What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated? by Alfie Kohn

Read: 22 September, 2011

I don’t think that anyone questions the idea that our public schools are, by and large, failing kids. It’s also no secret that programs like No Child Left Behind that require mass standardized testing promote “teaching the test,” often at the expense of real learning. But in this collection of essays, Alfie Kohn goes a step further and argues that even grades should be dumped as an assessment tool.

Kohn ranks the evilness of the various assessment methods, with standardized tests at the top, followed by ranking methods (such as class ranks and grading on a curve), and ending with the assignment of grades. But each, he says, causes kids to view learning as a chore to get through rather than something they might choose to do.

The book is a collection of essays, so each chapter is a discrete unit. That being said, they’ve clearly been edited so that they make sense together, with references to other chapters for more information. The whole is brought together with a well-written introduction that serves to unify the individual essays in support of a common thesis.

I found Kohn’s book to be very interesting and well-written. It challenged a lot of my assumptions (such as the bunk-ness of grade inflation), and has left me thinking a great deal about education. Only the chapter discussing Maslow was on the weak side, and I’m not sure what it was supposed to contribute to the thesis of the book.

If I had to find a flaw, it would be that while the current system is heavily criticised, Kohn is very light on the alternatives. I think this is a fairly important failing because he’s challenging so many concepts that we take for granted that he absolutely must provide us with alternatives.

I don’t know how much I agree with Kohn yet. I think that his arguments were very compelling on first reading, but I need to mull them over a bit longer before I come to a conclusion. He’s definitely given me food for thought, though, and done so in a vehicle that was a pleasure to read. On that basis alone, I highly recommend What Does It Mean To Be Well Educated for parents of school-aged kids and anyone involved in education, at any level, formal or otherwise.

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Raising a Secure Child by Zeynep Biringen

Read: 13 September, 2011

Raising a Secure Child starts from the same Daniel Goleman research that informed Emotionally Intelligent Parenting. Since the two were so similar in many ways, I can’t help but to review the former in light of the latter.

I complained that Emotionally Intelligent Parenting provided sample dialogues to illustrate their points that were clearly idealized and read like something from the Stepford Wives. It was almost creepy. Raising a Secure Child, while making much greater use of dialogues and sample situations, did a much better job. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this was one of the book’s most positive features. Every major point was backed up with a short vignette of a family either doing it right or doing it wrong that helped me see what the point should (or shouldn’t) look like in practice. I found these to be a huge help in visualizing how I might out the advice into practice.

While Emotionally Intelligent Parenting focused on always saying the right thing, the focus in Raising a Secure Child was much more on the non-verbal interactions between parent and child. In other words, really meaning it is seen as more valuable than always having the right script handy. This made a good deal more intuitive sense to me.

Both books had the same emphasis on being emotionally present for kids (although, again, I felt that Raising a Secure Child made the point in a way that felt more practically applicable), and both talked about the importance of structure and limit-setting.

Raising a Secure Child spent a good deal of time on helping me to analyse my own upbringing to help me see how that might affect how I interact with my son. While it’s something I have thought about a lot, I still found it helpful to go through in a more methodical sort of way.

And while it isn’t applicable to my family, I do think the sections on children with special needs and getting through a divorce could be very useful.

Both books covered the full range from baby to young adult. I think that both are worth reading, but Raising a Secure Child is by far the better of the two.

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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth

Read: 9 September, 2011

There’s a trick to reading parenting books: Never read them reactively.

It’s a rule I’m normally really good at following, but I broke it when I picked up Health Sleep Habits, Happy Child. To make a long story short, my son sleeps wonderfully at night but is a terrible day napper. This often leads to some horrific bouts of crankiness, so I looked up infant sleep books at my local library to see if I could find something to help.

The central advice of Healthy Sleep Habits is to have babies take regular naps (and he does emphasize the “regular”). Great! I agree! Now how do we accomplish this?

Well, that’s where the book starts to fall apart. Weissbluth recommends a sleep routine that may include things like reading a bedtime story (which excites my son because books are OMGWTFAWESOME!!), a bath (which excites my son because water is OMGWTFAWESOME!!), a massage (which excites my son because physical contact is OMGWTFAWESOME!!), and a lullaby (which… Yeah, I think you get the point).

