Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World



Adam Grant accomplishes the barely possible with “Originals”: he writes a non-narrative account of industry and social science that’s so readable, putting it down feels like walking away from a fascinating conversation.

“When we marvel at the original individuals who fuel creativity and drive change in the world, we tend to assume they’re cut from a different cloth,” Grant writes, before setting out to debunk that myth. We all have “ideas for improving our workplaces, schools, and communities,” he says, but “many of us hesitate to take action.” Grant seeks to change that, sharing fascinating “studies and stories spanning business, politics, sports, and entertainment” that prod us to encourage originality in ourselves and others.

In addition to writing in accessible prose with a good eye for what information and anecdote will move and amuse, Grant effectively organizes and emphasizes his points, providing the reader with a roadmap that facilitates both attention and retention. Add in stellar pacing, and you’ve got a five-star book.

When it comes to parenting material, Grant doesn’t disappoint. “Originals” offers information of interest to caregivers throughout such as “[t]eachers tend to discriminate against highly creative students, labeling them as troublemakers” and “[r]esearch on highly creative adults shows that they tended to move to new cities much more frequently than their peers in childhood.” The book also focuses in great detail on combating the statistical probabilities of birth order (“[y]ounger brothers were 10.6 times more likely than their older siblings to attempt to steal a base”) and raising children to have an internal moral compass (“give ‘explanations of why behaviors are inappropriate, often with reference to their consequences for others’”).

Grant writes in closing, “Becoming original is not the easiest path in the pursuit of happiness, but it leaves us perfectly poised for the happiness of pursuit.” This sentiment also applies to the parenting advice he offers: encouraging questioning and fighting one’s own impulses doesn’t make the day-to-day of raising children easy, but it prepares them for a fulfilling, fruitful, compassionate, and, yes, original life.


Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years

catastrohpic happiness

The clever, self-aware, and eminently relatable Catherine Newman opens Catastrophic Happiness by assuring parents that the endless agonies of raising young children will in fact draw to a close:

One day you will cavalierly handle doorknobs and faucets and even, like a crazy person, the sign-in pen at the pharmacy. . . . You will have time to run and bike and do yoga and floss and have sex. . . . You’ll arrive at your campsite and the children will carry wood and play beanbag toss rather than cramming pinecones and beetles into their mouths before darting into the road to be run over by a Jeep. . . . They . . . won’t sob into their cottage cheese for no reason. They won’t . . . make you sing the ABCs like a lullaby, No, not like that, like this. They won’t ride the wheeled xylophone around the house like it’s a skateboard or lick spears of asparagus before leaving them, mysteriously, on the couch.

You will no longer feel an “impulsive desire to careen off alone to Portugal or Applebee’s, just so you can sit for five unmolested minutes,” she says, and because Catastrophic Happiness describes my experience as a mother thus far with almost disturbing accuracy, I believe her.

Newman writes, “I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief,” and I internally shout, “Me too!” She says, “Those conversations when the kids are trying to tell me something but I don’t close my laptop long enough to look them in the eye and listen? Let me tell you how much I remember about those: nothing,” and I hang my head in commiserating shame. She writes, “The parent I want to be floats in and out of my life, and some days it speaks through me, and other days I lunge after it like it’s a shaft of sunlight I want to capture,” and I think, “Yes, those are the words for that, YES.”

Each chapter includes piercing observations like these carefully folded in with engaging narrative, beautiful wordsmithing (e.g., “Ben, this tender-hearted ten-year-old . . . still bolts into our bedroom in the dead of night, driven by a loneliness that beats in his body like a second heart”), and snort-worthy quips (e.g., “My god, can you imagine [having conjoined twins,] your kids sharing arms and legs? It’s hard enough for mine to share Laffy Taffy”), to form some of the most brilliant parenting essays ever penned. If some shine more than others, it’s only because Newman sets the bar blindingly high.

The following excerpts attempt to show how Catastrophic Happiness neither minimizes nor dramatizes the full panoply of parental emotion, validating and amusing this connoisseur of mommy memoirs in unparalleled fashion:

Birdy is newly three, and wiping her face is one of my favorite moments of the day: the way she turns it up to me like a ripe, smudged nectarine; the way I am my most tender, gentle self in this caring for her; the way I get to look at her with the kind of pure love that often, suspiciously, seems most profoundly to wash over me mere moments before the children will be asleep for twelve hours.

[Before kids, t]ravel was all about arriving somewhere else—the getting-there like a parenthetical blur of irritatedness and free Diet Coke. . . . [Then with small kids we] rummaged through our bags to deconstruct a four-hour plane trip into a thousand ten-second-long activities: mirror, keys, phone, tissues, Tampax, credit cards, lip balm. (“No, we don’t eat ChapStick. Yes, you do really want to.”) But somehow the maniac babies have become these actual people who turn traveling into a party, and you’re lucky you got invited.

When I was pregnant with her, I was so devoted to Ben that the idea of loving another baby seemed vaguely grotesque. It made excellent sense to have another baby, of course, but only so we could harvest its organs in case Ben ever needed them.

Language is tricky, because we imagine that we control it but we don’t. To speak is not to pull transparent meaning, godlike, from thin air; it’s more like composing a mosaic from a bin of used tiles, and some of the tiles are dirty or broken or not really the color you wanted, or someone has written “bitch” on one in tiny letters.

Ben is . . . as pleasant and springy as a deep carpet of moss, and has been for his entire life. When he was three, he woke us once in the night, saying loudly from sleep, “I was still using that!” followed by the quieter, cheerful “Oh, okay, you go ahead, then.” The worst thing I have ever heard him say about another person was in response to a recent question about a middle-school classmate: “Is she nice?” I’d asked, and he hesitated and said, barely tentative, “She is.” “Oh, man,” Birdy whispered to me, laughing. “She must be really awful.”

Newman writes, “I want[] everyone to like me! Everyone! . . . [N]ot only our cherished friends and family, but also my son’s orthodontist, the barista who rolls his eyes while I fumble apologetically through my wallet, the ex-boyfriend who cheated on me, and the Craigslist person who’s overcharging me for her used cross-country skis.” I’ve got two words for her: Mission Accomplished. I don’t just like Catastrophic Happiness and Catherine Newman, I revere them.

The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time

“The Sleep Revolution” is what you get when a powerful person feels passionate about a subject and writes with an unlimited research assistant budget: a comprehensive roundup of research and commentary peppered with personal anecdote that’s alternately intensely relatable (“This way of working and living seemed to serve me well—until it didn’t”) and completely foreign (“I treat my transition to sleep as a sacrosanct ritual. Before bed, I take a hot bath with epsom salts and a candle flickering nearby. . . .”).

Arianna Huffington starts with the following premise: “[I]n today’s world, the path of least resistance is the path of insufficient sleep. And unless we take specific and deliberate steps to make it a priority in our lives, we won’t get the sleep we need.” She then tells readers how to go about doing so, including cultural shifts away from the elite, “macho status we give to the willingness to forgo sleep”; policy changes for things like driving while drowsy and school start times; and practical tips for individuals (summarized below).

Though not exactly gripping and a bit long-winded, the prose reads well, particularly for the amount of science and data conveyed. Content too passes muster for the most part: only the chapter on dreams failed to interest me. With a few minor exceptions, “The Sleep Revolution” strikes just the right tone (e.g., “Here is a list of things I’ve tried. If any of these resonate with you, give them a try, too, keep what works, and discard the rest.”).

Most importantly, Huffington delivers a wealth of information on a subject of the utmost importance. That makes “The Sleep Revolution” a must-read, even though not a flawless one.

The following quotes give a feel for the book’s style and tone:

“[T]he benefits sleep offers in terms of our health, our clarity of thinking, our decision making, and our engagement in our lives requires reflecting on what matters most to us and then reprioritizing our days—and our nights—accordingly.”

“[T]here are differences between how men and women sleep alone versus together. A study from the University of Vienna found that women woke up more frequently throughout the night when they slept in the same bed as their partner, while men’s sleep did not change. . . . [W]omen said they had slept better only on nights they had sex. . . . [Also studies have ‘found that for women, poor sleep is strongly associated with high levels of psychological distress, and greater feelings of hostility, depression and anger.’”

“‘In twenty years, people will look back on the sleeping-pill era as we now look back on the acceptance of cigarette smoking . . . The chronic use of sleeping pills is an ongoing public health disaster.’”’

“‘Overwork has also become a way to signal class status: ‘I am slammed’ is a way of saying ‘I am important . . . .’ This represents a sharp shift from a prior era when having leisure was a ‘class act.’ . . . We have this weird reversal in the US where the elite work very long hours, while the poor typically can’t get even forty hours a week of work.’”

“‘We think of sleep as an inefficient use of time, and in fact it is the most efficient use of time in terms of learning and memory.’”

“During non-REM, slow-wave sleep ‘our brain undergoes a metabolic slowdown. During that time our cortex, the part of our brain that senses and reacts to the environment and is the essence of ‘us,’ becomes ‘disconnected’ from activity in other brain areas.’ Usually this type of slow-wave sleep happens early in the night, but if our sleep sequence is disrupted by things such as jet lag, drinking, or a crying baby, our slow-wave sleep might not kick in until the early morning—right when our alarm starts sounding.”

“[T]hroughout most of Western history people simply wore their daytime undergarments to bed. But the centuries spanning the Renaissance to the Baroque period were a turning point, as the wealthier class started to distinguish between day clothes and sleepwear. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, sleepwear became more affordable as linen was superseded by cotton. And in the twentieth century, pajamas as we know them [came into widespread use.]”

“[N]aps are great for us . . . even a short nap ‘primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately. . . .’ A study of older adults by researchers from Japan found that, along with moderate exercise, a thirty-minute nap increased the quality of nighttime sleep, and decreased daytime grogginess. . . . Experts say that the best ‘circadian timing’ for a nap is the early afternoon.”

