn’t want to be friends with someone who behaved like this … Whether it was a sudden revelation, growing older or, more likely, an increasing desire to impress girls, everything became clear.

The long-term taunting and physical bullying stopped, and I encouraged my friends not to bully, too. I suddenly saw how awful I looked.34

Watson wanted to join a group of higher status, Boys Who Socialize With Girls, but was rejected because of his bullying behavior. He changed his behavior in response to “reintegrative shaming”—the shame that brings one back into a group. He was not simply pretending to change: the shaming brought about a change of consciousness, an awakening of empathy.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Jonathan.

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Author Q&A: Joshua Straub

Author Q&A: Joshua Straub

afe house Author PhotoWe posed some questions for Joshua about his new book Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well Here is what he had to say.

What was your inspiration for writing Safe House?

Inspirationally, it began with my own children. I understood the power of attachment and emotional safety from my doctoral research and counseling juvenile delinquents and troubled families for the past 15 years. Helping other families and knowing the research is one thing; applying it in your own home is quite another. The book came into fruition as a result of trying to figure out how to get our children to sleep at night! I’m not kidding!

Our firstborn was colicky and had acid reflux. Our second born had unknown stomach allergies. Neither amounted in any sleep for a long time. So from day one of bringing our first born home, we were already dealing with a major issue most parents struggle with—sleep. I knew the research on babies and brain development, particularly that babies don’t have the capacity to self-soothe in those first few months of life. I also knew our kids were in pain. Yet, my wife and I were exhausted, and quite honestly, bickering more frequently at each other. The rubber was meeting the road.

I remember during this time trying my best to pull myself out of the moment and keep the end in mind—meaning, at the end of the day, what qualities am I looking for in my son when he leaves our home as an adult?

My first answer was, I want to launch an 18-year-old adult, not an 18-year-old child.

As I looked more into the research, I found that the outcomes our generation (Millennials) reports to want for our children—happiness, good grades, or empathy, for instance—all are a result of the healthy development of the prefrontal cortex—problem solving, emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, self-control, etc. And all of these brain outcomes best grow in an emotionally safe environment.

From that point on then we began to filter every difficult parenting decision through the lens of one filter: “What is my infant/ child / teenager feeling right now? How can I respond in the an emotionally safe way so my child knows she is loved?”

I believe if we can come together as a generation of parents willing to filter our parenting through this lens, we can together raise a generation of kids who come after us who live, love and lead well as adults. That’s a legacy worth leaving as a generation.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

Ironically, I often found myself writing on topics Christi and I were struggling with in the moment. I’m convinced nothing has the power to simultaneously enliven and exhaust a person more than parenthood. Becoming a dad is the most rewarding task I ever signed up for, but it’s also the most difficult. I was exposed even more to how wretched my own heart really can be.

Because we struggled so much in the first few years with our two very “spirited” children, my heart was drawn to the struggles of being a parent. I think that was reflected in my writing. The book, though informational, became much stronger because it became more inspirational as well.

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

That it’s the posture from which we parent, not the techniques that matters most. Think about it, one “technique” today may not work tomorrow. And a “technique” that works on one child may not work on another. So discipline strategies and techniques will always look different, but the posture from which we apply the techniques shouldn’t waver.

Our ability to be emotionally safe with our children, especially in their most stressful and overwhelmed moments, is the foundation necessary for our kids’ brains to grow. Parenting is hard, but getting the outcomes we’re looking for can be simpler than we think. Parenting really isn’t rocket science; it’s just brain surgery.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

While I was writing the book my dad was in the hospital fighting for his life. He had two heart pumps (LVAD’s) during the time I was writing the book, so a good bit of it was written from Hershey Medical Center in PA. Thankfully, my dad, after three heart pumps, is recovering fairly well.

During this time, our daughter was just a few months old (so nobody was sleeping) and our son happened to hit his “terrible twos,” so we were very stressed. We even lived part of this time with my mom and stepdad so we were closer to my dad. Let me clarify, my wife was living with her mother-in-law with a terrible two and a non-sleeping newborn. Try that for emotional safety J

Once we were home, our two-year-old found my home office, which meant I had to relocate. Most of the book was written in our frigid garage in the middle of winter with a screaming infant and a whiny toddler as background music. I complemented keyboard time with bouncing our newborn in an Ergobaby carrier while speaking into Dragon Dictation, occasionally interrupted midsentence to help Christi wrangle our son into compliance.

And you thought writers frolicked in cozy coffee shops to consoling downtempo? Not this guy. At least not for this book.

What part of your career has had the greatest influence on you?

Helping other families for sure. Seeing the real life day-to-day struggles of others certainly informs my work. It’s one thing to know the research, it’s quite another to help make it relate to the everyday mom or dad who learns to apply it in such a way that it changes how they parent.

I must say though, a very close second are the researchers, professors, and counseling leaders who have not only taught and trained me, but who graciously allowed me into their lives enough to see them live what they teach and do. That integrity matters and it’s something I strive for each day.

As a trauma counselor, you must’ve heard about some awful incidences. Is that how you came to become passionate about the concept of emotional safety as a primary need?

It definitely informed it, for sure. I remember meeting with a group of people from a village in Rwanda. One of the ladies in the group watched her husband and children murdered before her eyes in the 1994 genocide. The man who killed them was no longer jailed. He was sitting next to me in that group. Today, those two live in the same village. They told us how he often helps her with tasks, including carrying water to her home. Their story of forgiveness and reconciliation didn’t develop overnight, but trust continues to be restored.

Our brains become wired, or not, for relational safety. When we’re traumatized, especially in a relational nature (sexual abuse, interpartner violence, etc) not only will it impact what we believe and how we behave in relationships, but it can take a long time to rewire the brain. However, our brains can be rewired for safety, and that woman is a real life example. We’re broken in relationships, but we’re also healed in relationships.

How do you balance fatherhood and your career? Does one negatively impact the other or have they been mostly symbiotic?

We try to live in such a way that we would wish our lives on our children. I’m privileged to work from home most of the time. The challenge is that kids don’t fully understand work time from playtime. In saying that, neither do adults very well either.

I certainly don’t do it perfectly but I try each day to make sure that 1. Our kids learn the value of hard work and 2. They learn the value of playing without distractions. Work hard; play hard. This means putting the phone away during mealtimes. That’s a hard and fast rule in the Straub home. It also means once I’m with the kids, I’m with the kids. Emails, text messages, and push notifications don’t care about our moments, relationships, or your kids. They only care that we prioritize them right away. I want my kids to learn the value of hard work, but I want them to know they were always my priority.

SafeHouse-1 copyBuy the Book

Excerpt: Safe House

Excerpt: Safe House

SafeHouse-1 copyBelow is an excerpt from Safe House, by Joshua Straub (WaterBrook Press 2015)

The Beauty in Being Safe

I had a few shocking revelations when I first became a parent. First, as ill-prepared as we were for the chaos about to invade our home, I couldn’t believe my wife, Christi, and I were allowed to walk out of the hospital with a living, breathing, screaming, hungry, sleepless, restless, 100-percent-dependent-upon-us human being. Second, I was overwhelmed by all the books written on sleeping techniques, discipline strategies, parenting styles, and on and on, many of them contradicting one another. Last, I was amazed that no matter what kind of parent someone was or how successfully they raised their own kids, everybody, including those who never tried it, had an opinion.

One day, after receiving unsolicited advice from a woman whose kids were either in jail or having affairs, I asked my mother-in-law what the deal was with all of the advice.


She said, “Well, it’s the one thing nearly everybody has actually done. So they believe their way was the best way, even if it wasn’t.”

I guess that’s one of the side effects of free speech.

As I continued to read and research techniques and consider everyone’s advice, I needed a filter. It was becoming all too complicated for me. I’m sure you can relate.

Parenting in the twenty-first century is filled with choices. I counsel with and talk to parents all the time who are trying to negotiate different points of view about raising kids.

· “Should our baby sleep in bed with us?”
· “Should we let our baby cry it out?”
· “Should we spank our kids, and if so, when?”
· “How do I respond to a temper tantrum?”
· “Should I stay home with the kids or put them in day care?”
· “Should we home school or send our kids to a private or public school?” · “How much screen time do I let my kids have?”

How many of these questions have you wrestled with? If you’re like us, probably most of them. That’s because parenting in the real world is about the countless choices we make to give our kids the best chance to develop and grow.

But there’s a problem.

We live in a culture where the latest sermon, data, research results, and trends present themselves as the way (and often the only way, if you really love your kids) to raise them right. As guilt-prone parents who genuinely want what’s best for our kids, it’s easy to fall prey to the latest marketing ploys, product biases, and contradicting messages that cloud our journey to finding the beauty in our parenting story.

Add to this the pressure of the choices we see our parenting friends make. A quick glance at Facebook or Pinterest, and you see their picture-perfect kids, DIY family activities, unrealistically joyful vacations, and gluten-free gourmet dinners. No wonder parenting insecurity is at an all-time high.

There’s absolutely no beauty in striving for perfection or keeping up with the Joneses.

Let me encourage you, we don’t have to struggle over all of these choices. What we need is an approach to parenting that’s much less complicated and passes the test of trusted research.

Thankfully, in spite of all of the other parenting debates, there is one primary factor across all the domains of research (psychology, sociology, neuroscience) necessary for raising kids who thrive: emotional safety.

We’re all very aware that physical safety is important for kids. But have you considered the importance of emotional safety?

If you’re like a lot of parents, that’s probably not a term you’ve even heard before.

It’s not hard to see why: physical safety is a multibillion-dollar industry that can be resolved with products. In media and advertising we see an exorbitant focus on the physical safety of our children: electrical outlet plugs, childproof locks, stairway gates, BPA-free products, child safety seats, “no-touch” playground rules, green cleaning products, organic food diets, and all-natural toys. Emotional safety, on the other hand, is more elusive and requires just one thing: parents. No product on a shelf can create emotional safety in a child the way we—as her parents—can. Perhaps that’s why the industry remains quiet on it. Though I appreciate the reasoning behind all of the physical safety measures, the time and attention spent on them is out of balance.

Emotional safety is related to outcomes in the following areas:

· children’s academic scores · behaviors
· brain development
· social skills

· problem-solving skills
· relationship formation
· adult-relationship satisfaction
· healthy identity formation
· self-esteem
· athletic and extracurricular success · a sense of morality
· established values

You won’t find either the breadth or depth of outcome research for kids in any other parenting philosophy or strategy. Simply put, emotional safety is the key to raising kids who thrive in all areas of life.

That’s because emotionally safe homes are the breeding ground for kids who live, love, and lead well. Emotional safety becomes the filter for all other parenting decisions. If there’s any one phrase you take away from this book, remember this: It is the posture from which
we parent, not the technique, that matters most.

It really is that simple.

Do You Really Have What It Takes to Be a Parent?

Parenting in the twenty-first century is ripe with challenges, many the result of the happiness culture we find ourselves in. If you question this idea of happiness in our culture, just listen to Pharrell Williams’s hit song “Happy”: a message proclaiming “happiness is the truth.” Chances are you’re singing it right now in your head. I am.

I love to be happy. We actually hold little family dance parties some evenings in our living room with our kiddos dancing around to this song. But when we allow happiness to be placed as the highest order of truth in a culture, and it becomes our ultimate pursuit, what happens when we’re not happy? The marketplace capitalizes on it. For parents, the formula works something like this: create more choices for parents to enhance their quality of parenting and raise happy kids. When the natural frustrations that come along with parenting turn to exhaustion, and the initial offering of choices overwhelms them all the more, offer more products to help them feel less overwhelmed by the choices they already have. As journalist Eric Sevareid wrote in 1964, “The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles or television. It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety.”

Nowhere is this more true than in the marketplace of modern-day parenting.

If our pursuit of happiness or our children’s pursuit of happiness is our highest truth, we will not raise kids who live, love, and lead well. Happiness is a shallow truth that defies the most basic parenting principle: sacrifice. Caring about our child’s life story means there are times (though not all of the time) we sacrifice happiness. If we don’t, we’ll sacrifice our kids’ ability to live, love, and lead well.

That’s because on the other side of sacrifice is joy, and joy is a much higher level of truth than happiness.

In fact, if we, as parents, focus on character, then higher achievement and happiness will follow. And there’s nothing more powerful in instilling these values than your loving and safe presence. Especially your spending time with your children in face-to-face eye contact (particularly infants and preschoolers under the age of five). Will it be easy? Not always.

That’s why it’s important to remind ourselves that we have what it takes.

Research shows you build the brain and character of your children more than any electronic device or educational video on the market by simply

· reading to your kids (and infants)
· singing to and with your kids (and infants)
· talking to your kids about their day
· laughing and joking with your kids (creating a positive environment has an amazing

impact on brain development)
· playing outside in the dirt with your kids
· eating dinner regularly with your kids
· roughhousing with your kids (especially dads)

Do we want our kids to get good grades? Of course we do. Do we want them to be happy? I most definitely do.

But I also realize that true happiness and joy stem not from personal success or feeling good but from the sacrifice of loving and caring for other people.

And the most powerful way for that to grow in our kids is to simply be with them. Mom and Dad, stop exhausting yourself trying to give your kids an advantage. You are the advantage.

Excerpted from Safe House by Joshua Straub Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Straub. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read Brain Child’s Q&A with Joshua.

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Book Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Book Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceFinding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior

By Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

PART TWO : Stories of Parental intelligence in Practice

Chapter Seven: Jealousy in an Identical Twin


Mr. and Mrs. Richards give birth to identical twin boys, Clive and Ari. Clive, the more vulnerable infant receives primary care from his mother while his father cares for the more robust Ari. Unaware of continuing this pattern, the parents tended to favor each of these twins as the boys grew older.

By kindergarten, amiable Clive begins hitting his loved brother, Ari, in school and at home. The teacher and parents are befuddled by this unexpected, puzzling behavior. The parents decide to use their Parental Intelligence to figure things out.

Mr. Richards realizes that the hitting started after he began taking long business trips. He also realized Clive hit his brother after Dad spent time with Ari alone. Reflecting on his feelings, Dad considered that Clive was distant before and after his business trips. Dad felt rebuffed and rejected and wondered if that was a clue to how Clive felt, too. By then Dad believed that the hitting had meaning.

Parental Intelligence Photo 1

Understanding Your Child’s Mind

During the month he was working from home before his next trip, Mr. Richards decided to observe Clive more closely. Kindergarten homework took longer than he had ever imagined and parent participation was involved. An example was timing each boy as he read a long list of sight words. He watched as his wife timed Ari who completed the list quickly. When she called Clive into the kitchen, he procrastinated, claiming he was busy with his Legos. She purposefully did not have the boys do their work together because she didn’t want Clive to watch Ari’s performance, which was better than Clive’s would be. Clive struggled with about half the words, so Mrs. Richards stopped timing; it only made him anxious. He eventually read the list and went back in the other room to join his brother and complete the other assignment. In a notebook, the boys had to draw a picture of whatever they chose and dictate a story about the picture, which a parent would write for them on a separate sheet of paper.

When Clive was working on the second assignment, Mr. Richards noticed him get up several times to look over Ari’s shoulder. He realized Clive wasn’t trying to copy his brother’s work; instead, he wanted to see how far Ari had gotten. It was evident to Clive that his brother had no difficulty completing the exercise. Clive left the room with his head down. His notebook was left open on the dining room table, his work unfinished.

Mr. Richards waited a few minutes, then looked around to find Clive. He saw him working intently at the computer in a small office that everyone used. He stood back, curious about what Clive was doing. He could see from a distance that he had located a painting program and was busy engineering a picture. Mr. Richards didn’t know that Clive was capable of using the computer, let alone navigating a painting application. He realized how much he didn’t know about his son’s abilities. He didn’t want to disturb him, so he left the room and came back twenty minutes later to find Clive still busy with his design. He asked Clive if he could look at his painting, but Clive quickly shut down the computer.

“Clive,” Mr. Richards said, “I didn’t know you were such a computer guy. You’re quite the tech wizard. Can I ask what program you were using?”

“Oh, it’s just Microsoft Paint,” Clive replied and turned his head to the side, away from his father.

“How’d you learn to use it?” Mr. Richards asked with excitement.

“I don’t know. I just did it. It shows you paintbrushes and colors, and you just choose and draw,” said Clive softly.

“That’s amazing, Clive! Could I take a little peek at your painting?”

“I don’t know. You might get mad at me,” answered Clive timidly.

Mr. Richards was surprised. He’d never had a real conversation with either boy about their feelings. Clive was so direct about this that Mr. Richards was taken aback. He’d never gotten mad at either boy. He didn’t even raise his voice, except when he was having a good time. But that’s usually with Ari, Mr. Richards thought with regret. It wasn’t like he never played with Clive, but he just didn’t enjoy Legos as much and found it hard to play with him. He recalled they did like biking together. Why didn’t he do more of that?

Mr. Richards responded the only way he knew how. “Clive, I’m never mad at you. I can’t think of anything you could do to get me mad. A painting won’t make me mad. I promise.”

Clive looked straight at his father. He paused for quite a while, as if what his father said might not be true. He was still worried, but he knew that his father never yelled at him, so he hesitantly opened the computer and, with a click, his drawing popped up.

Parental Intelligence art 3

Mr. Richards was shocked when he looked and saw his name on Clive’s picture. He didn’t know anything about children’s drawings, but clearly this was about him and Clive.

“Clive, I see your name and my name. Yours is so big. Mine is so small. What am I doing? Can you tell me?” Mr. Richards asked.

“You are going away for a long time,” whispered Clive.

“Okay,” Mr. Richards said, worried. “Where am I going?”

“I don’t know,” Clive replied, his brow wrinkled.

“Well, if you don’t know, does anyone know?” Mr. Richards wondered out loud, trying to be as sensitive as he knew how. Actually, Mr. Richards was a very sensitive guy, not only to others but also about himself. He had his own feelings hurt quite easily, and that was why he had felt rebuffed by Clive when he came home from his trip. He assumed Clive wasn’t particularly interested in him; his son’s picture showed him that he was wrong.

His name was written in small letters, while the daddy figure was big. Something about that struck him as important. He’d have to think more about that later because although Clive had paused to consider his father’s question, he was answering it now:

“I think Mommy knows,” Clive answered, slumping in his seat. “She knows why, and she won’t tell me.”

“Why won’t she tell you?” Mr. Richards asked quietly, totally confounded, and even scared. He thought that his little son was shouldering something of momentous importance, and here they were alone, without his wife, who would definitely be more understanding about all this.

“Because I’m bad, and she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings,” Clive replied. “She’s nice even when I’m bad. But my teacher isn’t anymore.”

“Oh. What did your teacher do?” Mr. Richards felt that the conversation was going well, but he didn’t know where it was leading. All he knew was that he felt incredibly sad for his little boy. He was only six and had such big, upsetting ideas.

“She told me I couldn’t paint. I like to paint. I like to paint very much. Daddy, I want to paint in school.” Clive started to cry and climbed onto his father’s lap.

Clive had never climbed into his lap before. This was a mommy thing. Mr. Richards sensed his son was beside himself with grief. He suddenly felt so close to Clive, and even though he knew his son was so distressed, he knew something positive was happening between them. From the classes on Parental Intelligence, he knew that understanding his son’s mind was paramount.

Mr. Richards looked back at the picture for more clues. He was very tempted to call his wife but sensed he shouldn’t. This was between Clive and himself. He plunged in. “Clive, why did the teacher say you couldn’t paint?”

“It’s because I’m bad like I told you.” Clive paused and then blurted out, “I hit Ari. More than once, too. That is bad. Really bad. And you went away. Far away.”

“Clive, do you think I went away because you hit Ari?” Mr. Richards asked in fear.

“No. You went away because I can’t read. You don’t like boys who can’t read. You like smart boys like Ari.”

Mr. Richards found himself rocking Clive very slowly like a baby. He was speechless, having trouble following his son’s gloomy logic. He didn’t know what he had done to cause Clive to think he didn’t like him. But then he thought again. It wasn’t what he had done. It was what he hadn’t done. He had never paid enough attention to Clive, so Clive drew the conclusion that he didn’t like him. Then, he speculated, when Clive had a problem reading—which wasn’t really a problem, except in comparison to Ari—Clive imagined that his father didn’t like him because of the reading, and had therefore gone away. It was an outlandish conclusion, but it followed the logic of a child’s mind.

Then, before he could speak, Clive added another part of the puzzle. “Daddy, it’s okay. Don’t be upset. I don’t like me either because I can’t read.”

Mr. Richards was tearing up. His son, his remarkably sensitive son, was consoling him! He had to speak now and be very clear.

“Clive,” he said slowly. “I went away to make money for all of us. I never go away because I don’t like you. I like you very much. I love you very much.”

Clive stared at his father, who continued, “Lots of kids don’t read when they are in kindergarten. You can take as long as you need to learn. It’s not a race to see who can read first.”

“But the teacher said I couldn’t paint because I can’t read.”

“Clive, she didn’t say that,” Mr. Richards explained. “She didn’t know why you were hitting and thought if you didn’t get to paint, you would stop hitting.”

“What does painting have to do with hitting?” Clive asked, befuddled. “I don’t hit when I paint. That’s impossible!”

Mr. Richards couldn’t restrain himself. He laughed, and Clive smiled, relieved his father found something, anything, funny about all this. Clive’s body relaxed, and he looked at his father with curiosity.

“Clive,” Mr. Richards asked, “did you hit Ari because the teacher would call on him to read?”

“My teacher was always my friend, but then she started calling on Ari a lot. More than on me. I thought she liked him more because he could read so well. That made me mad, so I hit Ari.”

“Gotcha,” his father said. Pointing at the picture, he asked. “Clive, what are you doing here?”

“Will you write the story if I tell it to you?”

“Absolutely. Let’s do it,” Mr. Richards responded, immediately standing up to get some paper and a pen. “Go for it, pal.”

Clive began telling his story. “There was a boy falling off his chair because he couldn’t read the words in his notebook. His brother knew more words than he did. He felt like crying, and he did. Little tears.”

Mr. Richards instantly saw the little tears coming from his son’s eyes in the picture that he had missed before.

Clive continued. “He thought his father was mad at him. He thought he was leaving because he was mad that his twin son didn’t know his words. But he thought wrong. His daddy was going to work. The end.”

Mr. Richards wrote as fast as he could to keep up with Clive’s rapid dictation. He smiled. Clive knew that he wasn’t mad and he was going to work. Terrific! Clive had understood their talk. He was incredibly pleased. But he heard the word twin, which was unexpected, and he became very curious.

“Clive,” Mr. Richards asked, “what does being a ‘twin’ mean?”

Clive’s forehead became furrowed as he stared into space.

“I think other people think it means two brothers are the same when they’re not. Brothers can look alike to people even when they look different to each other. But, anyway, looking alike and being alike aren’t the same thing. I think, because Ari is my twin, my teacher expects me to read like he does. I don’t. Kids think Ari can draw and paint because I do. He can’t. Daddy, did you know all that?”

“Yes, Clive, I know all that,” Mr. Richards replied. “But I don’t expect you and Ari to be the same. You can like some of the same things and not like other things. You can each find some things easier to do than other things. You are brothers in the same family with the same mommy and daddy and—”

“Daddy,” Clive interrupted, “I know we are in the same family with you and Mommy. Duh!”

Mr. Richards laughed. “Sorry. Of course, you know that. So being twins means you are the same age, but everything else isn’t the same all the time.”

“Right,” Clive said. “I’m hungry. Can I finish my homework after we eat dinner?” Clive was ending their discussion. He found out what he needed to know. Relieved, he could attend to being hungry.

“Sure,” Mr. Richards said, grinning. “Would you like me to sit with you when you finish your notebook after dinner?”

“Will you? Okay,” Clive crowed. “And then I have to draw another picture, too. Can we write another story?”

“You got it.”

Clive gave his father a big hug; he had never left his lap. Later in the evening, after the boys had gone to sleep, Mr. Richards told his wife about his talk with Clive, what he had learned about Clive’s incorrect conclusions, and how his assumptions were changed by their discussion. He told her that, in Clive’s picture, his name was written in small letters. He said he had wondered what it meant. With careful thought, he shared with her that he speculated that Clive drew the letters of his name so tiny because he hadn’t been around that much lately. It touched him deeply. He believed that writing his name that way was a result of his frequent absences combined with his emotional distance from Clive when he was at home. She was deeply moved and complimented him on being such a perceptive father. She added that she now understood Clive’s reluctance to talk to him on the phone or when he returned from the trip. From Clive’s perspective, his father was too mad at him to want to talk with him.

Both parents were certain that understanding their son’s mind would guide them with his future struggles. They became much more alert to Clive’s jealousy of Ari. It appeared to be his precocious reading ability that led to his false conclusion that his father liked Ari more, but maybe there was more to it than that. They had a lot to think about. Because the twins got along so well generally, they had missed the importance of hidden jealousies that they would now be more sensitive to.

Read another excerpt from Parental Intelligence:

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.


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Author’s Note: it is  with gratitude that I thank Marcelle Soviero, Editor-in-Chief of Brain,Child Magazine for her encouragement of my writing of this book.


Book Excerpt: Swimming Upstream

Book Excerpt: Swimming Upstream

Swimming Upstream CoverThis is an excerpt from Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Laura H. Choate.


Okay, steel yourself: I have talked about the complex world of girls’ friendships; now it is time to dive into even deeper waters—their romantic relationships. It is normal for girls to be driven toward romantic relationships starting in early adolescence. Remember, as reviewed in Chapter Two, part of this need for a relationship stems from an awakening physiological drive for relational closeness.

Does this mean that she is biologically driven toward romance craziness? In a way, yes. But if biology is what lights the match, it is cultural, media-driven messages that fuel the spark that then causes a wildfire. Cultural pressures are quite strong in this life dimension: Consider the fact that girls regularly receive the following messages: (1) romantic relationships should take precedence over friendships, (2) other girls are competitors in the serious game of finding a romantic partner, and (3) most important of all, your success and worth as a person is tied up in finding and keeping a romantic relationship.

If she buys in to these cultural messages, a romantic interest can supersede her priorities in all other areas, including her friends, interests, and personal goals. How ironic that when girls need true, supportive friendships the most, they often drop their friends at the first sign of male or female attention. Sadly, girls become distrustful of other girls who might potentially “steal” a boyfriend or girlfriend. Being “in a relationship” becomes intertwined with self-worth; it is a status symbol that is seen as worth almost any sacrifice.It should be acknowledged from the outset that although all girls receive cultural pressures about prioritizing romantic relationships and most are starting to explore their emerging sexual identities during this developmental period, their experiences in this area are not at all uniform. Although many girls are drawn to heterosexual relationships, others are questioning and exploring their identities as individuals who might be lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I certainly do not want to ignore their particular concerns and challenges. Although specific parenting strategies for girls who are exploring same-sex romantic attraction is beyond the scope of this chapter, some recommended readings to help you and your daughter are included at the end of this book. Because cultural messages primarily revolve around the importance of girls’ success in seeking and maintaining attention from a romantic partner (whether male or female), many of the issues discussed throughout this chapter apply regardless of a girl’s sexual orientation. For ease of discussion, though, I will sometimes use the term “boyfriend” or use a male pronoun in referring to a romantic interest while remaining aware that it does not apply in every case.

If a girl soaks in the cultural pressure that she must be in a relationship, it follows that she might compromise her beliefs and values in order to stay in that relationship. If she is looking to others for approval, trying to grasp a sense of being affirmed and valued, she will be vulnerable in the relationship and will have trouble saying no to the person who is providing that affirmation. As an obvious example and one that many parents fear is that in order to maintain their relationships, some girls engage in sexual activity only because they believe that their partner will break up with them if they say no. Many girls say that they regret their first sexual experience and report that they had sex only because they didn’t want to upset their boyfriends (saying things like “I didn’t want my boyfriend to be mad at me”). Others have sex in order to try to obtain a relationship in the first place, mistakenly believing that this will make the other person like them. A girl may be so in need of validation that she would rather accept brief sexual attention rather than feel alone, empty, and unworthy of acceptance. Unfortunately the very feelings she is trying to avoid are only intensified when the sexual encounter does not bring her the lasting acceptance she craves.

A Word About Sexting

These concepts and statistics help us better understand a current phenomenon sweeping through middle and high schools today: sexting. In a recent national study, 22 percent of middle-schoolers (yes, that is ages 12 to 14) admitted to sexting. If you are like me, at first thought it is hard to imagine why a girl in middle school would send someone a partially nude picture of herself via cell phone, knowing that it would likely be shared with others around the school (and even the world) within a matter of seconds. After reading these paragraphs, however, you grasp the context in which this happens. For example, Whitney has a boyfriend and feels that she has finally obtained the approval and status she was searching for, but then he asks her to send some pictures. She doesn’t want to, but he threatens to go find another girl who is willing and promises that he won’t show the pictures to anyone else. She wants to please him, to make sure he likes her. And so she sends the pictures.

Other girls sext in order to get others’ attention in the first place. They believe it is the price they have to pay in order to get the attention they are seeking. We know that if a girl is unable to say no to sexting, she is also less likely to say no in real life, and surveys of students bear this out. Studies of middle school students who sext found that these students were four to seven times more likely to be sexually active (this includes kissing, having oral sex, or sexual intercourse) than those who did not participate in sex- ting. In particular, girls who sext are more likely to have multiple sexual partners and to use illicit substances. Heavy cell phone use is also related to sexting and sexual activity: those students who text 100 or times per day are more likely to have sent or received a sext and to be sexually active than those who text less frequently.34 Again, this is happening regularly in the world of middle-schoolers. The numbers are even higher for high school students. To be able to swim upstream, your daughter clearly needs your support and guidance in this area; consider the resilience strategies that follow.

