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Best Parenting Books of 2011: Not What You Expect or What to Expect

Posted Jan 18 2012 11:48am
What are the best parenting books of 2011?   

If you're looking to potty train your toddler or get your tween to clean her room, I'm sure there's a popular how-to somewhere but I can't name it. I don't know whether the Tiger mom's hyper vigilance will make your kids crave birthday parties and tv. Never read her whole Battle Hymn.  In fact I'm no parenting expert but I know some books for those who like parenting news and advice backed by evidence of the more scientific kind...assuming anyone still has time and patience for reading books (see first selection).   

1. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
Nicholas Carr (Finalist, Pulitzer Prize)

Is the Internet making us stupid?  Maybe.  Mr. Carr suspects the new social media and its short quick bursts of nearly limitless information makes concentration and thus sustained critical inquiry nearly obsolete.  Like the kind necessary to write this book, in fact to finish writing this book the author had to move to a remote Colorado town without cell or wireless Internet service. 

Each new media has changed us, our culture and our neural pathways according to Carr. Is he claiming a revamping of the genome?  Not exactly. Nor am I dusting off the bottle of Omega-3s in the back of my cabinet because as we've become aware in recent decades the brain is a surprisingly plastic entity. A variety of other lifestyle/behavioral changes have been found to alter brain function and physiology - like learning to play the piano, becoming a cab driver, giving birth.

This is a mercifully quick read.  It's not as science-heavy as the rest but hey, if what the author says is even partly true you'll need a respite after the other selections. 

This book also wins Best Blurb: Silent Spring for the Literary Mind (Slate)

2. Thinking, Fast and Slow  
Daniel Kahneman, Professor Emeritus at Princeton and Recipient of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Economics.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman is a legend and he's not even dead yet.  His seminal research boils down to the simple fact people make bad decisions.  We're lousy decision-makers saddled with biases, desires and perceptual flaws that perpetuate poor judgements from stereotyping, losing money on the stock market to figuring out what to eat and whom to marry.  Malcolm Gladwell owes this guy big time.  Mr. Carr, look, we've always been stupid.

Humans, however, don't always use this highly emotional, error-prone "fast" thinking.  Sometime we make highly rational decisions and not just out of sheer dumb luck (hence the "slow" in the title).   Love this man, Kahneman, who wishes people would become more aware of how they judge themselves, others and the world. If only more people would have used these powers to circumvent the vaccine-autism scare.


3. The Panic Virus  
Seth Mnookin


Beware: Not for those who still cling to the roundly discredited theory vaccines cause autism.

Here's the definitive account of the infamous vaccines-cause-autism debacle from the history of vaccines, the roots of the recent drama in England, the fraudulent British researcher Andrew Wakefield, the 24/7 news cycle, the miasma of misinformation on the Internet, the dearth of journalists and health experts challenging the misinformation, a certain former Playboy Bunny who went to "University of Google" to yes, the consequences such as the thousands of unvaccinated children and the rise of once-vanished childhood diseases. Oh it's all here if you can stomach revisiting this hot mess.

If only this were the last word on the topic.

4. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength
Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. 

Throw out the parenting manuals.  Read this book and take notes.  Want your children to find full-time work one day, move out of the house and hopefully find some contentment?  Willpower.  Get it, model it, instill it.  That's my only real advice here.  Baumeister, a Psychology-Icon-in-the-Making who told us about self-esteem back in the day, teamed up with John Tierney, a New York Times science writer.  The result? An engaging story backed by plenty of studies on a topic that might actually make a difference in your life. 

Seems willpower, like seating at the school holiday concert, is a limited resource.  It doesn't discriminate physical from mental exertion.  All effortful tasks deplete it from deciding which preschool is best to finding the pencil sharpener.  Newer research links this valuable resource to levels of glucose.  So if you want to choose the right preschool, wait until after lunch.  Lots of practical advice.  Immensely readable.  Famous people get their own chapter titles - Did a Higher Power Help Eric Clapton and Mary Karr Stop Drinking?

It remains unlikely self-control is the end all of successful parenting.  In our climate of instant gratification, though it wouldn't hurt to stock up.  It's not like we can download patience.  As far as I know there's still  no app that can make anyone put down that last piece of cake or use a condom.   

5. The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America
Jonathan D. Moreno

Readers will need every ounce of self-control to finish this book with a decidely scholarly bent. 

 Anyhow, who doesn't get excited about biopolitics?  

That would be the complicated politics surrounding science.  In other words, the powder keg of ideologies, values, philosophies, personal ideals, etc. fueling current debates over stem cells, abortion, cloning, genetic testing, genetically modified food, synthetic biology. 

Moreno takes us on a historical/cultural tour of science in politics, reminding us along the way that America's founding fathers admired if not outright practiced science.  Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin tinkered around with cause and effect. John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Thomas Paine, these men were fascinated by the natural world around them, observed it, wrote about it. How quaint.

The familiar Republican-Democrat dichotomy doesn't hold up in the new biopolitical arena.  Here we got the "bioprogressives" and "bioconservatives", the latter the seemingly impossible political intersection of the neoconservatives and liberal environmentalists, a discordant duo that's also matching up on breastfeeding these days.

Speaking of the breast, there was another good read published in January 2011.  I included it in last year's best of list just because I'd just read it.  Is Breast Best? by Joan Wolfe.  Sadly this highly detailed, scholarly work didn't land a large audience.  An outcome that would not surprise the authors of all the books above.  In other words, thinkers who have pointed out a critical lack of critical thinking in today's media climate. 
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