Parenting 101

  • The following article has been published with kind permission from Betsy Davenport originally printed in Portland Family

    Betsy Davenport for Portland Family

    Books you may have missed

    Bookstore shelves are bulging with them: parenting books. Some cover everything, or strive to; some are specific to ages or stages; some are aimed at parents with special religious or philosophical values &emdash; and all are geared to make you buy, and be persuaded.

    Spank. Don’t spank. Kids are worth it (worth it? What??). Difficult children, different children. Be the boss; be your child’s best friend.

    It can be so boggling, one wants to cast one’s eyes heavenward and shout, Would someone please make up our cultural mind, and let us know when the decision’s been made?

    There have always been kids who are as easy to strangle as hug; who put their parents on the ropes, one way or another, daily. In adults we call that persistent.

    Likewise, there are always children whose gaze on the world is so penetrating we might be relieved they say little, and we must be brave enough to look hard in the mirror when they say more.

    It used to be all right to be boisterous and energetic, the vitality of children envied by their elders; now it’s uncivilized, and unwelcome in public.

    It used to be all right to be shy, to approach with conservatism; now it’s a character flaw, a sign of low self esteem.

    Oh, really?

    When, on what day in what year, did a natural awareness that one has been born into a welcoming world where one will find room for oneself, become extinct and replaced by having to earn one’s place?

    Which month, in what season, did the taking of legitimate pride in work well done become supplanted by a kind of Right to Feel Good About Myself? And if you think there’s a contradiction there, you are correct.

    On the one hand, it’s reasonable to be, and feel, lovable simply because one is in the world; on the other, it does not entitle one to adulation or praise.

    Similarly, when we expect nothing from children, and they decline to participate in civilized, community living, we explain it by declaring them to have low self esteem. Then we change the recipe, add praise, and hope for the best.

    Self esteem, whatever it is, was probably &emdash; and thankfully &emdash; not something considered by great people in history. Think of Gandhi, Beethoven, Margaret Fell, Sojourner Truth &emdash; anyone with a recognizable name who has never been on the cover of People Magazine.

    It’s likely they had no time for self esteem; they were pretty busy doing the work they discovered they were meant to do.

    So let’s skip the feel-good stuff, and find a few books that talk about children as if they were real people with real concerns, and about the arduous job of growing up in a world which is terribly conflicted about them. And maybe we can do a little bit to preserve their best qualities, relieve some of their suffering, and hope they find their way.

    What follows is a very short, annotated list of a few lesser-knowns. If you want more, write the paper or contact me, and we can do a column like this again. There are many wonderful books in the world; these are just the ones that slid off the shelf first.

    Your Self-Confident Baby

    by Magda Gerber

    Now if that doesn’t sound goofy, what does? But read, read on, and you will find a position on parenting and respect for children presented in a readable (thank goodness!) and original style.

    Gerber describes how to convey to an infant that you understand him or her to be a real live person and not a doll or something to be carted around and done to. An infant is a bundle of raw humanity, and this book honors that and provides many examples, vignettes and how-to’s.

    When You Worry About the Child You Love

    by Edward Hallowell, MD

    Now this refers to the worry you have not once or twice, but many times in the middle of the night; the dread you feel awaiting, daily, the stories of school; the gnawing in the pit of your stomach that something is not right, that your child is not okay, not thriving, and you don’t know what to do about it.

    Dr. Hallowell has been writing about children and education (and AD/HD, and human connections) for years; this book was first printed in 1996. Worries haven’t changed, and he tells you when your worries are legitimate signs that something’s not right and needs further investigation, and when it is likely to be minor.

    Early in the book is a chapter on mental, emotional and neurological conditions parents ought to be able to recognize (kind of like we learn to recognize an ear infection, or acute chronic headache with vomiting, or a dangling arm, as serious; and a sniffle, or a superficial abrasion, as not). This book ought to be on every family’s book shelf.

    The Optimistic Child

    by Martin Seligman, PhD

    This is a fine book written by a man who noticed that many children growing up in untoward circumstances develop resiliency, optimism, and even do well in life. Curious, he went against the grain in psychology (which has usually been more fascinated with what’s going wrong than with what’s going right), and made a study of it. He concluded that just as helplessness can be learned when there is too little adversity in a child’s life, it can be learned when the challenges surpass their resources for mastery.

    But, says Seligman, an attitude of competence and capability, and resilience for a lifetime, can be learned through the careful dosing of right amounts of conquerable hardship. His writing is conversational, and he provides loads of examples of interactions and practical applications for his methods of helping kids stay on top of adversity. He’s interested in competence. The air feels better already.

    The Moral Intelligence of Children

    by Robert Coles, MD

    Dr. Coles is at Harvard, and he has written so many books one wonders if he sleeps, or has elves in his employ. Invariably he is wise, informed by good research (much of it by talking with real actual children, and their parents), and above all, he has heart.

    In this book he explores how in moment-by-moment interactions, the daily grind of spilled milk and laundry, parents are sowing the seeds for moral character: the yes one says to a child’s desires, tempered by the no one says to the child’s insistence upon having everything.

    Along the many roads this book takes, you’ll find parents, teachers and school chums, and all are part of the moral scenery, the backdrop against which children become, crudely put, good, or bad. The very young child learning not to hit the dog; the child of middle years developing a sense of justice as interactions take place in classrooms and on playgrounds; the rebellion of adolescence, acted out against the screen of parental authority, as the outward display of the internal conflict between a well-developed conscience and the same primitive desire to have, do and be everything &emdash; and throw all caution to the winds.

    This is a book with real meat on its bones. It will make you think, remind you how much you value your children, and how much you are contributing, by your every gesture, to their moral fiber and to their capacity to care for themselves without it costing someone else. Read it.

    Emotion: the On/Off Switch for Learning

    by Priscilla Vail

    This is so readable, and so obvious sometimes, one wonders how it got published. But common sense is not so very common, is it; so this book fills a necessary gap made wide by our inattention to the obvious. We are busy with soccer, or worried about grades, or punctuality, when it is not so much what we &emdash; or they &emdash; do, as it is their emotional state when doing it, that governs how well they learn to do it.

    A teacher and teacher of teachers for many years, Vail elaborates on the sometimes hidden, often obvious-but-dismissed, factors in children’s lives that enhance or inhibit their learning. From a dying pet to peer rejection, teacher disapproval, parental impatience &emdash; this book reminds us of what we can overlook as both enriching and demoralizing; it is structured with What Parents Can Do and What Teachers Can Do, and it is positive and hopeful, besides.

    And, there will be no mid-term, no final exam, no paper to write and no thesis. Just your children, running the world the way we have all taught them to do.

    Betsy Davenport, PhD is a therapist and parenting consultant. Contact Betsy at 503-241-3727 or