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My Love-Hate Relationship with Parenting Books

Preschoolers gone Wild

Call the parenting experts, quick!

You know those parenting how-to books of the “foolproof method for raising loving, respectful, confident and well-behaved children” variety? The ones with catchy names, written by “experts,” that promise (promise!) that if you use their method, you can’t possibly go wrong, and that peace and love will reign supreme in your home and, by extension, the world? Well, I’ve read a few of them over the past couple of the years, and a couple over the last few months in particular, and I think I’m ready to write my own. Here goes. Ahem.

Scenario #1: The Morning Rush

It’s a hectic morning in the Jones household, and Mrs. Jones is trying to get her three-year-old son, Little Jimmy, ready for preschool.

“Come on, Jimmy,” she says. “Time to get your shoes on!”

But Little Jimmy is busy playing with his new toy dinosaur. “But I wanna keep playing!” he whines.

“Come on, now, little Jimmy, you don’t want to be late for school!” She says, starting to get tense. They’re already running late, and she is hoping to get in a trip to the grocery store after dropping Jimmy off.

“No!” says Jimmy, and flings his dinosaur across the room. “I don’t wanna go to school!”

Mrs. Jones goes over to Jimmy and yanks him up by the arm. “Now listen to me, young man, you will not talk to me in that tone! And you will not throw dinosaurs, ever! Go and pick that up right now and then go get your shoes on!”

Now Little Jimmy goes into full tantrum mode, lying on the floor, kicking and screaming.

Mrs. Jones is at her wits’ end. “Fine!” she says, “Scream all you want! I’m leaving!” She goes to the liquor cabinet and grabs a bottle of tequila, gets her keys off the hall table, heads out the door and drives to Vegas. When she comes back, twenty years later, Little Jimmy is serving a life sentence for drug possession and armed robbery.

We’ve all been there, right??! Now, see what this scenario might look like if you use Jane Roper’s Foolproof Parenting Method!

It’s a hectic morning in the Jones household, and Mrs. Jones is trying to get her three-year-old son, little Jimmy, ready for preschool. She crouches down next to him, at a nurturing but independence-enabling distance, puts a hand on his shoulder, and says, “Wow, Jimmy, looks like you’re having a great time playing with that dinosaur!”

Jimmy beams up at her. “I am, Mommy!” he says. “I love how you notice and care about my likes and interests! It makes me feel so safe!”

Mrs. Jones smiles. “It’s eight o’clock. You know what that means, Jimmy?”

Jimmy’s face lights up–he knows the answer to this question, and that makes him feel so good! “It’s time for school!” he replies.

“That’s right!” Mrs. Jones says. “Yay, school! You seem really excited to go! And we’ll go as soon as you put your toys away and put your shoes on, OK?”

“OK!” says Jimmy, scrambling to his feet, dropping his dinosaur.

“Uh oh, Jimmy,” says Mrs. Jones. “Toys don’t go on the floor.”

“But I wanna go to school!” Jimmy cries, his face turning red. He’s gearing up for a tantrum now. “I don’t wanna clean up!”

Mrs. Jones snaps her fingers three times, spits over her left shoulder and says “Cochise!”

A sweet, slightly deranged smile breaks over Jimmy’s face. “OK, Mommy. I’ll put my dinosaur away so no one will step on it. Safety is important!”

One minute later, Jimmy’s shoes and coat are on, and they’re out the door. They’re so ahead of schedule that even have time to pull the car over on the way to preschool and pet a little bunny they see on the side of the road.

And Mrs. Jones is so happy and relaxed that instead of going to the grocery store after dropping Jimmy off, as planned, she goes out and buys a sexy lingerie set and surprises Mr. Jones at work.

“Wow, what inspired this?” Mr. Jones asks, incredulous, as he and Mrs. Jones fumble to take each other’s clothes off in the dark of the supply closet. “Wait, let me guess….” And they say it together, laughing: “Jane Roper’s Foolproof Parenting Method!!”

* * *

I’m still looking for a publisher for Jane Roper’s Foolproof Parenting Method, the book + DVD with bonus scenes of Mr. & Mrs. Jones in the supply closet. But apparently you need one of those “PhD” things to be taken seriously as a parenting “expert.” So, for the moment you — and I — are stuck with the other parenting books out there, if we care to read them.

And this is where my ambivalence comes in. I think that a lot of the tips and methods and strategies in these books are useful (even if the writing is often almost unbearably corny and condescending). There are some excellent reminders about how kids’ minds work, and what they need in terms of structure, limits, understanding, etc. But so much of it breaks down in practice. And — to make matters even more confusing — much of it is self-contradictory, between and even within different “methods.”

Threaten your child with consequences and give them a chance to self-correct! No, don’t threaten or give them a chance to self-correct, just show them the consequences! That’s how real life works! No, no, consequences are irrelevant if you show your children enough respect, compassion and empathy!

I mean, jeez, like I don’t have enough contradiction, chaos, and uncertainty in my life trying to parent two three year-olds? Like I need to feel even more insecure about my mothering than I already do?

So I try to remind myself to take these books with a large grain — a shaker, actually — of salt. Take what I can from them, give some of the methods a spin (we had a week of “1-2-3 Magic” in our house before we decided we really didn’t like the dynamic it was setting up, but we still trot it out when we get desperate), but above all, try to stay tuned in to what works for our kids, our family. Not what works for the Joneses. (Except maybe the supply closet thing….)

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