What to Do: Resilience Strategies for Healthy, Romantic Relationships

Love, approve, validate. As discussed extensively in Chapter Four, it is vitally important for your daughter to feel loved and accepted just for who she is. W hen she believes that she has your approval, she won’t feel desperate to seek out others’ validation to prove that she has value. She will not need the validation that comes from romantic attention or from having a boyfriend (or girlfriend) in order to feel good about herself. She won’t be as vulnerable to losing herself in a romantic relationship.

Dad, you are the model. A girl’s relationship with her father is generally the first one she has with a male, and it sets the standard for how she will expect to be treated by boys and men (or any romantic interest) in the future. First, observe your interactions with the women in your life; your daughter is watching you, her father, to see how you treat women and especially how you interact with her mother. Next, consider your current relationship with your daughter. She wants to have a special relationship with you, one in which she knows she has your approval. She needs to hear you say you love her, but she also needs to see it through your actions. She feels valued when you spend time with her. This occurs when you clear your calendar to take her on a father-daughter outing, when you hug her and show her affection, when you listen to her problems, when she knows without a doubt that you are on her side and that you are her biggest fan. When she feels that you love and like her, she will feel less need to frantically search for validation from other males.

Make space for conversation. The stereotype of having “the talk” with our adolescents is one of mumbling, awkwardness, and relief when it is over. In reality, what our daughters need is not a one-time lecture about relationships, sexuality, and sexual pressures but an open atmosphere of trust characterized by ongoing conversation. Madeline Levine writes that we as parents are responsible for being the sex educators of our children, for “if we don’t discuss the most critical issues our kids will face—new bodies, sexual choices, intimacy—then the information is likely to come from their equally confused peers.”

Therefore, as uncomfortable as it may feel, you have to deal with reality: Your daughter will be faced with sexual pressures, and probably a lot sooner than you think. Rather than ignore it and wishing it would go away, you need to clarify certain issues for yourself: What are your expectations and standards in this regard? What are your values? (Revisit the list you created in Chapter Four).

Second, once you are clear on where you stand, you need to communicate your values to your daughter in multiple conversations and over time. You should communicate your expectations in a clear manner, but you also don’t want to become too dogmatic so that your daughter will be reluctant to ever approach you with questions. Instead, she needs to know that you want her to come to you when she is confused or feeling pressured; she won’t do this if she fears that you will demean or punish her in some way. As Kathy Masarie recommends, be an askable parent; demonstrate that you are open to questions. Your goal should be to make your daughter feel comfortable in coming to you when she is actually facing a dilemma or decision.

Some parents mistakenly believe that talking about sexuality and relationships will encourage their daughters to actually engage in sexual activity. Instead, research shows that girls who have had ongoing conversations about sexuality and dealing with sexual pressures are more resilient and make better choices than other girls when actually faced with pressures in these areas. This is because they have information, they know how to assert their boundaries, and they are able to make informed decisions grounded in their parents’ belief systems.

Establish rules for dating. As already stated, decide in advance how old your daughter should be in order to be allowed to go on group dates and then one-to-one dates (see Box 6.8). Many experts recommend the age of 16 as a safe age to begin one-to-one dating. They also recommend that you should have a rule against dating someone who is more than one school grade above or below her. In this way she is more likely to be on an equal footing psychologically and mentally with her romantic interest when inevitable sexual pressures do arise. Meg Meeker—pediatrician, parenting expert, and author of the blog “Family Matters”—claims that teen dating should be discouraged until the later years of high school.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Laura H. Choate.

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A guide to help parents teach their daughters to resist negative cultural messages.

Never before have adolescent girls faced so many confusing and contradictory expectations. From a young age, popular culture teaches girls that their worth is based on their appearance, their ability to gain attention, and an ever-increasing accrual of accomplishments. With such unattainable standards, it is no wonder that many girls experience stress, self-doubt, and even mental health problems. Girls struggle to develop an authentic sense of self, even as they attempt to meet a set of impossible cultural expectations.

Many parents feel helpless against the onslaught of negative influences targeting their daughters, but in Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, Laura Choate offers a message of reassurance. This book provides parents with a set of straightforward tools they can use to help their daughters navigate the trials and demands of contemporary girlhood. Choate draws upon years of research and counseling literature to teach parents how to instill the power of resilience in their daughters, including developing a positive body image, maintaining healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners, and navigating high-pressure academic environments. Based on cutting-edge research, this book contains the strategies that parents need to prepare their daughters with the life skills they need to resist destructive cultural influences.

Though the journey through modern girlhood may be complicated – and even treacherous – this guide offers a user-friendly way for parents to help their daughters thrive in the midst of the negative pressures of modern culture. Practical and engaging, Swimming Upstream is a must-read for parents of girls of all ages.

SWIMMING UPSTREAM: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Laura H. Choate with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Oxford University Press.

Top 10 Breastfeeding Books

Top 10 Breastfeeding Books


By Jessica Smock

It’s been a while since I read a book about breastfeeding purely for informational purposes. My ten-month breastfeeding journey with my second child, a daughter, has been relatively uneventful to date. In contrast, my brief breastfeeding experience with my son was difficult from its unhappy start to its painful finish. He had latching issues, colic, reflux, and severe milk protein allergies. We were both miserable — in pain, exhausted, and frustrated — for several weeks, despite help from a lactation consultant and two doulas. When his pediatric GI doctor suggested that it was perfectly okay to consider a special, prescription hypoallergenic formula, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Breastfeeding, many of us think before our babies are born, should be the most natural thing in the world. However, what is “natural” is not always easy, or even best, for every family. I know that not every woman makes the choice — or has the choice to make — to breastfeed, and I included a few books that will appeal to all mothers and parents of any age, no matter how they feed the babies in their lives.

Instead of breastfeeding guides describing how to breastfeed I’ve recently found myself more drawn to books about the emotional and political aspects of breastfeeding in our culture. As a consequence this list has a little of both: how-to guides as well as literary, scholarly, and humorous examinations of the challenges and triumphs of breastfeeding. I make no attempt to include all of the informational books and guides about breastfeeding, of which I’m sure there are many excellent ones, just a few that were most useful to me.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League (revised and updated eighth edition) and The Nursing Mother’s Companion by Kathleen Huggins

No list of books about breastfeeding would be complete without these two classics. Both books have been revised and updated to reflect the needs of today’s nursing mothers and families. They’re both full of practical, reassuring advice about preparing to breastfeed, getting through the first difficult weeks, overcoming common challenges, and returning to work. I would recommend either book to pregnant moms who would like to breastfeed their babies, and I would particularly recommend that they read the “newborn survival” chapters before the baby is born.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was first published in 1958 as a loose-leaf pamphlet and has come a long way since then. The new edition is well-designed and fun to read. It was the book that my doula gave to me when I asked her for the best book she knew about how to breastfeed.

The Nursing Mother’s Companion is now in its seventh edition. In this book, I particularly liked its quick reference “survival guides,” set off from the rest of the pages, that focus on the most immediate breastfeeding concerns.

Bestfeeding: How to Breastfeed Your Baby by Mary Renfrew, Chloe Fisher, and Suzanne Arms

If you’re like me (and most new breastfeeding mothers), it’s not enough to read explanations about the perfect latch and the various breastfeeding positions. What sets this book apart from most other guides is the inclusion of dozens of pictures and diagrams that help make learning to breastfeed easier. The illustrations and pictures show new mothers not only what they should do but also what not to do, in terms of incorrect positioning. It’s written by three midwives with decades of experience between them, and they successfully combine their interpretations of academic research with their own clinical experiences.

Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family from La Leche International

For many breastfeeding mothers (but certainly not all), sleep can be a challenge. In contrast to my formula-fed son, my daughter has struggled with sleeping longer stretches. Even now at 10 months, she wakes at least once or twice at night for a feeding. Unlike my son, she preferred to co-sleep and nurse frequently throughout the night during her early months. Some may not relate to this book’s emphasis on co-sleeping and bedsharing — or agree with many of its claims about sleep safety and the supposed dangers of sleep training (I do not) — but many breastfeeding families may find that it provides much-needed practical tips and reassurance about patterns in baby sleep. I particularly like the way that it is organized around a breastfeeding baby’s developmental stages and needs.

Unbuttoned: Women Open Up About the Pleasures, Pains, and Politics of Breastfeeding. Edited by Dana Sullivan and Maureen Connolly

This intense and relatable anthology includes 25 writers’ reflections of their breastfeeding experiences. I was especially interested to read essays from a few of my favorite authors, such as novelist Julia Glass and frequent Brain, Child contributor Catherine Newman. If the previous how-to guides are primarily about the mechanics and logistics of breastfeeding, this collection is focused on the emotional ups and downs. Several of the writers discuss the internal and external pressures to breastfeed, as well as the shame they felt when breastfeeding was difficult or unsuccessful. Many of the essays are quite funny in parts, describing incidents of spraying milk on unsuspecting bystanders or attempts at dating and romance while lactating.

The Breastfeeding Cafe: Mothers Share the Joys, Challenges, and Secrets of Nursing by Barbara L. Behrmann

This book also focuses on the lived experience of breastfeeding for mothers, this time from the perspective of ordinary women rather than professional writers. The author, a sociologist by training, weaves her own story with insights from women’s first-hand accounts through interviews, and journals, and online interactions. The book does not back away from controversial topics, such as sexuality and “swap” nursing, and includes a diversity of voices, including women from a wide spectrum of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds.

How My Breasts Saved the World: Misadventures of a Nursing Mother by Lisa Wood Shapiro

I was chuckling along with this book before I even opened its cover. This breezy, witty memoir from a writer and filmmaker tells the story of her daughter’s first year — from birth to weaning — along with advice, information, and encouragement. You can get a sense of the tone of the book from a few of the chapter titles such as “Don’t Bite Your Newborn,” “The Panic and the Pain,” and “Red Angry Nipples.” The main message of the book is that breastfeeding is difficult but rewarding and often gets easier with time (and a sense of humor). And, of course, that no new mother should ever have to go through it alone.

The Places You’ll Feed by Lauren Hirschfield Belden

An even more hilarious take on the triumphs and tribulations of breastfeeding comes from the recently published parody of the Dr. Seuss classic. The author felt blind-sided by how challenging her breastfeeding experience was and wrote this book to celebrate both the joy and stress of breastfeeding. The illustrations and rhyming style are funny and quite truthful, featuring lines like “Your pumping machine/likely came with a case,/which you’ll find yourself dragging/ all over the place.” Belden’s goal was to make women — who often do not feel like breastfeeding is always the pleasurable, idyllic experience that they are meant to feel like it should be — feel less alone. Because of her sympathetic message, this would be a perfect gift for any new mom, even one who did not continue breastfeeding. While it would make a good shower gift it is humor best appreciated after experience.

Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood by Joan B. Wolf and Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t by Suzanne Barston

These books examine the research evidence and concludes that much of our public understanding about the health benefits of breastfeeding are overstated and not substantiated by the medical literature.

Wolf’s book attempts to challenge the notion that “breast is best,” the widespread belief that breastfeeding is scientifically superior for infants than bottle feeding. Rather, she argues, our modern preoccupation with breastfeeding is an expression of our cultural acceptance of the value of “total motherhood,” in which mothers must selflessly devote their entire emotional and physical beings to their children in an effort to reduce all possible risks. I found Wolf’s discussion of our cultural aversion to certain forms of risk (and ignoring others) and the media’s and general public’s difficulty with interpreting statistical evidence to be the most compelling components of the book as she effectively dissects the reasons why so few research studies are able to assess the effects of breastfeeding in a statistically reliable way.

Between the two, I found Barston’s mix of memoir and reporting, including interviews with medical professionals, academics, and feminists, to be more empathetic and accessible to most mothers, who may want reassurance about their personal feeding choices.

After Birth by Elisa Albert

It might seem strange to include a novel in a list of books about breastfeeding, but this raw, darkly humorous, and provocative portrait of modern motherhood allowed me to explore my own thoughts about birthing, caring for a newborn, and reinterpreting one’s identity after a baby is born. And, yes, in this novel, breastfeeding — as it is for many mothers in real life — takes center stage. The main character Ari has a nearly one year old baby but is depressed, full of buried rage and subversive opinions on lots of things, and friendless. The friendship at the heart of the book blooms when Ari begins breastfeeding her new friend’s baby when the friend initially struggles. The book isn’t for everyone, but I found it brave, honest, absorbing, and funny.

Jessica Smock is aneducator and researcher who earned her doctorate in educational policy in 2013. She is the co-editor of The HerStories Project, whose newest anthology Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience will be published in November. 

BreastFeeding COVER7-31-15 copyPurchase Brain, Child’s newest archive collection eBook. On sale this week for $2.99.

Brain, Child Writers on the Joys and Challenges of Breastfeeding.


Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceIntroduction

By Dr. Laurie Hollman

Do you ever wonder why your child behaves the way she does? How many times in a single day do you ask yourself, “Why did she do that?” Even little things can throw you. Your three-year-old lies about brushing his teeth. He lied? At age three? Sometimes it’s subtle. For example, your teenage daughter tells you about her day, something she rarely does. Why now? Is she just feeling chatty or did something happen that she’s not quite ready to tell you yet? Sitting in a parent-teacher conference, or even a principal’s office, you may ask yourself, “Why did my child behave that way? How am I supposed to handle this?”

We’ve all experienced that awful feeling of fear, surprise, or incomprehension when our kids do something unusual, unimaginable, or outright distressing. And when nothing changes, despite our best efforts to address the behavior, all we can do is wonder, “Why?”

It’s common to have moments of despair, when you feel that parenting is beyond you; when you believe that the job requires a special kind of intelligence that wasn’t encrypted on your brain and you’re waiting for the time when you can sustain—for just one day—that important parent-child bond psychologists say is necessary for a healthy family life.

In this book, I am going to give you a new perspective on behaviors that may confound you and cause you powerful inner pressure or even panic. I’m going to lead you up a path that enlightens, uplifts, and relieves you as you learn how to unmask the meanings behind your child’s behavior. As you continue to practice this process, you will become a meaning-maker, empowered to read your child’s actions like an open book. Using the tools I provide, I will help you experience the heightened energy and deep satisfaction that come with unlocking your Parental Intelligence.

Parenting offers many humorous, precious situations—like the time you invited fifty people to your daughter’s first birthday party and she pressed her chubby fingers into the center of the chocolate cake you baked, swirled them around, and then happily put them into your mouth like there was no distance between the two of you. If only it could stay that way; if only that instant could last forever, like a memento that reminds you of the cow that jumped over the moon. You hoped she could have a dreamy childhood and never stop believing that family life is all chocolate cake. We all wish it could stay simple—all good humor and pure joy.

But parenting can have a difficult side, too—like the time your eight-year-old fled the house yelling, “I’m running away! Why do you ruin everything? You never get it.” He came back, exhausted after fifteen tortuous minutes speeding around the front yard like a freight train that had gone off its track and landed in a deep ditch. You stood by the window, watching him, heart pounding, worried and scared. You felt winded, as if you were the locomotive spinning off the track. Tears pushed out from your tired eyes. And your son came in defeated and spent. Even though he returned, you knew there was some deeper meaning behind what he did. But what do you do when you’re afraid that whatever is wrong will shadow you and your child everywhere? The stakes are high.

The circumstances and backgrounds of the parents I’ve worked with as a psychoanalyst vary greatly—yet, I discovered that they had some crucial things in common. They were conscientious, thinking parents. And most importantly, they all wanted to understand their kids. This was key.

They were all searching for that special intelligence needed for respectful parenting, even if they didn’t quite know how to ask for it. What they were searching for is what I call Parental Intelligence. I coined this term because I believe parenting requires the persistence and rigor of an intelligence that can be honed with the right tools and life experience.

I believe parents should never be underestimated—even when they doubt themselves. With a clearly designed pathway, you can unlock your Parental Intelligence, access and harness your parenting capacities, and solve the most important problems your children are facing.

With Parental Intelligence, you will figure out the whys behind your child’s behavior. Knowing why your child behaves a certain way will allow you to find the best approach to dealing with the behavior. Understanding why your child acts out, disobeys, or behaves in disruptive and disturbing ways is the key to preventing the recurrence of the behavior. Parental Intelligence provides that understanding.

I have narrowed down and systemized the learning process into five steps that will unlock your Parental Intelligence. And I will illustrate—through examples of many difficult scenarios of compelling family situations—how to use these positive parenting steps in order to achieve the outcomes you desire.

With Parental Intelligence, you enter the inner world of your child and understand where he or she is coming from. You will no longer focus initially on stopping misbehavior, but you will first try to understand the meaning behind the misbehavior, and even consider it a useful communication. This approach not only prevents undesired behavior more effectively, it also strengthens parent-child relationships. You and your child grow together.

Three basic interrelated tenets lie behind Parental Intelligence: (1) behaviors have underlying meanings; (2) once parents understand how their own minds are working, they are liberated to understand their child—how their child’s mind is working; (3) once meanings are clear, options surface by which to change unwanted behaviors. When the three core concepts come into play, the ambiance of family life fundamentally changes.

This means that parents no longer focus on the child’s specific misbehavior as the overarching troubles and problems emerge. When those problems are addressed, the original misbehavior loses importance and usually stops.

The book is divided into three parts. “Part One: Developing Your Parental Intelligence” describes the theory behind Parental Intelligence and the five steps toward creating it: Stepping Back, Self-Reflecting, Understanding Your Child’s Mind, Understanding Your Child’s

Development, and Problem Solving. The five steps are geared to parents who look to support their children’s growth, and happiness. In today’s society, there is a broad array of roles that mothers and fathers take on as they participate in parenting. These varied roles are readily adapted to family life as parents use their Parental Intelligence.

“Part Two: Stories of Parental Intelligence in Practice” offers eight short stories about parents using Parental Intelligence with their children. Each family portrait reveals that as parents understand themselves, they can better understand their children. With these understandings, misbehaviors become a catalyst to change. As open dialogue evolves, parents discover and clarify the meanings behind the behaviors. In turn, parents and children grapple with the underlying struggles that, though not apparent at first, were hidden behind the behaviors. Once brought to light, problems can be solved.

These stories about infants, children, and adolescents—including three with special needs: ADHD, a pervasive developmental disorder, and depression—demonstrate the broad spectrum to which the five steps of Parental Intelligence apply. The eight stories focus on the pivotal roles fathers and mothers can have in their child’s behavior and development.

“Part Three: The Future with Parental Intelligence” describes a world where Parental Intelligence has become commonplace. This philosophy of parenting has ramifications at familial and societal levels. I discuss how this parenting approach provides a meeting ground where parents and children get to know each other in profound ways as they solve present

problems that affect their future values and directions. Children of such families will have the skills to work through conflicts in their daily lives and future relationships.

This book doesn’t have an ending. Many mothers and fathers raising their children with Parental Intelligence have told me that using these principles as a guide have led to a new way of being together—a new parenting life.

Chapter One

The New Parenting Mindset

 The voices of empathetic parents become the inner voices of self-assured, secure children.

The major premise behind Parental Intelligence is that a child’s behavior or misbehavior has meaning—and often more than one. Once the treasure trove of meanings emerges, we realize that there are many possible reactions to misbehavior. If these ideas are new and even challenging to you, the following journey will take you to a positive and satisfying stage in your parenting life.

This important parenting mindset is founded on the belief that external behavior has internal causes. Parents and children alike behave based on what they think and feel. Using my approach, parents begin to learn how to hold in mind their own thoughts and feelings as well as their child’s thoughts and feelings simultaneously.

Let’s fast forward to two of the parents and children you will meet in this book: Clive and his father, and Olivia and her mother. Let’s assume that Clive’s father and Olivia’s mother have completed this book and have acquired a secure parenting mindset.

One morning, when Clive’s father told him to put on his shoes to get ready for school, the six-year-old threw them across the room. Clive’s father learned a great deal about parenting by following a series of steps about effective parenting (which will soon become apparent as we get to know him later). Therefore, he was able to experience Clive’s impulsive reaction and his own annoyance with Clive’s behavior simultaneously. He learned that holding both his and Clive’s feelings in mind was a requisite for understanding what may be going on when they are working at cross purposes.

He wanted Clive to get ready for school, but he didn’t know yet that Clive didn’t even want to go to school, something that had never happened before. Clive’s father knew he had to look for meaning behind his son’s behavior. He understood that if he jumped in and insisted that Clive put the shoes on immediately, he might miss an important opportunity at real and true communication. He held back from giving an immediate consequence to Clive’s action. He held his breath and forced himself to wait for Clive to calm down.

Because he and Clive had worked on this approach for months, Clive’s father was able to ask Clive if something was upsetting him about putting on his shoes to get ready for school. Eventually, Clive was able to explain what was bothering him. Clive told his dad that during an arithmetic lesson in his kindergarten class, he gave a wrong answer to a simple addition problem and a classmate laughed. In response, Clive poked the boy with the eraser end of his pencil. The boy cried out and the teacher, who is generally quite sensitive to kindhearted Clive, took a most unusual but spontaneous action—she yelled at him. Clive didn’t know that was the reason he threw the shoes, but his father was able to make the connection in his mind.

The father’s awareness that his child’s impulsive behavior must have a reason enabled him to take a step back and create space for Clive to explain what happened at school the day before. The parenting mindset that asks the parent to hold both himself and his child in mind creates a sense of safety for both child and parent. An atmosphere of safety allows children to communicate feelings and events that are most distressing, exciting, and important to them without embarrassment or self-consciousness. Using Parental Intelligence, misbehavior becomes a catalyst for communication.

On the way to the kitchen, thirteen-year-old Olivia said to her mother, who was not yet in sight, “Mommy, I have something to tell you, but I don’t want you to be mad.” Implementing the principles of Parental Intelligence, her mother immediately adopted the nonjudgmental, empathic mindset needed to help Olivia feel safe enough to talk to her. “Whatever it is,” her mother said, “we can work it out.”

Olivia, head down, walked into the kitchen where she raised her face to show her mother a golden ring piercing her lower lip. Her mother was shocked, but she worked hard at reserving her feelings, holding Olivia’s worry in mind as well. It was important to Olivia’s mother that Olivia could tell her about this without fearing her reaction. Olivia started to cry and explained that her best friend convinced her to go to the mall where they each got a lip ring. At first, they thought it would be fun to have a new look, but as soon as it was done, they knew it was a big mistake.

“How big a mistake could this be?” Olivia’s mother asked. “If you don’t want to leave it in, take it out, and the hole will close up in a few days.”

Even though Olivia already knew this, her mother’s response allowed her to experience her mother as a safe parent, someone she could approach with her problems. She and her mother discussed as openly as they could why Olivia experimented with the lip piercing, learning together that there may be several reasons. Olivia wanted to feel prettier: her self-image was uncertain, and she wanted to experiment with a new look that she thought was more mature. She also wanted to do something independently from her mother. The conversation with her

mother allowed her to feel her mother’s acceptance, which, in turn, supported her attempt at independence, even though it didn’t turn out well. Keeping her shock to herself, Olivia’s mother reaped tremendous rewards. She learned much more about Olivia than she had imagined was possible, and she suffered along with her daughter as Olivia poured out her lack of confidence and desire to be independent.

Olivia’s mother knew that keeping both herself and her daughter in mind would provide the safe environment her daughter needed to truthfully explain what had happened. This led to greater understanding, not only of this experience, but also of their relationship as a whole. The sense of safety between Olivia and her mother didn’t come with this one incident, but with hundreds of such encounters in everyday life.

These examples show that a parent is not only responding to physical, but also to psychological reality. Throwing the shoes or getting the lip ring constituted physical reality. Clive’s desire to be liked by his teacher, to be a good child, to not be embarrassed at school, and for his father to take his side constituted Clive’s psychological reality. Olivia’s psychological reality included her fear of making her mother angry, her worry over her self-image, and her wish to do something independently.

This parenting mindset can and will affect your daily life and give you and your child a greater sense of well-being. Olivia and her mother felt safe and comfortable enough to be discussing Olivia’s problems. This reinforced their relationship, giving them a feeling of strength and comfort within themselves and a feeling of being grounded and secure. Olivia’s mother’s self-image as an effective parent grew, and Olivia’s self-image as a daughter who can safely experiment and trust her mother despite a mistake was affirmed. Clive and his father felt a strong connection because Clive’s empathic father recognized and understood Clive’s conflicts. Both children felt accepted by their parents as they worked out their troubles together.

Parental Intelligence allows a hopeful outlook. You are ready to learn the steps that are necessary to evolve as effective and loving parents who listen to their children through words and actions. This orientation, once established, stays inside of you.

Read Brain, Child’s exclusive interview with author Dr. Laurie Hollman

Unlocking Parental Intelligence, published by Familius, is available now.

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceAmazon

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Top 10 Books for Raising a Reader

Top 10 Books for Raising a Reader

Born Reading coverBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Wendy Griswold, a sociologist and author of the third book on this list explains that, “A reading class is a social formation, while a reading culture is a society where reading is expected, valued, and common. All societies with written language have a reading class but few have a reading culture.” Let’s just say that if you are a Brain, Child reader, you are a member of the reading class. Though you probably also know then that more than raising readers, it would be wonderful to help create a reading culture. That is the ultimate goal of these ten books together, which move from the theoretical to the practical and pragmatic. But of course we must also be concerned about the other iteration of raising readers—from basic literacy to love of a book to love of literature, etc. and each book individually addresses one of these issues in some way. As Jason Boog, author of book #4 on this list, explains, snobbery really has no place in children’s worlds; we should encourage them to read whatever interests them in any form including comics and eBooks in addition to treasured hardcovers and sacred board books. Happy Reading!

  • Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood by Maria Tatar

Maria Tatar, Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures, teaches about Folklore and Mythology—most famously about fairy tales. This trade book will appeal to anyone who fell in love with any book as a child. Using luminous language Tatar examines the stories we love and how readers think about, and remember, them. She also identifies themes that endure, along with ways of reading. For instance, she describes the “contact zone” created when a parent and child read together, and how bedtime reading was invented (around the time when kids started sleeping separately from their parents). On the creation of good night books, Tatar writes, “Books are our soothing syrup. We depend on them to build a bridge from waking to sleeping, to transform the alert, inquisitive child into an immobile, drowsy creature finally willing to stay in bed.” This book will help you wax nostalgic about your days as a young reader, while treating your own young reader with respect, especially as he or she prepares to delve in the talismanic, Talmudic, and sacred canon of children’s literature.

Becoming a Reader: The Experience of Fiction from Childhood to Adulthood by J.A. Appleyard

This book relies on psychology and literary theory to talk about how we read fiction over our lives (in fact, Appleyard heavily draws on the work of Erik Erikson, whose seminal book Childhood and Society was just reviewed at Brain, Child!). But Becoming a Reader offers us a guidebook for our children’s, and our own, reading journeys. Based on years of research Appleyard concludes that, “Many factors form the sensibility of a particular reader…but underlying these concrete circumstances there seems to be a set of capacities and expectations that develops according to a fairly orderly pattern and influences the way one reads as one grows from childhood to adulthood.” He argues that readers take on five roles over their lives: Player, Hero/ine, Thinker, Interpreter, Pragmatist. We may all long for the days when reading (or, more precisely, being read to) was pure pleasure; but we can also identify with the finding that, “Juvenile and adolescent and college-age readers distinguish between school reading and voluntary reading, but adults distinguish between escape reading and books that are challenging or demanding.” Brain, Child of course is a bit of both for its readers…

Regionalism and the Reading Class by Wendy Griswold

This short book by sociology professor Wendy Griswold is written about the reading class, for the reading class. What is “the reading class?” According to Griswold, “The reading class consists of those people who read for entertainment constantly. These are the folks who always have a book going, who never travel without something to read, who have print materials scattered in every room of their houses. This reading class is and will be modest in size but immense in cultural influence.” What is immensely useful about Griswold’s work is that she situates reading as both a social and historical activity. She points out that readers in most societies have traditionally been a minority (incidentally, mainly an elite activity) and that decline of reading refers not to literacy—as we live in a text-saturated world—but reading for pleasure. What many of us desire for our children then is to raise a member of the reading class and not just a reader.

Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age—From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between by Jason Boog

I’m spoiled his punchline a bit, but I love what Boog wrote on the last page of Born Reading: “This is the only parenting handbook that won’t make your life easier.” Raising a reader takes effort on the part of the parents, but for so many different reasons it is work that has a worthwhile reward. Born Reading is one of the most recent books on this list (released in 2014) and as such it talks a lot about screens in young children’s lives. Boog’s view is moderate; he explains, “This book also acknowledges that reading and learning—even for small children—is happening more and more on screens and online. Whatever your feelings about that, it’s a truth to be embraced, not shunned.” The focus is on interactive reading—asking lots of questions, making the experience kinetic and not just cognitive—which are tips that apply to board books, comic books, eBooks, apps, and the like. Boog provides 15 tips as part of The Born Reading Playbook, each with a “conversation starter.” For example: “Guess what happens next. These questions will reinforce a sense of narrative and enhance reading comprehension…Who do you think will win the race?” Overall Born Reading provides practical tips, suggested books and apps, Common Core suggestions, and the reminder that, “There are very few things a young child can control in this world, but a book is a simple and perfect place to start.”