“‘A biological clock is ticking in every person, producing an individual daily timing. This defines a person’s unique ‘chronotype,’ which can vary greatly between individuals. For some people, internal midday may coincide with external midday. Others can reach their internal midday several hours before or after external midday. Social jet lag measures this difference between our external social timing and that of our internal clock.’”

“Like a horror movie in which the police dramatically announce that the menacing phone call is coming from inside the house, . . . the primary nighttime danger to our sleep is all too often coming from inside the bedroom, in the form of a partner with very different sleep habits.”

“[S]leep makes us better at our jobs while simultaneously reminding us that we are more than our jobs.”

“The pattern went on for years until, just before he turned thirty, [Warriors player Andre] Iguodala told Keke Lyles, Golden State’s director of performance, that he needed to see a sleep therapist. . . . [H]e moved his devices out of the bedroom, set his thermostat to a cool, sleep-friendly temperature, and started wearing a Jawbone UP to track his sleep. . . . When Iguodala adjusted to a consistent eight hours of sleep a night, his points per minute went up 29 percent, his free-throw percentage increased by 8.9 percent . . . .”

“Sleep is clearly the next innovation frontier in sports. And that’s a good thing, because sports exert a powerful hold on American culture.”

“[W]e’re living in a time when people seem open once again to the power of sleep on our waking lives. We’re emerging from the Dark Ages of Sleep into a Sleep Renaissance.”

Huffington’s practical suggestions for improving sleep quantity and quality include:

Scheduling: “When we think of sleep as an actual appointment—a meeting of sorts, with ourselves—we’re much more likely to grant it the time it deserves.”

Screens: “First, banish all tech devices from your bedroom at least thirty minutes before you turn off the lights . . . . [If you can’t,] there are some technological hacks available. . . . The range of options is wide—from apps designed to help us sleep, to a universe of sleep-centric hardware like noise-blocking headphones, smart earplugs and light bulbs that mimic the natural light of sunset and sunrise.”

Caffeine: Limit caffeine generally and cut it off around 2:00 p.m., about 8 hours before sleep is desired.

Alcohol: “According to a 2015 study from the University of Melbourne, alcohol does indeed initially act as a sedative. But later in the night, it changes allegiances and acts as a sleep disrupter. . . . A study from the London Sleep Centre confirmed this, finding that ‘at all dosages, alcohol causes a more consolidated first half sleep and an increase in sleep disruption in the second half of the night.”

Sleepwear: “[W]ear to bed . . . anything you feel comfortable and relaxed in—except what you wear to work out.”

Sex (or masturbation): “‘Orgasms are Mother Nature’s best answer to insomnia.’”

Temperature: Huffington reports that the ideal sleeping temperature is somewhere between 60 and 66 degrees. Setting homes to remain in the 70s overnight, as many of us do can disrupt sleep.

Food: “We shouldn’t eat big meals right before bed . . . [because of acid reflux and] eating late or at odd times can disrupt our circadian rhythms and therefore our sleep-wake cycle.” Huffington reports that spicy foods, fatty foods, and sugar all decrease sleep quality for various reasons. Others improve it: “The necessary building blocks for sleep . . . contain magnesium (such as nuts, seeds, leafy greens, and bananas), B6 (such as fish, beans, and poultry), and tryptophan (an amino acid found in foods like chickpeas, seaweed, egg whites, pumpkin seeds, halibut, and most famously, turkey). Another food that may help us sleep is cherries, which are rich in melatonin. A 2014 study from Louisiana State University found that participants who drank a glass of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks slept an average of eighty-five minutes more each night than those who drank the placebo.”

Acupuncture: “Acupuncture has a long history as a sleep aid, and now modern science confirms what practitioners and patients have known for centuries. . . . increased nighttime secretion of melatonin and lowered anxiety levels.”

Herbs: One of the most popular herbs for sleep is lavender, which has been used throughout history for healing and relaxation. . . . A Thai study found that smelling lavender helps us relax by slowing down our heart rate, decreasing our blood pressure, and lowering skin temperature. Other studies have found sleep quality improved in a room scented with lavender or when lavender oil was sprinkled on pajamas or pillows. And in Germany, lavender tea has been approved by their equivalent of the FDA as a treatment for insomnia. . . . Valerian root . . . is a natural sedative whose use dates back to ancient Greece.” She also recommends GABA and L-theanine.

Meditative arts: Give yoga, meditation, and qigong a shot.

Daylight exposure: “A 2014 study . . . found that employees whose offices had windows got forty-six minutes more sleep every night than coworkers without access to natural light.” 

Routine: “When we walk through the door of our bedroom, it should be a symbolic moment that marks leaving the day, with all of its problems and unfinished business, behind us.”

Mind dump: “One way to finish every day and be done with it is . . . call[ed] the ‘mind dump.’ Before bed, write down all the things you can think of that you need to do. This can empty your mind and reassure you that you don’t need to remember your tasks through the night-your to-do list will be waiting for you in the morning.”

Gratitude list: “Making a gratitude list part of our bedtime routine . . . focuses my mind on the blessings in my life . . . rather than on the running list of unresolved problems.”

Sleep talismans: Huffington recommends using a “sleep talisman . . . an image that brings you peace and serenity, one that you can keep on your nightstand. It could be photos of your children, your pets, or a soothing landscape-anything that helps you exhale the tensions and incompletions of the day.” She also lists an old-fashioned music box and a “weighted eye pillow lightly scented with lavender.”

Breathing exercises: “The 4-7-8 method popularized by Dr. Andrew Weil, is rooted in the ancient Indian practice of pranayama. . . . you inhale quietly through the nose for four counts, hold for seven counts, and exhale with a whooshing sound through the mouth for eight counts. Weil says that with practice and regularity it can put you to sleep in one minute—and anything that can help you get to sleep that quickly is worth a try.”

Visualization: “Psychiatrist Brent Menninger recommends: ‘Visualize images that evoke serenity, like a picture of the Mona Lisa. . . . The half-smile relaxation response is available to you as you breathe. Inhale as you visualize serenity. As you exhale, express a half-smile. Inhale the serenity. Exhale with a half-smile. . . . The half-smile starts with relaxed lips which turn slightly upward and a loose jaw and the eyes are soft and relaxed. Then the half-smile spreads to the whole face as your scalp and neck relax and your shoulders drop.’”

Don’t force it: “[I]f you’ve been in bed struggling to sleep for twenty minutes, try switching to meditating or reading a book . . . that has nothing to do with work . . . .” In fact, actively try to stay awake (without screens, caffeine, etc.). Studies show, Huffington reports, that when one tries to stay awake rather than fall asleep, “paradoxical intention” leads to “a significant reduction in sleep effort, and sleep performance anxiety.”

Relaxation generally: Because people “develop a ‘fear of sleeplessness,’ which intensifies their emotional arousal perpetuating their insomnia. . . . [A]nything that can help us de-stress can help break the cycle.”

Combat jet-lag: “[W]e can adjust our eating schedules to trigger our circadian rhythms to adapt more quickly. ‘A period of fasting with no food at all for about 16 hours is enough to engage this new clock. . . .’ [F]ly in the afternoon if you’re headed west and in the morning if you’re going east. . . . If you have to take a night flight, . . . at least try[] to get in a nap the day before. . . . Another way to try to beat jet lag is to not adjust to local time at all. . . . Re-Timer, an eyeglasses-like piece of headwear that can be used not just by travelers but also by shift workers who need to make regular adjustments to their circadian rhythm, especially in the winter. Worn over the eyes, it exposes the wearer to a simulation of outdoor light, which, when used in the morning can help reset our body clock so that we can fall asleep at the right bedtime.”

Parenting: Illustrated with Crappy Pictures

I picked up Amber Dusick’s book after a friend described it as “[h]ands down the best parenting book I’ve ever read.” Verdict? Not so much. Parenting: Illustrated teaches one absolutely nothing about parenting; like Scary Mommy, however, it provides lighthearted commiseration for the, well, crappier parts of parenting. Without the pictures, I would have found the humor good-but-not-great, yet Dusick’s writing is ridiculously funny when accompanied by her amateur visuals. If you’re looking for a super quick, light read that will make you laugh out loud at least twice—thinking, “Yes! That’s totally how it happens!”—this is your book. Those seeking deep reflection or practical advice ought to look elsewhere.

Here are a few jokes that should give you a sense of Dusick’s vibe:

  • You know what changed after I had kids? Everything.
  • But enough of these superficial complaints. Who cares, right? My body made people. I’m like a wizard. Wizards don’t need perfect bodies because they wear robes. I have a robe. It is purple. (See how I distracted you from my body flaws by talking about wizards? This always works. Feel free to steal it.)
  • The only thing that was actually effective at tricking my babies into sleeping was not something money could buy. It was me. Well, actually it was my milk-producing nipple pacifiers. But we’ll say it was me because that sounds cozy.
  • All is quiet. I, too, can sleep. But this is the first me time I’ve had all day! I suddenly have a burst of energy! I’m alone and free! I’ll just check my email quickly before I head to bed. Four hours pass.
  • Kids like crackers. Parents like crackers because they aren’t candy, but are just as easy. I don’t trust crackers. Why? Because crackers create a mess that is larger in volume than the original cracker ever was.
  • Honestly, even the bad stuff is good stuff when it isn’t happening.
  • Changing a diaper in an airplane bathroom is like changing a diaper inside an empty refrigerator that a drunk person is pushing around on a dolly.
  • Oh sure, the waiting room has a designated “Reserved for Healthy Kids” section, but it is sort of like the division of smoking and nonsmoking sections in an enclosed space. . . . Every mother knows that when your child is sick he gets to play with the toys. When your child is not sick, you do everything in your power to avoid physical contact with the toys.
  • Some indoor play gyms are okay. As long as they hose them down or light them on fire once every few years. Other ones are breeding grounds for unsavory things. And I’m not just talking about feral kids with no parents in sight. I’m talking about malaria. . . . When we get home, I bathe them in bleach. But it doesn’t matter.
  • [My husband] gets sick. On the weekend. How very convenient for him. I try not to be bitter. He really doesn’t have control over the timing. At least I don’t think he does. So he proceeds to spend an entire day in bed. Alone. Moaning.
  • Crappy Boy likes to pretend. Hard. He was once a robot for three consecutive days. And one time, when he was four, he was a chimney sweep for nearly two weeks.
  • One toy and two children is a recipe for war. . . . My kids would fight over dog shit if there was only one pile of it available.
  • We have a serious toy overgrowth problem in our house. This is because toys can reproduce like weeds. They do it when we aren’t paying attention. Children are also to blame because they help with propagation. They introduce toy species into nonnative habitats. These toys are invasive. They ruin the landscape and even cause harm to the resident mammals.