I realize that my son is a bit weird. The grandson of two professional track-and-fielders (one of whom held a world record for a year) and a professional mountain climbing instructor, he’s predisposed to some rather heightened energy levels. Not only is he an unstoppable force, he’s also hitting all of his physical milestones on the very early end of the spectrum.

So Weissbluth’s advice doesn’t seem to work for our family (and I refuse to even try the cry-it-out method that he says may help if the stable bedtime routine fails). Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a huge deal. I don’t know any adults who need nipples in their mouths to fall asleep, so I can reasonably assume that TurboKid will eventually grow out of his sleep problems, like I did. I could just keep trying with the routine and that would be the end of it.

The problem with Weissbluth is that he peppers his book with comments like:

I think it possible that unhealthy sleep habits contribute to school-related problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities.

and:

Warning: If your child does not learn to sleep well, he may become an incurable adult insomniac, chronically disabled from sleepiness and dependent on sleeping pills.

These sorts of friendly reminders are helpfully printed apart from the text, presented in bold and segregated in little boxes, lest you fail to notice that you are irrevocably breaking your baby.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed, such as the breakdown of strategies by age. But these were so overshadowed by the fear-mongering that it’s hard for me to write anything other than a negative review. It’s bad enough that I’m dealing with a cranky baby and that I can’t get the method to work. To add a level of desperation, to make my failure something that will turn my precious babe into a disabled drug user, is just cruel.

Bad, Weissbluth. Bad.

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Emotionally Intelligent Parenting by Maurice J. Elias, Steven E. Tobias, and Brian S. Friedlander

Read: 26 August, 2011

Since my son is now moving from the “pooping lump” stage into the “destroyer of worlds” stage, I figured that it was about time I start reading some books to help me control this little monster. So apologies to anyone who isn’t particularly interested in parenting books, but I’ve got a stack to get through. Then it’ll be over for a while, I promise!

Emotionally Intelligent Parenting has very little fact in it. For the most part, it’s just a discussion of strategies that the authors think are beneficial and how to execute them. I found it rather worrisome, however, that when facts were presented, they were incorrect. It started early, in the introduction by Daniel Goleman, when he says that parents today “have less free time to spend with [our children] than our own parents did with us.” I’d say that’s intuitively true, one of those common sense things, but it’s factually false.

So that made me wonder about the advice given in the book, which, for the  most part, seemed intuitively true. Plus, there was something about the repeated advice to talk about feelings that doesn’t sit too well with my old New England Protestant family upbringing!

A lot of the advice was centred around acronyms like FIG TESPN, which is supposed to remind you (and kids) of how to work through problems. It seems to me that this is needlessly complicated and of dubious worth – not to mention absurd to implement on a daily basis.

My final major complaint is that I really wasn’t wowed by the dialogues in the book. These were usually there to illustrate how to put the ideas into practice. Thing is that it made the parents sound like robots and I’m pretty sure that any kids subjected to these kinds of speeches would interpret them as insincerity. And then, to illustrate how well the method supposedly works, the  dialogues invariably end with kids saying: “I never really thought about it like that […] Can we talk later? I have to do my homework now.” Yeah right.

That’s not to say that the book was all bad, not by any means. There were some gems, such as the parenting Golden Rule to “do unto your children as you would have other people do unto your children.” There was also a lot of emphasis on modelling, so making sure that you display the behaviour you want to see in your children. And the last bit that really resonated with me was the advice to focus on goals. For example, focus on specific behaviour that you want corrected and work on that, or think about whether punishment is really the most effective means of prompting change.

Overall, I’d say that this was an interesting read and I did get some ideas, but I found that most of it was not realistically implementable. It also lacked evidence to back the assertions made.

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How To Have Your Second Child First by Kerry Colburn and Rob Sorensen

Read: 25 August, 2011

As a new parent, it seems that I’m always one step behind my son. Just as I’ve figured out how to deal with one of his quirks, he passes into a new phase and my awesome new strategy is no longer useful.

