Parents of babies, toddlers, school age children and
teenagers will find much in this book to provoke, irritate, and clarify the
tough and often perplexing work of raising and educating 21st century kids.
Marano, even when she fails to persuade, makes us think hard about what parents
should expect from their children and what kids need to become strong, happy,
and healthy young adults.
If I weren't the seasoned parent of two teenagers, I wonder how I'd feel about having children after reading this daunting but interesting and ultimately hopeful book. Marano, aiming to create as much drama as she can muster, begins by sounding the alarm on a "national crisis" of heavy-handed, selfish parenting and the generation of cowardly, inauthentic, depressed, numb and/or self-destructive young adults it's produced. In a series of sometimes strident arguments presented under catchy chapter headings ("We're All Jewish Mothers Now," "Cheating Childhood," "Meet Mom and Dad, the New Hall Monitors," "Crisis on Campus," and "Arrested Development") Marano presents loads of data from an array of psychological, physiological, neurological and psychiatric studies, as well as anecdotes from teachers, pediatricians, college administrators, educators, and even children themselves, to prove her thesis that misguided, cowardly, controlling, and overambitious parents are crippling kids and ruining their chances for happiness or competence.
Marano seems shrill when she presents case after case of messed-up children and phobic, narcissistic, and competitive parents. One haunting example of toxic academic overachievement is the Ivy League college student so numbed by a lifetime of academic pressure that attempted suicide is her only way to discover who she really is and what she really wants, or the smothering young mother unable to spend time away from her four year old daughter, even for a few hours. Marano scorns moms who tuck those little bottles of antibacterial gel in their kids' lunchboxes (I plead guilty to this one. Am I crazy? Have I made my daughters feel that the world is a dangerous and scary place?), and scoffs at overzealous mothers who protect their toddlers from shopping cart germs with cloth liners (I admit that I might have done this, too, if these had been available.).
Marano says little about her own parenting style, but includes a few details about her two sons, one of whom grew up with a life-threatening peanut allergy. She insists that children absolutely need time away from their parents in order to learn how to calm and reassure themselves, and, most importantly, in order to learn how to take care of themselves. She is skeptical about the value of stay-at-home mothering and thinks that the women who've sacrificed a career for the job of parenting have made a mistake that will hurt not only their children but their marriages.
Critical of the almost umbilical cell phone connection between kids and parents, and highly skeptical of attachment parenting, Marano heartily approves of daycare, babysitters, and sleepway camps. There is nothing for these worried parents to fear, she asserts, from germs, childhood solitude or exploration (including playing "doctor"), and reminds the reader that the likelihood of stranger abduction or molestation is almost nil.
The saddest sections of the book are also the most persuasive and concern the exuberant, brave, elastic and exploratory ways children learn, and the increasingly rigorous and unforgiving expectations that burden school-age children. Marano explains why boredom, failure and fidgeting are healthy and often necessary; and that kids need to fail in order to learn or to succeed. She points out the dangerous lack of physical activity or expression in many American schools and the frightening pathologizing of perfectly normal childhood behaviors.
I was a college student in the late sixties and early seventies, and a university instructor in the late seventies and early eighties, and suspect Marano exaggerates the "crisis" of drinking and mental illness on college campuses today (Mightn't more thorough and transparent reporting skew current numbers?). But Marano is sensible when she notes that almost constant cell phone use damages our ability to live in the present or to connect to strangers. I was disappointed that she says little about this generation's addiction to communication via Facebook and its effect on young people's ability to socialize.
Despite the careful accumulation of evidence, Marano is most powerful when she demonstrates what works for children rather than what doesn't. Her chapter on Sudbury Valley School, a school where learning is completely student-directed, was especially inspiring and reassuring: Marano reminds parents that their children are brave explorers who will welcome responsibility and embrace life's challenges and adventures -- if we let them.
This review is from the May 2, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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