I’m Ready!: How to Prepare Your Child for Reading Success by Janice Greenberg and Elaine Weitzman

I’ve previously declared my love for I’m Ready! and it hasn’t diminished—of all the books on this list I’m most likely to recommend this one for several reasons. This speech-language pathologist team combine the theory and research behind literacy and turn it into useful, directed, and do-able suggestions for parents. Moreover, this short book (only about 75 pages) is reminiscent of a child’s textbook, which puts you in the right frame of mind; especially because the target audience, parents of toddlers and preschoolers, tend to be a pretty tired lot (of course I couldn’t possibly be speaking from experience). Greenberg and Weitzman themselves have a way with words. For example, when writing about one of the five building blocks of literacy—vocabulary: “On any given day your child hears thousands of words. If you imagine those words as stars in the sky, it’s easy to see why no single star will capture her attention unless it shines and twinkles more brightly than the others.” By reading I’m Ready! you might even get some tips for improving your own story comprehension…

Raising Confident Readers: How to Teach Your Child to Read and Write—from Babe to Age 7 by J. Richard Gentry

Gentry is a former Reading Professor and elementary school-age teacher, so he knows a lot about which he writes. He has very specific ideas about how to raise confident writers—the biggest of which is that he believes reading and writing are linked and that early writers tend to be early readers. He goes so far as to argue that this is the first book/program of its kind to link writing and drawing skills to reading. I confess that my own children are not old enough to make their way through the five phases of the program yet to say how effective it is, and there are some who think that learning to write too early is harmful (especially because many children have not yet developed adequate fine motor skills to grip various writing implements properly). But Gentry’s phases certainly start at the most basic level with no set timeline for progression so parents will feel little pressure to have their 6-month-old writing his or her ABCs.

The Reading Lesson: The intelligent reading program for young child by Michael Levin and Charan Langton

The “the” in the title is no accident. Levin and Charan emphasize lowercase letters in their reading method hence “the Reading Lesson.” Why lowercase letters? They argue that many kids do not know them as well as uppercase, even though 95% of print letters are lowercase. Over 20 lessons this husband-and-wife doctor-master’s of science duo lay out ways parents can help children learn decoding skills (an important distinction because this is not a book about reading comprehension). So many books out there claim to teach kids to read in “x” many lessons and it is important to be cautious. This guide is geared for ages 4-8 and suggests only doing one page per day until the child is five or six, and not more than three per day. It also emphasizes combing phonics and word recognition as most fluent readers employ both.

Seuss’ ABC

At the end of the day, no “planned” program can do better than basics like ABC books. As a child this was my favorite (Zizzer-Zazzer-Zuzz anyone?!), and my boys have enjoyed Elmo’s ABCs, Red Sox ABCs (sorry, Yankees fans), and Eating the Alphabet. The key here is repetition and fun interpretations—no matter how bored this may make the adults at times. At the end of the day, kids learn best through play, and that’s true for the ABCs as well.

Good Night Moon by Margaret Wise Brown (illustrated by Clement Hurd)

Maria Tatar refers to this book as the mother of all bedtime stories. It is a book that is mentioned by many who write about children’s literature and theory (for example, check out pages 105-111 of Enchanted Hunters and pages 25-7 of Born Reading). It was written in a single morning and as Tatar puts it, “The work’s spontaneous genesis reminds us that it is as much poetry as prose, a lyrical homage to things as well as an elegiac story about rabbits.” The illustrations also make it unforgettable and Boog points out that the integration of black and white images with bright colors are perfect for brand-new eyes. Speaking from experience here, kids request this again and again and there is always something new to find (even if parts start to seem off, even creepy). Our household is already on our second board book, it was so loved.

Little House on the Prairie Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder

At some point you move away from board books, and eventually progress to chapter books (and of course, someday the kids read them on their own). A series, with action and deep relationships, provides a great oral and solitary reading experience. Boys and girls alike appreciate the frontier story of the Ingalls, and with nine volumes the works will keep you reading together for some time. The history adds another layer and could help develop a nonfiction interest for some readers. And this is one of those families parents will be happy to revisit as well…

Hilary Levey Friedman is Brain, Child’s Book Review Editor.

Excerpt: The Science of Mom

Excerpt: The Science of Mom

 Scince of Mom CoverA Note from the Author:  The Science of Mom, is about how science can help us make smart parenting decisions, particularly in the first year of a baby’s life. It focuses on some of the major questions of infancy, including those of newborn health, sleep, and feeding. There are lots of controversies among these topics, and parents often debate what is right. Sometimes, science can help us settle those debates. Other times, the science is still evolving, and the complexities of families leave plenty of room for us to make different choices. The following excerpt is the start of Chapter 5, entitled “Milk and Motherhood: Breast Milk, Formula, and Feeding in the Real World.” The remainder of the chapter delves into the science of both the benefits of and very real challenges to breastfeeding. It was one of the most challenging chapters for me to research and write, but it is also one of which I’m most proud.


When Cee was handed to me just after birth, she came screaming and red-faced, with her eyes squinted shut. I said hello to her, and she stopped crying, opened her eyes wide, and gazed alertly into mine. And then, within a couple of minutes, she started moving her cheek against my breast, rooting for milk. I opened the hospital gown and held her clumsily, trying to remember the holds I’d practiced with a baby doll in my two hours of breastfeeding class a month before. A nurse confidently arranged a pillow under my arms and guided my hands in place. Cee did all the rest. She latched on and started nursing with the confidence of a pro. It was good that her instincts were so strong, because I’m not sure mine had kicked in yet.

I was determined to get everything right about motherhood, and feeding was no exception. I always planned to breastfeed, and between the two of us, Cee and I figured it out pretty quickly. After the first couple of weeks of nipple soreness and constant nursing, we settled into pleasant feeding routines. I loved this time with her, and it was empowering to know that my body could make this perfect food that could nourish her so completely. Breastfeeding was a big part of my identity as a new mother, and it was a source of pride. I relished the approval from my pediatrician, family, and friends, and I enjoyed the supportive glances from strangers. (I know many moms experience an overt lack of support when they breastfeed in public, so I consider myself lucky that I never did.) Because my experience was so positive, it was easy for me to be a little judgmental of women who didn’t breastfeed, given the long list of benefits for both mother and baby.

Three years later, my brother and sister-in-law, Jordan and Cheryl Green, welcomed their own baby girl, Amy Bell. Cheryl planned to breastfeed and, like me, was surrounded by support, from Jordan, her grandmother, and her friends, among them lots of moms experienced with breastfeeding.1 But beginning at the hospital, Cheryl’s plans quickly unraveled. Amy Bell struggled to latch on correctly, and although she appeared to be feeding, her weight was dropping rapidly. Within her first couple of days of life, she lost 12% of her birth weight, and a lactation consultant urged Cheryl and Jordan to supplement with formula. For the next three weeks, Cheryl kept up a labor-intensive cycle of attempting to breastfeed, pumping, and supplementing with formula. Everyone–nurses, lactation consultants, and her friends–told her to keep trying, that it took time and practice, but still, Amy Bell didn’t latch on, and very little milk came through the pump. Cheryl was scheduled to return to work at four weeks postpartum, and she didn’t know how she would keep up these efforts on the job. Reluctantly, she and Jordan began exclusively feeding formula to Amy Bell.

Cheryl says she still feels a little guilty about not breastfeeding for longer, and she wonders if she missed out on a special bond with Amy Bell. But, she told me, it was also really helpful to be able to share feeding responsibilities with Jordan as they both learned the routines of new parenthood. For Jordan’s part, he had been very attached to the idea of Cheryl breastfeeding their daughter. He grew up around breastfeeding, and he saw it as the normative and natural way for babies to be fed. But Jordan told me that he now appreciates that feeding, like all of parenting, is a “balance between ideals and practical realities.” Thinking about Amy Bell, he said: “Now that I’ve watched her grow into an active, alert, engaged, and advanced baby, I feel confident that her needs are being met.”2

Jordan is only bragging a little when he says that his daughter is advanced. Amy Bell is now 10 months old. It seems like she’s hit nearly every milestone a little ahead of schedule, and she’s never really been sick.3 She and Cee are both beloved in our family, and nobody would ever think to wonder whether they’d been fed differently as babies.

Comparing my and Cheryl’s breastfeeding stories, however, there is an impulse to call one a success and one a failure. That haunted me as I started working on this chapter. Cheryl’s experience was riddled with challenges that I never had to face, and she tried harder than I ever had to. Her story of struggling to make enough milk is just as common as my happy story of breastfeeding for two years. And by most reasonable measures, Amy Bell and Cee are both big successes: They’re happy, healthy, and well-nourished children, and both of our families have found our own ways of adjusting to new parenthood.

But for new mothers, it can be hard to find that perspective. Beginning in pregnancy (and often before), we all hear the same message: good mothers breastfeed–it’s one of the most important gifts you can give your baby. This message translates into tremendous pressure to breastfeed, and we’re quick to judge ourselves and each other if it doesn’t work out. It is because of this pressure and judgment that how we feed our babies has become one of the battles in the “mommy wars.” This is an unfortunate way to talk about feeding, one of the most important ways we care for our babies, whether by breast or by bottle.

Breastfeeding and its role in modern parenting is in part a story about science: how science has paved the way for good substitutes for breast milk while at the same time revealing the intricacies of breast milk, which no substitute is likely to replicate. But it’s also about how science is translated to real life. How is it molded into public health messages intended to alter women’s behavior? And what happens if breastfeeding, which should be the most natural way to feed babies, just doesn’t work?

A Short History of the Science of Infant Feeding

The ability to make milk to feed our young is what makes us mammals, and as humans, we evolved to produce a milk uniquely suited to meeting the nutritional and immunological needs of human babies. Breastfeeding is the biological norm, and it is how the majority of young infants have been fed throughout most of the history of our species.

There have always been substitutes for breastfeeding, though, and following their history is a fascinating way to follow the science of milk. For a long time, there was no science to guide infant feeding strategies; mothers and other caregivers just pieced together what they could. If a mother didn’t make enough milk, had to work away from home, or died in childbirth, or if a baby had an oral handicap that impeded nursing, then other options were needed. Sometimes this meant another lactating woman, maybe a family member or friend, would help nurse the baby, and sometimes a wet nurse was hired expressly for this purpose. Records of wet nurses go back at least as far as the third or fourth century BC.4

But if human milk wasn’t available, substitutes were used. Since wet nurses were being paid to feed another woman’s baby, sometimes their own babies would be denied enough milk from their moms and would need these substitutes.5 Almost as soon as cows and other dairy animals were domesticated, their milk was used for infants, sometimes placing babies directly on the teat to nurse.6 Infant feeding vessels have been found in children’s graves throughout the Roman Empire, dating back to 4000 BC.7 By the 1400s, soon after the invention of the printing press, printed books offered advice and recipes for homemade supplements called pap or panada. These usually contained a cooked combination of several ingredients, including cow’s or goat’s milk, bread crumbs, flour, meat broth, honey, egg, and sometimes even wine or beer.8 These concoctions could be used as the primary food for a baby or as a supplement to breast milk. Cross-cultural historical records indicate that two-thirds of preindustrialized societies introduced some solid foods to babies before 6 months of age, sometimes as early as a few weeks of life.9

Throughout most of history, it was probably self-evident that substitutes were inferior to breast milk and often resulted in illness. Ironically, this situation became especially dire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was a common belief that boiling cow’s milk made it less nutritious. Raw milk was usually swimming in bacteria by the time it traveled, unrefrigerated, from farm to baby.10 During this time, babies fed breast milk substitutes suffered and died disproportionately from diarrhea, particularly during the summer months. In the late 1800s, nearly all bottle-fed infants in New York City orphanages died.11

Enter science. In the late 1800s, Louis Pasteur’s work showed that bacteria caused disease and that they could be killed with pasteurization. Water chlorination and modern sewage systems meant clean water for feeding and for cleaning bottles and nipples. By the early 1900s, the availability of kitchen iceboxes and canned evaporated milk meant that relatively safe formulas could be made at home.12

The study of nutrition was also exploding. By the late 1800s, scientists understood that not all milks are alike. Cow’s milk has more protein and less sugar than human milk, so scientists and pediatricians began recommending recipes meant to be a closer match. A common recipe that could be made at home called for one 13-ounce can of evaporated cow’s milk, 19 ounces of water, and 1 ounce of Karo corn syrup. Scurvy and rickets were common problems, but by the 1920s, supplementation with fruit or vegetable juice and cod liver oil decreased the incidence of these vitamin deficiency diseases.13

As science revealed more and more about nutrition, the recommended formula recipes grew more complex. Food companies stepped in to offer commercial products, relieving hospitals, institutions, and moms of having to make their own and creating a huge, profitable market. By the 1950s, commercial formulas had gained popularity and began to replace homemade recipes.14 These products were, for the most part, nutritionally adequate, clean, and consistent. For the first time in human history, babies could be exclusively fed a breast milk substitute without a noticeable risk to their health. Most parents and pediatricians assumed that formula was just as good as, if not better (being more “scientific”) than, breast milk. Mothers increasingly turned to doctors for advice, and doctors recommended that breastfeeding moms feed their infants on a schedule, typically every four hours. If that didn’t seem to satisfy the baby, then supplementation with formula was needed.15

Other societal changes made formula feeding the preferred choice for modern women. By the mid-1900s, most women were giving birth in hospitals, where they were separated from their babies soon after birth and allowed only brief, scheduled visits for feeding, making it difficult to establish breastfeeding.16 But women were also looking to break free of their duties as full-time mother and housewife. Particularly during World War II, formula allowed women to fill important jobs in the workforce, and after the war, they didn’t want to give up their careers.17 Breastfeeding went from necessary to optional to out of style. By 1970, it had reached an all-time low: only one in four infants were breastfed past one week of age.18

But around the same time, women began fighting for more freedom from medical authority in childbirth and parenting, and a renewed appreciation for breastfeeding was part of this movement.19 Scientists, meanwhile, were beginning to take a closer look at breast milk and were finding that it was much more than just a collection of nutrients. While formulas based on cow’s milk or soy can be made to contain a similar amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, these nutrients are of better quality and more easily digested in breast milk than in formulas.20 Breast milk also provides a dynamic suite of immunological proteins, growth factors, stem cells, digestive enzymes, hormones, and prebiotics.21 We can now appreciate that breast milk probably evolved to include many of these components because they’re good for babies, and investigating health outcomes in breastfed and formula-fed babies has been a very active area of research for the past several decades.

The history of breast milk substitutes is a reminder that they’ve always been needed, but only in very recent human history has science allowed for a safe alternative. That there is even a debate over breast versus bottle is made possible by science. It’s also fueled by the science examining potential benefits of breastfeeding. This science, however, is difficult to do and even harder to interpret in a meaningful way.


Read Brain, Child’s exclusive Q&A with Alice Callahan, PhD.

Alice Callahan, PhD is a former research scientist and now a writer and teacher. You can find more of her writing about parenting and science at her blog, Science of Mom.


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Excerpt: The Bear’s Surprise

Excerpt: The Bear’s Surprise


9781452140285The Bear’s Surprise, written and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud

About the book:

Hibernation is over and Little Bear is ready for another adventure! But where is Papa Bear? Never fear, Little Bear will find him! Follow the curious cub through interactive cutouts on every page of this detail-rich extravaganza: into a bustling forest, deep beneath a mysterious cave, and en route to a rollicking circus in full swing. What will Little Bear discover when he finally locates his high-flying papa? The ultimate showstopping, sweet surprise awaits in this third installment of Benjamin Chaud’s acclaimed series that includes the New York Times Notable Book The Bear’s Song and The Bear’s Sea Escape.




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Deep in the forest, Little Bear awakens to the sounds of spring. Outside his cozy den, birds are chirping, animals are scurrying, and Little Bear smells the sweet scent of flowers.

What a joy to stretch his legs after a long winter’s sleep! But, wait! Where is Papa Bear? Suddenly, Little Bear notices something shining and shimmering behind the trees. What could it be?

About Benjamin Chaud: Benjamin Chaud is the author and illustrator of The Bear’s Song, The Bear’s Sea Escape, The Bear’s Surprise, and Farewell Floppy, and he is the illustrator of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School. . . , I Didn’t Do My Homework Because. . . , and I Didn’t Do My Homework Because Doodle Book of Excuses. He lives in the South of France.

Click here to read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Benjamin.



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Excerpt: The Intuitive Parent

Excerpt: The Intuitive Parent

An excerpt from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD


How and How Not to Hardwire Your Child’s Brain

The human brain is an incredibly complex organ. There’s a lot we don’t yet know, and many discoveries still to be made. The inherently complex and often confusing nature of brain science can lead people to misunderstand, misinterpret, or oversimplify findings—including marketers who want to sell new products that seem to have “scientifically proven” value. Parents who want to ensure their child receives the latest, most up?to?date learning opportunities can be vulnerable to claims that this or that product has been developed in light of new neuroscientific findings. Based on my research for my new book The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You. I have found extensive brain science supporting intuitive parenting. One of the guiding principles of this parenting style is that parents should cultivate a healthy skepticism about marketers’ and others’ claims about products and practices “scientifically based” to “wire the brain,” as these myths can be highly damaging to the development of their child.

Perhaps the most damaging myth is that brain development has a fixed “critical period” that requires specialized input—or else. Many parents seem to believe that they have to wire their child’s brain before the third birthday, or risk dooming them to go through the rest of their life with a brain that never realized its potential. The truth is that although the brain does indeed need input to become properly wired, this input does not have to be specialized. Even better, “wiring the brain” is a lifelong process and fundamental brain architecture is not completed until the end of the teenage years—or even later.

Another myth is that children can be accurately classified into “right brain” or “left brain” learners. As you are probably aware, the human brain is divided into right and left sides. These cerebral hemispheres are connected by thick bundles of nerve axons (white matter) called the corpus callosum. The frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe are duplicated on both sides of the brain but are not totally identical, and the right and left sides perform slightly different activities within the same regions.

Much has been made of “right brain” and “left brain” thinking and differences between “auditory” learners and “visual” learners, particularly in child development. The belief is that because the left brain is associated with language skills in most people (especially boys), there must be a parallel function with auditory learning. The right brain is thought to be responsible for visual learning. Although there is some validity to the idea that certain areas of the brain are better for tasks such as seeing and listening, it is grossly misleading to assert broad functions as the sole responsibility of one side or the other of the brain. Studies of thinking and other tasks show that both sides of our brains are engaged and activated all the time. Additionally, the entire purpose (and function) of the corpus callosum “bridge” between the brain hemispheres is for each side of the brain to share information with the other so as to coordinate their activities.

Despite this, myths based on oversimplification persist and have inspired the development of child educational programs and special products that supposedly target and train specific left-or right-brained skills. For example, Thomas Biesanz’s Right Brain Math book, DVDs and videos are marketed as a teaching approach “based on pattern recognition (right brain)” that “bypasses many of the misunderstandings caused by language,” even though there is no evidence that the activities selectively activate the right side of the brain—nor that there is even a right brain-left brain difference in learning math! Biesanz’s strategies may help some kids, but the label is a marketing gimmick.

Dianne Craft is a certified special-education teacher and learning consultant who also markets a number of products that distinguish “right brain kids” from “left brain kids” and offer “right brain methods” for struggling learners. “Fifty percent of the population is right-brain dominant,” she claims, and “80% of the struggling learners I see are right-brain dominant.” Marketing copy for her right brain flash cards says that “right brain kids learn best with picture, color, emotion, and humor.” Do “left brain kids” learn best without any of those things? Whether or not her teaching strategies are helpful to some kids, her emphasis on left-or right-brained “dominance” is profoundly oversimplified.

Parents should never fall victim to the mythology that certain activities or computer games are necessary for right brain or left brain development. Rather, it is important to focus on the activity itself and let the child’s brain wire itself in the most efficient way for that individual child in the real world. Provide an opportunity to learn, respond appropriately (as in dialogic reading), and let nature take its course. This will allocate the neural resources to the locations and hemispheres that are best for your child’s brain. Moreover, there is tremendous individuality (and individual difference) in the way brains are wired. As an example, understanding what people say is completed in an area of the brain called “Wernicke’s area,” named after the scientist who discovered where the brain processes spoken language. A study of the location of Wernicke’s area in individual patients indicated that everyone who could understand spoken language has a Wernicke’s area. However, while some were located in the upper temporal lobe, others were found in the posterior part of the temporal lobe, and still others were found in the parietal lobe. The key point here is that everyone who understands spoken language has a functioning Wernicke’s area, but it can be in different locations that fit an individual’s unique brain map. It is foolhardy to try to force this function into a specific brain region, or to assume that everyone should have Wernicke’s area in exactly the same location in their brain.

Similarly, there can be very significant differences as to which side of an individual’s brain is used for processing tasks. For some people, a creative endeavor may activate primarily the right brain, whereas in others it is the left brain that becomes more activated.

Creativity is an important ability that parents should continually nurture in their children. Studies of creativity show that this can be a left brain activity when telling stories or listening to stories, or a right brain activity when filling in pieces to a missing puzzle or having a flash of insight. A parent’s job is to facilitate the development of creativity by reading stories and encouraging their children to make up and tell stories of their own.

Parents should also provide children with blocks, artist’s materials, clay, Play- Doh, and other toys and materials that allow them to create. Who cares whether a child’s brain does this on the right side or the left side, just as long as they learn to be creative? In reality, as brain studies show, creativity uses both sides of the brain, and there is no specific “creativity center” where creativity occurs. Rather, multiple brain regions are recruited during creative activities and creative thinking.

Over and over again, I have seen that attempts to take shortcuts with regard to learning and wiring the brain in the name of “fast-tracking” the wiring of a child’s brain. These simply cannot hold a candle to intuitive parenting. Removing the anxiety and stress of milestones or a “critical period” and using the tools of intuitive parenting that I spell out in my book will ensure that your child’s mind is hardwired for learning and thinking well into teen years and adulthood.

Adapted from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Stephen Camarata, 2015.

Read Brain, Child’s  interview with author Stephen Camarata.


Author Q&A: Stephen Camarata

Author Q&A: Stephen Camarata

Stephen C. PhotoStephen Camarata is the author of The Intuitive Parent

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

One of the real tragedies in modern society is that misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and outright hucksterism are undermining parents’ self-confidence. Marketers and the media are creating needless anxiety, and stealing the fun and joy out of raising children.  Worse, the national push to artificially accelerate learning and brain development is actually derailing healthy natural parenting that insures children will be confident, happy–and intelligent. I wrote this book to provide parents with accurate, up-to-date, scientifically grounded information that supports their own intuition and common sense of how best to raise their child. My hope is that the book will empower parents to filter out all the noise, marketing, and latest fad so they can focus on their child, respond to them naturally, and become an effective nurturer and learning partner.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

My youngest son, Vincent, was slow to develop spoken language skills. When he was in preschool, we were told by a special education team that he should be educated in a segregated classroom for children with intellectual disabilities. We were led to believe that because his third birthday had passed, we had missed the critical period for wiring his brain and that he was now doomed to be a slow learner across the board from here on out. Worse, we were told that he would never be able to go to college. Our intuition told us that this couldn’t be true.

We knew that his language skills lagged compared to other kids his age. On the other hand, his ability to do puzzles, comprehend numbers and draw were all far advanced compared to other children his age. He loved to explore the world beyond the boundaries of our fenced in yard and would often wait for one of his older siblings to open the door so that he could dart into the front yard and run up the street!

These precocious abilities did not square with what we were being told by the school. Thankfully, we listened to our inner voice and kept him in the regular classroom, and spent many hours tutoring him in reading at home.

By the time Vincent started middle school, he was above grade level in math and science. His reading ability did not catch up until he entered high school, but he is now an excellent—and avid reader.

We were sometimes told that we were “in denial” about Vincent’s abilities, and given questionable advice along the way. For example, a second grade recommended ADHD-medication because Vincent would not sit still during story time. I pointed out that he would sit still for hours when drawing pictures or working math problems and that the reason he was wiggly during reading time was because his ability to understand what the teacher was saying was below the other children in the classroom.

Despite the dire predictions from “experts,” my son graduated from college and is now an air traffic controller in the Air Force. Instead of listening to the so-called experts, we followed our intuition and nurtured his gifts in math, science and art—he won a city wide art contest while in high school—while patiently teaching him to read, which took nearly a decade. But what would’ve happened if we had taken the advice that was against our own common sense?

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

Every parent already has what it takes to raise a happy, confident, resilient and intelligent child. Be confident in your own ability as a parent. Don’t let any educational program, early intervention expert, or marketing scheme interfere with that special relationship. Pay attention to your child, read to them, talk to them, and play with them and be sure to heed your own ample store of common sense.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

The toughest part of writing was actually choosing what would be included in the book. There have been so many wonderful adventures raising my own children, so many scientific discoveries on brain plasticity and neural development that support intuitive parenting, and a plethora of parenting fads and baby genius products pushed on parents so that integrating this information into a practical message was a bit daunting. On the other hand, writing brought back so many amazing experiences and memories!

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

Of Children by Guy Lefrancois was an excellent introduction to the wonder of child development, which I read even before I had any children. Of course, the work of Jean Piaget (The psychology of the child) and BF Skinner (science and human behavior) also had a profound influence. More recently, books by Steven Pinker (The language instinct and Words and rules) and Einstein Never used flash cards by Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek have been very influential. Finally, the neuroscience aspects of development were influenced by Neurons to Neighborhoods (by Jack Shonkoff) and by the Myth of the first three years (by John Bruer).

How do you balance fatherhood and writing?

The key is focusing on your child when you get home and leaving job worries and stress at the door. Even if you only have 15 or 20 minutes, you—and your baby can connect and enjoy one another’s company. I have found that being with my children is a nice counter weight to the stresses and pressure of the workplace. And is a whole lot of fun!



Author Q&A: Laurel Snyder

Author Q&A: Laurel Snyder

Swan Author headshotLaurel Snyder is the author of Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

What inspired you to write Swan?

It’s a funny story.  On a visit home to my mom’s, I found an old book in the basement, about Anna Pavlova.  In it were notes I’d scribbled about how much I loved her, when I was about ten years old.  Staring at my own messy handwriting, I was sort of overwhelmed by memories of my childhood obsession, and the story followed from there.  In a sense, feel like I time traveled, and  collaborated with my ten-year-old self!

How close do you work with the illustrator?  How does the process work?

Not very  closely, to be honest.  She works from my text, and I respond to her artwork, make suggestions, but we never really interact in person. I think if we did it would take about a decade to finish a book.  That said, it’s an amazing experience to see my thoughts drawn on the page. It’s amazing how that can happen– how an illustrator can peer into an author’s brain. I cried when I saw the early sketches.

What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

Trusting myself to write the real story.  Pavlova’s life was challenging, as well as inspiring.    I wanted this to be a beautiful ballerina book, but I wanted it to be more than that.  I wanted it to feel true.  I didn’t want to leave out the hard parts.

What do you want a young reader to take away after reading Swan?

Oh, good question!  I think the main thing  is that it’s okay for kids to take themselves seriously. Sometimes we adults treat childhood feelings and passions as thought they’re “cute” or “funny,” when what a kid is feeling is actually very intense.  Anna is a great example of a kid choosing a path, and making sacrifices for her choice.  Living a life with great meaning, from a young age.  The world is full of cute funny books for kids. With this book, I wanted to value their other experiences.

Were you a dancer or a writer first?

Aren’t we all dancers first? The power of movement comes long before the power of language.  Watching babies respond to music is amazing.  I can recall spinning in circles when I was about five, feeling my arms float.  I’m a better writer than dancer, but I danced first, for sure!

What do you love best about writing for children?

Writers are explorers, and in a sense,  we get to live infinite lives. Really, this book is a perfect example of that!   As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a professional ballerina and unicorn trainer.  I failed miserably at both endeavors, but as a writer, I can explore ballet, participate in it. I will never  be Anna Pavlova, but in writing about her, I get to pretend for a little while.  It’s a wonderful thing!

I guess that means I should write a unicorn-training book next, huh?

wan Cover ArtRead more about Swan: The Life and Times of Anna Pavlova, available now.


Excerpt: Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

Excerpt: Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

Written by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad


“A tender, delicate recounting.” — Publishers Weekly

“Young ballet lovers will be smitten with the story.”– Kirkus Reviews

“Exquisite.” — The Horn Book Magazine  


The following is a short excerpt and peek inside Swan, The Life and Times of Anna Pavlova


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The world is big

Anna is small.

The snow is


and all around

But one night…

One night her mother takes her to the ballet, and everything is changed – Anna finds beauty inside herself that she cannot contain.

So begins the journey of a girl who will one day grow up to be the most famous prima ballerina of all time, and who will inspire legions of dancers after her: The brave, the generous, the transcendently gifted Anna Pavlova.


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Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with author Laurel Snyder.

Author Q&A: Jessica Lahey

Author Q&A: Jessica Lahey

Book headshotJessica Lahey is the author of The Gift of Failure.

What was your inspiration for writing The Gift of Failure?

I’d been thinking about the topic for a while, as so many of my teaching colleagues were. However, despite the fact that I was writing for a couple of different education blogs, I could not write about my own students, or their parents’ tendency to overparent. Fortunately, an academic article came out with quotes from guidance counselors and teachers that allowed me to talk directly about the impact overparenting can have on children and their learning. I’d seen my own students become more and more paralyzed by their fear of failure and this was having a terrible effect on their intellectual risk-taking. They were reluctant to write rough drafts, take chances, get messy with the material, lest they blow a quiz or show their vulnerabilities to their classmates. I simply wanted to help my students – and my own children find their bravery so they could enjoy learning in all its messy, inexact glory.