That’s where How To Have Your Second Child First comes in. The idea is to have parents who’ve already been through the process ‘spill the beans’ so that first time parents can avoid making all the mistakes that first time parents always make. For example, how important is it to warm your baby’s bottle? Does a household really need to be kept in total silence while the baby is sleeping? Does everything your baby might touch need to be sterilized?

The book is organized like a list of lessons, each with some explanation and quotes from ‘experienced’ parents. Like most of these books, it’s a mix of really good advice and advice that may simply not fit your family. So I’ll give the same speech I always give for parenting books: Have a read through and take away what makes sense for you, ignore the rest.

That being said, I do think that the book’s underlying message is incredibly important. Don’t sweat the small stuff, you won’t break your baby.

My son is nearly six months old, so I definitely read this too late for it to be of much help. It would be far better as a baby shower gift, or a 2nd-3rd trimester library take-out. I do think it should be on every parent-to-be’s reading list.

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Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy

Thanks to Matt who gave me this book, which I had been wanting to read for years, while I was holed up waiting for my son to decide that he was ready to be born.

Read: 31 January, 2011

It all started with a New York mom letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway. Little did Lenore Skenazy know, as she wrote an article about her son’s experience, that she would soon be dubbed “America’s Worst Mom,” propelling her head first into the fight against what she calls “helicopter parenting.”

“You can’t be too safe! Or can you?” she asks in the introduction. The book is not really a guide to Free-Range parent, but rather an argument for it. We are currently living in a society that is safer than it’s ever been, yet children are kept indoors for fear of abduction and all adults are treated as perverts just waiting for an opportunity. It’s a crazy situation that leaves kids under-confident and completely unprepared for adult life, argues Skenazy. It also drives mom crazy, telling them not to leave their children alone – even for just five minutes! – at an age when previous genertions would have been out babysitting.

I think it’s important to note that Free-Range does not mean negligent. The Free-Range parent cares a great deal about their children, and takes the time to make sure that their kids are never given responsibilities that they aren’t ready for. The Free-Range parent doesn’t let a child walk home until they are confident with the route – and maybe they will still start out by walking just behind their kid, testing and making sure that Junior knows the way and crosses roads safely.

I have to say that I agree with Lenore’s philosophy. Reading this book, I realized just how lucky I was. My parents were Free-Range before the movement had a name, but I come from the first generation that was typically under constant adult supervision. I loved my childhood, and I can really see how being allowed to “roam” has given me the confidence to step outside my comfort zone when tasks need to be done.

This book is a great read for parents who want to be Free-Range but are still weighed down by that old “worst first” thinking. It’s also a great book for the already committed Free-Range parent, just for the confidence booster. It’s a short, easy read and Skenazy has a delightful sense of humour. The whole book is written in a quick and conversational style that made me feel more like I was on the receiving end of an excitable friend’s rant than reading an actually book. For this content, it really works, and it makes Skenazy seem very approachable and real.

You can read more about Free-Range Parenting on Skenazy’s blog, where she posts updates on Free-Range wins and losses from around the world. If you already read the blog, the book is more of the same, but I really can’t get enough of her humour. She reminds me of a chipmunk, talking in double-time. It’s adorable!

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Belly Laughs by Jenny McCarthy

Read: 4 March, 2011

I’m not a Jenny McCarthy fan. Most of my exposure to her has been through her anti-vaccination efforts, and I’m not really disposed to think favourably of someone who puts kids in danger like that – no matter how well-meaning they may be. But I had heard good things about her book, Belly Laughs. So when I saw it on the shelf at my midwife’s office, I decided to purge myself of all negative feelings towards McCarthy and give her book a fair shake.

The first thing I want to say is that I only had about an hour to read it. I read pretty fast and it’s a short book, but I definitely skimmed it – flipping ahead through chapters that interested me, etc. So anything I say is definitely going to be very “first impressions-y.” This is not supposed to be a well-thought-out critique!

The point of the book is to reveal the gross and ugly side of pregnancy, the weird changes that are often glossed over. As I’ve said before, I think there’s a lot of value to having this sort of discussion. Certainly for me, I found a lot of comfort in hearing about the really bad stuff because I felt like if I could wrap my head around that, nothing else will seem quite as bad.