Dusick concludes the book with a sort of parenting-specific Murphy’s Laws; my favorite ones follow:

  • If you are sweeping, the only path they can take is right through the pile.
  • The more you are running late, the more poop happens.
  • The more important a phone call is, the louder they become.
  • The one thing you forget to bring is the one thing they ask for.
  • The one day you only brought three diapers along is the day they will poop four times.
  • They only spike a fever after the sun goes down and the doctor’s office is closed.
  • If you toss out that half of a plastic Easter egg they got three years ago, they will notice.

Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids

In a terrible irony, this tremendous resource is hamstringed by its own lack of simplicity. Too many words, too many ways of phrasing the same thought, make Simplicity Parenting difficult to read. No individual sentence or section stands out as excessive or laborious, but the end result is a slog that not one committed, educated mom in my book club managed to complete. I only just finished it after six months of trying. It’s a shame, because the book contains incredibly helpful—dare I say life-altering—primary points and a plethora of meaningful and fruitful supporting insights and tips.

Kim John Payne (with help from Lisa M. Ross) writes, “We are building our daily lives, and our families, on the four pillars of too much: too much stuff, too many choices, too much information, and too much speed.” Luckily, there are “things we can do as parents to protect the environment of childhood”: Simplicity Parenting’s “four levels of simplification: the environment, rhythm, schedules, and filtering out of the adult world.”

When it comes to your child’s environment, “[a] smaller, more manageable quantity of toys invites deeper play and engagement.” Payne offers a ten-point checklist for determining which to pitch. He also provides guidance for parsing books, clothes, and a variety of other categories of “stuff” so that your family can “embrac[e] experience over things, and ‘enough’ rather than always more.”

Payne then turns to “the sense of security and predictability that rhythm affords a child”: “Where well-established rhythms exist, there is much less parental verbiage, less effort, and fewer problems around transitions.” Payne provides many suggestions for creating a sense of rhythm, including singing instructions rather than saying them, lighting candles at a certain time of day, establishing a “secret ingredient” style dinner schedule (“Monday pasta night, Tuesday rice night”), and more.

As for scheduling, he tells us: “In parenting . . . it is often in the intervals—the spaces between activities—that relationships are built. . . . Unfortunately, some kids have very few pauses in their daily lives, going from one activity to the next without a chance to process their thoughts or feelings. Or a child’s parents might be so busy and overscheduled that they present a moving target, unavailable for these unplanned moments of connection.” “[J]ust as too many toys may stifle creativity, too many scheduled activities may limit a child’s ability to direct themselves, to fill their own time, to find and follow their own path.”

In the final section, Payne recommends simplifying in order to “filter out the adult world.” Here the primary suggestion is to limit screen time: “By choosing to banish [TV], in one step you will greatly diminish your children’s exposure to such hallmarks of adult life as violence and consumerism.” Another is to restrict the words that come out of your mouth. When we “telecast their every move,” talking incessantly, “there’s less space for their thoughts . . . . A child’s curiosity and creativity are stifled when they believe that something is not ‘real’ unless, or until, you talk about it. It’s hard for a child to go down deeply into their play . . . .” Moreover, talking means not listening. We need to offer at least some moments of “our full and silent attention.” He also recommends simplifying the type of information that we share: “Many parents ‘flashbulb’ their children with too much of . . . their own unprocessed thoughts and feelings.” Payne offers one fabulous way to police the quantity and character of parental verbiage: “Before you say something, ask yourself these three questions. Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

My one complaint with the content of Simplicity Parenting, as opposed to the delivery, comes near the end, when Payne writes:

While our intentions are well-meaning—’Honey, do you think your anger at your sister might also be a little jealousy? Can you tell her how you feel inside?’—this emotional monitoring has an unexpected effect. It rushes kids along pushing them into a premature adolescence. Children under nine certainly have feelings, but much of the time those feelings are unconscious, undifferentiated. In any kind of conflict or upset, if asked how they feel, most kids will say, very honestly, ‘Bad.’ They feel bad. To dissect and parse that, to push and push, imagining that they are hiding a much more subtle and nuanced feeling or reply, is invasive. It is also usually unproductive, except perhaps in making a child nervous. While young children have feelings, they only slowly become aware of them. Until the age of ten or so, their emotional consciousness and vocabulary are too premature to stand up to what we ask of them in our emotional monitoring and hovering.

This advice stands at odds with social science and neuroscience research supporting the strategy that Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson dub “name it to tame it” in The Whole Brain Child. By discussing emotion and introducing more nuanced language than “bad,” we help our kids manage their big emotions. Surely there’s a grain of wisdom in the Simplicity Parenting recommendation—we shouldn’t badger our kids about their emotions—but, as written, the advice would seem to be at odds with the latest science. That said, I wholeheartedly agree with almost everything else in the book.

Reviewing and digesting Simplicity Parenting took a huge amount of time, but it was not a waste of it. I already use the teachings multiple times a day. I fervently hope that Payne will release a revised, heavily edited version so that I can endorse it with the five stars its content deserves. Unfortunately, as of now, Simplicity Parenting gets hoisted by the point of its own petard, or, more accurately, by its failure to apply the point to itself.


The quotes that follow provide a sense of the book’s content and style so that you can decide for yourself whether the read will be worth the energy required:

“[E]very stage in a family’s evolution can benefit from a little more space and grace, a little less speed and clutter. Another point to remember . . . is that simplification is often about ‘doing’ less, and trusting more.”

“[I advocate] a conscious move, both practical and philosophical, toward a more rhythmic, predictable, child-centered home life. By that I do not mean that the home and everything done in it are oriented toward the child, but I absolutely do mean that the home and everything in it are not exclusively oriented toward adults.”

“[O]ur little ones (into adolescence and beyond) will experience what I’ve come to call ‘soul fevers.’ Something is not right; they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. . . . You could say that they are acting ‘out of character,’ but in truth, their character is amplified, almost caricatured. . . . This happens all the time, this sliding along the behavioral spectrum in response to stress. It’s normal and healthy. . . . [When you sense soul fever, it’s] . . . time to stop normal routines[, and say,] ‘Something’s up; I’ve noticed. I’m here if you want to talk about it.’ . . . [You should offer support, not a quick fix, for a soul fever just as for a regular one.] You don’t ‘make them better’ when they’re sick, yet your care . . . allows them the ease to fight off whatever nasty virus they’re grappling with.”

“‘When your child seems to deserve affection least, that’s when they need it most.’ . . . Imagine how secure your child will feel knowing that . . . your love will accommodate, and look beyond, their less-than-best selves.”

“We can become trapped in our own amygdala hijack, a sort of emergency response to parenting, characterized more by fear than by understanding.”

“Nature is a warm sensory bath that can counterbalance the cold overwhelm of too much activity, information, or ‘stuff.’”

“The more adamantly a parent tries to convince me that a break would be impossible, the more certain I become that both parent and child need to take a step out of their everyday lives . . . .”

“Clearly nobody is completely immune to the marketing forces arrayed against us. Yet the less exposure a child has to media, especially television, the less vulnerable they will be to advertising’s intentional and unintentional messages. . . . These messages, over time, create both a sense of entitlement, and a false reliance on purchases rather than people to satisfy and sustain us emotionally.”

“Ask yourself, ‘Is this a toy my child can pour their imagination into, or is it too ‘fixed’? By ‘fixed’ I mean is it already too finished, and detailed, too much of one—and only one—thing?”

“By displaying and playing from one basket at a time, a child is better able to focus while playing, and to clean up. Upending huge bins of toys sometimes seems like a bonanza, a luxury of possibilities. In daily life terms, however, doing so just creates . . . chaos.”

“Children’s play flourishes when we ‘let it’ rather than ‘make it’ happen.”

“A sense of industry—of busyness and purpose—counteracts feelings of overwhelm.”

“Movement counters the passivity of our devotion to technology.”

“By simplifying clothes you ease transitions. You offer freedom from choice and overload, while still allowing for the slow and sure development of personal expression.”

“Simplify the smells and perfumes in your home, particularly in your child’s room [to] . . . quiet the amygdala and promote a sense of safety and well-being for a young child . . . .”

“Let natural light be the last that is curtained at night and the first that is welcomed in the morning.”

“Meaning hides in repetition: We do this every day or every week because it matters.”

“One of the simplest, purest forms of stability or predictability in daily life is politeness.”

“[A]fter-school time is also a great opportunity for free, unscheduled time. Having time for open, self-directed play is a nice balance to the rules and schedules kids follow at school.”

“[N]obody leaves the table until everyone is finished.”

“[Back] away from highly processed and sweetened foods.”

“It’s appropriate for teenagers to begin to chafe at long-standing family rhythms. It is their job, developmentally, to complain. That doesn’t mean that in response we should pack up our traditions and call it a day.”

“[S]leep your child has before midnight is worth more than that of a postmidnight hour. Your child’s internal rhythms are set so that the deeper somatic sleep happens earlier in the night.”

“[N]ot only did she need to learn to relax, she needed to model ‘relaxation’ to her kids. ‘I was modeling competency, and efficiency, but they hardly ever saw me sitting still!’”

“When we open up our child’s schedules, we make room for anticipation.”

“So much activity can create a reliance on outer stimulation, a culture of compulsion and instant gratification. What also grows in such a culture? Addictive behaviors.”