What was the most surprising aspect of your research?

Wendy Grolnick’s research on the power of autonomy-supportive parenting. Kids who have been encouraged, but not directed or controlled, to complete tasks are much more likely to be able to cope with frustration when their parents are not around. The children who are told by their parents what, when, how, and where to do tasks are nearly incapable of completing tasks when the parents are removed from the room. Grolnick herself commented that she was surprised by the difference between the children with the autonomy-supportive versus directive/controlling parents.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

That’s easy. If I was looking to blame my students’ parents for causing this fear of failure, then I’m culpable too. My students at the time were middle school students, and my older son was in middle school as well. I am these parents, so I can hardly cast stones. I had to look at my own parenting in order to problem-solve, and that was really difficult for me.

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

It’s never too late to step back and allow kids to fail. If your child is older, you may have less time to teach them how to become autonomous and competent, but you also have their more fully-formed frontal lobe on your side. You can come clean, admit that you have made your own mistakes and want to change. Model the same bravery you’d like to see your children exhibit in the face of their failures in the way you adapt your own parenting. Kids respect that. They know when we are simply talking the talk. They need to see us put our own fragile egos on the line if we expect them to do the same.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

The day after I handed in my rough draft, I went for a trail ride with my husband and was thrown on my [helmeted] head. I’ve been riding my entire life, but I’d never landed on my head before, so it was pretty scary when I had no idea who I was, who my children were, or what my recently completed book was about – let alone how to get home. It took me about four months to get back to baseline, and during that time, my editor, agent, and I realized that there was no way to get edits done in time for the planned August 2014 release. We pushed the book by a year, and while it was devastating to me at the time, it was a fantastic opportunity to really dig in and write the book I wanted to write, without the pressure to do more than my brain could handle at the time.

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

I’m a huge fan of writers who are curious about something, and get their hands dirty in the pursuit of knowledge or personal journeys. A.J. Jacobs, Bill Bryson are some of my favorites in this genre, but any author who is willing to take a risk, learn something interesting, and tell me about it in beautiful prose is an author I want to read.

Gift of Failure CoverHow do you balance motherhood and writing?

I don’t know that I do. It helps that my kids are now almost 12 and 17, so they need less of my moment-to-moment attention than they once did, but I’d be lying if I said I was pulling it off effortlessly. As a teacher and a writer, I have a schedule that works pretty well with my kids’ school schedule, but as I head into an incredibly travel-intense book release, my spouse is taking up more of the childcare responsibilities. I could not go on this extended book tour without his help. I dedicated The Gift of Failure to my children but as I wrote in the acknowledgement section of the book, I am the lucky one in the marriage equation.


Read an Excerpt from the Gift of Failure.


The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: Excerpt

The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: Excerpt


Adapted from The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World by Amy McCready. (Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House).

51fzBnHiAmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Entitlement Epidemic

You couldn’t afford your own makeup this month because thirteen-year-old Johnny’s fluorescent orange must-have sneakers cost your entire discretionary budget. You keep a spare McDonald’s bag on hand so you can pretend to three-year-old Emma that her peanut-butter sandwich was made under the golden arches. And in order to get eight-year-old Daryl into bed, you have to let him fall asleep in front of the television, and carry him there.

Since when do parents jump through hoops at all costs to keep children happy? Since when do kids get to call the shots? The truth is kids everywhere—from toddlers to teens—are ruling the roost and they’re not about to abandon their posts without a fight.

Entitlement isn’t really a disease, but it has hit epidemic levels in our society. And it’s certainly not only rich kids who are afflicted. The entitlement problem spans classes and cultures. It’s also not only about stuff. Entitled kids believe the world revolves around them. They expect things to be done for them, a path to happiness cleared and smoothed, without putting in much effort themselves. They feel that something is wrong if they’re not happy. At any given minute they should be having the time of their lives because after all, you only live once.

How does the entitlement epidemic present in the typical household? Here are a few clues you might have an entitlement problem in your home:

You find yourself exasperated at your children’s demands but caving anyway.

You’re exhausted keeping up with the house, but everyone’s too busy watching TV to help.

You can’t make it through the grocery store without buying a treat.

You’re frequently supplementing your kids’ allowance.

You take responsibility for your kids by doing things for them that you know they should be able to do for themselves.

You resort to bribes or rewards to get cooperation from your kids.

You frequently rescue your kids by driving forgotten items to school or reminding them about their deadlines.

Your child frequently takes issue with rules and expectations at school or in activities.

Your child is quick to blame others for anything that goes wrong.

Your child tries to manipulate others to get his way.

Your child commonly sulks or pitches a fit when she doesn’t get her way.

Your child often complains of being bored and wants to be entertained by you.

Your child finds it really difficult to wait patiently for something he wants.

Sound like a child you know? In truth, there’s not a kid alive who doesn’t exhibit some of these symptoms from time to time. Whether you’ve got a big entitlement outbreak at your house or only a minor case, you’ll soon be able to move your kids toward greater independence, responsibility and contentment.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with author Amy McCready

Parenting expert Amy McCready is the author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic (Perigee, 2015) and the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. She is also the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time (Perigee, 2011). A champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids, she reaches a worldwide audience with her Positive Parenting Solutions Online parenting course, web and print articles, live webinars, and media appearances. Amy is a frequent guest on the TODAY show and has also appeared on Rachael Ray, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, and elsewhere. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and two sons. Learn more at

© 2015 by Amy McCready. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.

For permission to share this excerpt, please contact Keely Platte at



Top 10 Books to Gift at a Baby Shower

Top 10 Books to Gift at a Baby Shower

By Hilary Levey Friedman

004_Zappier_5135 copy (1)

One of the best pieces of advice I received while pregnant for the first time was to not focus on books about being pregnant, but to use the time to learn about the after part since while it may have felt hard to believe at times, you aren’t pregnant forever. And not just the first few weeks with a newborn, but the first few months because you might not have time to read (let alone process) any suggestions that books might offer in that postpartum period. By the time my own baby shower rolled around I read 6-8 weeks ahead in my infant books, and was glad I did. But even now I wish I had known more about introducing solids, or learned more about the different types of gear I would need just a few months down the road. This list is motivated in part by that spirit and also by the knowledge that while it may feel like it at times, you are not alone in this parenting game. Others have traversed this sometimes rocky path and survived and have worked to offer others their hard-fought wisdom. Below you will find books that offer a mix of how-to, tips, knowledge, philosophies, perspectives, and entertainment. Any of these on their own, or in combination, would make an ideal baby shower present, along with those blankets and booties.

The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp

Making a second appearance on a Brain, Child Top 10 List because it is just that good. As I previously wrote, “When people ask me to recommend one book to new and expectant parents, this is my go-to title.” Karp’s tone is informative and entertaining and will help you attain the number one goal of most parents of newborns: sleep, and hence sanity. Because sleep is so all-encompassing for infants, Happiest Baby on the Block also addresses other concerns like feeding, development, and play. While it focuses on the first 90 days of life, you can use suggestions here far beyond this important, but transient, period of life.

Your Baby’s First Year Week by Week by Glade Curtis and Judith Schuler

The point of this book, now in its third edition, is not to overwhelm the reader with information about any one topic. Each weekly entry has a section on what might be new (either to baby or to you) that week and milestones you might expect to see around this time. By the end of the 52 weeks all the other major topics and minor topics will be covered, from what to look for in first shoes to how to prevent frostbite on a baby. As experienced parents know, but new parents have to learn, often as soon as you settle into a pattern your child changes, and Curtis and Schuler provide advice about how to deal with that. I read ahead in this book, and then would read 3-4 week chunks at a time; this book also has a very useful index for looking up the questions that pop up when the Internet sources aren’t as reliable.

Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality by Laura Jana and Jennifer Shu

Sometimes you might wonder if the author of a parenting book is the most qualified source to offer advice. You won’t wonder that if you gift Heading Home With Your Newborn because this book is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (a third version is forthcoming in June 2015). Pediatrician-mothers Laura Jana and Jennifer Shu offer an informed, but engaging, voice that reassures and entertains—for example, I love section and chapter titles like “Other Unmentionables and Inconveniences” and “All Dressed Up but Now Where To Go?” The strength of this book is Part VI, “Just for the Health of It,” which focuses on the science of a baby’s body, from head to toe, and common childhood illnesses like jaundice and fevers. They discuss sometimes controversial topics, like cloth diapers and vaccines, with a direct and up to date style similar to how they discuss baby books and preserving digital memories.

Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t by Suzanne Barston

Before she gave birth Barston fully expected to breastfeed (so much so that she worried she would be judged if she put any bottle supplies on her baby registry). But it didn’t work out for her and her son for a variety of reasons. Not being able to nurse sent her into a depression, but starting a blog called Fearless Formula Feeder—a place where she tried to share science and facts about the use of formula—helped her. Bottled Up is the outgrowth of the blog and it is a “hybrid of memoir and reporting will speak for the scores of other women who wanted very badly to do the best for their children and found themselves in conflict about what ‘the best’ truly was.” Barston’s short and well-researched book (it is published by a University press and notated) based on two years’ of interviews with pediatricians, researchers, sociologists, statisticians and fellow feminists will either help expectant moms make personal decisions, or potentially reassure them if they find themselves unable to breastfeed when they had wanted to do so.

Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers by Nancy Mohrbacher and Kathleen Kendall-Tackett

While it is true that mothers and babies are hardwired to breastfeed, breastfeeding isn’t as simple as expectant moms often expect it to be. Breastfeeding Made Simple by lactation consultants Mohrbacher and Kendall-Tackett seeks to make the case why breastfeeding can in fact be simple. The “laws” and their application in Part II are clearly explained, along with possible complications, and the tone is less strident than other books on breastfeeding. New parents reading this book along with Barston’s will begin to understand that having children means making a variety of small and large complicated and super-complicated decisions that have to work for you, your child, and your family. These two options provide advice and facts and a dual gift means no judgment of the growing family. Since many mothers no longer live close to their families Breastfeeding Made Simple tries to be the collective female wisdom from the Red Tent of yore.

Baby Bargains by Denise and Alan Fields

Now in its 10th edition, this perennial favorite is a fixture on many mothers’ shelves, especially those looking to save a few dollars (and who doesn’t want that?!). The first edition debuted in 1994 after the married authors had a son. Now in its 11th edition the Fields’ book looks a bit like a doorstop at over 600 pages. But the authors are very comprehensive covering gear with wheels, things with straps, things with music, etc. Even if don’t end up saving a dollar from the book—though that is unlikely—new parents will get a sense of what equipment is useful at every stage, and how much to budget for each new stage of their newborns’ first year and beyond. The only problem is that some shower guests may have wished they had read Baby Bargains before purchasing their own shower gift!

Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman

It has recently become de rigueur for books about particular parenting philosophies to generate headlines, and sometimes amp up parental anxieties. Druckerman’s 2012 book definitely got a lot of press, but in many ways helped lower parental anxiety. Rather than prescribing precisely how parents should act, Bringing Up Bebe instead focuses on a way of life that is meant to enable parents to feel empowered. She writes, “It quickly becomes clear that having a child in France doesn’t require choosing a parenting philosophy. Everyone takes the basic rules for granted. That fact alone makes the mood less anxious.” Just like previous generations of Americans survived without diaper genies, so too did they successfully raise children without “philosophies.” Druckerman puts that into context, and shows us another way.

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel

Walter Mischel’s new title, recently reviewed here at Brain, Child, is based on over fifty years of research on children and self-control. Mischel and a team of researchers have found that delayed gratification is one of the most significant predictors of success later in life on multiple dimensions including health, finances, and education. But instead of assuming that self-regulation is pre-programmed, Mischel offers tips on how parents can inculcate in their children to develop this life skill, starting at even early ages. And because the advice applies to adults as well, it may help during the tumultuous post-partum period. What’s also great about this book is that there is much to learn about parenting here, but it’s not a “parenting” book making it an even more useful baby shower gift because it can live on a bookshelf for years to come.

Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession by Erma Bombeck

Because sometimes the best way to survive (new) motherhood is to laugh. One of the greatest columnists ever, this volume collects Bombeck’s most enduring writings on motherhood. It isn’t long, but it is full of clever observations that will resonate long past the last page—and for years to come as understandings of parenting continue to evolve. Plus, this is your chance to introduce Bombeck to another generation of mothers! While the print version is out of print (but used copies abound online), you can gift an e-copy to your favorite mom-to-be.

The Husband’s Secret by Lianne Moriarty

If laughing doesn’t help, a smart, engaging, page-turning novel might. Sometimes, you need to escape, or find something to engage your mind and be sure it isn’t mush. Any great novel will suffice, but I really loved this one by Australian writer Moriarty (note that I find Moriarty is a sociologist at heart with a reporter’s eye and a thriller’s pen, so any of her novels will do as well). I had been warned in reviews that once you start The Husband’s Secret it is hard to stop, and that was true for me (sometimes I wanted nursing sessions to last even longer!). This is the kind of novel I slowed down to read because I didn’t want the interesting, tangled web to completely unravel. As a mom it made me sad, as a wife angry. I guess then it shouldn’t surprise me that Moriarty is labeled “chick lit,” but I honestly didn’t think of this novel that way at all. I also appreciated the Australian setting as a mental escape from the nursery.

I have to add that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to read as much after giving birth. But I was wrong. I actually read more because for me nursing prompted a switch to reading on the iPad using the Kindle app—turning the page with a flick of the finger made it possible. I still read paper books, but I now love reading electronically as well, even though I too have passed out of the baby phase.


Photo: Megan Dempsey

The Gift of Failure: Excerpt

The Gift of Failure: Excerpt

Excerpt from THE GIFT OF FAILURE by Jessica Lahey

On Sale August 11, 2015; Harper

Gift of Failure Cover

Introduction: How I Learned To Let Go

I became a parent and a middle school teacher in the same year, and these twin roles have shaped the way I’ve raised my children and educated my students. Over the course of my first decade raising two boys and teaching hundreds of students, I began to feel a creeping sense of unease, a suspicion that something was rotten in the state of my parenting. But it was only when my elder child entered middle school that my worlds collided and the source of the problem became clear to me: today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation. From my vantage point at the front of a classroom, I’d long viewed myself as part of the solution, a champion of my student’s intellectual and emotional bravery. However, as the same caution and fear I witnessed in my students began to show up in my own children’s lives, I had to admit that I was part of the problem, too.

We have taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success. That’s certainly not what we meant to do, and we did it for all the best and well-intentioned reasons, but it’s what we have wrought nevertheless. Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of this world.

As I stood there in my middle school classroom on the day of my personal epiphany, looking at the students before me and seeing my own parenting clearly for the first time, I resolved to do what I needed to do to guide both my children and my students back toward the path to competence and independence. The way isn’t smooth, and the going certainly isn’t easy, but that’s kind of the point. We parents are going to have to step back, leave those scary obstacles lying in the road, and allow our children to face them head-on. Given our support, love, and a lot of restraint, our kids can learn how to engineer their own solutions and pave their way toward success that is truly of their own making.

The discomfort I’d been feeling in my own parenting had been growing for a while, but I could not put my finger on where I’d gone wrong. I read all the parenting blogs, from the austere to the zealous, and read books by the experts on how to raise happy, healthy children. However, as I watched my boys approach their teenage years, something was amiss in the state of my parenting. They were good, well-adjusted kids, but I couldn’t shake the sense that when it came time for them to head out on their own and make their way in the world, they were ill-prepared. As long as they stayed inside the safe haven I’d created for them, they were confident and successful, but when forced to venture outside, would they know how to function? I’d so successfully researched, planned, and constructed their comfortable childhoods that I’d failed to teach them how to adapt to the world on its terms.

I never meant to teach my children to be helpless or fear failure, and a life of anxiety is certainly not what I envisioned for them. On the contrary, I thought my kids would grow up brave, in the sort of wild, free idyll I experienced as a child. I wanted to them to explore the woods with a pocketknife and a couple of cookies shoved in their pockets, build tree forts, shoot handmade arrows at imaginary enemies, and swim in the local watering hole. I wanted them to have the time and the courage to try new things, explore their boundaries, and climb one branch beyond the edge of their comfort zones..

But somehow, somewhere, that idyllic version of childhood morphed into something very different, a high-stakes, cutthroat race to the top. Today, careless afternoons in the woods seem like a quaint throwback because the pressure to succeed from an early age has ramped up for both parents and kids. It never lets up, and there is no longer time in our children’s schedules for leisure time in the woods, let alone opportunities to problem-solve their way out of the muck and mire they encounter out there. In the new normal, every moment counts, and the more successful our kids are as students, athletes, and musicians, the more successful we judge ourselves as parents. The race to the top starts when children take their first steps and does not end until a six-figure income and socio-economic upward mobility is secured. And, come on, what kind of negligent mother allows their kids to play alone in the woods during homework time, with pockets full of gluten and sugar, armed to the teeth with pocketknives and arrows?

Standing in my middle school classroom, frozen in that horrible realization of my own culpability in the epidemic of overparenting, I finally understood just how far off the path we parents have strayed.

We bring a beautiful, precious child into the world, and after those first moments of bliss wear off, we realize that our new purpose in life is to protect this fragile human being from harm. And if we are to believe the fear-mongering mass media, that harm is all around us. Baby snatchers disguised as maternity nurses, antibiotic-resistant germs, toxic chemicals, disease-carrying ticks, bullying kids, unfair teachers, murderous school shooters…no wonder we’ve gone nuts where our children are concerned.

However, this fear doesn’t just cause us to overparent, it makes us feel overwhelmed, myopic, and much too credulous of those who seek to stoke our parental fears. It’s easier to self-soothe by shielding our kids from all risk than to take a pause and figure out which risks are necessary to their development and emotional health. We protect our kids from all threats, whether real or imagined, and when we tuck our kids in bed at night, free of cuts, bruises, or emotional hurt, we have, for one more day, found tangible evidence of our parenting success.

We revel in their safety and reassure ourselves that there’s plenty of time to teach them how to deal with risk and failure. Maybe tomorrow I’ll let them walk to school, but today, they got to school safely. Maybe tomorrow they will do their own homework, but today, they are successful in math. Maybe tomorrow continues until it’s time for them to leave home, and by then, they have learned that we will always be there to save them from themselves.

I am as guilty as the next parent; I have inadvertently extended my children’s dependence in order to appropriate their successes as evidence and validation of my parenting. Every time I pack my child’s lunch for him or drive his forgotten homework to school, I am rewarded with tangible proof of my conscientious mothering. I love, therefore I provide. I provide, therefore I love. While I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my children really should be doing these kinds of tasks for themselves, it makes me feel good to give them these small displays of my deep, unconditional love. I reassure myself with what feels like a vast expanse of childhood, stretching out for years, its eventual end invisible over the horizon. My kids will have their entire lives to pack their lunches and remember their backpacks, but I only have a very brief window of time to be able to do these things for them.

There’s a term for this behavior in psychiatric circles. It’s called enmeshment, and it’s not healthy for kids or parents. It’s a maladaptive state of symbiosis that makes for unhappy, resentful parents and “failure to launch” children who move back in to their bedrooms after college graduation. In 2012, 36% of adults age 18-31 still lived in their parents’ home, and while some of that figure is due to declining employment and marriage statistics, these numbers are part of a trend that’s been rising for decades. In order to raise healthy, happy kids who can begin to build their own adulthood separate from us, we are going to have to extricate our egos from our children’s lives and allow them to feel the pride of their own accomplishments as well as the pain of their own failures.

We are also going to have to knock it off with the competitive parenting, because we have managed to whip ourselves up into a frenzy of anxiety and paranoia. Our Facebook posts and soccer tournament sideline chat is jam-packed with passive-aggressive tales of academic honors and athletic glory. As our kids get older, we spin tales of coast-to-coast college tours, SAT prep and AP tutoring, because didn’t you hear? According to the news, today’s college degree counts as much as our high school diplomas…and in order to get that college degree, our kids will have to jump through all sorts of hoops we never had to deal with because colleges have become more expensive and selective…and there is no such thing as a safety school anymore…and as the economy is in the toilet, once our kids graduate from whatever college will deign to take them, they may have to work as minimum-wage baristas in order to be able to afford to share an apartment with sixteen of their friends.

We need to stop and take a very deep breath. Research shows that this behavior, this “Pressured Parents Phenomenon,” is extremely contagious. Even when I’ve vaccinated myself against it ahead of time, I have fallen victim to it as well. Consequently, I am not the mother I hoped I would be. I hover over homework and obsess about grade point averages as the specter of college admission looms large on the horizon. It is as if the better angels of my nature have been cowed into silence, and I’ve bought into the hype: unless I push my kids to do more, be more, they will fail, and, by logical extension, I will have failed as a mother.

In my darker moments, I’ve cast around for others to blame for my plight, and I’ve found plenty of scapegoats. Reaction against the hands-off parenting of the fifties and sixties, extension of the attachment parenting we employed when our children were in infancy, and guilt over our failed attempts to strike an impossible balance between work and family. There does not seem to be a middle ground anymore, a safe harbor between having it all and having nothing.

The parenting pendulum swings back and forth over time, so the fact that it is currently hanging at its apex at the extreme end of the overparenting arc isn’t really anyone’s fault. It’s part of the action and reaction that constitutes the history of our species. Early in the 20th century, parents were instructed not to touch their children at all lest we spoil them, but by the time the 90’s swung into view, experts had latched on to attachment parenting, in which we were instructed to sleep, eat, bathe, urinate, and breathe without ever letting go of our kangaroo-style infants. Sure, the pendulum swung through a sane, middle ground between 1970 and 1980, and I am forever grateful I was allowed to play in its gentle shade as it passed overhead. However, that golden moment of equilibrium was over much too soon, and we began our upward swing toward the place we find ourselves in today.

If you grew up in the 1970s, some of you more than likely were latch-key kids, with both parents working outside the home . While some of us associate the term with a childhood lit with a rosy, romantic hue, others recall the lack of supervision as near-abandonment, and have begun making reparations to their children accordingly. In our efforts to make up for our own perceived lack of guidance, we are ever-present, ever-helpful, ever-reminding, ever-rescuing. As part of this reparation effort, some parents—mostly women—abandoned their executive offices for home, determined to mindfully parent their children as full-time caregivers. Often, mothers dove in to full-time parenting armed with the skills they had earned in higher education and in the business world, and they took no prisoners. How hard could parenting be? Guiding children into Ivy League colleges, like making partner in a Wall Street law firm, was simply a matter of organization, drive, and the meticulous management of academic and extracurricular resources.

Parents who remained in the workforce, meanwhile, were made to feel deficient for prioritizing work over their children, and felt obligated to show the world that they could do it all. Again, success was just a matter of scheduling and some sleight of hand. Cupcakes here, boardroom there. Parent-teacher conference here, Bluetooth Skype with clients on the way home in the car. Besides, the mortgage and childcare payments required two incomes to maintain, and as the economy tanked, the suggestion that one parent could simply kiss the stability of a paycheck and benefits goodbye in order to parent full-time seemed ludicrous.

We did the best we could with the skills we’d worked so hard to acquire. Schedules of meetings and project management schemes were repurposed into color-coded school activity and carpool calendars, scheduled down to the minute. Management skills formerly used to guide teams of employees toward quarterly sales goals were appropriated to plan semester-long campaigns to help children improve their grades. I know this, because I’ve used every trick in my college- and law school-educated quiver. When I returned to work after my elder son, Ben, was born, I used spreadsheets and database software to chronicle his first words, the input and output of his digestive system, and his reading progress. These were the tools at my disposal, and since I’d worked long and hard to acquire them, it hardly seemed right to let them go to waste. I took comfort in these measures when faced with the silent, sucking void I found when I searched for clues that would validate my parenting. The only other ally I found in this endeavor was my son’s pediatrician, who at least provided me with growth charts that plotted my infant’s progress against all the other rival babies out there. If his weight and height were just above the 50th percentile on the growth chart, great. I’d done some good, solid mothering. If his BMI was a little lower than average, well done, me; I got some bonus points for staving off the epidemic of childhood obesity. At the end of the appointment, though, I needed the good doctor to bestow judgment and answer my unspoken plea: Do I qualify for honors or is this parenting business pass/fail? What about those other parents out there in the waiting room, did I beat them? Come on, help me out here, Doc: What’s my grade?

Of course, the strategies that make us successful in the business world do not translate to the business of parenting. Reams of research papers on child development and behavioral psychology reveal that while these methods may work to motivate assembly line workers, they are terrible tools for motivating children to engage in creative problem-solving, and they actually undermine long-term motivation and investment in learning. Even more damaging, the use of rewards and incentives prioritize scores and grades over exploration and experimentation, which undermines a teacher’s ability to foster self-directed and intrinsically motivated learning.

Despite the wealth of evidence regarding the folly of these methods, we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well. If our children are on the honor roll and make varsity soccer as a freshman, we must be great parents. Conversely, when a child fails a test or receives detention for neglecting to hand in his science paper, we must have done something wrong. Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.

This is not only disastrous for parents’ self-worth, it’s short-sighted and unimaginative. Failure—from small mistakes to huge miscalculations—is a necessary and critical part of our child development. Failure is too often characterized as a negative; an F in math or a suspension from school. However, all sorts of disappointments, rejections, corrections and criticisms are small failures, all opportunities in disguise, valuable gifts misidentified as tragedy. Sadly, when we avoid or dismiss these opportunities, in order to preserve children’s sense of ease and short-term happiness, we deprive them of the experiences they need to have in order to become capable, competent adults.

Failure is frightening enough when faced firsthand, but when our children wander too close to its jaws, we are overcome with a primal, overpowering need to protect. From an evolutionary perspective, this response makes perfect sense. We are programmed in our hearts and our DNA to shield our offspring from harm so when tasked with shepherding our genetic offspring safely to adulthood, we are prepared to fight anything that threatens their success with all the ferocity our nails and teeth and smarts can muster. Unfortunately, when we are all hopped up on adrenaline and cortisol, our brains can’t distinguish between genuine, mortal threats to life and limb, and the manageable threat of a soccer opponent flying downfield to steal the ball away from our child. Leaping in front of an attacking predator on the savannah and screaming at the referee for a bad call are just two different manifestations of the same biological trigger. So when you want to push that little girl who tossed sand in your child’s face or punch that teacher who threatened your child with a D on her science project, remember that while these actions are not sane, socially appropriate responses to minor stressors, their genesis comes from our shared biological nature. We all want our children to make it safely to adulthood, and it often feels as if it is all on us to make that happen.

Lacking saber-toothed tigers and precarious cliffs, failure feels like the greatest threat of all, the one danger our children can’t afford to encounter in these times of academic pressure and exclusionary admissions. Yet history is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventors and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amidst the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans. They learned how to salvage what was working while leaving flawed plans behind only to regroup and rebuild. As recent MacArthur Fellow and former middle school teacher Angela Duckworth has found, the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ. She calls this grit, and first discovered its power in the classroom, while teaching seventh grade math. She left teaching to pursue research on her hunch, and her findings have changed the way educators perceive student potential. Gritty students succeed, and failure strengthens grit like no other crucible.

Every time we rescue, hover, or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust. Further, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down.

But here’s the truth, what research has shown over and over again: the children of parents who don’t allow their children to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated, and ultimately less successful than parents who support their children’s autonomy.

Decades of studies and hundreds of pages of scientific point to one conclusion that sounds crazy, but it absolutely works. If parents back off the pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement and focus on the bigger picture—a love of learning and independent inquiry—grades will improve and test scores will go up. Children of controlling and directive parents are much less able to deal with intellectual and physical challenges than peers who benefit from parents who stand back and allow their children to try, and fail, and try again. Furthermore, the failure our children experience when we back off and allow them to make their own mistakes is not only a necessary part of learning, it’s the very experience that teaches them how to be resilient, capable, creative problem-solvers.

The United States has been criticized for producing a generation of inflexible thinkers, students who can memorize and regurgitate, but who are incapable of manipulating information in order to answer questions in novel and innovative ways. This is due in part to the fact that our educational system relies on high-stakes standardized testing as a measure of its efficacy, and because today’s parents simply are not allowing their child to muck about in the unpleasant, messy, experience of failure long enough to come to terms with the shortcomings of plan A and formulate plans B, C, D, and E. Lots of kids can ace a test using Plan A, but it’s going to be the kid who has tried and failed and re-grouped in order to try again with twenty-five other plans who will create true innovation and change in our world. That kid is not only creative and innovative in his thinking, he is unafraid to try out new strategies. He will have the courage and resolve to work through thousands of miscalculations as he pursues a working solution. He will be able to regroup in the face of repeated failures and like Thomas Edison, he will learn the lessons inherent in discovering the thousands of ways a light bulb does not work before inventing the one light bulb that does.

My flash of insight had been a long time coming. Yes, I’d been uncomfortable with my own overparenting for a while, but I have to credit my students (again) for teaching me what I was too blind to see. Each year, my eighth graders write essays about an experience that has shaped their education, and after much struggle, one of my most tightly wound and anxiety-ridden students handed in the following paragraph:

Some people are afraid of heights, some are afraid of water; I am afraid of failure; which, for the record, is called atychiphobia. I am so afraid of failing that I lose focus on what actually matters; learning. In focusing on the outcome, I lose the value of the actual assignment and deprive myself of learning.