As some Amazon reviews commented, Belly Laughs can get pretty crass. Again, this doesn’t really bother me. I actually appreciate the “girl talk” tone McCarthy adopts. That being said, it was perhaps a little too much like a “girl talk” conversation, sometimes feeling as though she had written the whole thing in an afternoon. I think the book would have had a lot more value if, for example, each chapter had started with her personal experiences, and then followed up with some information (why it’s happening, how to alleviate it, etc.). As it was, it might make pregnant women feel like they aren’t so alone, but it won’t do much more than that.

So I generally enjoyed the book. It was funny, it was rather interesting, but it had no real value. I would pity anyone who spent money on it, although a library check-out may be appropriate (actually, don’t bother. Just sit down and read it right in the library. It’s so short that you’ll probably get through it and won’t have to deal with the obligation of returning it on time!).

But there was one detail in the book that really bothered me – Jenny McCarthy apparently has a very negative body image. Worse, she seems to think that this is normal, or accurate. I suppose some of this may be due to where she lives and the type of career she’s in, or perhaps to the fact that I live under a rock and have very little exposure to mass media, but I found it rather disturbing.

In one chapter, she’s describing having sex with her then-husband, and how he couldn’t possibly be turned on by her disgusting body! Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so sexy as I have while pregnant (and D certainly seems to enjoy the “beach ball,” saying it’s like I have an extra butt on the front – try scrubbing that image of marital bliss from your brain!). McCarthy describes with horror the discovery that she can no longer wear thongs (although she does discover how wonderfully comfortable regular underwear can be), and she berates herself for not “giving” her husband blow-jobs while she wasn’t feeling up to having sex, as though sexual gratification were some kind of duty rather than a shared experience.

It made me sad to read – not just for McCarthy herself, but for the (perhaps correct) assumption that most of her readership will accept these sorts of things as perfectly normal.

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Pregnancy Books

Inspired by the joyous news that our friends are now expecting, I had a look at the “baby stuff” section of my library and discovered a couple pregnancy books that I had just completely forgotten about. I read them all cover-to-cover while we were trying to conceive and then they just went on the shelf. But before I re-gift them to the next happy couple, I thought I’d share a few impressions…

Dr. Spock’s Pregnancy Guide, by Marjorie Greenfield: Very medicine-centred, although midwives and alternate caregivers are also mentioned. This book breaks the pregnancy down into week ranges, covering the changes you can expect in the baby, the changes in you, what you might be feeling/experiencing and what you can do to mitigate unpleasant experiences, and what your caregiver might do (tests, recommendations, etc.). It does cover many of the emotional aspects of pregnancy – such as mom’s concerns, or dad’s feelings – and tends to take a very ‘medical’/OB approach. It does include little “parent to parent” boxes where people who are pregnant or have recently been share some of their experiences. It’s a good way of humanising the material, I found. One thing that concerned me a bit – and this may be an issue of editions – is that some of the advice given in the book is dismissed in the materials I receive from my midwife. For example, the Dr. Spock’s says that one benefit of getting an episiotomy is that it’s much easier to stitch up than a tear, while the materials my midwife gave me say that episiotomies “start” a tear and actually make it more likely that force-tearing will occur. (Ladies, be ready for tons and tons of contradictory information. This seems to be endemic to the whole pregnancy discourse.)

The Mother Of All Pregnancy Books, by Ann Douglas: The great thing about this book is that it’s written specifically for Canadian moms-to-be. One of the big frustrations about being Canadian is that it’s so hard to find information that isn’t coming out of the US. For many topics, this isn’t such a big deal, but anything relating to health is so different between the two countries that very little practical advice from the US is applicable to us. So while there are certainly variations from province to province, this book at least gets it in the right ballpark.

I would say that, out of all the books, this was the most useful. It covers everything from “are you ready to conceive?” to “baby’s home… now what?” I found the table of contents to be much more useful than the Dr. Spocks because it didn’t just list the chapters, but listed the actual content as well. This made finding the parts I wanted to re-read much easier. I also found that there was a lot more emphasis on dealing with the emotional side of pregnancy. For example, a whole section is devoted to answering specific concerns (organized by trimester). I’ve also noticed that the advice given in this book tends to be closer to the advice I get from my midwife.

