Highly Recommended Books for Parents Who Care About Parenting and Want to do Better: Six Reviews

Max Innes, PhD Clinical Fellow, Approved Supervisor American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy For Parent Support Services Society of British Columbia And Moving Forward Family Services

1. Siegel, D.J., Bryson, T.P. (2011) The Whole-Brain Child: Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Delacorte Press

If you are going to read just one book on parenting, Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s The Whole Brain Child is the one to read. Not only is it the best book on parenting, it is essential reading for all parents. Combining a thorough-going knowledge of child development and neurobiology, with their gift for organizing and presenting ideas clearly and succinctly, the authors pass on essential knowledge and know-how about parenting. When necessary, technical ideas are expressed in such a way that they are easily grasped and always connected to the practical challenges of parenting. Good parenting practices are made all the more accessible through Tuesday Mourning’s expressive illustrations.

We can learn how to survive and thrive in challenging parenting moments, how to change command and demand parenting into connect and redirect parenting and, instead of dismissing and denying our child’s feelings and concerns, encourage them to cope with difficult experiences by helping them to exercise mindsight. We discover that knowing a little about the brain and the way a child’s brain works helps us to make better decisions about parenting. For example, the next time our child loses it and rages, it will be helpful to discern if it is an upstairs tantrum or a downstairs tantrum, and knowing this will ease our way to know whether to connect with our child’s left brain or right brain.

Or, what about the next time there’s a “wipe out” on the scooter and, although their physical injuries are superficial, our child seems inconsolable? Perhaps, instead of, “Don’t cry, it’s OK. You’ll have to be more careful!” (dismiss and deny), we might try the name it and tame it approach. Storytelling is something kids look forward to. And, just as children listening to stories is important, so is being able to tell their stories, especially when something hurtful, surprising or disappointing has happened. Taking  time to help children talk about what has unsettled them provides them the opportunity to address what has happened and come to terms with it so that they can move on (name it and tame it).

In The Whole Brain Child we learn about mindsight and how to teach it to children. Just as we see what happens “out there” with our eyes, we can see with our minds in a different way. We can visualise, imagine and ponder happenings. We can attend to the pictures in our head, the thoughts in our mind and the emotions in our bodies. When we take notice of what’s going on inside, we have more control over what we do outside, in the world. When we are able to recognie what is going on in our own mind, we can begin to understand what someone else might be seeing, imagining, thinking and feeling. When we and our children use this ability (mindsight) we are in touch with the important human (and primate) quality of empathy.

Above all, reading The Whole Brain Child will help us to be mindful parents, relating to our children thoughtfully and deliberately, with growing confidence in what we are doing, rather than reacting and flying by the seat of our pants. In our complex, fast changing lives, filled with multiple demands and responsibilities, it’s all too easy for us to be tough on ourselves as parents, even though we do the best we know how. However, there is good news. In the words of the authors; The great news The Whole-Brain Child offers is that even in the hard times you go through with your kids, even the mistakes you make as you parent, are opportunities to help your children grow, learn, and develop into people who are happy, healthy and fully themselves. (p. 149)

2. Ginsburg, K.R. (2011) Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings.  Elk Grove Village, Il: American Academy of Pediatrics

Kenneth Ginsberg, a pediatrician and specialist in adolescent medicine, introduces his excellent book by reminding us that stress is a fact of life; there’s always some stress in our lives. Indeed, it is an important tool that can aid our survival. We need to be aware of and, if necessary, respond to stress when we feel threatened. Stress takes on various forms at different levels. We are likely to experience a high level of stress if we see a mother bear with cubs coming down the road toward us. And we get stressed at little things like tomorrow’s exam, although it may not seem “little” at the time. How we identify and respond to different levels of stress is important because it has consequences for our safety and our health.

Stress is the outcome of many bodily responses. When we see, hear or feel something that alarms us, a complicated interplay of sensory responses and hormones occurs in our organs and cells, in interaction with our brain and nervous system. It is this interaction that we identify as stress. Our emotions have a lot to do with how we experience stress. And it is our brain that organizes our emotions and what we do with the consequences of stress in our bodies. How we think about stress and what we choose to do about it influences the outcome of stress. Resilience, a characteristic of all life, is a human quality that can be trained and can help us respond to stress effectively.