“But the biggest pressure involved in all of this enriching is the pressure of exceptionality. . . . [T]he ordinary allows for the exceptional, but not the reverse.”

“When kids younger than ten or eleven become occupied with organized sports, especially to the exclusion of time for free, unstructured play, that involvement can cut crudely across their progression through a variety of play stages that are vitally important to their development. Equally disheartening is the fact that so many kids are quitting as they approach adolescence, just when the structure and rigors of organized sports and martial arts have so much to offer them in their quest for individuality, independence, and maturity.”

“[In play, t]oday’s progression to fun may be repeated, built on, or changed tomorrow, or it might be ‘archived’ and resurrected another day. In sport, the picture of what is needed—in terms of equipment, and the nature of the game—is already determined. How the game plays out may vary, but the game itself is defined.”

“Plan to get something done or read while being a benign parental presence: easy to ignore, but available should the need arise.”

“Worry is an aspect of parenthood, but it shouldn’t define it.”

“[T]elevision is a direct counterforce to simplifying . . . . [It] runs on commercials, the siren song of ‘stuff.’ An altar of commercialism, it is your home’s most efficient conduit of clutter. And television can easily suck up any free, unstructured time you’ve gained by simplifying schedules. Between 1965 and 1995 Americans gained an average of six hours a week in leisure time; we then devoted all but a few minutes of it to watching TV.”

“For our littlest ones, neurodevelopmentally speaking, the ‘rewards’ side of the television equation seems to be blank.”

“By the time the average person reaches age seventy, he or she will have spent the equivalent of seven to ten years watching television.”

“In comparison to the high stimulation that television offers, real life can seem slow, and children can respond to it with boredom and inattentiveness.”

“Television viewing’s combination of neural hyperstimulation and complete physical passivity clearly doesn’t stimulate the brain’s development in the same way that interacting with the world does.”

“Healy notes that kids who don’t start using computers until adolescence gain competency within months equal to that of children who’ve used them since they were toddlers.”

“[A] ‘sportscasting’ parent drowns a child in words. In real time (that is, blow-by-blow) they telecast everything the child touches, does, is wearing, or even what they may be thinking.”

“By keeping a running commentary on everything they do, we mean to assure them that we’re noticing. Yet the more we’re talking, the less we are really noticing.”

“Very often when we’re tired, when our physical or emotional reserves are low, we can mistake our child for a sort of sounding board or sympathetic ear for whatever issue or quandary is on our mind. Yet despite their questions and curiosity, children need boundaries to feel secure and free. They need to know, and to be reminded, that some things are for adults to discuss; they are not for kids to hear, or to comment on.”

“Very often, in two-parent households, when one parent is overinvolved in their child’s life, the other parent is underinvolved.”

“The word I often hear from dads is calm. A sense of calm is what they strive to provide to the joint task of child rearing. Stepping back, being ‘laid-back,’ trying to ‘take the long view’; these expressions come up frequently as men explain what they perceive to be their role in the parenting dynamic. Their goal is a sense of balance, but very often the result is a lack of involvement, and increased isolation and anxiety for their spouse.”

“What I have seen though . . . is that when the father steps up, many mothers are able to take a welcome step back.”

“Exclusive provinces (or nearly exclusive) need to become Dad’s, so his efforts are part of ‘doing,’ not ‘helping.’ So that, in the child’s eyes, Dad is the ‘go-to’ person for that slice of daily life, not the occasional ‘substitute.’”

“Before falling into sleep, remember the ordinary moments of the day, the moments with your children that meant something to you.”

“[F]or young children, ‘freedom of choice’ about every small detail in their day—everything they eat, wear, or do—can be a paralyzing burden. . . . Imagine your own version of ‘choice overload.’ Perhaps you are trying to find a health plan . . . .”

“Several things happen when you have too much stuff and too many options: Decisions are more difficult, and expectations rise.”

“[S]hift the balance of [your statements to your kids] from a vast majority of requests with a few instructions to mainly straightforward instructions with a few requests.”

“The path simplification provides is one that you will move off of on occasion, and will need to find your way back to. But because it’s a path that defines and strengthens who you are together, it allows for bends and corrections.”

Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps—and What We Can Do About It

Determined to figure out how much of my toddlers’ divergent behavior is based upon innate gender difference, I read Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and the first 100 pages of Lise Eliot’s Pink Brain, Blue Brain (the introduction and chapters covering prenatal development and infancy, since both authors agree that these periods are key to determining whether only nurture is to blame for pre-pubertal differences between boys and girls). Though the two writers agree on just about every scientific point relevant to this inquiry, their framing diverges wildly. Fine reviews the evidence and concludes that science does not support the assertion that any gender difference in behavior or preference is hard-wired.

Eliot’s presentation baffles me. As the subtitle of her book makes clear, she concludes that “small” differences in “interpersonal skills, such as aggression, risk taking, and competitiveness . . . germinate from basic instincts and initial biases in brain function.” Each time she introduces or summarizes, she recites a similar assertion: “[N]ature sets the ball rolling, biasing boys and girls toward different interests and behavioral styles even before they’re born.” And yet, in the nitty-gritty discussion of each potential hard-wired “difference,” she concludes as Fine does, that the evidence is entirely lacking. It’s almost as if she titled the book first and then wasn’t able to change her frame of mind after sorting through the data. Or as if she wrote the individual sections at the office, and then penned the concluding and introductory bits at home while sleepy or drunk, allowing her own subconscious bias to sneak into the manuscript.

Eliot herself writes, “what I found, after an exhaustive search, was surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains. Sure, there are studies that do find differences, but when I looked closely at all the data . . . I had to admit that only two facts have been reliably proven. One is that boys’ brains are larger than girls’ . . . [in] conspicuously similar . . . magnitude to males’ greater height and weight at birth and in adulthood. The second reliable fact is [a] difference that shows up around the onset of puberty.”

She continues:

If you’ve read anything about boy-girl differences, you’ve probably become convinced that scientists have discovered all kinds of disparities in brain structure, function, and neurochemistry—that girls’ brains are wired for communication and boys’ for aggression; that they have different amounts of serotonin and oxytocin circulating in their heads; that boys do math using the hippocampus while girls use the cerebral cortex; that girls are left-brain dominant while boys are right-brain dominant. These claims have spread like wildfire, but there are problems with every one. Some are blatantly false, plucked out of thin air because they sound about right. Others are cherry-picked from single studies or extrapolated from rodent research without any effort to critically evaluate all the data, account for conflicting studies, or even state that the results have never been confirmed in humans. And yet such claims are nearly always presented to parents, with great authority, as well-proven and dramatic facts about boys’ and girls’ brains . . . . [O]ne particularly insidious way in which neuroscience has been misused . . . is the idea that the brain’s sex differences—most of which have been demonstrated in adults only—are necessarily innate. Ignoring the fundamental plasticity by which the brain learns anything, several popular authors confuse brain and nature, promoting the view that differences between the sexes are fixed, hard-wired, and predetermined biological facts. . . .

She also rejects the idea of “differences between the sexes in sociability and emotional expression” at birth, explaining the evidence showing that they arise in infancy (and debunking the one study often cited for the proposition that girls are “innately more people oriented than boys are”). She concludes that the differences that begin to arise at about four months of age likely originate from the divergent way caregivers react to emotional expression in male and female babies rather than any hard-wired difference. “Dozens of . . . gender-disguise studies confirm that people judge babies differently based on what sex they believe the babies are and regardless of the real sex under the diapers. In addition to rating babies’ expressions and physical appearances differently, adults tend to choose different toys for each sex . . . and to engage them differently-interacting in more physical, expansive ways with boys and more nuanced, verbal ways with girls.”

She also quite reasonably concludes: “Does the neonatal testosterone surge . . . shape human boys’ development? We don’t really know . . . .”

And even after nurture has gotten ahold of babies and created “reliable” differences by around age two, she reminds us that “[t]hese differences are . . . really quite small.” For example, “Compared to the overall range of language ability in young children, the average difference between girls and boys is tiny, accounting for just 1 to 2 percent of this total variance. Consequently, you can find many boys who are more verbal than the average girl, and lots of girls who are less verbal than the average boy.”

All of this is perfectly rational and overlaps precisely with Fine’s interpretation of the evidence. And yet, in another spot she writes, “There are, to be sure, a few truly innate differences between the sexes—in maturation rate, sensory processing, activity level, fussiness, and (yes!) play interests.” To see why this statement is utterly confounding, let’s unpack each of these areas of research.

When discussing maturation rate, Eliot cites boys’ slight delay in respiratory development, nothing brain or behavior related at all. Which explains why she doesn’t mention it in her meta-summary stating that the only proven difference is brain size.

Her discussion of sensory processing boils the differences down to extraordinarily slight discrepancies in hearing (so small that the newborn screening doesn’t differentiate between the sexes) based mostly upon the larger size of boys’ skulls. She concludes: “[A] close look at the research on sensory differences in newborns reveals that they are small and of little relevance to children’s learning. . . . It’s therefore disingenuous to suggest, as Leonard Sax does in his book Why Gender Matters, that ‘these built-in gender differences in hearing have real consequences.’”

As for activity level, she states that there is no evidence of gender difference in activity in the womb, and that boys and girls show no statistically significant difference in gross motor development in infancy. Her only reasoning supporting any discrepancy is convoluted at best: she figures that boys “excel [at] gross motor development [because they] sit[], stand[], and walk[] at the same ages as girls in spite of their overall slower maturation.” In other words, male and female babies reach the same milestones at the same time, showing no difference in activity level until after infancy. Later divergence is ascribed to the fact that adults “aware of physical differences in older boys and girls, set up different motor expectations for their sons and daughters, even in infancy.” This is all in her own words.

When it comes to fussiness, she “raises a crucial issue . . . : whether differences in sensory responsiveness, fussiness, . . . and so on are truly innate or are a consequence of boys’ suffering from their recent circumcisions. Surprisingly little of the research has controlled for this important variable.” She also states, “[T]hese differences have mostly been described by examiners who weren’t blind to the sexes of the babies, and some studies have failed to detect any sex differences in newborn irritability or consolability.” So fussiness is an innate difference, to be sure, except it’s not, ’cause we’re not at all sure.

