My Favorite Parenting Books

I wrote this about Chinese parents choosing new Chinese private schools and how the demand side might evolve, and this about Panda Moms and how Chinese parenting is changing.

Today I wanted to list 5 American parenting books I have enjoyed, and I think could be useful for Chinese parents too.

1. The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development

By Rick Weissbourd

Rick is a dear friend of Pru and me. I met him in grad school, got to know him playing basketball, and later to know his wife and 3 kids. I was so impressed by his kids — just unusually nice — that of course when we had our son, I read his book.

Rick’s main point: well-educated parents in USA sometimes choose from these 3 troubling paths:

a. Obsessed with achievement (though in USA, many families use that approach for sports, more than academics).

b. “Buddy Parent” – Parents who try to be friends with the kid, instead of the appropriately very different role of parent.

c. Directly make their kids happy in the short term (which backfires), instead of actively teaching them (and showing them) to care about others (which actually drives long-term happiness).

There are many American kids with high self-esteem who are jerks. Not only is that a problem for “us” (society), it’s a problem for the kid (who of course struggle to build meaningful friendships and romantic relationships).

To this last point, Rick says:

But if I could give just one piece of advice to adults, it would be to focus not on children’s happiness or self-esteem but on their maturity.

Maturity, including the ability to manage destructive feelings, to balance and coordinate our needs with those of others, to receive feedback constructively, to be reflective and self-critical — to fairly and generously assess our behavior is the basis of both morality and lasting well-being.

It is these capacities that enable children and adults to appreciate others despite conflicts of interest and differences in perspective, to adhere to important principles and to engage in sturdy, meaningful relationships and endeavors that create lasting self-worth.

A Chinese educator said to me:

Our kids are good at receiving academic feedback. Better than Americans in revising and trying again.

Kids are only okay at being reflective – often they learn to bury destructive feelings inward instead, particularly boys.

Where our kids are weakest is caring about others. We’re a low-trust society so survival often means caring about yourself. Hopefully that’s changing, though.

Just one person’s opinion.

2. GIST: The Essence of Raising Life-Ready Kids
By Michael W. Anderson and Timothy D. Johanson

The gist of GIST: So often times our natural response as parents is the wrong one. It’s over-parenting!

The top three things I pulled from the book:

a) We talk too much and over-parent our kids (letting kids fail is GREAT, not bad. I.e., my mindset is now it’s a WIN when Nash doesn’t get his homework done by 8pm, then freaks out, but learns how to do better next time. That’s better than me constantly nagging him at 7.05, 7.10, 7.15, etc.)

b) We parents try to work on too many things with kids at once. I’ve written about this instinct for teachers as well: over-stuffing lessons. Less is more.

c) We need to take the emotion out of discipline.

GIST provides a “Checklist To Adulthood” for age 0 to 18 and you realize that you sort of “opportunistically” have to let your kid have short-term failures in certain areas to allow him or her make progress.

Related book: The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik. The key metaphor is as the parent, you’re not “building” your kid like a carpenter, but tending to plants growing on their own (gardener).

3. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

American classic. Best seller since the 1980s, so worth pointing out what I disagree with.

Also show your own feelings to them so they can react to that. Don’t just punish them blindly. The most important thing is that they know and understand the reasons why things happen.

Me: Mostly true. Pru great at that. But sometimes need short-term consequences. Hard to get kid into explain mode DURING a disciplinary moment.

Don’t punish at all. Instead need to understand the reasons why something is wrong — over and over.

Me: That’s just crazy talk. Also problematic in schools, with idea called Restorative Justice. No parent or teacher can be that “on” all the time. Need to find right blend of understanding and consequences that works for you (as a parenting duo).

Always first understand how the kid is feeling by listening. And address their feeling, not the fact that they are yelling. They need to understand that you are listening and understanding them first.

Me: No, get kids to grasp that yelling is not okay. Listening, sure, that’s good. Show that you listen them BETTER when they’re not yelling.

Anyway, that’s just a matter of me embracing balance where I think they’re a little extreme. THE AUTHORS in turn probably saw that parental listening in the 1980s was so rare, they over-compensated to make their point.

Much in this great book I do agree with!

Don’t do too many things for them. Build self-reliance skills instead. For example: don’t tie their shoelaces for them. Lack of self reliance leads to feelings of helplessness and worthlessness for the kid over time.