As parents who want the best for our children, we do our best to protect them from harm and misfortune. It soon becomes apparent, however conscientious we are, that we cannot eliminate stress from their lives. And even if we could, it would not be helpful because, as we’ve seen, stress is important to our survival. What we do want is to be able to help our children recognize stress and respond to it in ways that are most beneficial to their health and development. One gift we may have to offer, to help our children deal with stress, is to model how to handle stress in a healthy way. What we do as parents, as we manage stress effectively, will help our children know how to manage stress they experience. For most of us, this means we have to increase our self-understanding and do some personal work to change our own stress response. When we do this, it will benefit both our children and ourselves.

What else helps our children manage stress in their lives? Kenneth Ginsberg suggests that we show and teach our children how to be resilient, and to do this he introduces us to the “7 C’s of Resilience”: Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Contribution, Coping, and Control. Throughout the book he shows us the importance of these themes in our lives and how to work with them, providing examples to illustrate what he tells us, together with practical skills we can teach our children.

To recall one of many examples on encouraging confidence, Kenneth Ginsberg suggests that we need to often “catch them being good” at any age. Remember when your toddler staggered from one parent to the other parent’s outstretched hands. “Good job!” and many other encouragements you said over and over again. While the activities we choose to praise and our tone of voice will change as our children mature, genuine praise is good to hear at any age. When and why does “Good job” turn so quickly into “You’ve forgotten to do your chores again!” or “Why can’t you smarten up?”  Perhaps it gets more difficult to offer praise and encouragement because what needs appreciation becomes less obvious, and we get out of practice. However, it's good to remember that it's not just the successes they and we accomplish, it’s also their and our qualities as people. We may wait a long time to praise our child for getting an “A”, scoring a goal, or achieving valedictorian. However, all young people have personal qualities like humour, independence, perseverance, kindness, curiosity and many more that you can identify.  Catch them being good.

3. Siegel, D.J., Bryson, T.P. (2014) No Drama Discipline: The Whole Brain Child Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture your Child’s Developing Mind. New York: Bantam Books

If you’ve read The Whole Brain Child and you’re looking for more, you will find Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson’s No Drama Discipline rewarding. There is the same attention to the latest research from child development and neurobiology, the same commitment to detail and clarity in the way they express their ideas, and the same reader-friendly layout that was apparent in their first book. If you feel that your child is “out of control” and you are close to “climbing up the wall,” or you just want to handle the challenges of parenting with a little more equanimity, the ideas in this book have the potential to bring you and your child relief, and a little more calm into your life. “You can do better”, as they say.

The word discipline often conjures up images of military order and swift punishment for those who fail to abide by its rules. However, this is a particular usage of the word; there is no necessary connection between discipline and punishment, and military order and swift punishment are not recommended for parenting. If you consider the origins, “discipline” is related to “disciple”.  Leadership and learning “the way” are what is imparted to the disciple, who commits to following principles that he or she is drawn to and increasingly believes in. While you may not find your children hanging on every word you say, expectantly waiting for the next, your role as parent is hopefully closer to that of a nurturing teacher, leader and guide rather than that of a shrill drill sergeant.  The central message of No Drama Discipline is that: You really can discipline in a way that’s full of respect and nurturing, but that also maintains clear and consistent boundaries. You can do better (p. xiv).

While “spare the rod and spoil the child” is less often heard these days than in the past, “tough love” and “tiger mother” are still close by. Strict, no-nonsense, “do as your told” parenting is still with us. While this may be one part of parenting, the authors of No Drama Discipline let us know that the research on styles of parenting is clear: Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, relationally, and even educationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of connection and nurturing, while also communicating and maintaining clear limits and high expectations. Their parents remain consistent while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion. As a result, the kids are happier, do better in school, get into less trouble, and enjoy more meaningful relationships (p. xxv).