Finally, she says that the only data regarding play interests show that there is no discrepancy in them whatsoever until after plenty of time for caregiver influence.

Thus the conclusion that these are “a few truly innate differences between the sexes” makes absolutely no sense in the context of her own research and writing.

Her recommendation that parents “[t]alk to your babies, especially boys” and her reference to “girls’ less active tendency,” also come out of nowhere, unless of course she’s talking about the period after infancy when this approach/description may be necessary/accurate to counteract nurture—but then she really ought to say that.

Unfortunately, Eliot’s inconsistent description of her own research in these first two chapters made me doubt her objectivity too much to warrant finishing the book.

As for stars, I’m at a bit of a loss. The book seems quite well-researched and provides an impressively smooth read for such a complex topic. On the other hand, Eliot’s inability to keep her subconscious gender bias from infiltrating the first 100 pages is a real deal-breaker. I’m crossing my fingers that with a little distance from the text Eliot will see the inconsistency and remedy it in the next edition.

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Like the parents described by Cordelia Fine in this incredibly informative book, I had come to the “fallback conclusion that there must be hardwired psychological differences between the sexes,” because I’d done my best to parent gender-neutrally and seen disparities between my son and daughter emerge anyway. Fine writes, “The neuroscientific discoveries we read about in magazines, newspaper articles, books and sometimes even journals tell a tale of two brains—essentially different—that create timeless and immutable psychological differences between the sexes. It’s a compelling story that offers a neat, satisfying explanation, and justification, of the gender status quo.” I wanted to know if it was true.

As it turns out, the science supporting these claims has about the same validity as the cranial measurements upon which nineteenth century assertions of African American intellectual inferiority were based. “The tape measures and weighing scales of the Victorian brain scientists have been supplanted by powerful neuroimaging technolog[y]” that “sounds so unassailable, so very . . . scientific, that we privilege it over boring, old-fashioned behavioural evidence.”

Fine cuts through the pseudo-science and discredits those “position[ing] themselves as courageous knights of truth, who brave the stifling ideology of political correctness” to declare differences between the sexes biologically hardwired and inevitable (authors like Simon Baron-Cohen, Michael Gurian, Allan and Barbara Pease, John Gray, and Louann Brizendine—as well as researchers such as Norman Geschwind and Ruben and Raquel Gur).

She examines each of the supposed indicators of hardwired gender difference—such as prenatal testosterone, hormone receptors, neuronal density, brain/language lateralization (“the Geschwind theory”), corpus callosum size, proportions of grey and white matter, brain region size, and “greater male variability.” Fine identifies “a surprising number of gaps, assumptions, inconsistencies, poor methodologies, and leaps of faith.” Specifically, she debunks a body of research plagued by small sample size, “dangers in extrapolating from rats and birds to humans,” a too-low threshold for statistical significance, lack of replication, the file-drawer phenomenon, “the likelihood of spurious findings,” and the “teething problems of new technology.”

Fine concludes that “what is being chalked up to hardwiring on closer inspection . . . look[s] more like the sensitive tuning of the self to the expectations lurking in the social context.” Most of the supposed differences simply don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Yes, there do exist some sex differences in the brain, and “there are sex differences in vulnerabilities to certain psychological disorders,” but these few proven differences do not indicate hardwired gender capabilities or behaviors for two key reasons.

First, “bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better with regards to the size of brain structures, neither does more [brain] activation necessarily mean better or psychologically more. . . . [E]ven though a part of the brain might light up during a task, it may not be especially or crucially involved.” Also, “sex differences in the brain may . . .  ‘prevent sex differences in overt functions and behavior by compensating for sex differences in physiology.’” In alternate terms, different wiring may be biologically necessary to produce identical functioning.

Second, “[t]he circuits of the brain are quite literally a product of your physical, social and cultural environment, as well as your behaviour and thoughts. What we experience and do creates neural activity that can alter the brain, either directly or through changes in gene expression. This neuroplasticity means that, . . . the social phenomenon of gender ‘comes into the brain’ and ‘becomes part of our cerebral biology.’” “‘[H]ow we behave or what we think about can [even] affect the levels of our sex hormones.’” In other words, because of “[t]his continuous interplay between the biological and the social,” “‘the existence of sex differences either in means or variances in ability says nothing about the source or inevitability of such differences or their potential basis in immutable biology.’” It therefore “makes sense to start questioning the direction of causality between gender difference and gender inequality.”

Fine delves into this area, discussing how “associative memory . . . picks up and responds to cultural patterns in society, media and advertising, which may well be reinforcing implicit associations you don’t consciously endorse.” She covers stereotype threat, gender priming, social identity, and other proven explanations for why girls both perform and choose differently with respect to maths and science. She discusses lack-of-fit bias (the gap “between the communal stereotype of women and demanding professional roles”) and the resulting difficulties women, particularly mothers, face in the workplace. Finally, Fine reviews studies that show (1) a lack of behavioral gender difference in very young babies, (2) a difference in parental behavior, even in those attempting gender-neutral parenting, and (3) increasing behavioral gender difference as children age.

She concludes, “Our minds, society and neurosexism create difference. Together, they wire gender. But the wiring is soft, not hard. It is flexible, malleable and changeable.” “[F]rom the seeds of scientific speculation grow the monstrous fictions of popular writers.” As “this ‘popular neurosexism’ . . . finds its way into apparently scientific books and articles for the interested public, including parents and teachers,” it “promotes damaging, limiting, [and] self-fulfilling stereotypes.” In “echo[s] of the insalubrious past,” stereotypes are “dress[ed] up . . . [in] scientific finery,” and create the inequality they purport to report.

Fine’s scientific review of all the evidence currently available finds no support for the finding that there are “psychological differences hardwired into the brains of the sexes that explain why, even in the most egalitarian of twenty-first-century societies, women and men’s lives still follow noticeably different paths.”

Delusions of Gender is a tremendous accomplishment, delving deeply into many complex areas of science and social science while largely maintaining readability, even humor. The book is so comprehensive that this review leaves out a huge amount of helpful and interesting information, if you can believe it. My only complaint is that the book starts to feel like a slog thanks to a lack of roadmapping. A clearer, more simply expressed summary of each chapter and its relation to the others (plus a bit of reordering) would make for pure perfection. As is, however, Fine’s work clearly merits five stars.

The following quotes provide a sense of the book’s style and content:

