I read a lot of parenting books. I like books, and I trust books. I read friends’ blogs for fun, and I Google questions in a pinch, but when I want to learn something, I look in a book (something I have in common with Super Why). So when I learned I was pregnant with my first child, I immediately asked my doctor what book I should get to learn how to raise it. My doctor just laughed. “If there was one right way to raise a child,” she told me, “everyone would be doing it and millions of parenting books would not exist.”
With no parenting bible to guide me, I have been working my way through a library of child-rearing books over the last six years. I have read more than one hundred, and generally find one or two aspects of each that I hold onto and incorporate into my repertoire. For example, Harvey Karp’s “5 S’s” helped me avoid feeling frantic when my newborn was crying. Charlotte Kasl’s “If the Buddha Had Kids” gave me a sense of perspective of parenting as a marathon, not a sprint.
Visiting my parents earlier this year, I came across an autographed copy of Ron Taffel’s “Parenting By Heart” in my mom’s library. It was the subtitle that made me pick it up: “How to Be in Charge, Stay Connecting, and Instill Your Values, When it Feels Like You’ve Got Only 15 Minutes a Day,” but it was the subtitle of Chapter 10 that prompted me to read it: “How to use bribery, threats and other ‘dirty’ tricks to help your child become a better person.” The book was published in 1991, and throughout the author laments the “good old days” before TV ads targeted at kids (when was that?) and Nintendo. I imagine the second edition, released in 2002, makes the point that all of Dr. Taffel’s advice is even more relevant in the age of smartphones and social media. [Although his tip to “put on your walkman” when siblings start fighting is likely less effective when you just slip in your earbuds.]
The book is full of reassurances (every parent used bribery, but we could all be doing it more effectively) and recommendations that apply equally to toddlers and teens (e.g. instead of asking, “How was your day?” be more specific so you show you are involved, such as, “What instruments did you play in music class today?”). I probably will not remember or implement most of the useful ideas from this book, but I hope to hang on to the underlying metaphor that informs Dr. Taffel’s advice. He describes an “empathetic envelope” that surrounds a family that creates a boundary between you and the outside world. The envelope is created by the parents’ values, expectations, and ways of interacting with their children. For their part, kids constantly challenge their parents in order to feel the boundaries of the envelope. This gives them a sense of belonging, of being “held.”
Dr. Taffel describes how a thirteen-year-old girl might tell her parents she hates them for not letting her go to an unchaperoned party, but later that evening snuggle up next to her mother on the couch to watch TV. I see this push and pull so clearly in my ten-month-old. He is delighted with his own independence, and will climb the stairs even after I’ve told him, “No,” but he cries when he reaches the top because now I am too far away and he does not know how to come down. I’d swear my three-year-old sometimes spits at her brother just to get her dad or I to put her in time out so she can tell us what’s really going on with her.
Dr. Taffel’s point is that parents can bribe, threaten, and give in to their children on the little things, but must remain true to their values and expectations in a consistent and visible way so that kids feel secure. This makes a lot of sense to me. It is one thing to say that if the kids don’t clean up, they will not get any TV time before bed. That is a threat you are willing to enforce because it reinforces the importance of everyone pitching in to look after the house. By contrast, sending the kids straight to bed because they accidentally broke a plate while clearing the table may relieve some of the parent’s anger and frustration, but it will leave the children feeling confused and disconnected.
This book also discusses the challenges of “modern” parenting (from a 1980s perspective), and towards the end, traces a lot of the pressures to the absence of an empathetic envelope for parents. Aha! I am concurrently reading Sebastian Junger’s “Tribe,” which the universe sent to me as I was trying to put a finger on what is missing in my life. That is the subject of an upcoming post, but suffice it to say, I do often find myself wishing I had a cocoon of values and expectations to guide and support me. For now, I hope to focus on creating an empathetic envelope for my children and look forward to living on the edge of that envelope.