All across America, parents are prancing around the house naked. That’s because our children are in school — and (for the most part) we are saying goodbye to the maddening on-again-off-again online learning of the past two years. But at the same time the cost of these years on physical and mental health has been staggering. The latest crop of parenting books tries to reckon with this reality.
According to the Covid Collaborative, an organization of doctors and thought leaders who are focusing on policy recommendations and our post-pandemic future, about 6.7 million children worldwide have lost a parent or caregiver to Covid. So while not Covid-specific, A PARENT’S GUIDE TO MANAGING CHILDHOOD GRIEF: 100 Activities for Coping, Comforting, & Overcoming Sadness, Fear & Loss (Adams Media, 208 pp., paperback, $16.99), by the counselor and play therapist Katie Lear, is particularly welcome right now. Kids of different ages and genders grieve differently, and Lear shows you can help your child cope.
Most of the book consists of reading and clever craft activities that you and your child can do to help process loss. I am particularly fond of one called “Feeding the Worry Monster,” appropriate for kids ages 5 to 10, especially the introvert who doesn’t necessarily want to discuss everything with you. Ask your child to imagine a monster that eats worries for dinner. Get the child to write down their worries on pieces of paper, and then feed them to the monster. The monster is basically a used tissue box you can decorate however you want. But don’t forget the googly eyes. Really, everything is better with googly eyes.
During the pandemic summer with my teenage sons, I might as well have been living with raccoons. I’d wake up at 3 in the morning and find them both busy doing, well, something; their range of vampire pastimes included singing or making macaroni and cheese or playing poker with masked randos who were also happily nocturnal. And then … the school year began. The transition was not pretty.
In THE SLEEP-DEPRIVED TEEN: Why Our Teenagers Are So Tired, and How Parents and Schools Can Help Them Thrive (Mango, paperback, 280 pp., $18.95), the journalist Lisa L. Lewis discusses the science behind this phenomenon — why adolescents actually need almost as much sleep as they did when they were younger, and why the fact that about 70 percent of them in this country don’t get enough puts them at risk for everything from poor performance in schools to suicide. Even a small increase in sleep time can reap benefits. Lewis lobbied for, and actually won, a later high school start time in California; a chunk of the book is devoted to showing you how to be a sleep activist in your own community.
What would have been even more useful, though, are helpful ideas about getting buy-in from your teenager. How do you actually make them understand the need for more zzzzs?
Between 2016 and 2020, writes Donna Jackson Nakazawa in her sobering GIRLS ON THE BRINK: Helping Our Daughters Thrive in an Era of Increased Anxiety, Depression, and Social Media (Harmony, 320 pp., $28), girls were 48 percent more likely to have a depression diagnosis and 43 percent more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorder than boys of the same age. Some of us may mock the need for “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” in academia, but what’s not laughable is that our kids are growing up in a world of insecurity about everything from school (increasingly frequent shootings) to climate to future employment. And then there is social media, which often gives young girls in particular all the information they need to feel scared with little of the context.
After describing the environmental and physiological “toxic stressors” on girls, Nakazawa offers simple but powerful ways to combat them. And she doesn’t only explain why it’s beneficial to keep your children from certain online influences as long as you can — she actually has a step-by-step program for how to do it. It’s definitely more complex than saying “No,” and it won’t prevent arguments and anger in the present. But it’s the kind of process that in a few years might genuinely get your girl to say, “I’m glad you made me wait.”
The notion that children are all “good inside” even when they are being monsters is very trendy among parents. So it’s no wonder that the psychologist and mother-of-three Becky Kennedy — “Dr. Becky” to her 1.3 million followers on Instagram — is so popular, with her championing of this point of view. She is fond of saying her mission is to rethink the way we raise our children. But it may be more accurate to say she is asking us to rethink how we were raised: Her method, she says, is “as much about self-development as it is about child development.” In GOOD INSIDE: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be (Harper Wave, 336 pp., $28.99), Kennedy argues that when parents favor the behaviorist methods of their parents — timeouts, sticker charts and so on — they are choosing “shaping behavior above understanding behavior.” Behaviorism, she argues, sacrifices the close relationship of the parent and child, and we must switch our mind-set “from ‘consequences’ to ‘connection.’”
Instead, Kennedy says, you need to connect at all costs, even in the child’s worst moments. Helping the child regulate their behavior means validating the child’s emotions and guiding them toward making better decisions.
Fair enough, and much of what she has to say — about teaching resilience, about modeling appropriate behavior — is all great common sense. But have you ever tried to emotionally connect to, say, a child who is screaming and kicking the back of someone’s seat on an airplane? Dr. Becky loves scripts, and this one would be something like, “I know you’re bored right now and kicking feels good. But what would be a better way to deal with being bored?”
I am sure these sorts of scripts work with some actual human kids. Those kids do not belong to any parent I know.
I couldn’t help wondering, too, how all that emotional validation is going to work in the real world. What boss is going to jolly you along to get the results he wants?
Yes, I know, it’s a miracle my sons still talk to me. But that’s the thing about parenting: Whatever the books say, the relationship you have is not that fragile. You just have to be a moderately decent human being. Screw up a thousand times, and your kids will love you anyway.
Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”