  • “Imagine, just for a moment, that we could reverse the gender imbalance in maths and the maths-intensive sciences with a snap of our fingers, fill people’s minds with assumptions and associations linking maths with natural female superiority, and then raise a generation of children in this topsy-turvy environment. Now it is males whose confidence is rattled, whose working memory resources are strained, whose mental strategies become nitpicky and defensive, and who look in vain for someone similar to inspire them. It’s the boys in the classroom, not the girls, in whom researchers discover evidence that stereotype threat is already at work. It is women who can now concentrate on the task with ease, whose alleged superiority brings creativity and boldness to their approach, who need only glance around the corridors of the department, the keynote speaker lineup, or the history books to see someone whose successes can seep into the very fabric of their own minds. What, we have to ask ourselves, would happen? Would male ‘inherent’ superiority reassert itself, would we quickly settle into some kind of equality, or—is it possible?—would the invisible hand of stereotype threat maintain the new status quo for decades to come?”
  • “[A] person’s talents in the workplace are easier to recognise when that person is male.”
  • “In other words, both the descriptive (‘women are gentle’) and the prescriptive (‘women should be gentle’) elements of gender stereotypes create a problem for ambitious women. Without any intention of bias, once we have categorised someone as male or female, activated gender stereotypes can then colour our perception. When the qualifications for the job include stereotypically male qualities, this will serve to disadvantage women (and vice versa).”
  • “[T]he alternative to being competent but cold is to be regarded as ‘nice but incompetent’. This catch-22 positions women who seek leadership roles on a ‘tightrope of impression management.’” Similarly, “women leaders may be in the tiresome double bind of directing, commanding and controlling their teams without appearing to do so.”
  • “[W]hile expressing anger often enhances men’s status and competency in the eyes of others, it can be very costly to women in terms of how they are perceived.”
  • “When . . . are a few dirty cups a symbol of the exertion of male privilege, and when are they merely unwashed dishes?”
  • “One legacy of the neat breadwinner/caregiver division of labour is an expectation of the ‘zero drag’ worker who, because home and children are taken care of by someone else, can commit himself fully to his job.”
  • “[T]he more a woman adapts her career to family commitments, and the longer the accommodation goes on, the wider the gap between his and her salary and career potential becomes. And so it becomes increasingly rational to sacrifice her career to his.”
  • “Contrary to the idea of shared care as a modern, misguided fad, contemporary fathers may be less involved with their children than they were two to three hundred years ago.”
  • “Behind every great academic man there is a woman, but behind every great academic woman is an unpeeled potato and a child who needs some attention.”
  • “[There is a] so-called file-drawer phenomenon, whereby studies that do find sex differences get published, but those that don’t languish unpublished and unseen in a researcher’s file drawer.”
  • “[T]hose coloured spots on the brain represent statistical significance at the end of several stages of complicated analysis—which means there’s plenty of scope for spurious findings of sex differences in neuroimaging research.”
  • “Sommer and her colleagues reviewed (twice) all functional imaging studies of language lateralisation in a meta-analysis . . . [and] found ‘no significant sex difference in functional language lateralization.’”
  • “Several researchers have recently argued that gender differences in language skills are actually more or less nonexistent.”
  • “There just isn’t a simple one-to-one correspondence between brain regions and mental processes, which can make interpreting imaging data a difficult task.”
  • “‘Using fMRI to spy on neurons is something like using Cold War–era satellites to spy on people: Only large-scale activity is visible.’”
  • “Understandably, given all these interpretative gaps, many neuroscientists hesitate to speculate what their data might mean in terms of sex differences in thinking.”
  • “Are early twenty-first-century neuroscientific explanations of inequality—too little white matter, an unspecialised brain, too rapacious a corpus callosum—doomed to join the same garbage heap as measures of snout elongation, cephalic index and brain fibre delicacy? Will future generations look back on early twenty-first-century interpretations of imaging data with the same shocked amusement with which we regard early twentieth-century speculations about the relevance of sex differences in spinal cord size? I suspect they will, although only time will tell. But to any[one] considering trying to relate sex differences in the brain to complex psychological functions … well, let’s just say . . . unless you have a time machine and have visited a future in which neuroscientists can make reverse inferences without the nagging anxieties that keep the more thoughtful of them awake at night, do not suggest that parents or teachers treat boys and girls differently because of differences observed in their brains.”
  • “‘[D]espite the author’s extensive academic credentials, The Female Brain disappointingly fails to meet even the most basic standards of scientific accuracy and balance. The book is riddled with scientific errors and is misleading about the processes of brain development, the neuroendocrine system, and the nature of sex differences in general.’ The reviewers later go on to say that, ‘[t]he text is rife with “facts” that do not exist in the supporting references.’”
  • “[S]elf-fulfilling prophecies are being delivered alongside the new-look, single-sex curriculum.”
  • “[H]e proposed that intellectual labour sent energy rushing dangerously from ovaries to brain, endangering fertility as well as causing other severe medical ailments. . . . From our modern vantage point we can laugh at the prejudice that gave rise to this hypothesis.”
  • “The error of these gloomy soothsayers, it’s easy enough to see now, lay in their failure to adequately stretch the sociological imagination. So focused were they on locating the cause of inequality in some internal limitation of women – the lightweight brains, the energy-sapping ovaries, the special nurturing skills that leave no room for masculine ones – that they failed to see the injustice, as Stephen J. Gould put it, of ‘a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.’”
  • “[T]he ‘biology as fallback’ position, as Kane called it. Only by process of elimination did they come to the conclusion that differences between boys and girls were biological. Believing that they practised gender-neutral parenting, biology was the only remaining explanation: Parents see their young children behaving in stereotypically boyish or girlish ways and, as Kane puts it, ‘assume that only something immutable could intervene between their gender-neutral efforts and the gendered outcomes they witness.”
  • “You can learn a lot from birth announcements. In 2004, McGill University researchers analysed nearly 400 birth announcements placed by parents in two Canadian newspapers, and examined them for expressions of happiness and pride. Parents of boys, they found, expressed more pride in the news, while parents of girls expressed greater happiness.”
  • “In modern, developed societies, males and females are legally—and no doubt also in the eyes of most parents—born with equal status and entitled to the same opportunities. Yet of course this egalitarian attitude is very new, and it’s poorly reflected in the distribution of political, social, economic and sometimes even personal power between the sexes.”
  • “Alison Nash and Rosemary Krawczyk inventoried the toys of more than 200 children in New York and Minnesota. They found that even among six- to twelve-month-old infants, the youngest age group they studied, boys had more ‘toys of the world’ (like transportation vehicles and machines) while girls had more ‘toys of the home’ (like dolls and housekeeping toys).”
  • “[One] study, for example, found that mothers conversed and interacted more with girl babies and young toddlers, even when they were as young as six months old. This was despite the fact that boys were no less responsive to their mother’s speech and were no more likely to leave their mother’s side. As the authors suggest, this may help girls learn the higher level of social interaction expected of them, and boys the greater independence.”
  • “[G]ender stereotypes, even if perhaps only implicitly held, affect parents’ behaviour towards their babies.”
  • “Implicit attitudes can also take the upper hand when it comes to our behaviour when we are distracted, tired or under pressure of time (conditions that, from personal experience, I would estimate are fulfilled about 99 percent of the time while parenting).”
  • “And, even though they sincerely claim to hold the two sexes as equal, parents simultaneously devalue the feminine and limit boys’ access to it.”
  • “Babies . . . seem to be primed to like what is familiar and are remarkably sensitive to their social world. So what, then, are we to make of recent evidence that children show gender-stereotyped interests before they are even two years old? . . . Does a six-month-old girl look longer at a pink doll than a blue truck because that’s how she’s wired or because she’s seen more pink and more dolls in her short life (especially paired with pleasurable experiences with caregivers) and less blue and fewer trucks? Does a one-year-old boy really play less with a plastic tea set because of hardwiring? What are we to make of boys’ greater interest in looking at balls and vehicles over feminine toys at nine months of age, given that six months earlier they looked at dolls, ovens and strollers just as much?”
  • “Infants and toddlers don’t need to know whether they are a boy or a girl to nonetheless be responsive to their parents’ ‘structuring, channeling, modeling, labeling, and reacting evaluatively to gender-linked conduct’, as psychologists Albert Bandura and Kay Bussey have pointed out.”
  • “[C]olour-coding for boys and girls once quite openly served the purpose of helping young children learn gender distinctions. Today, the original objective behind the convention has been forgotten. Yet it continues to accomplish exactly that, together with other habits we have that also draw children’s attention to gender . . . .”
  • “As we’ve seen, children are born into a world in which gender is continually emphasised through conventions of dress, appearance, language, colour, segregation and symbols. Everything around the child indicates that whether one is male or female is a matter of great importance.”
  • “‘[A] parent,’ suggests David, ‘no matter how loving or loved, cannot be a model for appropriate gender behaviour, unless the child’s exposure to the wider world (for example, through friendship groups and the media) suggests that the parent is a representative or prototypical male or female.’”
  • “[B]oys and girls alike are treated to little pointers when other children praise, imitate and join in certain types of play, but criticise, disrupt or abandon other activities. Unsurprisingly, this peer feedback seems to influence children’s behaviour, making it more stereotypical.”
  • “Rather than embrace the opportunity to present an imaginary world that offers children a glimpse of possibilities beyond the reality of male and female social roles, children’s media often continue to constrict gender roles, sometimes even with more rigidity than does the real world.”
  • “[P]icture-book women are still cracking their heads against the glass ceiling . . . .”
  • “[I]n the forty-one Caldecott winners and runners-up from 1984 to 1994[, o]ne gender was most commonly described as, among other adjectives, beautiful, frightened, worthy, sweet, weak and scared in the stories; the other gender as big, horrible, fierce, great, terrible, furious, brave and proud.”
  • “‘[G]irls are often left out of the adventure, the thrill, the plot, the picture’ even today in the Caldecott award winners, point out Packaging Girlhood authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Brown, who combed through them all in search of a female adventuress.”
  • “Even so, it is easier to find an adventurous girl than a sissy boy.”
  • “‘Children scanning the list of titles of what have been designated as the very best children’s books are bound to receive the impression that girls are not very important because no one has bothered to write books about them.’”
  • “As within the pages of books, females tend to be underrepresented on TV and computer screens, and to miss out on central roles in advertisements and even cereal boxes.”
  • “The power of the media to dish up a stripped-down, concentrated version of cultural values enables it to represent the higher status of males in [an] uncomfortably blunt fashion.”
  • “At seventeen months, boys and girls were equally interested in the doll, tea set, brush and comb set and blocks, although girls spent less time playing with the truck. But four months later, girls had increased their doll play and boys had decreased it.”
  • “[These are] the less-visible cultural waters in which the sponges that are our children are immersed . . . .”

Honey, I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don’t Work

In “Honey I Wrecked the Kids,” Alyson Schafer argues for raising cooperative children, rather than obedient ones, by “[s]hifting from a punishment-and-reward model of parenting to a democratic model that is brimming with respect.” She explains that a child who doesn’t feel connected, capable, counted, and courageous will feel discouragement, “and misbehavior is always the result of feeling discouraged.” In other words, Schafer urges parents to see that misbehavior comes from an unmet need and to focus on meeting that need rather than dominating or manipulating children into compliance. Schafer’s advice for how to encourage a discouraged child differs based on the situation. She describes four separate “dances” – attention, power, revenge, and avoidance – and describes how each stage is an escalation of the last (e.g., a child seeking undue attention, if not properly addressed, will escalate into one with whom a parent struggles for power).

Schafer offers up very specific tips and suggestions for implementing this touchy-feely parenting approach. The only problem is that her playbook is so robust and nurturing that it depends upon a parent firing on all cylinders mentally and emotionally. When I’m rested and have reviewed my notes, I can make many of her suggestions work to great effect. Unfortunately, I often haven’t had time to sleep or reread her strategies. When it comes to eliciting behavioral improvement, an approach that’s simpler to remember and execute – like those in “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” and “Say What You See” – affects greater change. Also, Schafer’s writing – though often trying quite hard to be accessible – simply doesn’t flow. While I noted something interesting on each page that made it worth reading, the whole process felt a bit like a slog.

I nonetheless recommend reading “Honey, I Wrecked the Kids” and keeping it on the shelf for two primary reasons: (1) someday we will have the wherewithal to recall and calmly implement these excellent strategies, and (2) random tricks will stick with you even if making the entire system work feels like a stretch at the moment (e.g., I easily incorporated the “when/then statement”). Moreover, I found great value in Schafer’s ability to describe the frustrating interactions I experience with my kids, even if I find her approach difficult to use.