She went on to recount all the ways this fear has held her back in school and athletics, but those first few sentences stopped me cold. Her experience as a student, my professional experience with her parents, my own parenting, and my son’s fears all came together in her admission. This student’s parents are wonderful, kind, and caring, and they never intended to create this sort of fear in their child. And frankly, the fallout would be their own problem to deal with save for the fact that the private choices parents make that undermine their child’s social, academic, and emotional development eventually come in conflict with a teacher’s ability to educate their child.

Despite the unbridled optimism and energy of the thousands of new teachers who enter the educational workforce every year, the National Education Association reports that one-third of these teachers will quit after three years, and 46 percent will be gone within five years. According to Ron Clark, the winner of a Disney American Teacher Award, many of these fleeing educators cite “issues with parents” as one of their main reasons for abandoning the profession. In a 2011 interview with CNN, Clark related an exchange with a principal who had been named the administrator of the year in her state but had chosen to leave education. “I screamed, ‘You can’t leave us,’ and she quite bluntly replied, ‘Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.” I love teaching dearly, but “issues with parents” have inspired elaborate fantasies in which I abandon the profession forever, move to Alaska, and raise sled dogs. “Issues with parents” are the stuff of my nightmares.

Now that I understand the root cause of parents’ fears and worries, I do what I can to convince them that a small blip in their child’s journey means so little in the big picture, and can actually serve as a great opportunity to teach their child about resilience. I back up, let those anxious parents slow their breathing, and help them see that they have a fantastic, kind, generous, and curious child. I reassure them that he will be fine, indeed, he will do wonderful and interesting things in his life and no one will remember whatever transgression or failure triggered our conference. Some parents believe me, but many more do not, and leave my office convinced that the B- their child received for the semester spells the end of their dreams for educational excellence, economic security, and a lifetime of happiness.

It’s always been hard to be a teacher and equally difficult to be a parent, and there should be plenty of common ground for mutual sympathy. We are, after all, working toward a shared goal: the education of our children. Unfortunately, parents who put a priority on saving kids from frustration and teachers who put a priority on challenging their students often butt heads, and consequently, the parent-teacher partnership has reached a breaking point. Teaching has become a push-and-pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as “too hard” or “too frustrating” for their children to endure. Parents rightly feel protective of their children’s self-esteem, but teachers too often bear the brunt of parental ire.

I’ve struggled to find the best way to support parents in their efforts to love and nurture their children while teaching them how to step back a bit and allow children the safe space they need in order to fail, particularly when those kids hit middle school. Middle school is prime time for failure, even among kids who have sailed through school up to that point. The combined stressors of puberty, heightened academic expectations, and increased workload are a set-up for failure. How parents, teachers, and students work together to overcome those inevitable failures predicts so much about how children will fare in high school, college, and beyond.

And that way forward? In order to help children make the most of their education, parents must begin to relinquish control and focus on three goals: Embracing opportunities to fail, finding ways to learn from that failure, and creating positive home-school relationships. In the chapters to follow, I’ll explain each of these goals in depth and give you strategies that will help you achieve them.

The day I finally came to terms with my overparenting, I was determined to start making amends at home with my own children. I needed to do something immediate, something symbolic, and I knew just where to start. My younger son, then a third grader, had never learned to tie his shoes. I blamed this oversight on the invention of Velcro and his preference for slip-on shoes, but if I’m completely honest, I knew I was falling down on the job. He freaked out when I mentioned the situation, even in my most enthusiastic, “Won’t this be a fun project we can do together?” voice. He got frustrated with my instruction, I got frustrated with his helplessness, and the entire endeavor dissolved into anger and tears. Tears. Over shoelaces. When I began to look closely at the source of his issue with the shoelaces, it all boiled down to his feelings of frustration and helplessness, which was my fault, not his. I taught him that.

For every time I tied his shoes, rather than teach him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him. Eventually he and I both began to wonder whether he’d ever prevail. One day before school, when he’d left his Velcro shoes at a friend’s house and had to wear the backup pair with laces, he said he’d rather wear his rain boots than try to tie his shoes. He didn’t even care that wearing boots meant he’d have to sit out PE all by himself.

This, right here, is what I had wrought: my son was so convinced of his inability that he was willing to forfeit an hour of playtime with his friends.

So that afternoon, I took out his backup sneakers, and prepared to remedy the situation. Over a snack, I told him I’d make a mistake, and that I thought I’d figured out how to be a better mom. I empathized with his worry and told him that while the task might be hard for him at first, with some effort and perseverance, I knew he could conquer the task. I was so confident that we were going to stick with it until he mastered those darn shoelaces. In less than an hour, the embarrassment he’d felt about being the only third grader who could not tie his shoes was gone. He had succeeded and I’ve hardly ever seen him so proud of himself. I felt like a SuperMom, and all it took was a little time, a little faith in each other, and the patience to work through the tangle of knots and loops.

No, it’s not always going to be this simple. The stakes get higher and the consequences get bigger as our children get older. Lumpy knots and uneven shoelaces give way to flawed college essays and botched job interviews in the blink of an eye, and there’s only so much time available to instill confidence and resilience in our children. The work begins the first moment our babies fail to grasp a toy or fall as they toddle across the room and continues until they head out into their own lives. The sooner parents learn to appreciate the positive aspects of hardship and allow children to benefit from the upside of failure in childhood, the sooner all of us will have the opportunity to share in the moments of pride like the one I saw in my son’s face as he secured those laces.

It’s up to us. Parents have the power to grant this freedom to fail. Teachers have the ability to transform that failure into an education. And together? Together, we have the potential to nurture a generation of confident, competent adults.

Let’s get started.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with author Jessica Lahey.

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Child, Please: A Book Review

Child, Please: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Child, Please cover art (1)“Honey, please.”

“Carston, PLEASE.”

“Carston Friedman, PUH-LEASE.”

With a three-year-old in my house I find myself using these three escalating statements fairly often. According to Ylonda Gault Caviness I ought to add “Child, please,” to the repertoire… Though more often than not I should actually be saying those words to myself and not to the children.

Caviness recently released Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself. The book could, sadly, not have been more timely. Just before its release Caviness wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times that went viral—”What Black Moms Know“—after the Baltimore riots. The piece describes her reaction to worries about college admissions (when your child is in preschool), the “Mommy Wars,” and Toya Graham, the Baltimore mom who gained nationwide attention after grabbing her rioting son and smacking “him upside his head.” If you liked the Times article you will also enjoy Child, Please, though it does differ from the book.

You might expect Child, Please to offer advice on raising kids today, and while the book does so it comes in a different guise than other parenting books you might know. Caviness has really written a motherhood memoir; stories about raising her own three children and her relationship with her mother form the story’s scaffolding. The major narrative arc traces Caviness’ early experiences as a pregnant woman and takes us through her pregnancies (including miscarriage) and how they affected her relationship with her own mother. The forays into her mother’s past bring up issues of region in America, class, and of course race. Caviness deftly weaves this cross-generational mothering story together with her strong and entertaining voice. It’s her mom’s hard-won pearls of wisdom that form the advice part of Child, Please.

Take for example Chapter 3, “Don’t Start Smelling Yourself,” likely the most evocative chapter in the book. Caviness pulls no punches writing, “White parents are punks.” She goes on:

Before you go and get yourself all offended, I hope you realize I’m sharing this information only out of love. The way I figure, if we want to know the crazy thoughts whites have about black people, all we have to do is watch Fox News. But you poor white people have no way to get the 411. If you tried watching BET, you’ve probably already been led astray, because, honestly, not that many black folks have as much sex as the average hip-hop star….It’s a scientific and well-researched fact that blacks and whites operate under a different set of expectations—a different set of goals—when it comes to parenting. Many black parents believe that obedience and respect for elders are the main measures of a kid raised right—which explains why you’re more likely to see a black child get yoked in public if he acts out. I don’t think most white parents place as high a premium on compliance (duh?). Instead, they rank things like confidence and autonomy high on the scale of ‘good kids.’

Definitely entertaining and assertive with lots of truth. But here, and in other places in Child, Please, I found myself hungering for more about the “scientific and well-researched fact.” Describing those findings and using them to bolster the wisdom and experience of Caviness’ family would have taken the book to another level. Similarly, given that Caviness was a parenting editor for several years I found myself wondering if she thought articles directed at black moms significantly differed from articles targeted at Jewish or Korean moms. Caviness has access to various databases that could have showed just how crazy some white moms might be for peeling a pea (full disclosure, I had never heard of this before reading it in Child, Please!) and it would have made for a different contribution alongside the memoir and folk wisdom.

Nonetheless, the larger cultural message of Caviness work is so important and rings out loud and clear. For instance, also from Chapter 3:

Black people love their kids, for sure. But historically we never had the luxury of thinking them precious. Special? Yes. There is a big difference. We don’t see our kids as anything akin to fine china, not to be disturbed or broken. In fact, given our druthers, most black parents would chose to ‘break’ their kids before someone else does… We fear that if we wait for our kids to simply outgrow such childishness, they might suffer at the hands of authority, especially those men in blue. Authority, with its billy sticks and handcuffs and black robes, has not been kind to us.

Beyond her writings on race the best parenting advice from Caviness, via her mother and mother’s friends, has little to do with children. Instead it has to do with taking care of yourself as a mother and as a person: “They taught me that, first and foremost, you have to love on yourself. And that doing so was not an act of selfishness, but an act of strength and wisdom and fortitude. This modern habit of mothers, almost bragging that they’ve no time to take care of themselves, no time to care for themselves? It’s not cute.”

During the summer we often think we will have more time, even though we often end up with less. So do yourself a favor, go get that pedicure you’ve been putting off, or head to the beach for an hour or to all by yourself. But don’t forget to bring a book when you do—child, please.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. She teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Buy Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself

Book Birthday Parties

Book Birthday Parties

By Hilary Levey FriedmanBook Column Book Party ART

In a recent book review I wrote about how much stuff my kids have and wondered how we can best discuss inequality with our children. Like many parents I want to raise nice boys, who understand and know how to show gratitude.

So for my son’s first and third birthdays this year (celebrated just 10 days apart), I decided that we would have a no-gifts party. Believe me, they don’t need more things! Instead, we asked people to bring in books we would then donate. Why books? I considered other types of donations, and while coats and clothes are undoubtedly important, books are crucial when it comes to that long-term inequality.

Also, I am fundamentally a book person. We had a library themed wedding and at baby showers, brises, birthdays, etc. our favors are always bookmarks. So I searched online and found this great non-profit, Milk + Bookies, who helped me make it happen.

Milk + Bookies sent me a list of organizations in my area (Boston) in need of books and we selected Horizons for Homeless Children. Horizons shared more specific needs with us (like board books, books with Spanish and those that depict diverse families and needs, etc.) and I passed on the info to those invited to the birthday celebration.

Milk + Bookies book-raiser kit included bookmarks (Yes! Less work for me, but I then made some stickers to personalize them), stickers for kids, balloons, bookplates (our crowd was a bit young for these, so we skipped them, but would use them in the future), and tips for creating banners and other decorations.

At the party we were excited to collect 122 books, and I was even more excited that my older son, Carston, was not at all upset he didn’t get presents at his party (the youngest really didn’t understand everything going on). It probably helped that on the day of their actual birthdays they each got one present from each set of grandparents, a book from us as parents, and a gift from one another.

Still, I wondered about how to talk to Carston about why we were collecting books. Again, Milk + Bookies’ kit helped by having a sheet I could fill in with my sons’ names and how it made them feel to donate books to others. I explained that some kids didn’t have any books at home, or many toys, but that we were going to give them some. I then asked Carston how it made him feel to give the books to other kids and he promptly replied, “Happy!” (My mom heart grew three sizes). Admittedly it took a bit more doing to get him to think about how the other kids might feel—at first he thought, “sad”—but he settled again on “happy” so we went with that.

On my younger son, Quenton’s, actual first birthday we loaded everything into the car and drove into the city together. I had also purchased some “Future Philanthropist” and “Giving is Nice” shirts for the boys (a size too big so they last longer!) from Milk + Bookies.

While admittedly the shirts meant spending more money for something they didn’t “need,” I liked the idea that we can talk about the shirts and what they mean each time they wear them. Plus, more shirts with books on them is a-ok for me!

I hope this becomes a birthday tradition for our family—collecting and donating books on their birthdays—wherever we live each year. And a bonus for Mom here was that I learned about some favorite stories of friends that I will eventually add to our own home library.

What book would you donate to other kids every year if you could?


Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.


The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Book Review

The Blue Jay’s Dance: A Book Review

By Daisy Alpert Florin

Blue Jay's DanceI met Louise Erdrich in 1992 when I was a sophomore at Dartmouth College and she was a visiting fellow. That semester, I was a French teaching assistant, running “drill” sessions five mornings a week. Erdrich signed up for my section, and so I found myself in the unusual position of being language teacher to an award-winning writer. Erdrich was friendly and self-deprecating—but she was my worst student, her accent thick, her conjugations clumsy.

Reading The Blue Jays Dance, her luminous memoir of early motherhood, it is hard to imagine Erdrich tripped up by any language. Her prose is staggering, breathtaking in places. My copy of the book is covered with frantic underlining and enthusiastic asterisks marking places in which Erdrich captures both the frustrations and joys inherent in raising small children. “Growing, bearing, mothering or fathering, supporting, and at last letting go of an infant is a powerful and mundane creative act that rapturously sucks up whole chunks of life,” she writes. Nearly twenty years after its publication, The Blue Jays Dance remains relevant; by keeping the outside world at bay, Erdrich is able to turn her focus inward, creating a story that is both her own and universal.

Divided into four seasons, Erdrich’s memoir describes a year in the life of a new mother, beginning with pregnancy and ending with a child’s first steps. The baby described is an amalgamation of Erdrich’s three daughters; her husband and three older children hover in the background. The Blue Jays Dance is a record of Erdrich’s internal thoughts and struggles, as well as the story of the natural world as seen from the windows of her office. Erdrich is often alone, her main companions the birds, insects, rodents, deer and cats she watches pass by, as desperate for their companionship as a prisoner.

Halfway through the book, Erdrich follows a wild kitten who has disappeared beneath her house through a heating vent. Slithering along the floor of the dirt crawl space in pursuit, Erdrich worries that the house will collapse on top of her. “How many women are buried beneath their houses?” she asks after pulling the kitten toward her by its tail. “How many startling minds, how many writers?”

Running beneath the lyrical descriptions is this vein of frustration, with babies who won’t sleep, home ownership, Erdrich’s near constant longing for a cigarette. But instead of launching into a litany of complaints, Erdrich leans in to the loneliness and isolation to create art. “Life comes on you all unawares while you are stuck in an interim situation,” she writes about the unexpected joy she finds in waiting for someone who is late. “Sometimes I simply feel myself vitally alive in the moment, the interstice.”

It is in this pause that Erdrich writes The Blue Jays Dance, taking advantage of the space that unravels while the baby sleeps or plays with a trail of toys spread across her office floor. “Sometimes I hold my child in one arm, nursing her, and write with the other hand.” What mother hasn’t felt this sense of division? Out of the wreckage comes this book, the words scribbled down while she waits for the peace needed to tend to her “real work.”

I didn’t read The Blue Jays Dance until I was the mother of three children struggling to find my own voice as a writer. As I read, my mind wandered back to the early mornings Erdrich and I shared learning French. She had probably been up for hours writing or caring for her children while I rolled into class each day, my unwashed hair tucked beneath a woolen hat. Did her mind wander back to the children and work she’d left behind as I drilled her on the subjunctive? While she might have been able to imagine my life as an undergraduate at the college she’d attended, it was not possible for me, at twenty, to imagine hers.

At the end of the semester, Erdrich invited me, along with other students, to a reception at her house. As we ate canapés and drank sparkling water, I sat mesmerized by her as well as by the beautiful blond-haired children who darted around the house. I had no idea, yet, what roiled beneath the surface, no concept of the immense strength required to hold up that house.

Daisy Alpert Florin is a writer and mother of three. Her essays and stories have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Kveller, Halfway Down the Stairs and Mamalode, among other publications. Visit her at

15 Must-Read Mom Memoirs

15 Must-Read Mom Memoirs

81RGIvMiu+Lcover-no-text-large-tblBy Sally Allen

As I contemplated which memoirs to include on this list, I casually polled my fellow mom friends. My hope was that their favorites might help me cull my list. Was I wrong! Rather than narrowing my list, their wonderful suggestions (arriving via text, email, and social media) served to expand it … exponentially. It was the figurative equivalent of that scene in Miracle on 34th Street, when the judge insists on seeing the defense attorney’s evidence on his desk, and a cavalcade of postal carriers carts in mailbag after overflowing mailbag, proceeding to bury the judge under the bags’ contents. What else should I have expected when it comes to books that speak to one of, if not the, most foundational relationships of our lives: mother and child?

All this is to say, in selecting the fifteen books on this list, I could not hope to be exhaustive. Instead, I’ve sought to acknowledge the diverse ways we become mothers and to capture as many of the various, beautiful, and aching experiences of motherhood as possible.

Russian Tattoo by Elena Gorokhova

Released in January, Gorokhova’s melancholy memoir explores three generations of women—her mother, herself, and her daughter. Raised in Leningrad, Gorokhova emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 when she married an American man. With candor and sensitivity, her memoir explores her conflicted feelings for both her mother and her motherland and how becoming a mother herself shifted those feelings. At the heart of these three women’s stories lies a fundamental paradox: that we long both for freedom and to be part of something larger than our individual selves.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

Longtime New Yorker cartoonist Chast charts her parents’ final years in this 2014 National Book Award finalist. As both of her parents, who are deeply devoted to one another, enter their 90s, their health begins to decline. Her mother takes a bad fall while her father descends into dementia, and Chast gradually assumes more and more responsibility for their care. Through her signature cartoons as well as photos and her mother’s annotated poems, she captures the frantic late night phone calls, the decision to move them into assisted living, cleaning out their apartment, and more. Her combination of wit and pathos leaves readers smiling as the wipe away tears.

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Growing up, McBride knew little about his mother Ruth’s past. When he asked her questions about where she came from and why she looked different, she would shrug them off and change the subject. Gradually, McBride uncovered her story—her early life in Poland as Rachel Shilsky and emigration to the U.S. at the age of two, growing up in the segregated South then moving to New York, marrying then losing her husband then marrying and losing her second husband. Through her trials and loss, she raised twelve children who would all go on to earn college and advanced degrees. In alternating chapters, McBride and his mother take turns sharing their stories of self-discovery and invention.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen

In 1974, Von Bremzen’s dissident mother made the decision to emigrate from the Soviet Union to the U.S. with her then eleven-year-old daughter, motivated at least in part by a dire medical (mis)diagnosis. As suggested in the title, food is the book’s lodestone that pulls in Von Bremzen’s exploration of Soviet and personal history. At the heart of so many of her vibrant and witty scenes is her mother, who felt keenly the strictures of Soviet life and sought to escape them for herself and her daughter, no matter the cost.

Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

At the beginning of her memoir, Angelou tells us, “This book has been written to examine some of the ways love heals and helps a person to climb impossible heights and rise from immeasurable depths.” Mom & Me & Mom covers Angelou’s early years in the South where her grandmother raised her, her move to San Francisco at thirteen to live with her mother, and her initial resentment at the mother by whom she felt abandoned. That resentment eventually gave way to a bond that grew deeper over the years as Angelou, with her mother’s advice and support, pursued opportunities as a dancer, singer, and writer. In sharing her inspiring story, Angelou also pays homage to the mother who encouraged her to live fiercely and pursue her dreams against all odds.

Dinner With Doppelgangers: A True Story of Madness and Recovery by Colleen Wells

Wells’ stark prose poems build an affecting portrait of living, and parenting, with bipolar disorder. Her scenes shift so seamlessly from moments of lucidity to mania that they initially catch the reader off guard. We are left unsure of what is true and what is Wells’ mania, which then puts us on edge. These swings of emotion, their confusion and uncertainty, mirror the experiences of Wells herself and those closest to her, including her children. Underlying her battle with panic attacks, depression, and mania is a salient reminder for us all: “Time flies when you’re a parent./And there are no do-overs.”

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

In alternating chapters, novelist Kidd and her daughter tell the story of their eponymous trip, taken at a time in their lives when both were on the cusp of something new. At fifty, Kidd was reflecting on her journey as a writer and facing the second half of her life. Meanwhile twenty-two-year old Taylor had just graduated from college and was confronting the question of what to do with her life. Their parallel and intersecting journeys make for a touching memoir of self-discovery and the mother-daughter bond.

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn

Also a lovely mother-daughter travel memoir, We’ll Always Have Paris chronicles Coburn’s European adventures with her daughter, Katie. Coburn initiated their first trip, to France when her daughter was eight, because she was terrified of dying young and wanted to create happy memories for Katie to remember her by. If this sounds morbid, Coburn lightens the mood considerably with wry asides and a steely ability to poke fun at herself. Underneath the laughs lies a heartfelt journey into the self. Over the course of eight years and four trips, the phrase “we’ll always have Paris” takes on new and uplifting meaning, for Coburn and readers.

Carried in Our Hearts: The Gift of Adoption, Inspiring Stories of Families Created Across Continents by Dr. Jane Aronson

Adoption advocate Dr. Jane Aronson brings together seventy-five adoption stories, including from familiar figures Shonda Rhimes, Mary-Louise Parker, Kristin Davis, and Deborra-Lee Furness. Divided into seven thematic sections, the collection captures the various stages of the process. Parents, children, and siblings all have a turn sharing their experiences with adoption in essays that are at turns moving, funny, and inspiring.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

Schwalbe’s touching tearjerker recounts his mother’s battle with cancer and the book club of two they formed as he accompanied her to her treatments. Through the books he and his mother read and discuss, Schwalbe revisits the lessons his mother taught him while he was growing up and how she continued to inspire and uplift him as an adult.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

McCracken gives beautiful, aching voice to grief and how the experience of loss irrevocably changes how we move through the world. Her memoir tells the story of her first son’s stillbirth and the birth of her second son just over a year later. Framing her story is her encounter with a woman who asked her to write a book about “the lighter side of losing a child,” which McCracken comes to understand means, “permission to remember her child with pleasure instead of grief. To remember that he was dead but to remember him without pain: he’s dead but of course she still loves him, and that love isn’t morbid or bloodstained or unsightly, it doesn’t need to be shoved away.”

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

In her harrowing memoir, Winterson’s gorgeous prose pushes against the gut-wrenching horror of her childhood. Adopted as an infant and raised by an abusive, unstable woman she refers to as Mrs. Winterson in her narrative, Winterson struggles with the pain and rage of feeling unwanted and learning to give and receive love. Though resolution proves elusive, hope abounds, as Winterson so eloquently expresses: “The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.”

Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace by Ayelet Waldman

Waldman found herself on the receiving end of “bad mother” accusations (hence the title) after proclaiming, in a New York Times essay, that she loves her husband more than she does her children. These accusations provide the lens through which Waldman explores hot-button parenting issues—breastfeeding, mother-in-laws, homework, parenting through our personal demons. At times fiercely opinionated and political, at times reflective, Waldman’s overarching question is quite poignant: “couldn’t we at least attempt to forge a positive and humane attitude toward mothers, one that takes into account their welfare as well as that of their children?”

Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting! by Sandra Tsing Loh

A mommy memoir that’s a little like a high-octane car chase? I didn’t know such a thing existed, until I read Loh’s fire-breathing screed that follows a year in her life as a mom. Take the mood of the title, expand it into three hundred plus pages, and you get the idea. Often side-splittingly funny, Loh tackles the sacred cows of contemporary parenthood, offers trenchant insight into class and race, and skewers herself as often as those around her.


Sally Allen holds a PhD from New York University. She writes about the reading life at Books, Ink ( and teaches communications. Her book “We Are Not Alone: A Reader’s Companion for Book Lovers” will be published this summer.

Top 15 Birthday Books

Top 15 Birthday Books

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Top 15 Birthday Books in honor of Brain, Child’s 15th!

15logoBooks are the gifts that keep on giving, long past a singular birthday celebration. As we celebrate Brain, Child‘s 15th, this list suggests splendid books to gift to the parents—and the kids—in your life from that first birthday through the fifteenth. From perennial favorites to new classics, you’ll find something for your favorite Brain, Child reader (or future reader!) regardless of their sex or age.

1. Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw

With fun word play, original illustrations, and an imaginative narrative the first book in Shaw’s popular “Sheep” series will quickly become a bedtime or naptime favorite. Because of the rhymes on each page, the book also lends itself to conversation and language development with your little one. After reading it several (or 100!) times, you can pause at the end of each line and let your growing toddler supply the word, allowing you to really “read” together.


2. Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beaty

This clever, engaging, and creative book helps kids understand that you can always learn from a “failure.” It also draws a connection between the present and a historical figure, so you can begin talking to your kids about World War II and changing opportunities for women. You might be inclined to only gift this to little girls, but you’d be wrong! Boys love this tale about imagination and creation and it’s just as important to tell boys that girls can be engineers as it is to tell girls they can be.


3. Jo Frost’s Toddler Rules: Your 5-Step Guide to Shaping Proper Behavior by Jo Frost

Parents, forget about the “terrible twos” and start preparing yourself for a “threenager.” Frost’s book was spotlighted in the Winter 2014 issue of Brain, Child; I wrote there that I was surprised how effective the advice of a “TV nanny” was, but her clear style and no-nonsense approach makes for a crisp and useful read. Frost’s suggestions will still be helpful for the day that your threenager turns into a teenager, which will happen sooner than you might expect or like!


4. My Royal Birthday Adventure by Jennifer Dewing

What’s better than a birthday book? A personalized birthday book, of course. Dewing’s rhyming tale can be personalized for your recipient (boy, girls, age, etc.) and the book itself—with glossy, colorful pages—is a lovely present. At this age kids are on the cusp of literacy, with most recognizing their own name, so they get a real thrill out of not just seeing themselves as part of a tale, but “reading” it on their own. Plus, it can be added to a memory box someday as a treasured keepsake.


5. Beautiful Oops by Barney Saltzberg

Like Rosie Revere Engineer, Beautiful Oops imparts a life lesson about mistakes and failures. Saltzberg illustrates for kids that sometimes you can turn something bad, or unexpected, into something beautiful, or at the least pretty neat. Beautiful Oops makes use of different materials to make this point, which kids will enjoy exploring. Each page brings a new surprise and the interactive nature of reading the book makes for great back-and-forth opportunities between the reader and newly-minted five-year-old.


6. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss

You’ll usually find this book given as a graduation gift, but it also makes a great “starting grade school” gift. The beginning of an educational journey can be just as exciting as the end of one and parents will enjoy Seuss’ whimsical language even more when it’s not read through bittersweet tears. Few authors and illustrators can rival Seuss’ engaging, yet trenchant, observations about life. And if you want even more Seuss there’s always The Cat in the Hat, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, Green Eggs and Ham, Yertle the Turtle, The Lorax, and the list goes on…


7. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Just because your child may be reading on his or her own there’s no need to stop reading together. Consider gifting a classic like Charlotte’s Web, which you can read aloud, or you can alternate paragraphs or pages with your proud new reader. Part of the enduring appeal of White’s book is its message of friendship, vocabulary, and of course those magical talking animals. Kids this age will still appreciate the illustrations, even if they don’t want to admit it.


8. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Oh, how I wanted to be one of the Boxcar Children when I read this series as a child. The adventure, the siblings, the mysteries, the wealthy grandfather! Warner wrote the first 19 books in the series, beginning in the 1940s and continuing through to her death in the 1970s. Books are still being added (at last count, over 150), which young readers who zip through will appreciate. This is a great age at which to start a series, which will engage budding readers for many entries over time. And like Charlotte’s Web, The Boxcar Children can be appreciated together aloud or read with relish independently. Note that the extravagant birthday gift giver might purchase a boxset…


9. This is Childhood: Those precious first years. 10 mothers. 10 essays. Edited by Marcelle Soviero and Randi Olin.

It’s the last year of having a child who isn’t double-digits. This is a great moment for parents to reflect on their journey thus far and think about what is yet to come. Brain, Child editors Olin and Soviero say it best in introducing the ten essays: “We believe you will see yourself in these pages: in the past if your children are older, in the preset if you’re right in the sweet spot of raising young children, and in the future if you’re planning to start a family, pregnant, or a brand-new mother. There is no doubt that the stories here will resonate: the tutus, the knock-knock jokes, the light-up sneakers.”


10. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Can you think of a sweeter gift than the slightly miraculous miracle of first discovering Harry, Hermione, and Ron? Oh, and Dumbledore and Hagrid and butterbeer? It’s hard to believe now that our own childhoods were Harry Potter-less; thankfully that won’t be true for future generations. While the later books take a darker turn with death and destruction (and, yes, even romance) this is a good age at which to start the series—the later, longer books can be saved for another birthday treat.


11. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Koningsburg

A book filled with possibilities, especially for an eleven-year-old on the verge of independence, while still being dependent. This tale of running away, mystery, sibling love, and true adventure (amidst fine art no less!) will stay with a child for years—trust me I still think about statues with unusual markings on the bottom. If your child still lets you, read it with him or her; better yet, read it at the same time and have your own book club at home.


12. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

When I tell you this is the first book that ever made me cry you might think, “Why should I gift that book?” But it’s a remarkable tale of human-animal friendship that harkens back to another time. The story is so enduring that I can still remember some of the evocative language from when I first read the story in fifth grade (this from a girl who isn’t particularly into the outdoors, hunting, or dogs, so it shows how universal the story is as well). Another great selection to spark conversation with your birthday boy or girl.


13. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence by Laurence Steinberg

Congratulations, you have a new teenager in your life! While some may dread the teenage years, Steinberg reframes them in a positive way, emphasizing what is to be embraced (like the increased tendency to explore) and how to help teens develop skills during this time to help them throughout life. On second thought, perhaps you should tell your thirteen-year-old to gift you this book on your birthday. In any case, it celebrates 13 and the dawn of adolescence.


14. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

At an age when some might stop thinking reading is “cool,” Collins makes being engrossed in a book just that. Teens who want to explore more “adult” issues will relish the violence, romance, and anti-authoritarianism in the series (oh, and a lot of adults will as well). The best thing about this book is that every member of your household will likely be riveted by this original—though now much duplicated—tale.


15. The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel

Here’s a fifteenth birthday gift from which you can both benefit. Sociologist Karabel’s book can double as a door-stopper (at over 700 pages), but it’s worth it. College is on the minds of many families with children this age. Many books capitalize on this fact, and many recent titles talk about how where you go to college doesn’t necessarily determine your fate. Karabel’s detailed history helps explain why college has evolved the way it has over the past 100 years or so. Not only will this book arm you with context to make sense of current admissions frenzies (which you can evaluate with a more clear perspective, and perhaps a jaded eye, after reading the book), but it will also help prepare your 15-teen-year-old for the type of reading and thinking s/he will be expected to do while in college.

And, soon, congratulations instead of happy birthday to all of you for making it through high school and adolescence! Glad Brain, Child could be part of your parenting journey.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.

Top 10 Humor Books

Top 10 Humor Books

Humor Books ARTBy Hilary Levey Friedman

Sometimes it takes becoming a parent to truly understand the expression, “It’s better to laugh than to cry.” Parenting produces endless fodder for laughs, wry observations about humanity, and (as I am learning as the mom to a preschool-aged boy) potty jokes. While many insights of the authors on this humor list are timeless, some are very of-the-moment, drawing on technology and pop culture to produce a guffaw or two. Hope you get a chortle, a cackle, and a chuckle to fill your days… and nights.

Motherhood: The Second Oldest Profession by Erma Bombeck

Bombeck was seen as the motherhood humor writer of her day. She penned a newspaper column about her family in Ohio that went viral before there was a term for it. In many ways Bombeck’s work is old school; most of it holds up well, but not all of it. In this compilation of her most popular articles about mothering the personal stories still work best; the parodies are the least enduring. Bombeck brings a realistic, long-term, down-home and downright funny approach to the second oldest profession in a way that new moms of today will likely find refreshing. In the introduction Bombeck writes about her correspondence with a woman who was in jail for killing her child. The woman wrote her, “Had I known mothers could laugh at those things, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.” A hard reminder that humor can be a very serious business.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year by Anne Lamott

A perennial Brain, Child favorite, Lamott deftly weaves together observations of mothering and writing and just plain living in this funny and touching book that transcends genres. Originally published in 1993 Operating Instructions chronicles 1989-90, the year in which Lamott’s only son is born and her best friend is diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. These universal experiences gain more power with Lamott’s deft language choices. You may find a friend in the pages, the friend who tells you like it is, noting about the first year of motherhood: “I feel inside like when you’re first learning to put nail polish on your right hand with your left. You can do it, but it doesn’t look all that great around the cuticles.” You might not always agree with Lamott’s opinions (warning: Republicans beware!), but you will know Lamott always feels strongly, especially about her son.

The Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting “written under the supervision of” Bunmi Laditan

Laditan built an enormous following on social media as “The Honest Toddler.” Her so-spot-on-they-were-hysterical statements about life as an opinionated toddler resonated whether your toddler is a boy or a girl, or 3, 33, or 53 (while the medium has changed the truths haven’t). Laditan’s identity as a West Coast Canadian mom to two girls was widely revealed when this book was published. I especially loved the section on transitions and sharing. For instance, “Sharing is stupid. I’m sorry, I got ahead of myself. Sharing is a hot-button issue in many parenting books. You’ll be happy to know that they’ve got it all wrong. It’s time for you to put on your thinking cap and use common sense. Everything in the world is divided up based on who owns it.” The tongue-in-cheek Q&As always elicited at least a smile along with the universal toddler math that one minute of car sleep equals one hour of bed sleep.

Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing. By Robert Paul Smith

Of course it’s not just moms who bring the funny, dads can be pretty humorous too—both now and in the past. Smith’s short book was originally published in 1957 and republished in 2010, partly because his message that kids need to play and not have parents hover is so enduring. He humorously recalls his own childhood noting that kids, “Don’t want science. They want magic. They don’t want hypotheses, they want immutable truth. They want to be, they should be, in a clearing in the jungle painting themselves blue.” Advocating for privacy in a pithy and concise tone, those who appreciate parenting in historical perspective will especially enjoy this oldie-but-a-goodie.

The Big Book of Parenting Tweets: Featuring the most hilarious parents on Twitter edited by Kate Hall and the Science of Parenthood

Sometimes when you are in the thick of parenting you don’t have time to read a book, even a short one. In that way Twitter has become a lifeline for parents looking for a clever fix, and now this funny book provides bite-sized curated doses on the most common parenting topics. The book is divided into three parts, concluding with the notorious “Bitching Hours.” The cute graphics add to The Big Book of Parenting Tweets, lending credence to what Hall writes in the Introduction, “Weirdly though, Twitter has made me a better parent. A better mom. These days, I find that I don’t get as upset when my kids spill milk or raid my hidden candy stash. Instead, I think, ‘I’ll tweet about that.’ The humor I read every day on Twitter has helped change my perspective and had made me feel less alone.” In the end that’s what we all hope reading and parenting do for each of us.

Mommy Prayers by Tracy Mayor

Mayor’s prayers for crazy days, for sleepless nights, and for meltdown moments are usually funny, often insightful, and always wise. What mother can’t relate to this “Prayer for a Five-Minute Shower?!” “I’m not asking for a good shower—the one where you shave your legs and pumice your heels and slather your limbs with sea-salt-lemon-mimosa foaming body scrub and exfoliate whatever bits need exfoliating… Juts five minutes under a stream of hot water so I can shampoo the ick out of my hair, slop on a little conditioner, swipe my face with one of the baby’s washcloths, and just be.” At the heart of all these short entries is gratefulness. Mayor often presents two sides of an issue, for instance she captures two different perspectives in her prayers about maternity leave. This little treasure might make you laugh, and cry.

Porn for New Moms From the Cambridge Women’s Pornography Collective (photographs by Susan Anderson)

This book is simultaneously what you think and not what you think. Yes, there are some good-looking men, who sometimes appear shirtless. But what this short, paperback of photos and statements is really about is what every new mom may secretly, or not so secretly, want. For instance, a partner to come home and tell her she looks super sexy in sweatpants. Along with, “I’ll be right there, hon. I’m just finishing the last of the baby shower thank-you cards.” While some are truly wishful thinking (“Look, if you don’t want to go back to work, let’s just tap into my family’s trust fund to pay for daycare. Didn’t I ever tell you about that?”) at heart they speak to the conflicts many moms feel about work, their bodies, and the worth of their familial contributions. Note that the choice of the word “pornography” was very deliberate and provocative. The anonymous collective, formed in 2005, want to “reclaim” the term to redefine the way we look at “naughty” pictures. Whether or not you agree with the title, you will more than likely enjoy several of the book’s pages.

The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood Edited by Kerry Clare

In trying to summarize the intention of the anthology editor Clare writes that it’s about life with a uterus, in all stages of life. This collection by Canadian women isn’t all funny—far from it in some cases. But one of the essays, “Primipara” by Ariel Gordon, made me laugh so hard when I read it, and it stayed with me for a long time. In the piece she reveals a poem to a coworker she wrote that says that if she had had twins, she would have eaten one or sent it back. Gordon’s honest take on why having only one child was the right choice for her is elevated by her language choices (“I regret, too, that the girl won’t know the burnt caramel of loving and hating a sibling.”) and her insight (“People mostly ask me when my next book is coming out instead of when my next child is due. It’s a relief to have the poetry and the parenting separate again, though really they’re not separate at all.”). Proof that humor comes to us all individually in different forms.

Ketchup is a Vegetable: And Other Lies Moms Tell Themselves by Robin O’Bryant

O’Bryant’s voice is very strong in this collection of the most popular pieces from her blog. Ketchup is a Vegetable originally appeared in 2011 and was re-released by a new press in 2014. One of Bryant’s strengths is her ability to make fun of herself as a mother, but never make fun of her kids or what they do. She details her nursing “boob sweat,” struggles to lose weight, to balance work and family, and maintain a relationship with her husband. Her Southern charm is a welcome addition to this list and her down-home tone won’t alienate many readers who will instead regard her as a friend and wish her family lived down the street for fun playdates.

Gummi Bears Should Not be Organic: And Other Opinions I Can’t Back Up with Facts by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor

Wilder-Taylor also has a strong voice, with lots of opinions and profanity to make her points. Gummi bears Should Not be Organic is the latest contribution from the author of Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay and Naptime is the New Happy Hour. Wilder-Taylor’s attitude will not resonate with all readers, but it certainly is very popular with many. She offers more of a critical attitude, but she also makes sharp observations, like that the underparenting of the 1970s helped lead to the overparenting of today. In any event Wilder-Taylor’s summary of her parenting philosophy will resonate with many Brain, Child readers: “That’s my parenting philosophy: read! But I’m not going to have that embroidered onto a pillow anytime soon.” Now that is a needlepoint pillow I would buy!

BONUS: Bossypants by Tina Fey

I must confess that I didn’t love this book the way millions of others have, but those millions can’t be wrong, so I am including this as a bonus read! While the book’s focus isn’t on mothering, it is a big part of it (one chapter in particular, “A Mother’s Prayer for Her Daughter,” is much beloved, read, and shared).

Author Q&A: Samantha Waltz

Author Q&A: Samantha Waltz

BMP Blended Samantha Waltz HeadshotSamantha Waltz is the editor of Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience

Author Q&A: Samantha Waltz

 What inspired you to edit the Blended anthology?

A colleague and I were discussing our relationships with our adult stepchildren and thinking an anthology would be a helpful resource for us and other stepparents. We didn’t want to read a how-to book, we wanted to read stories about what others had experienced and how they dealt with their situations. I did a market search and found nothing like what we envisioned. My friend encouraged me to put this book together, allowing many different people to share their personal stories as a part of a blended family.

What was your goal for the book and why this topic?

More than half the families in America are living in step, some quite happily and others struggling. One difficulty stepmothers encounter is the wicked stepmother myth. Stepfathers often get a bad rap too, when in reality many replace a biological father who has shirked his parental responsibilities. Other challenges specific to stepparenting include loyalty, jealousy, displacement, and grief, to name just a few. My goal for Blended is to recognize and honor these families; to show many different models for stepfamily structures that work, acknowledge that sometimes the best intentions don’t get the desired results, and generally offer guidance, compassion, and hope.

What makes a good anthology great? (e.g. the mix of essays, the idea etc.)

I’ve been fortunate to have my writing included in a number of anthologies, and have learned that the best anthologies have an important idea examined through stories that are not only well written, but represent a variety of views and voices. The central idea of this book is family. No matter what circumstances brought the members of a blended family together, they are family now, and there is nothing people are more passionate or determined about, or yes, even defensive about, than family. I am proud that Blended includes thirty strong stories from moms, stepmoms, a stepdad and stepsiblings in both traditional and non-traditional families. Some stories in this book offer a model for creating order and peace out of a tangle of step-relationships, and others let us know it isn’t always possible. Some warm your heart and make you smile. Others prompt tears of empathy.

What was the greatest challenge in bringing the book to market?

I found it gut wrenching to reject essays from good, eager writers. There were poignant, well-written stories that didn’t quite fit into this book in terms of content and structure, or were similar to something already accepted. At the same time, I had to pursue other stories in order to ensure that a variety of family situations were represented: adults raised as stepchildren now forming their own families, successful families with two moms, stepparents challenged by stepchildren with special needs, stepsiblings candidly sharing how they navigated the waters of broken and newly formed homes, families who have blended successfully and families that haven’t worked despite the best efforts and intentions possible.

What would you like the reader to take away after reading Blended?

Many readers will find stories that hit close to home. I hope those readers will find ideas to try in their own families so they can better understand each other and smooth family dynamics. And I hope all readers will get a broader understanding of the unique challenges stepparents and stepchildren face, and be more aware of the many different ways parents and children can come together and resolve their issues.

What advice do you have for other mother writers?

Tell your story no matter how sensitive the material. For writers, writing is the way to sort out painful feelings and complex issues. And when you have put your story to paper, send it out into the world to help others. When I read something that resonates with me, I feel both comforted and inspired. As parents and stepparents, we often feel alone, even though other families surround us. Every family is unique, but there is a commonality to many experiences. The writers who contributed to this book shared deeply personal stories. For that reason, several contributors to Blended used pen names. One author said writing her story was akin to laying an egg. Another, a very experienced and successful writer, told me she went through draft after draft, starting over several times, her story was so painful to dredge up. Yet the authors in Blended found ways to tell their stories with honesty, candor, and even humor, and I am grateful for each contribution.

BMP Blended Cover ARTRead An Excerpt

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This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Lindsey Mead

This is Adolescence – Author Q&A: Lindsey Mead


Headshot Lindsey MeadWhat is it about mothering an 11-year-old that you liked the most? The least?

I love 11. I know this particularly keenly now, writing three months into 12, because things feel different in a material way. Eleven felt like a golden time. I loved her company and she loved mine. Sports were important but not crushing. She was funny and smart and thoughtful and not yet moody. The only thing I liked least about 11 was that it ended.

When did you know your child was a tween/teenager?

I knew she was a tween when she really wanted Instagram. I let her have it, but our rules were (and still are) that she doesn’t post selfies, she doesn’t post group photos that might make others feel excluded, she has to ask before posting anything and when accepting follow requests. Somehow Instagram felt like the harbinger of a new season.

What do you wish you knew before you had a tween/teen?

I wish I knew that we’d make it through these famously rocky years with our bond intact. I wish I knew that before she entered tween-hood and frankly I still wish I knew that now that she’s in it. I have a lot of fear about what the next few years will bring, and I wish I could trust that on the other end we’ll be fine.

What advice do you wish you could tell your former self about mothering an 11-year-old?

Don’t sweat the little stuff. I remember people telling me tweens needed their parents more than infants and being absolutely flabbergasted by this. “But she sucks on my body every two hours. How could she possibly need me more than this?” I asked once. And it’s a different kind of need, but it’s a need all the same. It’s real and I wish I hadn’t worried so much about the baby ear infections and food introductions and all of that, because I see now it didn’t matter.

What about motherhood inspires you?

My children make me laugh every day. They say things that make me think, and their surprising moments of humor and kindness often take my breath away. They inspire me to be gentler and more positive in the world.

What do you hope readers will take with them from your piece?

I hope my piece reminds readers to take a moment to notice the details of where they are in their lives, right now. So much of motherhood—and life itself—is transient and fleeting, and the primary goal of writing for me is to capture some of a particular moment’s nuance and shimmer. If I can help even one reader do that, that’s a tremendous honor.

cover art quarkPurchase Brain, Child’s Special Issue for Parents of Teens, which includes the This is Adolescence Series – Eight essays from America’s leading writers on ages 11 – 18.

Read an excerpt: This is Adolescence: 12



Author Q&A: Susan Stiffelman

Author Q&A: Susan Stiffelman

ART Parenting with Prescence headshotSusan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting with Presence, available now.

Much has been said about parenting “in the moment” – tell us how your book approaches this subject. 

In the book I invite parents to use our parenting lives—moment to moment—as a sort of classroom, the ultimate “goal” of the “course” being to become more fully alive, and more fully who we are meant to be. Often, the very things that are frustrating us about our child’s behavior can provide the opportunity for enormous growth and healing. For instance, if your child is ignoring your repeated requests to turn off the TV and come to dinner, you may well find yourself feeling frustrated and disrespected.

Understandably! But if you choose to use that experience to see what’s underneath the trigger, you may well find that it is stirring up emotions from your own growing up years. Perhaps you had the experience of expressing feelings and having them dismissed or invalidated. Or you may be struggling in a relationship with someone who you feel disregards your requests or concerns. So, your children refusing to heed your call to dinner becomes a much more significant infraction than simply your kids not coming to dinner—you may become enraged, and there you are screaming at them for what seems to them a small thing, but for you it’s activating a deep wound. In that moment, you might choose to pause and with great self-compassion and tenderness, ask, “What does this remind me of? How is this feeling one that is familiar to me?”

By becoming more present to what’s getting stirred up in the challenging interactions we have with our children, we can often use them to heal. In this example, you may get quiet for a minute, gently touch your heart with a “There, there”, and feel the sadness that perhaps is under the anger and frustration. This can move you toward greater healing, and  better allow you to be what I call the Captain of the ship in your child’s life, lovingly, calmly and confidently in charge, without trying to be control what’s going on so that you feel better.

The side benefit of this is that without projecting the old, unfinished business onto your kids, you can be more at ease and in love with them…even when they don’t come to dinner the first time you call!

What was your inspiration for writing Parenting with Presence?

For two years I did an event called Parenting with Presence which consisted of four or five conversations a day over a four day period with incredible people like Jon Kabat Zinn, Jane Goodall, Arianna Huffington and Thupten Jinpa (the primary translator for the Dalai Lama.) These conversations helped coalesce the ideas I had been working with for some time around parenting with greater presence, engagement and attunement. I have meditated since I was seventeen, and wanted to explore how parenting really can become a spiritual or transformational path. I also wanted to look at how even those people who are committed to being calm and centered get pushed to the brink by the demands of raising children, and talk frankly about the importance of self-compassion and kindness when we inevitably lose our way.

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

My hope is that parents who read the book are inspired to be more present and engaged with their children, and with themselves. Parenting is brutally difficult. None of us are saints. We all lose our cool. But our children are incredibly forgiving. If we invest time in building connection and fortifying attachment, and we do our own work so that we are continuing to grow and develop, our kids will flourish.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

I suppose it was trying to convey an idea in the most economical way possible. I know how busy parents are, and how tough it can be to sit down with a book after a long day.  And I know how hard parents are on themselves. I didn’t want to write something that left them feeling they could never apply the ideas I teach, or reinforce shameful feelings that suggest they should be doing parenting “better.” I also wanted to make sure the material in the book was truly practical, rather than spouting a lot of theories. I worked hard to give lots of examples and make the book feel interactive so that parents come away feeling they have a caring and supportive friend as they raise their children. Infusing that feeling into the pages of the book was my challenge, but from what I hear, I think I managed pretty well.

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

Books have been absolutely transformative for me in my life. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, Byron Katie’s Loving What Is. I love Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening. I adore Martha Beck’s The Joy Diet. Harville Hendrix’s Getting the Love You Want. The list goes on and on.

How do you balance motherhood and writing?

Well nowadays, it’s not such an issue as my son is 24 and pretty much “launched.” But when I wrote my first book, I allowed the process to take its own time, grabbing moments when I could, or writing for chunks of time with headphones on; I actually felt it was healthy and good for him to see me hard at work on a project I felt passionately about. But I also had to be flexible, and willing to stop in the middle of the process when need be, which wasn’t always easy.

What “advice” would you give other mother writers?

Write from your heart. I think what makes a book transform and uplift others is when it comes from our deepest understanding. While it’s lovely to read a well-turned phrase, what matters most—to me, at least—is the feeling that is conveyed between the lines.

Read an excerpt. WO BMP Parenting with Prescence Cover

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How to Raise a Wild Child: A Book Review

How to Raise a Wild Child: A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

WO How to Raise a Wild Child ARTI’d never heard of Scott D. Sampson, but a few weeks ago he changed my parenting after I read his newly released book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. How did this happen? He convinced me that I need to be a nature mentor to my kids.

As it turns out, I actually have heard of Sampson before, because he is “Dr. Scott” on the PBS Kids show “Dinosaur Train.” As he writes in How to Raise a Wild Child, “For preschoolers, the marriage of dinosaurs and trains is like mixing chocolate and peanut butter—almost irresistible.” But this is not a book about a TV show. Not even close. The PBS show is only mentioned in the Preface and for about 10 pages in Chapter 9 when discussing balancing nature and technology. However the tagline Dr. Scott delivers at the end of each episode encapsulates the primary thesis in How to Raise a Wild Child: “Get outside, get into nature, and make your own discoveries!”

I have the “make your own discoveries” part down, but the first two steps to get outside and get into nature are much harder. I could give a lot of different excuses (allergies as a kid, being the child of a single mom who herself isn’t a nature lover, etc.) but the truth is that I just don’t like to get dirty. But as a parent I know kids get dirty. And I know that to understand the natural world, develop independence and safe risk-taking, and appreciate the diversity of our planet and others, outdoor play is important. Moreover, if I ever needed more evidence that outside play burns off energy I only need to recall the multitude of snow days from this past winter’s epic eight feet.

While many have written about the importance of nature in our lives, and especially for children, until How to Raise a Wild Child no one had delved into the nature connection, let alone process changes in this connection as children age from early childhood to adolescence. Given Sampson’s science background (he has a PhD and gave up tenure in order to bring science education to the masses), he is also the first to synthesize academic research on the nature connection across a wide range of disciplines—from psychology to paleontology to education to engineering.

In addition to harvesting a variety of research to make his case that nature connection is vital to the healthy development of individuals, communities, and the world, Sampson devotes the majority of his book to offering practical, no-nonsense, and helpful advice to parents, educators, and anyone else who can serve as a nature mentor to kids. For example, at the end of each of the ten substantive chapters, Sampson summarizes with one “Secret for Raising a Wild Child,” followed by a variety of specific nature mentoring tip, including recommendations for other books to consult. Chapter 2 offers up Secret #2 for Raising a Wild Child as, “Children will tend to value what you value, so start noticing nature yourself, taking a few minutes each day to become more aware of the other-than-human world around you.” And Chapter 3 suggests kids start “sit spotting” nature (a spot to regularly visit several times per week for 30 minutes to record the sounds and sights and smells of nature), offering the book What the Robin Knows as a helpful guide.

In addition to practical tips, Sampson offers practical observation. In How to Be a Wild Child he writes that it is far too simplistic to blame technology for decreased nature connection, also citing parental fear factor of abduction, fear of litigation, overscheduling, and the rise of urban living.

But don’t let his practical insights make you think he’s not offering deep insight. Sampson discusses the three roles a successful nature mentor must take on: teacher, questioner, and trickster. But it’s the last two that really matter. He explains that, “When a child asks a question and you know the answer, it’s natural to want to share it. Providing the answer makes us feel good and we presume that kids really want to know. But this inclination can lead us astray. Often times, our response ends the interaction by cutting off curiosity. Counterintuitively, children are often looking for our engagement more than our answers, hoping that the focus of their attention will become ours too.” He also suggests that when we pose questions to kids about 70% of them should be easy, 25% medium, and 5% hard. Of course this is all helpful advice for most any parenting situation and not just those that have to do with nature….

For such a thoughtful, well-researched, and useful book, my biggest complaint about How to Raise a Wild Child is that the epilogue, an imagined acceptance speech by a young nature lover, was not a worthy end. A much better conclusion to the book begins on page 278, summarizing his findings and advice, while also pointing toward schoolyards and playgrounds as a way to promote thrivability.

This weekend I know we’ll be getting out into nature both days—and I hope to hone my nature mentor skills as we thaw out into glorious spring (and save a Dinosaur Train episode for a snow day next year).

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

On Siblings

On Siblings

WO On Siblings ARTBy Hilary Levey Friedman

I drove straight to the bookstore after leaving the ultrasound appointment where I learned I was having my second son. Being a book person, my first instinct is to look for a book for any new life experience, always.

I was surprised that the siblings section of the parenting nook was pretty slim pickings. At the checkout I realized I bought more children’s books about welcoming a sibling than books for me. In fact it was children’s literature that turned out to be the most helpful in fostering a good relationship between my two boys.

One of the books I bought that day was Big Brothers are the Best by Fran Manushkin. This sweetly illustrated book was perfect for us because it was about two brothers (she has another version for sisters). I found that it helped us to refer to the baby by masculine pronouns, and it was challenging when a book had a baby sister. My older son, Carston, learned this book thoroughly, though I must warn you that his favorite line, “Big brothers can yell, and kick balls,” always led to an active demonstration of both! My only complaint is that we read this book so often it actually came apart at the seams.

Another book that was very helpful is a personalized book offered by both Pottery Barn Kids and I See Me! (neither option is cheap, but the latter is slightly more affordable than the former). Offered for both brothers and sisters, The Super Incredible Big Brother by Jennifer Dowling, is great because you can put in both children’s names and sex—it is unfortunate it doesn’t accommodate names of multiple older siblings though. We used this book for the “gift” at the hospital (again, books are a central part of every family occasion) from Quenton to Big Brother Carston. I have a particular affinity for children’s books that rhyme, which this one does. Also, it comes with a medal that Carston still occasionally wears, over a year later.

I recently read When Mommy Has Our Baby by Rachel A. Cedar, which I know would have helped our family as well. While this book does have a Big Brother/Little Sister theme, it offers something the others don’t, which is a discussion question every other page to help the older child develop language to talk about new feelings and concerns. It is clearly written by a mom who has been there before. Even if an older child doesn’t want to read this story every night, the prompts will help parents know what to talk about with their kids for times when the book is not open.

I’m not the only one to think that reading books with your older child(ren) to help prepare them for the transition a new sibling will bring is one of the best ways to connect. In her new book Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life, which will be reviewed here this Friday, Dr. Laura Markham suggests reading books with older children, and continuing to do so in the first few months, will help get the sibling relationship off to a good start. More proof that reading really is a miraculous activity for kids, in so many ways!

What books helped ease a sibling transition for your child, either a birth or other later life event?

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Top 10 Novels That Explore Sibling Relationships

Top 10 Novels That Explore Sibling Relationships









By Sally Allen

For those of us who have them, siblings provide the first models for our future peer relationships and the comparative base against which our dawning sense of self develops. They can be our best friends and toughest critics, our most staunch competitors and fiercest advocates. Those of us who parent siblings embrace the challenges and rewards of nurturing these relationships that, we can only hope, will far outlast our own relationships with our children.

The following ten novels explore sibling relationships in all their richness and depth, from loving to contentious and back again.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Beginning in media res, Rosemary Cooke narrates her family’s story, which includes a fugitive brother, a lost sister, and an explosive secret. The reader has little idea where this quirky, loquacious storyteller is taking us until the identity of Rosemary’s sister and how she was lost are revealed late in the novel.

Propelling us through this mystery is a madcap plot and bitingly funny writing. But the novel’s underlying story meditates on serious questions about how our early sibling relationships, and the narratives we construct around them, shape our mannerisms and characters. More significantly, they can become the yardstick against which we measure our individual selves.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia

Racculia’s novel offers a labyrinth of riveting plots and subplots revolving around a fading New York resort, a 15-year old murder-suicide, and a statewide teen music festival. Bellweather is the resort where, in 1982, a bride shot her groom and hung herself in room 712 and where, in 1997, teen flute prodigy Jill is found hanging from the sprinklers, again in room 712. But her body disappears, setting off the first mystery of the weekend—was it suicide, murder, or a prank?—that spawns more.

Central to the intertwining narratives are twins Alice and Rabbit, participating in the festival as vocalist and bassoonist respectively. Always center stage Alice is the exuberant twin, while shy Rabbit trails in her wake. But after Rabbit asserts himself at an orchestra rehearsal, he is thrust into the spotlight, leaving Alice frustrated with their role swap. Meanwhile, Rabbit is keeping a big secret from Alice, fearing how its reveal will affect their relationship and illuminating how difficult it can be to carve a singular identity in the face of our siblings’ expectations.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland follows the divergent fates of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, born in Calcutta at the dawn of India’s independence. As children, the boys were as close as two siblings could be, but their paths take them in separate directions in adulthood. Subhash travels to the U.S. to study while Udayan stays in Calcutta to join a political rebellion.

Lahiri’s narrative shifts points of view, weaving back and forth in time, and dialogue is not set off in quotation marks or otherwise demarcated with speech indicators. The cumulative effects of this storytelling provoke in the reader a sense of dislocation, echoing that experienced by the brothers, who cannot bend the world, internal or external, to meet their will for it. The novel invites the reader to ponder how deeply we can claim access to the inner lives of others—their most closely guarded desires, fears, and transgressions—even those closest to us.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

In Smith’s award-winning debut novel, conflicting beliefs intersect and collide in multiethnic North London during the latter half of the 20th century. Shifting perspectives across the decades, the story follows two families, the Joneses and the Iqbals, chronicling their struggles and temptations, including as immigrants, as Muslims, as non-white citizens of England.

Among the Iqbals are twin brothers, Magid and Millat. Disturbed by how Western life is influencing them, their father, Samal, decides to send them back to Bangladesh to be raised according to Muslim tradition. But Samal can only afford to send back one of his sons. The one who leaves become idealized, canonized in a photo that holds pride of place in the family home, while the one left behind competes with an illusion of perfection. The consequences of Samal’s decision are far-reaching for both brothers in this deeply affecting novel, and not at all what he (or readers) might expect.

