Updated on 07.08.11

Essential Parenting Books

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Edita asks an entertaining question: “which parenting books you found most valuable?”

I’ve read a lot of parenting books over the last several years. I’m quite deeply committed to being the best parent I can be and I want to do everything that I can to raise creative, self-reliant children who blossom into creative, self-reliant adults who feel unafraid to tackle anything that the world throws at them.

Of all of the books I’ve read on parenting, six of them really stand out for me in terms of making me think specifically about approaches and angles on parenting. These books were so profound to me that, in many ways, they also changed my approach to my own life.

SimplicityThe Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
I first read this book shortly after my first child was born, expecting to mostly be a primer on reading aloud to children along with some suggested books for each age group. It turned out to be much more than that.

The book recast the simple act of reading to children as a central part of their intellectual development, from teaching them basic verbal skills, basic reading skills, presentation skills, and eventually abstract and creative thinking. Because of those changing needs, your techniques also need to change as your child ages so you can continually challenge them intellectually. It also provides a daily opportunity to sit down and simply relate with and connect with your children.

Not only that, it also (as a secondary theme) carried the idea that reading effectively to children amounts to working on the same skill set that can make you an effective presenter to adults. The same skills – clear speaking, impromptu interactions, expressing complex ideas simply – are at work in reading to children and presenting to adults.

I actually wrote a detailed review of The Read-Aloud Handbook several years ago.

Bringing Up Geeks by Marybeth Hicks
The key realization of this book is that many of the traits that we would like to see in our own children as adults are traits that will make them appear to be a “geek,” particularly while in school. So why not embrace that idea and just go with it? Are you raising someone whose societal and intellectual success will peak in high school or will peak in adulthood?

The book’s central premise is that you should encourage your children to pursue whatever they’re passionate about, even if it’s “different,” and also be ready to help them deal with the inevitable conflicted feelings they’ll have in the culture of adolescent children, where “different” tends to be ridiculed. Encouraging conformity isn’t the answer here. Instead, the answer revolves around techniques for handling those situations effectively.

I honestly wish my parents would have had a copy of this book twenty five years ago. It might have made a profound difference on my middle school and high school years.

NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
I was given this book as a gift a few years ago, shortly after the birth of my second child. The book’s primary focus is on how, in an attempt to nurture our children and make an idyllic childhood for them, we often create adults that aren’t ready to handle the realities and demands of the real world.

The book is broken down into chapters that focus sharply on specific issues. One chapter, for example, focuses on why you shouldn’t over-praise your children and, when you do, you should praise the hard work they put in, not the result. Another chapter focuses on the value of an early bedtime, even one other parents would consider strangely early, because children tend to intellectually thrive when they get plenty of sleep. In other words, using later bedtimes as a reward is going to backfire and eventually cause worse results.

The writing is backed up by a truck load of psychological studies that support the points made, but it’s not particularly dry. Most of the ideas are translated into a very conversational style that makes this book a surprisingly quick read for the number of powerful ideas in it.

mindsetMindset by Dr. Carol Dweck
The idea behind Mindset is that there are two fundamental mindsets that people address the world with.

One is the “fixed” mindset, where someone believes that the person they are is already defined and the outcomes produced by that person are indicative of the person they are. A person with a “fixed” mindset can’t change, in other words.

The other mindset is the “growth” mindset, where people recognize that a failure isn’t necessarily a poor reflection on them. Rather, it’s an opportunity to see where exactly they fall short and what exactly they need to work on and a reminder not of where they cannot go, but an insight as to what they need to do to get there.

Obviously, a “growth” mindset leaves a person more prepared to deal with the ongoing diverse demands of the world, and the focus of Mindset is on how to cultivate that type of perspective not only within your children, but within yourself.

I actually wrote a detailed review of Mindset a few years ago.

Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The premise behind Emotional Intelligence is that we are driven much more by our emotions than we even realize, and that success in many avenues of life come from not only controlling our own emotions, but also understanding how much others are driven by emotion.

Most of the actionable ideas in this book boil down to simple skills that we often fail to practice. Listening to what the other person is saying. Being able to calm yourself down quickly when you’re upset. Giving constructive and non-hurtful feedback. Controlling your short-term desires.

Virtually everyone has problems doing these things, but with practice, all of these things do become much more natural and easy, and with that comes success in many different dimensions of life – even unexpected ones.

The biggest challenge with Emotional Intelligence is that it’s not really written from the perspective of a parent wanting to instill this in their child. Goleman co-wrote a separate volume focusing on this angle, Building Emotional Intelligence, which is sitting in my to-be-read pile as I type this.

born to buyBorn to Buy by Juliet Schor
Children are inundated with marketing messages from their infancy. It is virtually impossible to raise a child today without them being constantly faced with extremely clever marketing, from the use of toys and collectibles as an element of peer acceptance to the arrangement of packaging on the shelves of a grocery store – and don’t even get me started on television.

Born to Buy focuses on the almost shocking depth of these messages, which can deeply alter the entire worldview of a child if they’re not prepared to handle them. They can easily lead to a distorted value system and an inability to distinguish between wants and needs.

Much of this book focuses on exposing the depth of the messaging, but the latter portion of the book offers some very strong advice for minimizing the impact of media messages on your children. It was very powerful and eye-opening.

I wrote a series of posts covering Born to Buy a few years ago.

I consider these six books essential reading for any parent. If you’re a new or expecting parent, now’s the time to hit your local library or use that gift card you received at the baby shower.

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  1. Lois says:

    Wow, I wish we had had “Bringing up Geeks” about 20 yrs ago! Our oldest had such a difficult time thru her teen years because she had such a strong focus on her goals and interests (and those interests were not what other kids saw as “normal”). However, when she got to college and settled into that major area of study, she finally met a large number of like-minded kids and really started to thrive. Now she is considered cool & successful – just what we (her parents) always considered her to be :)! I would encourage, any of you with younger kids, to check out this book.

  2. Carole says:

    Even my grand children are adults now, but these books sound interesting to me. I think I’ll get them,from the library of course as any self respecting frugalite would do.

  3. Leslie Smith says:

    I highly recommend “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families” by Stephen Covey.

  4. valleycat1 says:

    My child is an adult now but I’m checking out Born to Buy from the library, a la #2 Carole. Thanks for the book list!

  5. tentaculistic says:

    Hey Trent – check out the comments at the end of the “Born to Buy” post, it has several sexual spammers’ posts that can probably use a moderator’s attention.

  6. Carrie says:

    I just finished the first two books on this list and they are awesome. I will definitely be reading the other 4 listed. Good job, Trent.

  7. Mike says:

    Do you have any recommendations for books on discipline?

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