Here are a few quotes that demonstrate Schafer’s style:

  • “The key message here is to be in an active, caring, respectful relationship with someone who gets you, accepts you and revels in the marvel that is you.”
  • “[A child seeking undue attention] will seek out any behavior that gets their parents to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to them. Some kids will do this by being silly; they will jump around in some crazy dance . . . . Some children decide to take on a persona, as in ‘I am not Marcie, I am a cat’ . . . . Perhaps your kids . . . feign helpless in order to have you ‘care’ for them . . . . Other children will want you to feel worried, so they will bang their heads, or make themselves fearful. . . .Attention-seeking kids will also discover ways to be a general nuisance and pest. They might whine, spill or blow bubbles in their milk. . . . They might complain of feeling sick in non-specific ways, or be dramatic when they get a small scratch. They may try to impress you with feats at the park . . . . Perhaps they talk too quietly, or too quickly, yammering in a non-stop streak so fast you can hardly catch what they are saying.”
  • “1. Do not give undue attention when your child is demanding it from you. 2. Give your child attention in the form of real connection. 3. Avoid the traps that parents typically fall into[: stonewalling, random reinforcement and others.]”
  • “The parenting tools you will learn are: 1. The delicate art of ignoring 2. All action, no talk 3. Distraction 4. Redirection 5. Natural consequences 6. Logical consequences 7. Training for independence.
  • “And, the tools for the longer-term solution: 1. Be present and leave space for independent entertainment. 2. Catch ‘em being good. 3. Build the relationship connection in the deep and rich way the child seeks.”
  • “Of course, there are a few situations when using natural consequences is not advisable: 1. When the consequence is too severe . . . 2. When the consequence is too far in the future . . . 3. When too many others are impacted . . . .”
  • “To ensure that a logical consequence isn’t punitive, the consequence must meet two criteria: It must be related to the behavior (hence the name ‘logical’) and it must be revealed to the child in advance.”
  • “D.R.O.P. THE ROPE MODEL FOR GETTING OUT OF POWER STRUGGLES . . . D = Determine you are in a power struggle. . . . R = Re-assess the situation objectively . . . O = Offer an olive branch . . . P = Plow on positively.”
  • “1. If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all. . . 2. Ask instead of telling. . . . 3. Acknowledge that you can’t force, and as for a favor instead. . . . 4. Describe what you see. . . . 5. Say it in a word. . . . 6. Lighten up. . . . ”
  • “If you’re power struggling, you’re holding on to choice options that your children are ready to make for themselves.”
  • “[A] when/then statement . . . both empowers the child and states the routine as boss.”
  • “LOGICAL CONSEQUENCES are NOT a good tool for power struggles. They always come off wrong. It’s too easy to look powerful when enacting a logical consequence – and besides, there are better tools.”
  • “When the child’s goal is revenge, our parenting job is to help the hurting child heal. You are only getting in the way of your own goal when you punish. . . . The difficulty . . . is that they often behave in ways that make it harder to want to act in loving and kind ways toward them . . . .”
  • “Fighting is co-created and co-operative behavior.”
  • “FIVE WAYS TO RESPOND TO SIBLING CONFLICT AND PREVENT HURT . . . 1. Ignore the Fighting . . . 2. Put Them in the Same Boat . . . 3. Put It on the Agenda . . . 4. The Two-Arm Technique . . . 5. ‘Bugs’ and ‘Wishes’”
  • “[The Two-Arm Technique:] Gently holding one child in each arm, so they are facing each other (Mom clearly centered and not siding with one or the other), Mom can say, ‘Dina, do you need to speak up? Do you need to say something to your sister? She is a very good listener.’ (Mom has not only empowered Dina to speak, but she has also let Carla know she is not in the bad books and so she has no reason to be defensive.)”
  • “Embrace mistakes as opportunities to learn, and you encourage growth and persistence that will lead to mastery.”
  • “For many of us who were raised on praise, we think it’s the best thing to give to a child since we yearned for it ourselves. We’re projecting and regurgitating the tapes in our head.”
  • “Encouragement emphasizes the process rather than the final product so that all ages, all abilities and all qualities are valued. Giving your best is what is important and honored. ‘Being the best’ is not.”
  • “Phrases that Demonstrate Acceptance . . . ‘I like the way you handled that.’ ‘You did a great job tackling that problem.’ ‘I’m glad you enjoy learning.’ ‘I am glad you are pleased with it.’ ‘Since you are not satisfied, what do you think you can do so that you will be pleased with it?’ ‘It looks as if you enjoyed that.’ ‘How do you feel about it?’
  • “Phrases that Show Confidence . . . ‘Knowing you, I’m sure you’ll do fine.’ ‘You’ll make it.’ ‘I have confidence in your judgment.’ ‘That’s a rough one, but I am sure you’ll work it out.’”
  • “While people do not have to attend [family meetings], they do have to live by the decisions made by those who did participate.”
  • Family meeting agenda: “1. Appreciations/encouragement 2. Follow-up old business . . . 3. New business . . . 4. Planning/scheduling/syncing calendars 5. Distribute allowances 6. Weekly chore sign-up 7. Closing/fun.”

At the end of the day, “Honey, I Wrecked the Kids” is somewhat a victim of its own success. It’s so comprehensive that it’s practically difficult to fully embrace – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! If you’re only going to read one parenting book focused on dealing with young kids and need immediate results, this simply isn’t the best choice; but it’s a welcome addition to my collection.

Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween

In this book on the perils of modern girlhood, Melissa Atkins Wardy announces the goal of “redefining girly” so that girls can understand that “there are infinite ways to be a girl” and feel free to “choose their own paths,” and she sets out to provide “a tool kit of really practical, parenttested, and proven strategies and ideas from a mom in the trenches, help for parents to navigate through all this with their families and also practical things you can do right now to effect real change in the culture at large.” Unfortunately, the tips she offers could be shared in a blog post or pamphlet, and the padding she adds in order to create a book largely consists of preaching to the choir about the problem and frustratingly alluding to – but not engaging – theory and data, all in a fairly unorganized manner. Though Wardy serves up a few valuable suggestions (reproduced below), the reader also has to slog through questionably helpful biographical information and too many plugs for Wardy’s blog and online store. The end result is a disappointing read.

Those interested in engaging with these issues would be best off reading the summary of Wardy’s practical tips provided below in conjunction with buying or borrowing Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Make a donation to Wardy’s “Pigtail Pals” organization if you’d like to support her work, but skip purchasing Redefining Girly.

The problem

Throughout the book, Wardy fleshes out the problem: “early sexualization and binary gender marketing, age compression[, adult products and attitudes being pushed on younger and younger kids,] princess culture, ‘pinkification,’ and body image obsession.” Most folks who choose this book will already be familiar with this list (which also includes the dreadfully gendered doling out of stickers at the doctor’s office):

  • “[B]efore your baby is even born; the messages marketed to soon-to-be new baby boys and girls are very different. Girls will be told with no words at all to be pretty and delicate and stay close to home, while boys are urged to be masters of their universe and travel around their great big world. The girls’ colors are very soft and quiet; conversely, the boys’ colors are bold, bright, and strong.”
  • “As I walked through the toy aisles, these are the themes I noticed, and I do not exaggerate: Girls = baby dolls, baby care items, princesses (all Disney), sexy fashion dolls whose faces and bodies look like they have been surgically altered, beauty/makeup toys, play cooking and baking sets, animal care toys, and crafts. Boys = monsters, action or war figures, superheroes, rescue or action vehicles, building blocks and kits, sports and outdoor toys, guns and weapons, scientific experiment kits, and dinosaurs. There was nothing in the way of gender neutrality. If a boy was interested in cooking, he would have had to go into the ‘girl aisle’ and choose something dipped in pink.”
  • “[P]rincesses came in only one dainty variety and fairies came in tiny green dresses in poses reminiscent of the woman on the back of a semitruck’s mud flap.”
  • “The message a consumer got in the mainstream toy aisles was that the most adventurous thing a girl might be interested in was becoming a veterinarian.”
  • “[The toys declare and reinforce] stereotypes of what it means to be a boy (rough, rowdy, and into action) and what it means to be a girl (sweet, docile, and into “frivolous” pursuits). . . , [painting our girls and boys as] pink diva princess shopping hotties and tough violent slacker players[, respectively].”
  • “Pretty dresses and dainty shoes may inhibit your child from playing, moving, dancing, and interacting as she otherwise would. Are the boys in the family wearing outfits that require them to sit quietly and play nicely?”
  • Thanks to “the pornification of children’s Halloween costumes . . . [o]ur girls get the message that being sexy and sexually available is what society wants and expects from them, at ages when they are developmentally too young to understand it. These Halloween costumes also send the message to our boys that girls are just eye candy and sexual playthings.”
  • “When teachers reflexively categorize children by gender or inadvertently reinforce the differences between boys and girls instead of their commonalities—‘Boys, be quiet and sit down!’ or ‘Girls, let’s tiptoe like fairies to the drinking fountain’—these messages are absorbed by children in ways that affect how they view themselves and each other and that undermine their otherwise limitless imaginations and aspirations.”

The theory

Wardy throws out a few theoretical points but irritatingly fails to follow up in any detail or depth:

  • “While certain children may gravitate to specific interests and types of play, after working with children for more than twenty years and raising a son and a daughter, I remain unconvinced these interests are driven by their biological sex.”
  • “Infant brains are so malleable that small differences at birth become amplified over time, as parents, teachers, peers—and the culture at large—unwittingly reinforce gender stereotypes.”
  • “If these are the messages we accept for our infants, could this in some way alter the way we treat and parent the different sexes?”
  • “‘In self-objectification,’ the findings read, ‘girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance.’ In other words, no, all little girls are not ‘naturally’ into fashion and makeup and ‘girly’ trappings as some would suggest; rather, we as a society are pushing them hard in that direction at increasingly younger ages.”
  • “When girls tie their body insecurity to their people-pleasing skills and bring those into sexual relationships, they put their own sexual and emotional health at risk.”

