The Holy Grail is not a Sippy Cup

Show me the Sangreal...and I'll show you just one more mess you'll have to clean up


In case you might have missed the memo, people love to tell others what to do. It's one of the best things about being a parent. But some people aren't satisfied with just ordering their kids around. They want to tell you how to order your kids around. We call them childhood development experts. And we love them. We blow wads of cash on their books, DVDs and school curriculum packages in our desperate search for answers, advice, anything that will make raising children a little easier. 

Parents worry about their children. A lot. What we want more than anything (including new ski boots and overhead powder) is to be able to fall asleep every night knowing our children are alright and will grow into healthy, happy and productive adults. This is the Holy Grail of parenting. 

And our longing to find The Grail lures us into magical thinking. The more we want something, the more we want to believe there is an easy way to get it. (Incidentally, the more want something the more we think getting it is going to make the rest of our lives better. But I suspect having happy kids won't improve your golf game, sorry.) When it comes to raising our children, we want nothing less than a magic pill--no, not the one your wife forgot to take three years ago

If only we play Mozart for them...if only we eliminate gluten and meat from our diets...if only we leave no child behind...if only we continue breast feeding until they get their adult molars (ouch! those boulders hurt!)...if only we boost their self-esteem...if only we stop worry about their self-esteem and teach them some good old-fashioned red-state respect...if only, if only...

There is no shortage of writers out there offering you the miracle elixir which you seek. Want to sell a book? Give parents 10 easy steps, based on 3 simple principles (that you learned in Kindergarten, of course) to eliminate temper tantrums, in an easy-to-read font with lots of bullet points. Come, take the cup, drink deeply my child...yes, that's right. And don't forget the companion DVD! 

It probably won't surprise you that I generally don't read books on parenting. 

I suppose my wife is right that the main reason is I am arrogant, stubborn and lazy. I don't want to risk the possibility of discovering I don't know everything and thus be compelled to work on changing. I don't like change. 

But I also feel justified in avoiding them because so many are just slick repackaging of the kind of practical advice you can hear from any experienced parent of grown children not facing felony conviction. What's more, most wise, battle-hardened parents will tell you that for any given technique or method you read about in a book--even the ones from truly sincere and insightful experts--the most you can expect is 100% effectiveness, 50% of the time, with one of your kids. At those odds, I'm not going to risk 200 pages worth of valuable reading time listening to some preachy Ph.D. with eight kids try to convince me that understanding children and their needs is really very simple, if only I follow his method. 

In the end, you still have to rely on your own judgment, even if only to decide which expert is right about which of your kids. The way I see it, in light of the fact that there are no easy answers, and in light of the fact that I'm ultimately responsible for the decisions I make about raising my kids, I have every right to be stubborn, arrogant and lazy. Whatever gets me through the day. 

However, I am always willing to give parenting books another shot. But they'd better start off on the right foot. Here's a list of titles I'd actually buy:

You're Screwed: Parenting is a Lot Harder Than it Looks and the Damage is Irreversible. 


Infant Inferno: Dante's 9-Circle Guide to Your Child's Behavior and How to Correct It.


Sophie's Other Choice: Do I Want my Child to be Happy or Good.


Two is More Than Twice the Work of One:  New Math for the Busy Parent. 


42 is Too Late: Why Apologizing to Your Mother Now Won't Change the Fact that You and Your Siblings Have Doomed Her to an Early Grave


Some Kids are Just Born That Way: 15 Lies to Help You Sleep at Night


Part II

(if you're interested--personally, I never read part II's)

Although I'm risking my reputation as a self-righteous cynic, I have to admit that (thanks to Molly) I just read a good book on parenting--a real book:

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (

Even though it has a lot of footnotes and relies on the kind of social science research I am inherently skeptical of, the authors' premise is a refreshing turn in the right direction: we need to take a deep breath and make sure we're not losing sight of reality in our quest for holy grails and magic pills.  

Bronson and Merryman take on the assumptions and conventional wisdom of the feel-good-everyone's-a-winner school of parenting and education, and show that sometimes the numbers just don't add up. 

Three chapters I recommend in particular. One is their investigation of the paradoxically negative effects of heaping praise on your children. At the risk of over-simplifying their argument, it turns out that the research shows that that telling your kids they are smart is not a good idea because soon they may start to believe it. Although, I have to wonder whether we need social scientists to tell us that it's best not to get too big for your britches.  

I also like the chapter on gifted education. We give kids tests, they do well, they're gifted. They get to be special the rest of their precious little lives--even if they're not. A basic reconsideration of how the brain develops tells us that the kind of intelligence that determines "giftedness" is so plastic in young children that we often end up telling kids they're smart when really, they just had a good test day. (See the "too big for your britches" theory above.)

The chapter on PBS is particularly amusing. Aggression in kids is bad, we all know that. And everybody knows that violence on TV makes the problem worse, especially the wanton cartoon violence on Saturday morning that gives you two extra hours of sleep. You should turn on PBS instead. Well, not so fast. It turns out that when it comes to discouraging aggressive behavior PBS is no better for your kids (and may actually be worse) than Power Rangers. It works something like this. The bad guy in the violent cartoon does something aggressive, the good guys punish him. But on PBS, when Francine is mean to Arthur, she gets away with it, because Arthur is a pussy. The lesson kids walk away with is that relational aggression works and goes unpunished at about a 5:1 ratio (they've done studies). What kids need to see: when Francine is mean to Arthur, he grows a pair and beats the crap out of her. No more relational aggression from Francine, you can be sure of that. Mr. Hooper is rolling in his grave. 

The best part of the book, however, is the conclusion, where Bronson and Merryman drive home the point that our understanding of the complexity of how children really grow and learn is often undermined by our zeal for easy answers--particularly among the researchers and experts themselves. 

The example they use is the research done by a number of childhood development experts about the benefits of gratitude. The theory is that children who have a greater sense of gratitude for the good things in their lives are happier and do better in school than kids who dwell on the negative. And indeed, early research suggested that this was the case. Thus began a groundswell of interest in developing specialized curricula to cultivate gratitude in elementary school children. I'm sure they would be happy to license the curriculum package to your school. 

But not so fast. When put under the microscope, it was not clear there was a true causal relationship between a developed sense of gratitude and child well-being. Right there on the proverbial front page was a big white elephant: kids doing the carefully developed gratitude exercises were happier than kids who did negative thinking exercises, but the they were no happier than the control group--kids who did nothing. The results were even more ambiguous when it came to older children. Nevertheless, as of two weeks ago , the gratitude-positive curriculum remains the darling of early-childhood education world.

What NurtureShock does best is expose as unexamined and blinding faith our assumption that there are certain principle goods (e.g., self-esteem, empathy, gratitude) that, when properly nurtured in children, have profound impact on all aspects their life. Good things in one area lead to good things in all areas--it just has to, right? It's only a matter of time before the researchers find the right combination. 

Science can do amazing things, and we're learning more each day about how human beings tick. But run the numbers all you want, you will never convince me that we're ever going to find the Holy Grail. So, while it may be true that, when it comes to human happiness, there are no easy answers and good things come at a cost, I at least find comfort in knowing that I'm not alone in having no clue what to do about it. I promise I'll never try to sell you a curricular development package.

Copyright 2013 Paul J. Rasmussen