Among many helpful ideas you’ll find in this book, are:

  • Strategies that help parents identify their own discipline philosophy – and master the best methods to communicate the principles and skills they wish to pass on
  • Facts on child brain development – and what kind of discipline is most appropriate and constructive at all ages and stages
  • The way to calmly and lovingly connect with your child – no matter how extreme the behaviour – while still setting clear and consistent limits
  • Tips for navigating children through tantrums to achieve insight, empathy, and repair
  • Twenty discipline mistakes that even great parents make – and how to stay focused on the principles of whole-brain parenting and discipline techniques.

No Drama Discipline will help you relate with your children so both you and they feel more competent, confident and connected.

4. Faber, A., Mazlish, E. (2012) How to talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York: Scribner

As you might guess, this book is all about communication! If you’re looking for a tried-and-true, thoroughly tested book, praised by parents and professionals around the world, you are likely to enjoy How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.  Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish share their latest insights and suggestions from their 30th Anniversary edition. In a clear, down-to-earth, respectful style, the authors outline challenges of parenting, describe approaches to overcoming them, and explore typical parent-child exchanges, before and after the principles they suggest, illustrated with expressive cartoons of parenting in action.

If you find workbooks helpful, you will appreciate the numerous exercises including topics to consider and debate, questions to answers, and worksheets to complete. In fact, the authors suggest that you take your time, reading the book a chapter at a time, completing the exercises at the end of each section and, if possible, sharing and discussing what you read with a friend. They suggest that reading and sharing their book in this way will likely help you most because you will have time to consider their ideas carefully, think about how the parenting responses and skills they describe apply to you, and how you might introduce these skills into your own parenting. As they comment; experience tells us that the discipline of having to put skills into action and record the results helps put the results where they belong – inside you.

As we read the book, we find chapters on helping children deal with their emotions, engaging cooperation, alternatives to punishment, encouraging autonomy, praise, freeing children from playing roles, and putting it all together. The authors recognize that living with children can be a humbling experience; I was a wonderful parent until I had my own. I was an expert on why everyone was having problems with theirs. Then I had my own.

They start with feelings. How we address feelings are crucial because many of us when we were children and maybe some of us even now, as adults, are sadly not taken seriously – not our feelings, not our ideas, not our preferences. As children, we had little control of what others said or did to us, or did not do for us. Many of us, when our feelings were inconvenient for our parents, were persuaded that what we felt in the moment was not really what we felt, or could not possibly be the case, or that we ought not to feel that way. The beginnings of “fake news”. We had to deal with all these contradictions as we were attempting to make sense of the world. So, this is where the authors begin; for us as parents to stop and listen, take notice of what our children are telling us, accept what they are feeling (even if it is inconvenient, unimaginable, improper, weird, out of step etc.), and provide our children with the space and opportunity to trust their feelings.

Children have to figure out their own feelings – we cannot teach them how to feel but we can help them to express their own feelings (not what we think their feelings should be in various circumstances).  We can listen, acknowledge their feelings, and give them the opportunity to act in ways that honour their feelings. The authors do a good job of helping parents in this direction. As they say, If our attitude is not one of compassion, then whatever we say will be experienced by the child as phony or manipulative.

5. Siegel, D.J., Bryson, T.P. (2020) The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired. New York: Ballantine Books

If, like me, you’ve read one or more of their books, and believe that Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson are among the top authorities writing on parenting today, you will be interested in what they have to say about the importance of being a parent and how to be a good one. Their most recent book focuses on how parents approach the child-parent relationship and answers the question; What’s the single most important thing I can do for my kids to help them succeed and feel at home in the world?

You will be relieved to read that many of us – especially committed, thoughtful, intentional parents – are frequently troubled by feelings of anxiety and inadequacy about the way we parent.  We don’t stop at worrying about our children’s safety and wellbeing; we also worry about not being a “good-enough” parent, not teaching them all the skills they’ll need in life, letting them down or hurting them, not giving them enough attention – or too much, and all the other concerns as we reflect on the way we relate to our children. To all this the authors have one essential message full of comfort and hope, Just show up. When you’re not sure how to respond in a given situation with your child, don’t worry. There’s one thing you can always do, and it’s the best thing of all. Instead of worrying, or trying to attain some standard of perfection that simply doesn’t exist, just show up (pp. 3-4).  