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

On June 16, 2004, brothers Stephen and Leo, polar opposites in every way, prepare for a their grandmother’s funeral and their striver parents’ Bloomsday party later that night. Caught between them is Nora, best friend of the former and fiancée of the latter. Oldest Stephen, a graduate student, fulfills his parents’ intellectual pretensions but questions his purpose as an academic. Leopold, an IT consultant who enjoys beer and sports, longs for acceptance from his parents but rejects their pretentions. Nora, a talented opera singer, had a promising career on the horizon but abandoned it in the wake of her mother’s death and is beset by crippling anxiety.

Each character harbors secrets that bubble contentiously to the surface over the course of the day in this novel about intersecting stories, the search for personal meaning, and the difficulty of coming to terms with who you are in relation to those around you, especially your siblings.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

The fates of the three families intersect in Forster’s harrowing but lyrical portrait of English society at the turn of the 20th century. At the heart of the story are the Schlegels—spirited Helen, her spinster-ish older sister Margaret, and their younger brother Tibby. The Schlegels have independence and money enough to immerse themselves in cultural interests and bohemian projects. One of these is Leonard Bast, a clerk Helen and Margaret befriend, who is estranged from his family due to his relationship with “unrespectable” Jacky.

In an effort to help Leonard advance in his career, the sisters pass on news about his firm picked up from posh Henry Wilcox, a family acquaintance. But the information leads Leonard down a path to disaster. After Helen improbably enters into a relationships with Henry, the two sisters find themselves at odds over Leonard’s circumstances until a tragedy forces them to reckon with how deep their rift runs.

Twisted Sisters by Jen Lancaster

Sibling rivalry takes center stage in this fun, breezy read. Self-absorbed, tightly wound television psychologist Reagan Bishop is a Shopaholic-esque unreliable narrator who complains that her parents favor her sisters, hairdresser Geri and mother of eight Mary Mac, over Reagan and her accomplishments. Under pressure from the network that bought her show and desperate to advance her career, she accepts the help of New Age healer Deva, whose unusual methods lead to major changes for Reagan, personal and professional.

Lancaster’s narrative style is discursive, blending a clever plot with magical realism and hilarity by the barrel. But underlying Reagan’s humorous career misadventures lies a heartwarming story with an earnest message about the power of sisterhood.

Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

MacColl is the author of four young adult novels featuring famous female historical figures as teenagers, with a fifth coming in April. Always Emily portrays the relationships among the surviving Bronte siblings, with a focus on teens Emily and Charlotte and their brother Branwell. The story finds fiery Emily and prim Charlotte investigating the connection among a suspicious death, a string of burglaries, a secret society, and a handsome stranger with a mysterious past. This while worrying about Branwell, whose struggles with grief and expectations lead to alcohol abuse.

MacColl deftly weaves a page-turning mystery with history and themes from both authors’ literary works. Always Emily is a treat for book lovers familiar with the authors’ novels but also a compelling portrait of how very different siblings respond to family tragedies and legacies.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

The story’s catalyst is the death of Greta’s brother, Felix, presumably from AIDS, in 1985. Losing her beloved sibling plunges Greta into a depression so debilitating that her doctor recommends electroconvulsive therapy. She consents and, upon waking from the first treatment, finds herself in a different time, 1918. Excepting the year, everything about her life is the same—her family, address, lover, even her depression, though its source differs. In 1918, Felix is alive, but his life is a lie. To treat her 1918 depression, Greta is prescribed electroshock therapy, prompting a journey to another parallel life in 1941, which invites new challenges.

Greta longs to “fix” each of the worlds she inhabits, to make them more whole, more in keeping with the idealized outcomes she desires, for herself and her brother. But her best intentions cannot be realized before their time, or perhaps ever. Her struggle, and Felix’s, is to recognize and work within the parameters of the governing systems, acknowledging that, while pain and loss are ever present, their sting can be mediated.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I know, I know. In the popular imagination, Pride and Prejudice is held up primarily for its romantic, not sibling, ideals. But against the backdrop of the adaptation-worthy marriages between Elizabeth and Darcy and Jane and Bingley, the relationships among five very different sisters play out—sweet, even-tempered Jane, lively, strong-willed Elizabeth, leaden Mary, and flighty Lydia and Kitty.

Their rivalries, frustrations, and critiques along with mutual affection, protection, and support illuminate a timeless truth about siblinghood: Growing up together offers no guarantees of shared mannerisms, behaviors, or even values. But the bonds among siblings are not so easily broken.

Sally Allen is the founder and editor of Books, Ink

Top Ten Books for Parenting Children With Disabilities

Top Ten Books for Parenting Children With Disabilities

Special Needs Art !These ten books all make two similar points: 1) Your child is more than a syndrome or symptoms or disability, and 2) Navigating the bureaucracy associated with having a child with a disability is challenging. In their own ways, these memoirs and advice books provide advice and comfort not just to parents whose children share a similar issue, but to all. Lessons about self-reliance and acceptance are important for all kids.

These books were published in this century, which makes sense given that we know so much more about how young brains and bodies develop than we ever have before. All of them also talk about similar acronyms like IDEA, IEE, and 504. While some of the books focus on just one special need (like autism or learning disabilities or genetic conditions or Down’s syndrome), together they look to the future in some way, helping children to develop into adulthood—when they will become adults with disabilities, a specific population two books on the list focus upon.

Be sure to consult the books for lists of resources and suggestions for further reading, and don’t let some of the scientific journal articles listed scare you off. Remember you know your child better than anyone else. Educate yourself and trust your gut.

Parenting Children with Health Issues and Special Needs by Foster Cline and Lisa Greene

This condensed version of 2007’s Parenting Children with Health Issues is a useful volume that focuses on the emotional development of ill children. While originally written for kids who have chronic medical conditions (like diabetes or cystic fibrosis), the 2009 version also includes advice for those with autism, learning disabilities, and other similar conditions. More importantly, it has advice for all parents—like nurturing self-concept and being a consultant parent rather than a drill sergeant or helicopter. The main take-away is that children need to learn to take responsibility for their own bodies and adhere to medical advice. This can happen by 4th or 5th grades, but certainly needs to happen by high school. Parents can let children choose when to do treatments, but not if; banking lots of smaller choices means parents can sometimes cash in bigger requests or respond with, “I love you too much to argue.”

A Good and Perfect Gift: Faith, Expectation, and a Little Girl Named Penny by Amy Julia Becker

I dare you to read this book and not tear up several times at the rawness of Becker’s emotion in describing her relationship with her first-born, Penny. The Beckers faced an unusual situation in this day of prenatal testing: they were surprised when their daughter was born with Down’s syndrome. A Good and Perfect Gift chronicles how Amy Julia and her husband, along with their families, friends, and students, come to understand Penny and what she adds to their communities. Published by a Christian Press there is quite a lot of religiously-motivated discussion, but for those unfamiliar with this point of view it won’t distract from the larger messages of the book. Becker finds that Penny having Down’s syndrome was hardest to deal with in the abstract, but once they were in a room together she became nothing more than their wonderful daughter who happens to have an extra chromosome. The lessons about pity versus compassion will help all of us who know someone with a special needs child.

The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son by Ian Brown

The Boy in the Moon is Canadian journalist Ian Brown’s lyrical memoir about his son, Walker. Walker suffers from a rare orphan genetic syndrome (meaning it comes out of nowhere), labelled Cardiofaciocutaneous (CFC). Given the small numbers who have it not much research is devoted to studying CFC, and as Brown soon learns he often knows more about it than the pediatricians he sees (as do the other parents with CFC children he meets and stays connected with via the Internet). This is partly because, as Brown describes, “High-tech medicine has created a new strain of human beings who require superhuman care. Society has yet to acknowledge this reality, especially at a practical level.” Yet, parents will see themselves in the constant fights Brown and his wife have over who is getting more sleep (though their fight goes on for 11 years). Brown’s story reminds us that we all need to be advocates for our children to help them develop the best inner and outer lives possible.

Will My Kid Grow Out Of It? A Child Psychologist’s Guide to Understanding Worrisome Behavior by Bonny J. Forrest

Dr. Forrest’s practical guide will appeal to parents who are worried their children may be depressed, autistic, ADHD, schizophrenic, or have an eating or learning disorder. While she is clear that Will My Kid Grow Out Of It? is not meant to be a substitute for professional advice, her advice is plentiful. She believes there is no downside to screening a child because a parent will either get reassurance or get early access to the resources a child needs. Forrest reminds us that, “Although one in seven children has some form of developmental disability, fewer than half the pediatricians in the country screen children for these disorders.” On top of that there are few gold standard research studies in child psychology and lots of “cures” in the popular media; she discusses these and suggests questions parents should ask when choosing professional to help children. Note this book offers a useful bibliography divided into sections like scientific journal articles, books, and websites.

Thinking Differently: An Inspiring Guide for Parents of Children with Learning Disabilities by David Flink

Like Dr. Forrest, Flink pushes testing and assessment for children because it helps families and schools build profiles that can lead to useful interventions. Flink focuses on “learning disabilities,” which are, “Generally understood to be an umbrella term for neurological difficulties in the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, express, and respond to information.” Flink himself has been diagnosed with a learning disability, dyslexia, and ADHD, and he is an expert in navigating how to use the educational system to get help. On top of that, he started a mentoring program called Eye to Eye, that links college students with LDs to middle schoolers. Flink’s own story of attending an Ivy League college, and authorship of this book, should help reassure parents that a label doesn’t define a child. His Chapter 3, “Take Action,” is especially helpful in explaining to parents the laws and evaluations that can help children access help (his discussion about whether to hire an independent evaluator or use the one the school provides is important).

Essential First Steps for Parents of Children with Autism: Helping the Littlest Learners by Lara Delmoline and Sandra L. Harris

This short book by two professors who run the Douglass Developmental Disabilities Center at Rutgers University is packed full of useful information. Each chapter starts with the story of a specific family who has a child with an autism spectrum disorder and ends with a list of further reading and resources related to that chapter whether it be on self-help skills or play. Delmoline and Harris write that 20-30 years ago it would have been unlikely to get a diagnosis for a child under three, and usually not until five or six. But with powerful interventions, like Applied Behavior Analysis, younger children can benefit greatly. The authors emphasize though that any intervention needs to be done by a trained professional who should know just as much about what treatments haven’t worked as those that have. A focus on your individual child and data on him or her is also vital to seeing changes in child’s performance and behavior—so parents, start taking notes!

The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Stock Kranowitz

Sensory processing disorder is seen as a new definition of an old problem. Until recently it was often overlooked, except by occupational therapists who are most effective in helping children with a range of sensory processing issues. Like other authors on this list, Kranowitz is a strong advocate for early intervention—even recognizing that insurance doesn’t always cover the cost of therapy, mainly because the disorder still isn’t included in the latest DSM. Regardless of whether your child has sensory issues, or other medical needs, you should read the section in Chapter 8 on how to build a relationship between a therapist and child (hint: emphasize that it’s fun). Kranowitz presents many checklists and questionnaires throughout the comprehensive book, but her images are also useful, like saying we should think of sensory processing disorder like indigestion of the brain and just like an antacid soothes, kids need occupational therapy to smooth their neural pathways.

The Complete Guide to Creating a Special Needs Life Plan: A Comprehensive Approach Integrating Life, Resource, Financial, and Legal Planning to Ensure a Brighter Future for a Person with a Disability by Hal Wright

Eventually many children with special needs develop into adults with special needs. Hal Wright is a Certified Financial Planner who has a daughter with Down’s syndrome. This book deals with various forms of planning, but the sections on financial and legal planning are especially useful. Wright talks about siblings and how parents need to be fair to help all children financially, while also knowing siblings often take on other burdens related to special needs siblings. He cautions that just as state disability services “are more extensive for people with developmental disabilities than for those with mental illness or physical disabilities. There is also a greater emphasis on the needs of pre-school and school-age children than for adults.” It is up to parents to plan ahead and deal with the practical intricacies as children become adults and this book acts as a sueful guide.

Parenting an Adult with Disabilities or Special Needs: Everything You Need to Know to Plan for and Protect Your Child’s Future by Peggy Lou Morgan

If Wright’s book focuses on the practicalities of having an adult child with special needs, Morgan’s book focuses on the actual caring issues. She writes, “All parents deal with the sometimes-paralyzing question of what happens to adult children when we can no longer be there for them. While legal documents are very important, they may not prepare caregivers, nominated representatives, or others to understand someone who may not be able to communicate his needs directly.” For Morgan the title of Chapter 3 says a lot, “Loneliness is the Only Real Disability.” She explains that even service dogs can be helpful, though many residential homes don’t allow them. Nonetheless creating social connections important for special needs kids/adults—especially if parents are not able to be around much, if at all. The sample caregiver’s manual in the appendices is important for anyone working on this daunting task.

Touchpoints Birth to Three: You Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development by T. Berry Brazelton and Joshua Sparrow

You might be surprised to find a book on this list that focuses on “typical” developmental milestones. But many parents of special needs kids express, as Becker does in A Good and Perfect Gift, that it can be helpful in a way to see in what ways a child is attaining milestones at around the right time (could be verbal if physical is a problem, or vice versa). Touchpoints recognizes not only development forward, but also regression at certain times. While “touchpoints” are universal, “driven by predictable sequences of early brain development,” they obviously don’t always apply to all. Part 2 discusses various challenges to development in alphabetical order, including allergies and asthma, developmental delays hypersensitivity, and speech, language, and hearing problems. So some special needs parents may learn a bit, but they will also benefit from discussion of other issues like divorce, television, etc. In the end, a book like this reminds us that each child is an individual and not just a symptom, disorder, or disease.

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture


Top 10 Books on Children and Sleep

Top 10 Books on Children and Sleep

By Hilary Levey Friedman

003_Zappier_5126 copy

I’ve always been jealous of people who seem to be able to exist on five or six hours of sleep each night. I regularly need at least eight and while I know how important sleep is for my brain and my body—two authors on this list refer to it as nutrition for your brain—I can’t help but wonder what I could do with those extra hours of wakefulness. While pregnant, and petrified of what sleep deprivation might do to me, I actually avoided books about infant sleep. Plus, as we know, the advice is often contradictory! The one thing I did do was watch the DVD of The Happiest Baby on the Block (during which my husband fell asleep). Dr. Harvey Karp’s advice made intuitive sense to me so I decided to stop there.

Thankfully I was able to help my children become good sleepers rather quickly, so after the fact I became fascinated by sleep for children, reading books for newborns and beyond. While newborn sleep is a source of desperation and debate for many, and advice is often contradictory, most books agree on several points, like cautioning against co-sleeping in bed at the newborn stage and the importance of consistency and routine. On other points they routinely disagree, like about white noise (super important they say, but then disagree on what type), dream/slumber feeding, etc. While most books on children’s sleep focus on infants, it’s important to remember that while it is the foundation, sleep remains enormously important through childhood and adolescence as the brain continues to develop. The brain and sleep are intimately linked, as the best of the books below explain. I recommend you take a look at these after a good night’s rest…

Snooze… Or Lose! 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits by Helene Emsellem

Choosing to start a list like this with the issue of adolescent sleep might surprise you. Most parents usually worry most about infant sleep. But it’s for just this reason that I lead with Snooze… Or Lose! Learning good sleep habits is very important for all of childhood, but once puberty hits bodies change, along with the brain. Emsellem clearly explains that teens don’t stay up late just to defy you or exert their independence; instead, due to the delayed daily release of melatonin it is actually difficult for them to fall asleep before midnight. Combine that with earlier than ever high school start times, 24/7 connectedness, and competitive academic and extracurricular environments, and you have the recipe for tired, grouchy teens. Emsellem’s advice concerns children aged 11-22 and she describes how to determine if your child has a severe sleep issue, what treatments are available (light therapy and melatonin pills), and how you can take action to get school start times later. She describes the work of a group of parents in Wilton, Connecticut to get school start times later (fun fact, this town is the home base for Brain, Child!)

The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp

When people ask me to recommend one book to new and expectant parents, this is my go-to title. The Happiest Baby on the Block specifically addresses the first three months of your child’s life, what Dr. Karp terms the “fourth trimester.” He entertainingly explains why humans have children at nine months rather than at twelve, grounding his argument about brain size in evolutionary and anthropological research. The sentiment and tone of the book is captured here: “The hard work of imitating the uterus was the price our Stone Age relatives accepted in exchange for having safer early deliveries. However, in recent centuries, many parents have tried to wriggle out of this commitment to their babies.” In order to imitate the uterus until an infant becomes less like a fetus and more like a baby, Karp lays out a plan based on the 5 S’s: swaddle, side/stomach, shhh, swing, and suck. You need to get the calming reflex just so for it to work, but when you do it’s like your crying baby has flipped a switch.

Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child by Marc Weissbluth

Dr. Weissbluth of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine is a grandfatherly figure when it comes to infant sleep. Nearly every book on this list recommends his book, originally published in 1987 and most recently updated in 2009. Weissbluth popularized the term “sleep training,” though of course not everyone agrees on when that training should begin (though most exhausted parents agree that at some point it must happen). Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child is the longest book on this list, with nearly 500 pages of advice, so you will want to keep it handy as a reference and not as bedtime reading. The 2009 edition discusses sleep issues past infancy and toddlerhood, but with only 30 pages covering the ages of 3-18 you will want to turn to others for additional advice. [Note that the dearth of good advice on sleep for those aged 6-13 is noticeable across the board.] If you have twins, Dr. Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins, also published in 2009, is a must read.

Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber

In some circles the real “F” word is “Ferberize.” Despite critics, Dr. Ferber’s 1985 book has become the all-time best-selling book on infant sleep. The most recent 2006 edition continues to focus on newborns and the practice of gradual “extinction” to help children sleep through the night. While the Ferber method has often been boiled down to a few paragraphs, or even three letters if you read many Internet sites (“CIO,” or “Cry It Out”) this hundreds-of-pages book is obviously far more nuanced. My children’s pediatrician, Jeffrey Zaref, astutely says of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, “Dr. Ferber’s book is often misquoted or misunderstood, but when read in its entirety with parent buy-in, I think it is useful and smart.” A good reminder that no matter what you have heard, it is best to read a book yourself and come to your own conclusions while deciding what is right for your child and family.

The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley

Published in 2002 and seen as a response to the Ferber/Weissbluth methods, Pantley’s book is a direct descendant of William Sears’ work on attachment parenting (in fact, he writes the Preface). The title of this book sounds inviting, right?! Of course it’s not so simple, but many swear by Pantley’s suggestions. The main premise is that a baby should not cry alone in a crib; this is easier said than done, as Pantley admits when one of the chapters talks about a ten day plan, or longer. The method requires persistency, which can be difficult in an exhausted phase, so best to read this one before baby arrives.

On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam

This is a perennial favorite, especially among many Brain, Child readers. As the authors write, the book isn’t about giving a lists of dos and don’ts, but about preparing our minds for the task of raising a child (the authors even know that our minds change after a child arrives, so in the appendix when they provide a checklist two boxes are listed—one for when you read it before a baby arrives and one for after when you are actually trying to implement the suggestions). Baby Wise’s middle of the road approach which they link to eating and routines, and call Parent-Directed Feeding, is based on a sample of 520 families who have tried their method. Their perspective is captured in this observation, “All babies will experience the same merges, but they do not experience them at the same time.” Their analysis of previous parenting techniques, like behaviorism, will interest parents interested in social science.

The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You) by Janet Krone Kennedy

Several new baby sleep books are forthcoming in 2015. Of the lot I suggest The Good Sleeper for three reasons: 1) It draws on many other books on this list, 2) The science of what we know about baby brain development and scientific sleep is clearly explained, and 3) The author’s writing is clear and concise (though her matter-of-fact tone may not appeal to all readers). Kennedy’s focus on translating science into practical parenting tips is indicative of the way parenting books are moving on a variety of topics. The best summary of the philosophy of this book is captured here, “The point is that there are constant transient stressors in childhood. I consider sleep training to be one of those, but it is a stressor that has a huge positive side. The chronic stress of sleep deprivation—on the child and on the parents—creates a far more disruptive developmental environment both physically and emotionally.”

The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Baked Guide to Helping Your Baby Ge a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright

In many ways, in terms of the topics it covers—napping, nighttime sleep, typical routines, etc.—The Happy Sleeper is like many other baby sleep books. What sets it apart is that it is an up-to-date sleek version without too many words on the page, good illustrations and helpful highlighted boxes, and strategies for integrating technology; it also has a chapter on kids 2-6 making the book useful for longer. Turgeon and Wright try to stay away from controversial terms like “attachment” and “cry it out,” instead using terms like “attunement,” “soothing ladder,” and “sleep wave.” Like Book #9, The Happy Sleeper encourages parents not to interfere with babies too much because they are built to sleep and we should enable that rather than stand in the way. Helpful chapters in this book include chapters on parents’ sleep (trust me, there’s nothing worse than your 6-month-old sleeping through the night when you can’t!) the science of sleep, and tips on daylight savings time and time zone adjustments.

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang

This book isn’t just about sleep—in fact, only Chapter 7, “Beautiful Dreamer, Ages Birth to Nine Years,” is. But this a very smart book, based in science research and writing, that will help you think about other developmental stages as well (I especially like the chapters on music and sports). Moreover, the authors are one of the few to address sleep during elementary school-aged children as well. As such the focus is on the scientific link between sleep and learning, like this sentence exploring why infants sleep so much, “The intense need for sleep early in life may be related to its importance in facilitating learning.” Although, as with the rest of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, the message is not to stress too much as your child’s brain will almost always raise itself. You will find words like “suprachiasmatic nucleus” and “corticotropin-releasing hormone” here, but also familiar ones like naps and dreams.

Good Night Books for Kids

Even if none of the above work for you, or you decide to never read a sleep book, you and your family will almost certainly come to have a favorite goodnight book or two. We have consistently loved The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton (I can recite it on command, trust me) and Time for Bed by Mem Fox. Good Night Moon also remains a perennial favorite. Bedtime is a wonderful time to establish family reading habits and rituals—ones that most likely will be passed on to future generations. And if all else fails you can always seek out Adam Mansbach’s new classic, Go the F**k to Sleep…

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. You may also like her review of Where Children Sleep.

Ten Novels Featuring Strong Mothers

Ten Novels Featuring Strong Mothers

Landline | [Rainbow Rowell]Book cover for Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

By Sally Allen

Ideally, the holiday season is a month-long celebration of family and community, love and renewal. The reality can be … a little bit different. In those moments when the holiday rush creeps ever closer, it might help to remember that reading is, famously, an excellent stress reliever and an even better teacher.

As to the later, visiting with some of literature’s strong mothers might be just the thing to provide perspective, clarity, and a metaphorical cleansing breath. The following 10 books all feature mothers who juggle competing demands, wrestle with ideals versus reality, and make difficult choices, often under impossible conditions.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Rowell’s most recent novel happens to be eminently suitable for this time of year: The story takes place in the week leading up to Christmas. Los Angeles-based comedy television writer Georgie McCool plans to head to her husband Neal’s Nebraska hometown for the holidays with their two daughters. But one week out, she receives the opportunity of a lifetime: Her own show. The catch? She and her writing partner must produce four scripts in 10 days.

Stay-at-home dad Neal, once a comic illustrator/writer and aspiring oceanographer, refuses to cancel the trip and leaves with their girls. Brooding and anxious that his departure may not be temporary, Georgie retreats to her mother’s house, where she discovers an old rotary phone that connects her to Neal … in 1998, the year the couple wrestled with whether to continue their relationship or part ways for good. As modern-day Georgie revisits old battlegrounds with 1998 Neal, she is reminded of the compromises both have made, forcing her to reckon with their choices and question the 1998 breakup-that-wasn’t. Underlying the tender exploration of what a grown-up relationship looks like lie the unsettling implications of undoing the past that Georgie confronts as a mother: What if I had never had my children?

Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Bowers

Wartime experiences are recounted in this epistolary novel set on the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands and in London during and after World War II. The story begins with Guernsey resident Dawsey seeking a book recommendation. He finds the name and address of one Julie Ashton inscribed on the inside cover of a book and writes to her for help. An author seeking the subject of her next book, Juliet is drawn into his story of a wartime literary society, and the two continue exchanging letters. Their correspondence pulls in a diverse, quirky, and loveable cast of characters who participated in the eponymous Society, which bloomed from a moment of desperation. Caught out past curfew after an illicit pig roast, the islanders invented the group’s existence as an explanation then turned it into a reality.

The novel explores the power, pleasure, and consolation of reading and community, but motherhood also figures into the story, in two significant ways. On the eve of the anticipated Nazi landing, Guernsey political leaders requested ships from England to evacuate the island’s children. Without knowing what was to come, mothers were asked to make an impossible decision whether their children would be safer in the arms of strangers or at home. A second, more substantial, subplot features the relationship between Juliet and a war orphan with whom she develops a deep bond, inviting us to define motherhood not only by blood but also by choice.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

A family in crisis embarks on a two-week vacation to Mallorca in Straub’s summer hit (which may evoke pleasing memories of warmer days for those of us living in cold states). The trip, planned as a celebration of Jim and Franny’s 35th wedding anniversary, takes on quite a different hue by departure day: Jim has been fired from his magazine job for an offense revealed halfway through the novel by Franny, a journalist with an extravagant spirit. Their daughter Sylvia has just graduated high school and has her own agenda for the vacation, while son Bobby brings his much older girlfriend, Carmen, who none of the family particularly likes. Rounding out the group of travelers are Franny’s best friend Charles and his husband Lawrence.

Though there are surprises in store, this is not a plot-driven novel; it travels deep into the inner lives of the characters and the dynamics among them. Straub moves in and out of the consciousness of each player, often hitting on emotional truths with pathos and a generous dose of biting wit. At the heart of the group and, arguably, the story is Franny, whose strong opinions about family and motherhood give mothers much to consider.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

When it comes to strong mothers in literature, Mrs. March—the mother of Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth in Alcott’s American classic—always makes the cut and is usually at the head of the class. Raising her four daughters alone while her husband serves as a chaplain in the Union army during the Civil War, she devotes her time to charitable causes, takes food off her own spare table to feed others with greater needs, and provides firm but gentle counsel to her girls. The only potential downside to Marmee (as she is affectionately known to her daughters) as a role model is that she sets the bar so darn high!

But we can take heart from remembering that Marmee’s good sense comes from self-reflection and correction, revealed after Jo, furious with Amy for burning Jo’s book, nearly lets Amy drown. As Jo tearfully confesses her fear that her temper will lead to devastating consequences if she doesn’t learn to control it, Marmee reveals her own life-long struggle to manage her quick temper. This self-disclosure is an inspiring reminder that we can strive to be our best selves, even when it’s most difficult and even though we won’t be perfect.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The title refers to the many lives of Ursula Todd, who we meet at her birth in 1910. Ursula’s first shot at life ends before it has a chance to begin: She is stillborn. But never mind that. Ursula is born again and again and again and … well, you get the picture. With each return, Ursula carries intuitive knowledge that helps her navigate the influenza outbreak of 1918, married life (and not), and World War II, providing quite a panoramic view of major events of the early 20th century.

Life After Life also provides a broad view of motherhood through snapshots of Sylvie Todd, Ursula’s mother. We see Sylvie as first a vibrant, idealistic young girl embarking on married life with her dashing husband, then as a young mother enchanted by her tiny charges, then devastated by two deaths in her family. Sylvie’s transformation, though not the centerpiece of the novel, encapsulates the questions at the heart of the novel (and of motherhood) about the implications of our choices and how to move forward in an imperfect world.

Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Chock full of unexpected twists, Oyeyemi’s novel is a revision of “Snow White” set in mid-20th century New England. The eponymous Boy is a 20-year girl when she flees her abusive father (her mother is absent) in New York circa 1953. She lands in Flax Hill, Mass., where she meets and eventually marries the widowed Arturo Whitman, whose daughter Snow enchants everyone she meets, including Boy.

The happy idyll is broken after Boy gives birth to her own daughter, Bird, and a secret is revealed: The Whitmans are African-Americans passing as white. Troubled by how light-skinned Snow and dark-skinned Bird may be compared to one another, Boy sends her light-skinned stepdaughter away to live with Arturo’s sister, Clara, banished by her family because she was too dark to pass. Boy’s decision—a turn from the expected, indefensible, but born of fierce motherly over-protectiveness—has far-reaching repercussion on both girls in this charged, powerful, and lyrical examination of conceptions of beauty and their perils, one that mothers of daughters may find particularly compelling.

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

The page-turner of a novel follows Judd Foxman after his marriage implodes—he walks in on his wife and boss in flagrante delicto—and his father has died. Judd’s mother announces that his father’s request was for the family to sit shiva for him, in Jewish tradition, seven days of mourning during which family members receive mourners wishing to pay their respects. Besides Judd, there are Wendy (who is married to Barry the stereotypical hedge fund guy), Paul (who runs the family business and is struggling to conceive with his wife Alice), and Phillip (the youngest and the family screw up).

Old wounds resurface and rivalries resume over the seven days, along with quite a few gobsmacking revelations. Tropper balances tragedy with hilarity owing largely to punchy sentences, witty dialogue, and at times painfully precise descriptions. And while this is largely Judd’s story, motherhood provides a compelling undercurrent, as Judd’s domineering mother presides over the proceedings, and his sister-in-law goes to disturbing lengths to conceive.

The Bees by Laline Paull

Set in a beehive (yes, you read that correctly), this wildly imaginative novel follows worker bee Flora 717. Flora is born a “sanitation” bee, the lowest caste tasked with serving the needs of the high priority hive dwellers. With a combination of passion and luck, she rises improbably through the ranks to the vaunted role of “forager,” battling wasps, inclement weather, randy drones, and the rigid class system demanded of the bee community.

