Childhood and Society: A Book Review

Childhood and Society: A Book Review

By Julie Schwietert Collazo

Erickson cover againTwelve years ago, I was a graduate student in social work, eyeball deep reading the seminal texts of attachment and developmental theories—those ideas about how our infantile and childhood experiences set the stage (or not) for the rest of our lives and how we become (hopefully) mature adults. I could find something of value in every text, but so much of the writing was unnecessarily dense. There were some exceptions, but professors didn’t seem to give them as much weight, as if the readability of a theory was inversely proportionate to its value.

One of those exceptional texts was Childhood and Society, a book written by the German-born psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. First published in 1950 for a mainstream audience, the book nevertheless got picked up and added to developmental psychology curricula. Unlike so many of the parenting books of today, which focus on the adult’s philosophy and techniques, and how to apply these to kids, Erikson focuses on the child first. He suggests that if adults just understood the stages of human development better, they’d discover a parenting style most appropriate for their children.

Childhood and Society’s primary contribution to developmental theory is found in Chapter 7, “Eight Ages of Man.” There, Erikson lays out an idea that is remarkable in its lucidity and, in a way, revolutionary in its philosophy. He explains that human beings go through eight stages during the lifespan, and each of those stages presents us with a core need and dilemma that can frustrate our achievement of it. Resolve it, and we proceed to the next stage, well-adjusted and prepared for its challenge. Stumble or fumble, and we move forward with an earlier need left unresolved, a situation that’s likely to stymie our future efforts.

Though I wouldn’t go on to work with children, I kept Erikson’s book close at hand. It was plenty useful in my work with adults because his revolutionary idea was this: We never stop growing. It seems obvious enough, but other developmental theorists suggested that human growth “ended” when one made it through adolescence and stood on the threshold of adulthood. Even when I left social work, I found myself referencing Childhood and Society often, and when I finally had children of my own—three of them within five years—Erikson’s book enjoyed pride of place on my bedside table, thumbed through regularly, even obsessively.

This is especially true now, as my middle child approaches the age of two and has begun exhibiting epic tantrums, usually in public places. “What need is he trying to meet?” I ask myself, turning to Erikson to answer the question. The psychoanalyst is always there with a reliable answer, his Chapter 7 like a parental decoder ring. My two-year-old, he says, is entering a new phase, which he labels “Initiative vs. Guilt.” Erikson guides me into the folds of little Orion’s brain, inviting me to work on cultivating patience by empathizing wholly with me. This age is full of “dangerous potentials” (and I can imagine every single one of them as Orion flails, red-faced and raging, face-down on the sidewalk on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway). But, he notes encouragingly, “the child is at no time more ready to learn quickly and avidly, to become bigger in the sense of sharing obligation and performance….”

And this is precisely why I love Erikson so much: He is certain of his theory and the utility of its application, but he also acknowledges without judgment that shepherding a child into healthy adulthood is damn hard work, especially when you’re still working on yourself. He is empathic with both children and adults, seeming to offer warm encouragement: We’re all in this together. We need each other. We’ll be okay. Try to keep things simple… or at least don’t make them harder than they need to be.

It’s a message worth reading over and over again, which is probably why the most recent edition of Erikson’s Childhood and Society was published in 2014. Though other chapters of the book feel quite dated, especially the chapters about the childhoods of Adolf Hitler and Maxim Gorky, the core contribution of this book is evergreen, a welcome reminder and encouragement that we’re all really just trying to meet our needs the best we can and that to the greatest extent possible, we must be kind and patient with one another and ourselves in the process. Which is why I often gift this book to new parents, and keep my own dog-eared copy close at hand.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a former psychotherapist. She currently lives in NYC where she is raising her three children while working as a journalist and writer. 

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.