A Guide to One’s Self?

A few year's ago I saw one of my children reading Quirky Kids, a book for parents of children who have issues, but not severe life-disrupting disabilities. Things like high-functioning autism, Asperger syndrome, or just some vague mishmash of behaviors that meant they weren't exactly typical, but no one really could give an exact name to why. She was really poring over it, studying it, leaving it on the back of the toilet, that sort of thing. When I got up the courage to ask her why she was reading it, she said she liked the italicized parts, which were the stories from the families of the children, how it was to struggle with a particular challenge, say table manners or rages, within their own family.

So: narrative, but within a guide-like framework. OK, I reasoned, but why not just pick up a novel? Some stories? Who knew? Eventually the interest faded.

Then this book came into my life:

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It was loaned to me by a very smart woman I know; she thought I would find the parts about books for girls interesting. And I read it. And, well, here's the thing. It's not that they're wrong, that's not the problem at all. For me the problem was one of tone: there is some strange combination of condescending, indignant, and scolding that I found intolerable. (For a similar reaction see smart post here.) It made me want to run out and purchase my girls whorish clothes and manicures…well not really, but it definitely rankled. I have a hard time with people—whether through books or conversations or anything—who are so entirely convinced they are right about things. Especially things having to do with other people—in this case their children—rather than themselves. If they say "I hate peaches," I may think they're crazy, but that's fine, it's their call. But if they say, "Allowing a child to _____ will ruin them," it sticks in my craw.

So what was I to think when that same child showed up reading Packaging Girlhood in the living room? At the kitchen table? Everywhere? I asked about it. "What can I say, I just like parenting books," she said. "Also, it's pretty good. They make a lot of good points."

And here's what's odd: I had a sudden memory of being 14 and compulsively reading—and rereading—Between Parent and Child, and also Between Parent and Teenager. Why did I do it? What compelled me about it? I don't know, I wasn't exactly in a clear frame of mind back then. But it definitely answered some odd ill-defined need.

Now the other child is asking, "Where's that book Why Bright Kids Get Bad Grades? There's a scale of bright kids in it that I really like." What's up? Why are these books even in my house? What does it all mean?

Do your kids read parenting books? Did you? What the heck?

13 thoughts on “A Guide to One’s Self?

  1. I love this post. My mom was not a big self-help book gal. No parenting books were left around, but I am not sure they were all the rage when I was young. I imagine that finding a book like that as a kid would be like finding a secret to what your parents are thinking, except it isn’t your parents so there might be some close attention paid to the content. ? It is only a guess, but I think it is fantastic that your kid(s) are interested and reading this type of stuff!

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  2. I definitely read parenting books. I don’t know why, either, I guess I probably felt like I could check myself against them. Plus, I also knew on some level that when my parents read parenting books, they were to some extent trying to read about *me*. I think I was interested in finding out what they were trying to find out about my life, if that makes any sense.
    Side note: Have you read “Cinderella Ate My Daughter”?

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  3. I haven’t read Cinderella Ate My Daughter, though I read some of the essays she wrote either as a part of it or to get ready for it. It’s odd, I don’t read much nonfiction of any kind, but there they are, lying around my house…

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  4. I read every decently written (and some not decently written) non-fiction book written for ADULTS (not children, NF for children just pissed me off) that I could lay my hands on – especially if there’s narrative interspersed. NF is a great genre that’s just done badly for kids. Parenting books were about right – not to difficult, and about something I could understand (me!). Also popular were any of the easier pop-science books. I must have read ‘the man who mistook his wife for a hat’ a million times. Then my mum went a did a class on self help books while she was studying at uni, and our house was full of the ‘men from mars’ – i read all of those too, and it was an interesting exercise in critical thinking. The 12 year old me and the 28 year old me still feel the same way about john gray.

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  5. My sister read Queen Bees and Wannabees when she was in middle school — it was right after mean girls came out and she wanted to read the book the movie was based on. I read Ophelia Speaks, and probably parts of Raising Ophelia. But maybe Ophelia Speaks was supposed to be for teens?

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  6. If my parents owned a parenting book, I read it. I think it was me trying to understand them trying to understand me.
    Also- would love to hear your thoughts on Cinderella Ate My Daughter. I didn’t find it as preachy as it could have been.

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  7. I definitely read parenting books when I was a kid! Whew, you have made me feel not weird for doing this. I was SURE I was the only one of my friends doing this. Ha! –And I’m not sure WHY I read them, they were just interesting to me, somehow.

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  8. It’s the vignettes. That’s what makes these books interesting – not the advice, which can sometimes be helpful but more often is kind of on one side of dumb or another, but the freaking mini-stories that always revolve around conflict. It’s like being a fly on the wall of someone else’s argument and it is AWESOME. I never had the opportunity to read parenting books when I was a kid but I did read the one self-help book my mom had, which was When I Say No, I Feel Guilty, and it was completely satisfying, reading the little tales of people who couldn’t say no and the sample conversations between pushy people and assertive “no”-sayers. If there had been parenting books around I would have totally read them.

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  9. I remember reading the “Can this marriage be saved” articles in Redbook as a teenager. Makes me shudder a little bit to think of it now. I understand your reaction to the parenting book. Objectively, I agreed with the advice in Dr. Sears’ Baby Book, but something about it really raised my hackles.

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  10. I loved reading parenting magazines and books as a kid, though I never let my parents catch me doing it. Part of it was wanting to hear stories about girls from an adult’s perspective, but part of it was also curiosity about how people besides my own parents treat their kids. If I remember being tempted to just casually “leave out” an article I read about not making older siblings play with younger siblings when the older sibling has a friend over.
    I’ve always liked reading parenting advice/lit about kids regardless of its relevance to me. Witness: I read this site obsessively and I have no kids yet. Also I read Cinderella Ate My Daughter. It’s just interesting!

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  11. I read this site obsessively and have no kids, either. 🙂
    And yes, I read parenting books. In my household, they were mostly about unschooling/homeschooling. I’m not sure why the appeal — maybe the vignettes, the glimpses into other people’s (or fictional people’s) lives. I wasn’t reading much narrative nonfiction, like memoirs or biographies. Or maybe it was the insight into my parents’ psychology, or psychology in general. Who knows?

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  12. I think I’m with Kiera, at least with respect to my own reading. I always loved the first-person narratives. I also love that your daughter described them as “the italicized parts.” As for the perverse (in a couple of senses of the word) desire to dress your girls up Bratz style, I’d be at war with myself — with my challenge authority half fighting with my “not gonna let my kid dress like a ho” half. (Ho half?) It’s like that Star Trek with Frank Gorshin “can’t you see he’s white on the right side and black on the left, and I’m….” Oh, never mind.

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