What To Expect When You’re Expecting, by Arlene Eisenberg, Heidi Murkoff, and Sandee Hathaway (I have an older edition): A staple of every pregnant family’s library, we bought What to Expect because doing so is as much a part of being pregnant as getting really really big. Much like Dr. Spock’s, this book does break its advice down by stage (months, in this case). Each month gets an overview of the baby’s changes, your changes, possible symptoms, what you can expect at your prenatal visits, etc. It also covers other topics in detail, such as diet, choosing a practitioner. I liked that it was more detailed than Dr. Spock’s and broke its table of contents down in the same way that The Mother Of All Pregnancy Books does. The only thing I don’t like about the month-by-month format is that there isn’t really a “normal” pregnancy, and I can see areas where I experienced symptoms in the “wrong” month. If you’re going to read this, don’t just read the month you are on – rather, give the whole book a read-through at least once right at the beginning.

The Pregnancy Bible: I won’t be getting rid of this one quite yet as I’m still making use of it. This book is much better illustrated than the other three (in that it’s actually illustrated), with lots of glossy, full-colour photographs and artists’ renditions. The downside, of course, is that the content isn’t nearly as detailed. Other than a skim, I haven’t actually bothered reading the whole book, since I simply wasn’t finding anything new that wasn’t covered far better in the other three books.

What I like about this book is the section on fetal development. Each week gets its own photograph (or drawn representation), along with approximate weight and size of the baby, and a little description of what changes the baby is going through (“Your baby is beginning to look almost human now, and her tail has nearly vanished,” for example). It’s been something of a tradition since we dated our pregnancy to sit together at the start of each week and read the relevant blurb.

If you are someone who learns through books, this should not be your primary resource. This is a fun book, not one you want to be getting most of your information from.

My Thoughts On Pregnancy Books

A co-worker complained to me that she couldn’t read any pregnancy books because they made her worry too much. Any good resource is going to cover all the things that can go wrong, and if you have the kind of personality that will then imagine that everything is going wrong, you probably don’t want to spend too much time with these books.

I’m the complete opposite. For me, reading about all the horrible things that can go wrong make me feel powerful, like I’ll be ready if any of these things happen. If you’re more like me, you’ll probably want to read as much as you possibly can! Just make sure you know yourself and, if you find that you are getting overwhelmed, stop reading.

If you do read more than one book, you will find that there are many contradictions – often on matters that should be simply “is there or is there not?” questions. Do episiotomies prevent tearing or cause tearing? How complicated could that question possibly be? Very, apparently. So be prepared. My advice would be never to stick with a single source – read as many books/websites and talk to as many healthcare professionals as you can and make your own decision based on what seems the most plausible to you. That being said, be prepared to change your mind as you receive new information or experiences. The most dangerous thing, I would say, is to decide that one side has the “right” answer and to follow that even when it’s clearly not working for you and your body.

The other thing you will likely notice is that these books can make you feel very guilty. Pregnant women sometimes have cravings and we just really really want that cheeseburger. We also have social obligations and find ourselves in our favourite restaurants knowing that we’re not supposed to eat the things we like any more. My philosophy is this: Avoid the really bad stuff, eat healthy overall, and forgive yourself when you occasionally eat something that isn’t so healthy. After all, if you’re going to break your dietary ideals, you should at least be able to enjoy the experience! Thankfully, most pregnancy books nowadays will take this more flexible approach, but you will find some pretty crazy sticklers out there. Pregnancy comes with all sorts of symptoms and discomfort – guilt shouldn’t be one of them. If a book is making you feel uncomfortable or excessively guilty, put it down.

The last thing I want to say is that you should avoid buying pregnancy books before reading them. We bought all of ours (except The Mother Of All Pregnancy Books, which was a gift) and I really regret it. As I said above, I read them all early on and then didn’t touch them again. Whenever I have specific questions, I tend to turn to either my midwife or the internet, so I really haven’t been using these as on-going resources. If I could do it over again, I would have borrowed the books from the library to read them, and then only bought those that I could see myself using more than once.