So how does motherhood fit into this story? In the hive, only the Queen is permitted to reproduce, and the offspring of any other bees, as well as their mothers, are destroyed, quite grotesquely. Without spoiling the plot too much, one of Flora’s transgressions of the social order includes becoming a mother, and she goes to dramatic lengths to protect her offspring. Readers who make it to the end of this novel are rewarded with a satisfying twist that speaks to the power of maternal devotion.

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke

This complex murder mystery follows Caren Gray, the general manager of an antebellum plantation maintained as a historic site, who is also a descendent of the slaves who worked its fields, and the mother of preteen Morgan. At the story’s outset, the body of a murdered migrant worker is found on the plantation’s grounds, inviting parallels to the 137-year old unsolved murder of one of Caren’s ancestors. Drawn into the investigation, Caren is forced to grapple with her distant and recent pasts and their implications on her daughter’s future.

In addition to being a page-turner on the strength of the plotting, Locke’s novel asks difficult but important questions that defy easy answers—about the conditions migrant workers endure, about what makes a family, and about how much of our history we need to hold on to and what we might need to let go.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

Moriarty has deservedly made a name for herself crafting equal parts cutting, hilarious, and heartbreaking portraits of suburban life that revolve around mommyhood. Her latest begins explosively, with a brawl at an elementary school’s fundraising event and the death of a (unnamed) parent. The story then rewinds six months to the chance meeting of three kindergarten moms, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, whose growing bonds of friendship set the tragic events at the fundraiser in motion.

Brassy Madeline is juggling the needs of a blended family: Her husband Ed and their two children, her ex-husband Nathan and their teenaged daughter, who is growing ever closer to her stepmother Bonnie, and Nathan’s young daughter with Bonnie, who will be in the same kindergarten class as Madeline and Ed’s daughter. Meanwhile, Celeste’s perfect life with her husband and twin sons is not the gilded fantasy it appears, and young single mom Jane is hiding a dark secret about her son Ziggy’s parentage. After mild-mannered Ziggy is accused of bullying, battle lines between Madeline, Celeste, and Jane and a rival group of mothers are drawn, and Moriarty leads us up to and through the ill-fated fundraiser while exploring how far a mother will—or should—go to protect and support her children.

Sally Allen is the founder and editor of Books, Ink.


Top Ten Nonfiction Books for Thinking Mothers

Top Ten Nonfiction Books for Thinking Mothers

By Hilary Levey Friedman

details-of-huckfin-npr-650Any list like this is inherently idiosyncratic—unless you go by sales numbers it’s hard to find the perfect metric by which to create a Top Ten. You could go by number of times a book is cited by other authors (that’s the academic sociologist in me), or its reviews, but those nunbers can’t capture the way a parenting book can give you an a-ha! moment or make you reevaluate a parental decision.

This list for Brain, Child’s store is thematic, covering issues that arise at different stages of the parenting game, mindful that much of the “Parenting” section of the bookstore is dominated by infancy and toddlerhood. We can’t forget about our school-age kids and those teenagers! You will find below a mix of books—recent, classic, bestseller, academic, oft-recommended—and my hope is that at least one of them will make you think more deeply about this crazy thing we do call parenting.

Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster

Reviewed in the Fall 2013 issue of Brain, Child this book caused a firestorm by suggesting drinking during pregnancy can be ok (in moderation!), but don’t let the controversy dissuade you. This book covers many of the pregnancy “classics” (like What to Expect) by evaluating their claims while giving soon-to-be moms the tools to make the decisions that work best for them. Guidelines are suggested, but aren’t set in stone. Oster reviews the relevant medical literature and evaluates the research that went into the studies, starting with fertility and ending in the post-natal rooms. You don’t have to understand statistics, but an interest in numbers will help as you read the straightforward prose. Expecting Better is a useful tool for women of child-bearing age and it certainly is a pregnancy book geared for thinking mothers-to-be that reflects the trend toward evidence-based medicine and evidence-based parenting.

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz

Historian Steven Mintz’s comprehensive tour through childhood in the US—starting with the Puritans and ending with twenty-first century techno-savvy kids—may appear overwhelming (no, the hardcover is not actually a doorstop, though it could double as one). But it’s a very thoughtful, straightforward, and obviously thorough take on how childhood as a time of innocence has developed over time. It should reassure parents that for the past three centuries each generation has believed that the succeeding one is more violent and sexual and less respectful and knowledgeable, and that concerns about technology persist whatever type of media develops, yet somehow we continue to make progress. Each chapter can be read and digested in its own time while still preserving the overall message that a carefree childhood has always been a myth in America, though it is still worth striving for today.

Diaper-Free Before 3: The Healthier Way to Toilet Train and Help Your Child Out of Diapers Sooner by Jill Lekovic

We spend a lot of time worrying about the inputs for our kids, but what about the outputs? Lekovic is a pediatrician and mom of three who offers sensible advice about potty training while also educating the reader about how this practice has changed over time. I actually enjoyed Chapter 2, “Life Before Disposable Diapers,” more than the eminently reasonable and effective advice she offers. Lekovic reminds us that disposable diapers that take away the feeling of wetness may be incredibly convenient in our busy lives, but kids are quite capable of doing it sooner (and she proves this by talking about how this works in other countries around the world). Her no pressure method, which can be thought of as exposure, also takes into account children with special needs. A rare book that I encourage every parent I know to consider.

The Portable Pediatrician: A Practicing Pediatrician’s Guide to Your Child’s Growth, Development, Health, and Behavior from Birth to Age Five by Laura Walther Nathanson

We all need that general reference guide to consult when we are worried about a certain behavior or icky rash. This book by mother and pediatrician (who has been through hundreds of thousands of office visits) more than fits the bill. Nathanson writes compassionately but tells us what we need to know. Originally published in 1994 and revised in 2002, the book stands the test of time as an informed, common-sense guide to parenting. It’s notable that the books starts in weeks, moves on to months, and then years and each section gets longer as you as a parent have more time to actually sit down and read as time progresses. As with most parenting books like this, it’s best to read ahead before Junior arrives (I did up to 6 weeks) which allows you to know what to expect and catch up later!

The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel

Don’t worry if you aren’t Jewish—you don’t have to be to appreciate the wisdom and beauty of Mogel’s book, a perennial favorite among thoughtful parents since its release in 2001. Mogel was a practicing psychologist who left her practice after “finding” religion, along with finding a way to translate lessons of spirituality to today’s busy families. You won’t find statistics or lots of research in this book, but you will find a meditative take on what ails so many children and parents today. The three main principles she talks about are moderation, celebration, and sanctification and she uses nine blessings as chapters to communicate this message to all parents encouraging parents to let their children fail, work, and just be ordinary. More recently Mogel released a follow-up focused on teens entitled, The Blessing of B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers.

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

NurtureShock is a great example of the type of parenting book that resonates today. Bronson and Merryman are journalists (note that this is one of only two books on this list not written by a PhD or an MD) and they take scientific research and package it in a counter-intuitive way that makes people stop and think. They also take an extreme position to attract attention and then add nuance later; for example, the introduction starts with the statemnt, “Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark.” Bronson and Merryman’s writings on praise (why it’s bad for kids) in particular have made a big impression. It is unclear if NurtureShock will remain a popular parenting book 10-20 years from now, but for moms and dads today who want to inform their parenting with research this is a mainstay in home libraries.

The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren by Peter and Iona Opie

This is an oldie, but a goodie—and not one you will find on a lot of top parenting lists, but it is definitely worth a read. Originally published in 1959 it is based on the research of a husband-and-wife team in the UK. The Opies, professors of literature and essentially folklorists, did something path-breaking: they observed children and took their play seriously. What’s interesting for parents today is captured in Iona’s preface to the 1968 edition, “Yet all in all children continue to regulate their own society, and defend themselves against the constant threat of boredom, with much the same code of law and style of humor as they did thirty—or indeed, a hundred—years ago.” The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren reminds us that children are their own beings who create and navigate complicated social worlds, and the way they do so is worthy of respect and understanding.

The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become by Dalton Conley

During my second pregnancy I searched for books about raising siblings and couldn’t find any great how-to books. In the end, I returned to Conley’s book on siblings. Conley is a sociologist and he talks a lot about the research, but livens it up with personal examples. His discussion of twin studies is the most research heavy and while they are important it’s the color provided by interviews with nearly 200 siblings that gives a more nuanced picture. Among the more interesting discussions in The Pecking Order are that the number of children in a family matters much more than birth order and that there is more inequality within families than across them. Status hierarchies form in every family, often around birth order but also around sex and natural talents, so thinking about the way that impacts children and less about birth order is helpful while trying to raise siblings effectively.

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

Many parents refer to this 30+-year-old book as “The Parenting Bible.” It is one of five books written by the team of Faber and Mazlish and you likely have heard of at least one of their other books (their first was Liberated Parents/Liberated Children and their other immensely popular book is Siblings Without Rivalry along with How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk). Faber and Mazlish are revered by parents for helping adults understand that they need to recognize their children’s emotions and feelings. This is the core theme of all of their work and they use a technique to personalize this in their work that involves the reader completing exercises. They also include cartoons and a single-voice conversational style that can be confusing at times, though they are clearly effective overall. Note that the 30th anniversary edition includes an afterword by Adele Faber’s daughter who has joined the family business.

The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids by Madeline Levine

Levine’s influential book about the challenges facing middle- and upper-middle class teens today is comprehensive in that it discusses relevant research (namely Suniya Luthar’s work on difficulties facing advantaged teenagers), personal experiences (as a mom and as a therapist in an affluent San Francisco suburb), and offers advice to parents on how to help their children through these difficult and formative years. Levine has gone on to write more on how to help teenagers become well-adjusted adults (see the review of Teach Your Children Well in the Summer 2013 issue of Brain, Child), but in a nutshell the best advice to come from The Price of Privilege is that time and not money or things matters the most—even if your teen doesn’t always want to talk. Don’t pressure them, just be there, and hopefully in time the alarming statistics about increases in substance abuse, self-injury, and suicide will decrease among more affluent children.

Rare Bird: An Excerpt

Rare Bird: An Excerpt

An excerpt from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson

anna jack vbs hugI wonder how much to share. I want to be honest about what the first days of early grief are like, yet I don’t want to be cruel. That’s why I don’t think I can move forward in this story if I don’t first tell you what happens when I eventually see Mrs. Davidson in the grocery store.

The grocery store is the absolute worst, most hellish place for me to be after Jack’s accident. Far worse than seeing the ridiculous, empty joke of a creek everyday or driving over the drain pipes or sitting on his bed surrounded by his things but with no Jack. Or even church, where my raw emotions are right on the surface, always, threatening to pour out when I’m just trying to make it through the hour and get back to my car.

The grocery store trumps them all.

When you spend years trying to get two underweight, picky eaters to eat something, anything, every section holds a memory. The dairy case reminds me of the years when all they wanted to eat was cheese. Chicken noodle soup reminds me of tummy bugs and, later, sore teeth from braces. Dill pickles remind me of the time Jack and I froze the pickle juice left in the jar to make a giant “picklesicle” for him. I stagger through the aisles, throwing things in the cart, the pain leaking out in tears, as I try to figure out how to shop for our new reality. It’s where I buy Old Spice body wash for a boy who no longer needs it. I’ll wash myself with it every day, just so I can smell him sometimes.

Yet this place of pain is also where, months after the accident, I see my childhood neighbor, Mrs. Davidson. Her son Kenny died in a car accident at age nineteen, over twenty years ago when I was away at college. I recognize her instantly from her jet-black hair and bright red lipstick. It’s as if she hasn’t aged at all, while I feel like I’m at least 150 years old.

I’m nervous about saying something, but I know, just know, that I must ask her a question. I’m afraid she won’t remember me or won’t have heard about Jack, and I’ll have to tell her about the accident, right here in the middle of Giant Foods.

But in the cereal aisle, burdened by Frosted Mini-Wheats and Reese’s Puffs, but emboldened by desperation and pain, I stop Mrs. Davidson and re-introduce myself to her. She has heard about Jack. I tell her I have a question. “I just have to know: Does it get better?” Without hesitating for even a second, Mrs. Davidson answers,”Oh yes!” I think, even in my shattered condition, I would be able to see through her if she’s lying to me. Her answer is quick. Confident. Assured.

It’s not as if she says it is easy, surviving the death of a child. I’m not stupid enough to ask her that and would call bullshit if anyone dared try to convince me that “easy” is even possible. But there she is, still coloring her hair and putting on her signature lipstick after all these years. Still grocery shopping, which I now know should never be taken for granted. And she confidently asserts that it does get better.

Mrs. Davidson and I are not close. I doubt that we’ll ever see each other again, but I need to share her “Oh yes!” right now because if we are going to look at what the days and months are like following Jack’s death, spending time with these snapshots of grief, if we are going to take brave steps together into the confusion of losing what we love the most, doesn’t it help to hear from the outset that somehow, in some way, it does get easier?

And it’s true. I can assure you, looking back on those days and months now, it does get better.

But not before it gets worse.

*   *   *

As I write about what those days and weeks are like, the what seems less important than the how. How does one wake up the next day and the next? How do you force yourself to breathe and to eat when both seem disgusting and ridiculous? How do you keep from losing your mind? How do you live knowing the dirty secret that most moms try to stave off as long as possible if they ever face it at all—that control is an illusion?

Because despite my attempts to follow my mother’s example and relax and trust God with my kids, I’d clung to a belief that I could somehow control our futures if I just tried hard enough. And if my solo efforts weren’t enough, there was always God. Surely God could see how we wanted to live our lives for Him. How we had formed our family around loving and serving Him. And praying.

Jack was well prayed for. That he would be healthy and grow. That he would make true friends.That others could see in him what we did. That he would know his own worth. Prayers of courage. Prayers of protection. Was it all a crock?

We made sure we were in church every single week. Not because we believed in getting credit for good behavior, but because we wanted our kids to understand our house was built on something bigger than ourselves, on the solid rock of God, not the shiftings and of money, status, or busyness that was so valued in our society.

Now I can’t shake the image we have on video of three-year-old Jack singing his Sunday school song with motions, some of his r’s coming out more like w’s in his little-boy voice: “The wain came down and the floods came up. The wain came down and the floods came up. The wain came down and the floods came up, and the house on the rock stood firm.”

How will our house stand in this flood?


RARE BIRD Cover Art FinalExcerpted from Rare Bird by Anna Whiston-Donaldson Copyright © 2014 by Anna Whiston-Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Book Review: The Price of Silence

Book Review: The Price of Silence

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Price of Silence coverLike Dara-Lynn Weiss before her, writing a negative piece about her child secured Liza Long a book deal. Her emotionally raw blog post, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (originally published anonymously on her blog The Anarchist Soccer Mom as “Thinking the Unthinkable”), penned in response to the Newtown shootings, quickly went viral after appearing on The Blue Review and then The Huffington Post. The reaction was extreme in both directions, with some applauding Long’s courage and identifying with her family’s struggle and others calling her an imposter and suggesting she is the one who needs mental health monitoring.

Her just-published book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, is an expansion of that polarizing post. According to the Introduction this is a book for two different audiences. The first is those families who have a child with a mental illness to let them know they aren’t alone by sharing her family’s experience. The second is for those who are “surprised to learn that one in five children in the United States has a serious and debilitating mental disorder, an audience that believes mental illness is something we still shouldn’t talk about except behind closed doors in private rooms.” The Price of Silence succeeds in addressing the latter audience more than the former.

Long is at her best when describing the labyrinth families must navigate when they have a child with a mental illness. A myriad of acronyms must be decoded, reports must be written, and parents have to accustom themselves to the idea of dealing first with administrators and educators in public schools and then with first responders like police officers before frequently turning to the juvenile justice system. Though “institutions” no longer exist (in many cases, happily so), no good system has developed to figure out how to take care of the mentally ill, especially children. Many have to enter juvenile detention and hope to stay on parole to get actual treatment at an affordable price. Long writes of parents divorcing so their child can access services with a reduced family income, and poverty in general is a big issue when it comes to children’s mental health. She explains, “In some states, this transition from school to prison is so regular that it’s been called a ‘pipeline,’ one that disproportionately affects poor children and their families.”

One of the most practical suggestions Long makes in The Price of Silence is that pediatricians need to be better trained to identify the warning signs of various forms of mental illness, and not just autism. Though it is true that there is much still unknown about the science of mental illness, more is being understood every day through new imaging techniques and DNA analysis. Because Long discusses a lot of of-the-moment research, the book might not hold up well over time. But her message that there is a complex interplay between genetics, parenting, and the environment, and her reminder that people with mental illness are usually the victims of violence (and when they are violent it is usually against themselves) ensure that The Price of Silence is an important book.

The book falls flat in describing what it is like in Long’s family, which clearly has a complicated dynamic with four children, an ex-husband, and a new partner, along with a change of family religion. She refers to an acrimonious divorce and custody battles, but doesn’t get into specifics and if anything is clear it is that the situation isn’t resolved. That murkiness dulls the larger messages of her book and it may have been more effective to limit the more personal to one chapter.

While Long’s blog post did net her a book deal, it also caused a lot of anguish as her ex-husband had their two youngest children removed from her home on the basis of the violence described. At the same time because her piece reached so many it ultimately led her to a child psychiatrist who seems to have at long last provided a diagnosis and treatment for her son. Now diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder with a “Fear of Harm” phenotype, “Michael” is doing better and spending more time with his younger siblings. In many ways Liza Long is not like Adam Lanza’s mom because she acknowledges her son’s illness and will never have guns in the house. And hopefully her message and suggestions can help other mothers avoid the sad fate of Nancy Lanza and those impacted by acts of violence by sick young men.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a sociologist and writer. You can learn more about her work at

The Good Mother Myth:  Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood to Fit Reality

By Lori Rotskoff

Good Mother MythWhy haven’t we done away with the mystique of the “perfect mother”? We know she’s a mirage.  And yet, as editor Avital Norman Nathman writes in her introduction to The Good Mother Myth, the “fabled ideal” of maternal perfection retains its power to make us feel anxious, guilty, and even depressed. The myth of the “Good Mother” reigns on screen and in print, on blogs and on Facebook, flattening the complexity of real mothers’ lives and fostering a “manufactured culture of conflict and judgment,” of second-guessing and self-doubt.

Here, Nathman gathers thirty-six personal essays that hone the raw material of maternal experience into pithy, pointed vignettes that make a strong impact on the reader.  Sometimes confessional; sometimes questioning; and frequently defiant, subversive, and bold, they challenge our understanding of what it means to be a good mother beyond stereotype and social convention.

Some writers plumb the depths of anxiety when a child faces medical problems or life-threatening situations. Parenting experts may chide “helicopter mothers” for stunting their kids’ development, but for a mother like Heather Hewett, whose daughter has severe food allergies, such hyper-vigilance is necessary.  “All parents know the fear of losing their children,” Hewett writes, but for some, controlling a young child’s environment is a daily task in which “perfection becomes an expectation.” Jessica Valenti struggled with a similar issue when her daughter was born premature and spent two precarious months in the NICU. “When I find myself scowling at some other mother’s parenting style, or even being hard on myself,” writes Valenti, “I remember that being ‘overprotective’ is … a mostly reasonable response to the oh-so-scary act of having something exist in the world that you love more than yourself.”

Of course, guilt can arise from less grave circumstances, such as how often Kraft Mac and Cheese surfaces on the dinner table. Any reader who adores her  mother’s holiday cooking will understand the import of Carla Naumburg’s confession: “I’ve never successfully roasted a chicken.  That’s right. I’m a Jewish mother who has never fried a latke or made matzah ball soup.” And let’s not forget the PTA. If you’ve ever found yourself chairing the school book fair against your better judgment, Soraya Chemaly’s trenchant analysis of the gender divide in school volunteer culture might empower you to “just say no” next time. Chemaly doesn’t denigrate the work that volunteers do; on the contrary, she criticizes the fact that female-dominated volunteer groups unintentionally de-value women’s unpaid labor, mirroring and perpetuating the wage gap and sex segregation in the broader economy.

Here, in fact, lies the book’s greatest strength:  illuminating the extent to which mothers’ choices and lifestyles are enmeshed in a broader context, too often constrained by economic insecurity, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of inequality, stigma, and discrimination. Can a woman who takes psychotropic drugs to combat bipolar depression be a “good mother?” Is a poor, teenage mother by default a “bad” one?  What about a mom who smokes pot because it gives her the “patience for just one more puzzle, one more tantrum, and a few hundred more questions” from her three-year-old? Does a filmmaker who makes erotic films about S&M qualify? How about an observantly Jewish male-to-female transsexual whose children resent her radical shift from daddy to mom?

And what about black mothers? Although the book might have profited from more African-American women’s voices, as well as Latinos and women who practice non-Western religions, T.F. Charlton’s piece speaks volumes about the insidious impact of racism and white privilege. “The myth I contend with is not that of the Good Mother, but that of the Bad Black Mother,” Charlton writes.  “It’s a myth that renders my motherhood at turns invisible and suspect…Part of my struggle is to challenge the notion that good motherhood cannot exist in bodies like mine.”

While some essays suffer from vague or familiar observations about pregnancy, childbirth, or toddler mishaps, and most lack the long-term perspective gained through parenting teenagers or young adults, this provocative book is valuable simply because it asks us to suspend preconceived judgments and absorb the stories of women whose experiences differ profoundly from one another, and from our own.  It shows us that the best way to battle the barrage of saccharine sound-bites is to arm ourselves with alternative, candid “tales from the trenches” depicting the messy, real dilemmas of real mothers in an imperfect world.

Lori Rotskoff is a cultural historian, writer, teacher, and co-editor of When We Were Free to Be:  Looking Back at a Children’s Classic and the Difference it Made (2012).

Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.


Orchards by Holly Thompson, illustrations by Grady McFerrin (Delacorte Press, 2011)

One week after
you stuffed a coil of rope
into your backpack
and walked uphill into
Osgoods’ orchard
where blooms were still closed fists

my father looked up
summer airfares
to Tokyo
I protested
it wasn’t my fault
I didn’t do anything!

my mother hissed
and made the call
to her older sister
my aunt
in Shzuoka

Thompson’s novel in verse is a first person narrative told from the point of view of Kana Goldberg, a half-Japanese, half-Jewish American teen. After the suicide of a classmate, Kana’s parents decide to send their daughter away from her clique of friends to spend the summer living at her mother’s ancestral home in Japan. Kana spends hours working in her family’s mikan orange groves and has time to process the pain and guilt she feels as she gets to know her Japanese family and participates in their daily customs and rituals.

In her guest post on Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website, Cynsations, Holly Thompson tells the story behind her writing of Orchards.


Rules by Cynthia Lord

When Cynthia Lord’s daughter asked her why she never saw families like her own portrayed in books or on television, Lord went searching for books that included children with severe special needs. While she found some, most were very sad. “Sadness is part of living with someone with a severe disability, but it’s only one part. It can also be funny, inspiring, heartwarming, disappointing, frustrating – everything that it is to love anyone and to live in any family.” This first novel reflects all of these different facets of family life.

Twelve-year-old Catherine has spent years trying to teach her autistic younger brother David “the rules,” including:

Say “thank you” when someone gives you a present (even if you don’t like it).

Not everything worth keeping has to be useful.

No toys in the fish tank.

If it’s too loud, cover your ears, or ask the other person to be quiet.

Take your shoes off at the doctor, but at the dentist leave them on.

But this summer, Catherine meets a new “sort-of” friend and she realizes the importance of thinking about others’ perspectives and that we often follow social “rules” without even knowing why.

Sparrow Road

Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011)

Author Sheila O’Connor believes “everyone has a story to tell- and that stories help us see each other’s hearts.”

When Raine arrives at the mysterious artist mansion on Sparrow Road where she and her mother are spending the summer, she has no idea why her mother has agreed to work there as a cook. “No music. No TV. No computer. No telephone. And everyday, silence until supper.” These are the rules presented to her by the brooding and iceburg-like owner, Viktor.

While Raine initially would like nothing more than to get on the next train back home, she is soon preoccupied with questions about Viktor, the artists, the orphans that once lived in the attic, and why her mother suddenly took this job out in the country.

Determined to unlock the many secrets, Raine’s search for answers becomes a story of self-discovery, a story of love, loyalty, forgiveness, and family.

Small As An Elephant

Small as an Elephant by Jennifer Richard Jacobson (Candlewick Press, 2011)

Elephants can sense danger. They’re able to detect an approaching tsunami or earthquake before it hits. Unfortunately, Jack did not have this talent. The day his life was turned completely upside down, he was caught unaware.

Eleven-year-old Jack Martel crawls out of his tent after his first night camping in Arcadia National Park to discover that his mother’s tent and their rental car are missing. Once Jack faces the reality that he has been abandoned, he tries to figure out how to find his mother and avoid being taken by the Department of Social Services. As it turns out, Jack is not a typical boy, and he is used to his mother’s unpredictable behavior when she is “spinning” out of control.

Jacobson begins each chapter with a fact or anecdote about elephants that runs parallel to Jack’s story. As the author learned in her research, elephants are maternal creatures. Even when at risk, a female will not abandon her young, and if an elephant family is destroyed due to poaching, the elephants will form new families. Although Jack feels very much alone, he discovers that like the elephants that he loves, his “family” is larger than he has imagined.

Visit the author’s website at to follow Jack’s route and learn more about the places that he visits as he searches for his mother, or submit your own story of what Jack might have experienced if his adventure had taken part in your part of the world.

In Our Mothers’ House

In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco (Philomel Books, 2009)

According to an interview with the author, Patricia Polocco, the idea for this picture book came after a visit to a fourth grade class in Texas. The students were reading aloud from essays they had written about their families. One little girl began reading about her “untraditional” family when she was rudely interrupted by a classroom assistant who said, “You sit down. You don’t come from a real family.” That night in her hotel, thinking about this child who had been bullied and embarrassed by an adult, Polacco wrote this book as a way of celebrating differences.

Told from the point of view of a girl adopted by her two mothers, Marmee and Meema, In Our Mothers’ House is a tribute to two mothers who always believed in, honored, and loved their children. The story emphasizes the love shared by family throughout the years as holidays are celebrated, traditions are created, and the family expands and welcomes another generation.

Will and his family live in our mothers’ house now. We were so pleased that it didn’t go to a stranger, and it is still a gathering place for all of us and our families. The walls still whisper our mothers’ names.

All of our hearts find peace whenever we are there…not only remembering them, but being there, together, in our mothers’ house.

A New Year’s Reunion

A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li-Qiong, illustrated by Zhu Cheng-Liang (Candlewick Press, 2011)

A New Year’s Reunion by Yu Li Quiong

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First published in 2008 in Taiwan, A New Year’s Reunion tells the story of how Maomao is reunited with her father who is coming home for New Year celebrations. While the family in this book is fictional, as the author mentions in a note at the end of the book, “there are in reality over 100 million migrant workers in China, many of whom work hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away from home, returning only once each year, for just a few days, at New Year’s.” While the story illustrates a New Year’s celebration in contemporary China, it is also portrays the love and sadness of a family separated for financial reasons.

Bringing Asha Home

Bringing Asha Home by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrations by Jamel Akib (Lee and Low Books, 2006)

On Rakhi Day, Arun wishes that he had a sister. In India, where his dad was born, sisters tie shiny bracelets on the wrists of their brothers. The bracelets are called rakhi too, just like the holiday. Brothers and sisters promise to be good to each other, and everyone eats special sweets. Arun is excited to learn that he will be getting a new baby sister. She isn’t coming from the hospital like his friend’s little sister; she is coming from India, and her name is Asha, which means “hope.” Arun and his family wait for many months and celebrate her birthday even though she is still on the other side of the world. When she finally arrives and Arun meets her at the airport, she has a special gift for her new brother.

Oh Brother

Oh Brother! by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Mike Benny (Greenwillow Books, 2008)

Even though Xavier knows that his parents are better off divorced, when Xavier’s mother remarries, it is difficult to have a new stepbrother who he thinks of as “Mr. Perfect.” In twenty poems, Nikki Grimes shows how strangers eventually become brothers. The collection concludes on a positive note with the following:

A New Song

After this year,
I’ve learned one thing:
Our family
is a song we sing,
and we can add new notes
anytime we like.

The Hello, Goodbye Window

The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norman Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Hyperion Books for Children, 2005)

In this winner of the Caldecott Medal, the window may look like a regular kitchen window, but the young narrator of the story knows that it’s not. It’s a window for greetings and goodbyes, peekaboos, making silly faces, and blowing kisses- the stuff that makes up the most important of everyday rituals. The narrator surely understands this:

When I get my own house someday
I’m going to have a special
Hello, Goodbye Window, too.
By that time I might be a Nanna myself.
I don’t know who the Poppy will be,
but I hope he can play the harmonica.

In My Heart

In My Heart

in-my-heartIn My Heart by Molly Bang (Little, Brown and Company, 2006)

When we’re apart, I miss you.
But when I look inside my heart,
I see you sitting there.
You’re with me everywhere I go!

With a gentle and playful voice and vibrant illustrations, author/illustrator, Molly Bang, reminds parents and children of the connection they share throughout a day even when they are apart.

*Consider pairing this with Georgia Heard’s heart mapping from Awakening the Heart. As she explains in her book, “It’s a poet’s job to know the interior of his or her heart.” She suggests creating a heart map of all the important things, people and places, moments and memories, happy and sad, big and little.