The authors suggest that “showing up” is to do with providing a quality of presence as well as being physically present. Showing up means bringing our whole being – our attention and awareness to the moment – when we are with our children. Then our children will have the experience of having our undivided attention for the time we commit to really showing up. Four characteristics of showing up are explored in the book – the Four S’s. Providing the Four S’s of showing up will ensure that our children feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. When our children feel safe, they will feel protected from harm. When our children feel seen, they will know that we care about them and pay attention to them. When our children feel soothed, they will know that we will be there for them when they’re hurt. When our children feel secure, based on presence of the other S’s of showing up, they will be able to trust us to predictably help them to “feel at home” in the world, so that they can then learn how to help themselves feel safe, seen and soothed.

The authors introduce their book with a quotation from Winnie-the-Pooh. I don’t think I can do better than end this review with the same lines of reassurance, something we’d all welcome from a parent:

If there is a tomorrow when we’re not together... there is something you must always remember.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem,  and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is,

Even if we’re apart... I’ll always be with you.

Christopher Robin to Winnie-the Pooh,                                                                                      
Pooh’s Grand Adventure

6. Siegel, D.J. (2013) Brainstorm; The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain: An Inside-Out Guide to the Emerging Adolescent Mind, Ages 12 – 24. New York: Penguin

If you have challenging times with your pre-teen, teenager or teen-adult, would like to understand them, and get along better, Dan Siegel’s Brainstorm does an excellent job of describing the fast-changing teenage brain and offering practical direction for the parent. He provides explanations for adolescent behaviour that is so often unfathomable, and offers ideas about relating to teenagers to enable us to be in step with their developmental concerns, and continue to relate to them successfully as parents.

Siegel suggests that the essence of the adolescence can be captured in the acronym ES-SE-N-CE.    

ES – Emotional Spark: Emotions are close to the surface and intense during adolescence and, although they are sometimes difficult to handle (for teen and parent alike), they are essential to the creation of meaning and vitality throughout our lives.
SE – Social Engagement: Relationships with friends take on special importance in adolescence. Friendship and social connectedness remain essential throughout life.
N – Novelty: Searching for and creating new experiences that stimulate senses, emotions, thoughts and activity take on a high priority during the adolescent years. Novelty is a significant aspect of a healthy lifestyle throughout our lives.
CE – Creative Explorations: Adolescence is a time of getting used to a new world view that results from increased sophistication of conceptual thinking, abstract reasoning and expanded consciousness. For the adolescent, it is getting used to the brainpower of a new viewpoint; for the adult, as we age, it is increasingly a matter of holding on to this brainpower.

Everyday parent-teen occurrences are frequently challenging for parents because each of these characteristics of the essence of adolescence, when taken to the limit, can be disturbing, even dangerous. For example, the quest for novelty can lead to extremes of behaviour such as drug use, high-risk behaviour, and limit testing in attempts to heighten sensory stimulation. Explanations for this sort of behaviour and practical steps to address it are explored throughout the book, as are ways of understanding, living with, and addressing the potential difficulties.

Another reason parents may experience discomfort, as they negotiate this stage of parenting and watch their teenager grow, is that the very characteristics that identify the essence of adolescence are also vital and meaningful aspects of a full, meaningful, and satisfying life in general. Few of us, as adults, manage to keep alive the vitality of youth. Perhaps this is because we have had to give up so much to get whatever we have managed to get. This may lead to disappointment, regret, even envy as we witness our child approaching adulthood.

As well as difficulties, there are rewards for the parent and benefits for the young person, when challenges of the parent-teen relationship are addressed and a balance found. If open to the possibility, we as parents can be reintroduced to the vitality in life that the teen so often seems to take for granted. The essence of adolescence and of adult life will have different expressions but they need not be alien. Indeed, the essence of adolescence may be nothing short of the essence of life.

Dan Siegel summarizes as follows:

Our adolescence is a time of great integration – integration of the many aspects of ourselves. During this important period in our lives, the second dozen years, we explore the very nature of who we are. And as we weave the essence of adolescence – the emotional spark, the intense social engagement, the novelty seeking, and the drive toward creative exploration – into who we are becoming, we are undergoing a fundamental life process that does not, by any means, end when we are twenty-four. Integration of identity is a lifelong journey . . . (pp.229 – 230)

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