Which Parenting Books Do I Read?

I am a learner.  I am an achiever.  And I am a reader.  All these qualities worked well for me in college and in jobs I had—when I wanted to pass a test or learn a skill, I read the books and tried my best to earn the A.

When I became a parent, I naturally approached it the same way, and goodness knows there were plenty of parenting books available to give me all the advice I wanted.  I started with just two books that I received as gifts or heard recommended by people.  My oldest was then a newborn.  I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but my body and mind were still in shock that I had birthed a child, quit my full-time job, moved, and had my life turned upside down.  And there I sat in the rocking chair, reading the manual so that I could succeed in this new endeavor called parenting.

Here I am, a few weeks in to this thing called motherhood.

In the first book I found a few helpful chapters on breastfeeding, and then kept reading into what I didn’t realize at the time was basically an attachment parenting manifesto.  A lot of what the book said sounded really good—I wanted to bond deeply with my baby, and I knew early attachment was vitally important.

But I had a part-time job, so there were a few hours a week when I would need to be away from my baby.   Reading the book, I started to feel a little guilty about that.  I would not be able to nurse on demand, at least not 24/7.  Baby-wearing sounded like a sore back to me, and co-sleeping sounded like insomnia.  Did that make me a bad mother?  How was this going to work out?

But I plowed through that book and then picked up the next one beside the rocking chair.  At first a lot of what this book said rang true—my baby had a rough start and had spent his first week in the NICU, where the nurses had him on a schedule of nursing every three hours.  They certainly seemed to know what they were doing, so when this book touted the benefits of scheduling and recommended nursing every three hours, I was definitely on board.

But this book seemed adamant that strict scheduling (and allowing a lot of crying) was the only right way to care for babies, and that if I didn’t follow their philosophy, I would be sleepless and stressed, and my baby would grow up to be selfish.  I started to feel guilty again.  If my baby wanted to nurse before the three-hour mark and wouldn’t sleep through the night, and I had too much compassion in me to let him cry it out, did that make me a bad mother?

Mommy guilt: Oh, no!  He fell asleep before I swaddled him in his crib!

And I felt not only guilty, but confused.  Hey, wait a minute!  My first two parenting books, both recommended by trustworthy sources, were saying exactly opposite things.  So which one was right?  If the experts disagreed, how could I as a new mom possibly figure it out?

Then I mentioned the books I read to a couple friends of mine and learned through experience about the Mommy Wars.  Suddenly I realized there were different schools of thought, each with their extremes and abuses, and this was all very emotional.

Sitting in my rocking chair nursing my baby didn’t seem so easy anymore.  So to clear the confusion, I did what I do best—I started on a third book.  And a fourth.  And over the next several years, many more.

A lot of these parenting books have been genuinely helpful.  They have given me good advice on everything from bottle-feeding to sleeping to dealing with tantrums to responding to whining.  Some books have explored how to parent with grace and kindness.  Others have focused on helping your child’s brain development.

A few of these books I would rate five stars for how they helped to clarify parenting issues for me.  A few of these books I would give no stars at all and tape on them a warning label “Avoid! Avoid!” if I could.  Most books fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum—a mix of helpful stuff and not so helpful stuff.  And of course what specifically is helpful depends on the needs of each reader.  As I’ve grown as a parent, I’ve grown in my confidence to evaluate ideas and just take what uniquely helps me.

But increasingly I’ve wondered—are all these parenting books really necessary?  And is reading them all really helpful?

Mommy confusion: Are you sure this is safe?  Should he be in a baby swing?
What do the books say?  What is everyone else doing?
Mommy confidence: He’s having fun, and we are rolling with it.  This is what we do.

For all the benefits of reading parenting books, even the best ones, here are the potential problems that can infiltrate your mindset as you turn all those pages:

  • Legalism: I just need to follow all these parenting rules, and everything will work out.

  • Confusion: Which way is right?  All the books disagree.

  • Condemnation: I’m doing it wrong.  No wonder (my baby isn’t sleeping through the night, my toddler won’t eat vegetables, my child is disrespectful, fill in the blank).

  • Conflict: My spouse won’t read this book and now we disagree.  And now in conversations with my mommy friends online and in person we’re arguing about different practices more than we are supporting each other.

So if I could do it all again, and sit down by my shocked self clutching her first baby in the rocking chair, this is what I would say:

Close the books and look into your baby’s face.

Let go of the guilt, the confusion, the stress.

Don’t give one ounce of energy and thought to the Mommy Wars.

And I would say to myself in the rocking chair, after trying not to comment about how I needed a new haircut and how I may never be that skinny again, I would say, you’re wondering how to figure out this new thing called parenting?  Sure there are some books that may help you, but first focus on this:

  • Know God.  If you are digging deep in the Word every day, thinking about how much Jesus loves you and your baby, and becoming “filled with all the fullness of God,” then good parenting is just going to flow from that.

  • Know your spouse.  Talk together and try to forge together parenting practices unique to your family.  Of course this does not apply to abusive situations.  But for most of us trying to find our way as parents, unity in marriage is more important than dotting all your i’s and crossing all your t’s with a particular parenting philosophy.

  • Know your child.  Every single child is different, and what works for one may not work for another.  So stop studying the books and study your child.  The author doesn’t know your child.  You do, if you take the time to learn them.  Don’t let the advice of someone who doesn’t know your child shake your confidence.  Become the expert and advocate for your child.  Trust your instincts and your intuition.

  • Know your mentors.  Find parents whose kids are five, ten, twenty years older than yours.  Find families where you like what you see well enough to trust the advice they give.  It’s great to have friends who are your peers as parents, but you also need someone a few steps ahead who will give you practical advice when you ask for it.

That’s what I would tell myself in a rocking chair.  And then, before I gave in to the temptation of starting to list book titles, I would recommend a nap and go away.


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