Building skills for life
At the start of the 21st century, parents are understandably worried about how to help children navigate a world characterized by economic uncertainty and academic pressure, cyber-distractions and omnipresent media. These books offer advice for every stage of the parenting journey.
In recent years, scientists and psychologists have gained dramatic new insights into the brains and behavior of babies and young children. Among other things, they have discovered that babies are aware of language, numbers and feelings at just a few months old, and that the executive functions of the brain, which help us organize our lives and behavior, are critical to achievement. Ellen Galinsky draws upon these insights in Mind in the Making, an overview of the seven “learning skills”—like “Focus and Self Control” and “Critical Thinking”—that, she argues, help children succeed in life.
Galinsky references her own experiences, brief parenting anecdotes and the research and opinions of experts as she first details the importance of each “essential life skill” and then provides suggestions for how parents can stimulate that skill. The suggestions are as specific as games to play and questions to ask, and as broad as reducing parental stress. While Mind in the Making offers much food for thought, its breadth can be overwhelming; just trying to follow the 19 suggestions for promoting focus could drive a parent to distraction.
HELPING CHILDREN LEARN
Like Galinsky, Jane Healy focuses on the brain; while Galinsky addresses the basic skills that underlie success in all aspects of life, Healy—an educational psychologist, teacher and brain expert—specifically tackles learning problems, and her approach is both more focused and more comprehensive. In Different Learners, she makes a persuasive case for attending carefully to both genetic and environmental causes of learning problems.
While learning problems often originate in the brain, Healy argues that they can be dramatically exacerbated by a child’s “home, school, community, and culture.” Carefully laying out the workings of the brain, along with the causes and consequences of different kinds of learning issues, she argues that paying close attention to a child’s specific needs and making changes in their environment and behavior can make medication unnecessary.
Healy is persuasive, thoughtful and, above all, sympathetic to the challenges and fears parents face, providing many useful tips and strategies for how they can help their children.
GETTING IT RIGHT FOR GIRLS
In Girls on the Edge, Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift, now turns his attention to the opposite sex. Sax believes that contemporary culture, with its focus on appearance and performing for others, is preventing girls from developing an “authentic sense of self.” In the first part of the book, he targets early sexualization, the Internet and environmental toxins as primary causes of this absence, and obsessions (from anorexia and alcohol abuse to perfectionism) as one of its signal manifestations.
Sax, a strong public advocate for single-sex education, believes that boys and girls are innately different and should be taught and coached in different ways. In the book’s second half, he outlines some of these differences and offers advice on how to help girls flourish.
Some of Sax’s suggestions are common sense: limiting and supervising computer time, making sure your daughter gets enough sleep, being a “Just Right” parent (“firm but not rigid, loving but not permissive”) instead of “Too Hard” or “Too Soft.” His focus on gender difference and single-sex environments may be more controversial, but will ring true for some parents.
ONE MOTHER’S TEENAGER
While Sax takes a big-picture look at today’s teenage girls, in My Teenage Werewolf, author and mom Lauren Kessler focuses on one girl: her preteen daughter, Lizzie, with whom she increasingly finds herself “completely immersed in mutual hostility.” Seeking to understand Lizzie, and to prevent the semi-estrangement that characterized her post-adolescent relationship with her own mother, Kessler sets out to explore the world of contemporary teenagers.
She begins with research, learning about strategies for communicating with teens, the hormonal and brain changes that make teenagers so erratic and impulsive, and the stresses they face today. She joins Lizzie at school, camp and wrestling practice, becoming a “cultural anthropologist” of “the world of the twenty-first-century teen girl.”
In the two years she spends immersed in Lizzie’s life, Kessler discovers that her daughter is not a raging, sulking beast determined to make her mother’s life miserable, but a strong, thoughtful individual. Acknowledging Lizzie’s autonomy, and letting go of her own need to control her daughter, Kessler finds her way to the mother-daughter relationship she seeks—a relationship that was really there all along.