Me: Yes.

Let them make their own choices. Let the child choose when the homework has to be done. But it still has to be done. So the question becomes now: not IF, but WHEN, and HOW.

Me: Yes, like GIST.

Let them explore as much as possible. They deserve a chance to figure things out by themselves, even if it’s at times clunky and frustrating.

Me: Yes. To let them explore, you need to give them opportunities to explore. Sometimes that means taking the kids off a default path filled with planned activities. Daphne currently: sax lessons, Peter Pan rehearsals, dodge ball, karate, Girl Scouts (which is sort of “planned exploring.) Does she do enough on her own?

Give praise when appropriate, to build their self esteem. But praise should be aimed at what they did, not who they are. (Actionable. Cause and Effect). “Good job, you studied hard for this”. Not “You are so smart”.

Me: Yes. A variant: mix in a teacher move called “Narrating the Positive.” It’s not “to the kid” – it’s “at” the kid.

For example, I could say to Pru “Hey, guess what Nash did today that was cool? He did X, Y, Z.” I say it in part so that both our kids overhear it. We don’t overdo it, but it’s a nice change of pace parent move.

4. How To Raise an Adult

by Julie Lythcott-Haims

The author was a Stanford University dean.

She anticipates the pitfalls (every kid on the block is always scheduled leaving your kid alone or what to say when friends have never heard of the college your kid is applying to) and even give an intriguing list of life’s setbacks that we need to let our kids experiences (eg. having detention, being blamed for something he did not do or being fired from a job).

She examines the entire sweep of childhood from how to talk to a preschooler to tackling the tough topic of college rankings. Despite her years at Stanford, she makes the case for an approach to searching for colleges that steers clear of a focus on prestige and, instead, focuses on your kid.

It’s hard for many Americans to turn off the lust for prestigious colleges.

Even harder, I’m learning, for the Chinese.

5. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

by Amy Chua

This masterful book has inspired a number of book-length responses.


(Taming your Tiger Mom)

(Beyond the Tiger Mom)

(Tiger Babies Strike Back)

I think Chua wrote a lovely, misunderstood book. I think it’s misunderstood because the most controversial parts were all condensed into one hugely read Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal. So many people are reacting to that newspaper version, and never read the book length version.

Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother bears a disclaimer on the cover that it was originally meant to be a book about the clash between Chinese and Western parenting practices but instead is about Chua’s own humbling experience with raising her daughters. As the book begins, Chua describes the strict rules that she established early on for her two daughters, Sophia and Louisa. The rules primarily address forbidden activities such as attending sleepovers, getting less than an A in classes, and being involved in school plays. The author admits that while her standards might seem rather stringent to most, they are common among Chinese mothers.

In the Coda, Chua explains her writing process. She wrote the first part of the book quickly but struggled with the latter parts. Her husband and daughters reviewed each section carefully, looking for factual or “interpretive” errors. The Coda reveals that as Chua is about the finish the book, she discusses with her children what she has learned and is surprised when Lulu tells her that she is glad that Chua forced her to play the violin, memorize exponents, and learn Chinese. Both Sophia and Lulu have a strong sense of self, and readers can sense Chua’s pride in her daughters.

After the book’s first publication, Chua faced a merciless press and many online critics. She had not anticipated such a vitriolic reaction and wrote an afterword for the next publication. In it, she attempts to explain the purpose of her book (a self-deprecating view of her style of parenting) and to salvage her reputation as a mother.

In many interviews, Chua is asked questions about snippets from her book that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Most of the “journalists” do not appear to have read the book and view Chua as an arrogant, mean-spirited, vainglorious mother. However, if one reads the book, Chua’s overall satirical tone and her ability to mock herself and her obsessions are apparent and make the book much more than a simple memoir about parenting.

* * *

Other Parenting Books of Interest:

All Joy and No Fun

Positive Discipline

The Gift of Failure

Helping Children Succeed

(This last one was much read in charter school circles. It promotes perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism, and self-control. Nobody is against that! But since the book was published, some scholars have pushed back on the book’s underlying thesis about grit).


Other Great Books For Parents:

Little Soldiers (Chinese versus American schooling)

Quiet Power (Introverts)

The Happiness Advantage (distilled from a popular course at Harvard)


Funny books for parents:

Dad Is Fat

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Home Game


I Heart My Little A-Holes

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