The exasperating thing about parenting books is that most of us cherry-pick our own issues and then put the books on a shelf, never to be looked at again. With few exceptions (“The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” by Wendy Mogel and “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman), they are crashing bores to read.
Most of them are redundant and often present solutions that are impractical or unrealistic. For the most part, I found “You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child” by Betsy Brown Braun (HarperCollins, $15.99) to be in that category.
In fairness to the author, she acknowledges and even recommends that you use the book for the purposes of your own particular needs, and she gets major “props” from me for that. In the first chapter, “How to Use This Book,” Braun generously exonerates the reader (and we all know who we are) who finds it impossible to read these things cover to cover. Instead, she suggests that we “begin with the chapter whose subject matter interests you the most, or one that screams, ‘My child needs me to know this right now!’ ”
However, in her introduction, she makes a case for the proposition that a child’s obnoxious behavior now may be an asset later in life. This was presented in a much more lyrical and interesting manner by Mogel in her discussion of the role of yetzer hara (evil inclination) in the development of middot (good character traits) in children and adults, pointing out that all human curiosity, ambition and sparkle depend on it.
For parents who are clinging to the flotsam of hope that their outward-appearing sociopathic 7-year-old might turn out to be a systems analyst instead of John Wayne Gacy, Mogel’s fascinating chapter devoted to this topic offers so much more than the passing paragraph offered by “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” That’s pretty much the problem with the entire book: tired topics done better by others.
Another maddening thing about these kinds of books is that they’re contradictory. Braun’s book states, “Working with hundreds of families, I have seen that the children who go through their growing years with the least sense of entitlement also have specific character traits such as independence and self-reliance.” Although certain kinds of “entitlement” can assuredly be a handicap toward hard work, as discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers,” it can also be an asset.
“[M]iddle-class children learn a sense of entitlement,” Gladwell writes. “That word, of course, has negative connotations these days. But [Annette] Lareau means it in the best sense of the term: ‘They acted as though they had a right to pursue their own individual preferences and to actively manage interactions in institutional settings; they were open to sharing information and asking for attention. ... Even in fourth grade, middle-class children appeared to be acting on their own behalf to gain advantages.’” In other words, without being bratty or obnoxious, these kids learned how to be proactive and resourceful when faced with obstacles. Those are valuable tools and things not to be discouraged in a child.
Many parenting books give you a “script” of things to say to your child for every situation. They don’t work. I’ve found that even small children recognize that Mommy or Daddy is talking funny, and the older child will downright mock you.
The most interesting thing in this book is the way Braun frames the evolutionary reasons for our problems with our kids: The fact that in ancient cultures, everyone in the family worked. Children felt essential and contributed to the success of the families’ survival. Today, the child is catered to and, as such, is almost a small deity in our midst. All roads lead to his or her nourishment and happiness.
Finally, Braun presents the “52 Cures for Affluenza.” I must say that even though, again, not particularly enlightening, it’s almost worth the price of admission.
Laraine Newman is a founding member of The Groundings and an original cast member of “Saturday Night Live.” She is the mother of two daughters, 15 and 18 years old.