The suggestions

“So how do parents keep the Britney Effect at bay and preserve childhood just a little bit longer?” Wardy includes a few catchphrases that I’ve happily already adopted as well as activities I’d love to try. She recommends critically evaluating media with your kids (in other words, pointing out gendered messaging in commercials and TV programs or commenting on Barbie’s oddly shaped feet) and teaching them to tell stories in order to show how narratives can be (and are) shaped in different ways. Here are some of the more specific suggestions that I found either interesting or compelling:

  • “We always say, ‘Colors are for everyone’ at our house.”
  • “‘All of the toys in our house are for all of the kids.’”
  • “Whenever the kids repeat a stereotype, I try to find the positive in their words and work from there.”
  • “Your everyday, small moments are what she will remember and emulate for years to come. . . . My mom used to take my brother and me to a fast food restaurant after school sometimes. She loved ordering french fries, but if they were too cold, she’d ask the fry cook to reheat them. I thought this was humiliating. I begged my mother to stop ‘being rude’ and accept the fries as is. She reminded me she was paying for the fries and had a right to enjoy them hot. Years later, as an adult, I got a plate of lukewarm fries. Without thinking, I asked for them to be reheated. I knew, in that moment, that my mother had given me the personal authority to ask for what I needed—something I watched so many of my female friends struggle with.”
  • “To strangers [who compliment a girl’s appearance], I’d say, ‘Thanks, but you know what’s the coolest thing about her? She draws animals incredibly well!’”
  • “By showing your daughter that our bodies are instruments, not ornaments, life takes on a different meaning. . . . Build confidence and appreciation in her for the things her body can do, rather than what it looks like.”
  • “Start framing a positive body image for her in her very earliest years, when she is just discovering her body. Talk about her smart mind, strong arms and legs, healthy tummy, and warm smile, and talk about what she can do with all those amazing parts of her body.”
  • “Take a preemptive strike and explain to your child that should she receive gifts that your family has deemed inappropriate, she can exchange or donate them. The importance of the day is having fun with friends, not getting stuff.”
  • “Every once in a while, as we’re sharing a snack or coloring, I’ll ask Amelia some questions about how school is going, and then throw in a hypothetical, like ‘Hey, Smalls, what would you say if someone teased you about your whale shirt / tennis shoes / mismatched socks?’ This gives her the opportunity to practice some comebacks like, ‘That’s too bad you don’t like my shirt. It’s my total fave.’ Or ‘Everyone has different styles, it’s what makes us full of awesome!’ Even a simple ‘OK, thanks anyway’ seems to dissipate the ire without Amelia having to be mean back or involve the teacher.”
  • “Prepping your girl with some one-liners can help her slide through a situation if it arises: ‘Colors are for everyone. . . .’ ‘They aren’t boy shoes, they are kid shoes. . . .’ ‘I’m just fine with the things I like.’ ‘You don’t need to tease me just because I am different from you.’”
  • “Boys and girls need opportunities to play together, alongside one another, and in friendly competition.”
  • “One of the ways parents can get their daughters to think critically about marketing and to feel comfortable rejecting ‘what everyone else’ is wearing or doing is to help her develop a personal brand.”
  • ‘I Am …’ Silhouette Have your daughter lie down on the sidewalk or a large piece of butcher paper and trace her body’s outline with chalk or crayons. Fill her silhouette by having her write or help her to write words that reflect who she is: her character, her likes and interests, her talents and strengths. Doodle around the words, or if using paper add color by adding glitter, yarn hair, or even photographs of her being full of awesome. This would make a great decoration for the back of her bedroom door.”
  • ‘My Dreams’ Vision Board Find foam board or a blank canvas at an art supply store. Start by working out on paper what dreams and goals your daughter would like to put on here, and how she would like to organize them (in a big collage, right now dreams / forever dreams, or this school year / this summer / a year from now, etc.). Gather all the materials she will need to assemble it, put on some good music, and have some healthy snacks nearby. Make a board of your own! Find a special spot in her room where she will be able to see her vision board on a daily basis, and check back in with her from time to time on how she is approaching and achieving her goals.”
  • ‘Beauty Comes from the Family Tree’ Collage Make copies of family photos going back as many generations as you can find. Create a tree out of card stock or foam board, then assemble a tree of beauty that has been passed down between the generations. Label each picture with the woman’s name and something special about her. Talk about where her dark hair or long fingers come from, and how her genes and her confidence are what make her beautiful. For girls who are adopted, switch out genetic traits for actions that made these women beautiful, and by your daughter’s photo put plans she has to be beautiful through actions just like the women in her forever family.”
  • ‘I Am Full of Awesome’ Digital Photo Book Take photos of your girl doing full-of-awesome active, brave, artistic, funny things and create a digital photo book. Write captions that describe her feelings while she was doing whatever is shown in the photo and why she is proud of herself. Surprise her with a couple of photos with captions from her siblings or grandparents or best friend.”

After listing all these, it should also be mentioned that not all Wardy’s suggestions resonated with me. For example, her advice about dealing with family members who do “not back you up or intentionally undermine[] your efforts to give your daughter a healthy girlhood,” seemed both impractical (“We certainly appreciate Angelina’s birthday gift. Thank you for celebrating with us. Maybe we’ll take the Barbie out of the box in a bit, but right now Angelina is really content building with her blocks and dominoes. Lina really does build some of the best skyscrapers around.”) and ineffective (“[I]f speaking up will cause holy war with your mother-in-law, realize that family is more important that any imported plastic junk that will be forgotten in a matter of months.”). I also wasn’t a huge fan of her chapter on public advocacy (i.e., how to complain to store managers and companies about gendered messaging effectively).

Other interesting tidbits

Finally, here’s a random list of things Wardy (or one of her contributors) wrote that I did not want to forget for one reason or another:

  • “Pink is not the enemy, girly is not the enemy; lack of choice is the enemy.”
  • “Of course, it is kind of tricky to explain why something is so inappropriate when a kid this age shouldn’t even be thinking about the inappropriate aspects of the inappropriate gift.”
  • “When we purchase [sexy Halloween costumes], we become a part of the system that feeds off turning young girls’ bodies into sex objects. That system is full of marketers and pimps alike; the flesh of our daughters is their currency.”
  • “Sexy is great; sexualization is unhealthy.”
  • “One negative comment can undo a thousand compliments.”
  • “Why create and sell one baby item when you can sell the same family both a girl version and a boy version of that item?”
  • “Have you noticed that there is hardly any focus on boys being princes or acting in a princely, gallant manner? In fact, they are told and encouraged to be rowdy, loud, sporty, mischievous, messy monsters.”
  • “Any time we ask someone to challenge the stereotypes they project, it can feel awkward because we are asking them to push their comfortable thought boundaries and, frankly, we are telling them they are doing or saying something wrong. . . . You want to convey how important these concerns are without coming off as judgmental or belittling . . . .”

Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink

In what should be entitled “Maxed Out: American Working Moms on the Brink,” Katrina Alcorn recounts her personal experience as a woman trying to advance her career and raise children at the same time (with just a few statistics and policy suggestions spliced into each chapter). The problem is that memoirs are only worth reading if they are very well written, historically important, or totally relatable; and I’m sorry to say Alcorn’s doesn’t qualify.

Her tale is decently written, but interesting anecdotes and remarkable turns of phrase are the exception rather than the norm. I also can’t believe that her experience is representative of working moms. She extrapolates from surveys indicating that working moms feel anxious, the confessions of a handful of her friends, and her own crippling panic attacks and depression to the conclusion that working moms suffer from a “chronic state of busyness, stress, and exhaustion.” She puts her finger on a real problem but overestimates its severity, since her own experience almost certainly falls at the far end of the spectrum. I am not a working mom, but I know many whose frustration with the juggling act does not come anywhere close to causing a mental break. Who knows, maybe Alcorn and her friends are the norm, not my pals; but I certainly hope not.

That said, Alcorn’s memoir may hold some appeal for working moms that I just can’t understand. I’m sure it offers valuable validation and commiseration. Here are a few of my favorite quotes – if only the rest of the book had been as funny or significant it would have been a read I could recommend:

  • “Like a lot of men, Brian had two modes of conversation about work – Ahab-level obsession and slacker-level indifference.”
  • “When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains start to malfunction in all sorts of bizarre ways – we lose our emotional resilience, our tempers, and our ability to sustain logical thought. . . . Which means the vast majority of parents with children under the age of two are the emotional equivalent of stumbling, bleary-eyed drunks looking for a fight or a warm place to take a nap.”
  • “The bar was so low for dads. Dads were like clowns at the party. Show up, make everyone laugh, take a bow, then disappear before the mess had to be cleaned up.”
  • “Because while I could have done those [self-care] things, I couldn’t have enjoyed them [whereas my husband could].”
  • “And so, in the fine tradition of exhausted, guilt-ridden mothers everywhere, I had alienated the person I most depended on – my husband – and upset the person I most wanted to protect – my child.”
  • “As it turns out, managing temperamental toddlers had been excellent training for managing creative professionals like Thomas. The skills I picked up at home worked equally well, if not better, at work. I listened. I offered options. I set limits. I eschewed ambiguity. I did not engage in emotional turbulence. I kept my cool and waited it out. I was always available to problem-solve, and I did not hold grudges. I refereed disagreements . . . the way I [did] at home. I gave both parties a chance to air their complaints, then enlisted their help in coming to a mutually agreeable solution. When they succeeded, I heaped on the praise.”
  • “In her book If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything, Ann Crittenden says that mothers excel at work, not in spite of our parenting experience, but because of it. Raising children teaches us to sharpen our focus in the midst of distractions, enhances our interpersonal skills, and develops our ability to motivate others – all transferable skills.”
  • “For someone young and single, this might sound like a dreadfully dull way to spend a week, but as any busy mom can imagine, I was in Getting Things Done heaven.”
  • “An essay I once read by the historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore helped me to make sense of the alienation I felt. She explains that we didn’t used to be parents and nonparents. For most of human history, to be an adult was to help care for children. . . . We lived and worked in the constant presence of children, sharing the work of raising them. Then, as the birthrate began to go down, our familiarity with children, and our collective sense of responsibility for them, began to change.”
  • “Mommy Guilt is like herpes. You never really get rid of it.”
  • “I felt so lonely. I wanted my mom. . . . There were no friends I could call . . . . Asking another stressed-out, sleep-deprived mom to spend the night with you at the hospital was like asking to borrow a month’s salary.”
  • “Research shows that when their children are older and women want to return to their careers, many cannot.” (No citation offered.)
  • “Our lives have changed dramatically since the ‘60s, but the institutions around us – government, workplace, marriage – have not kept up. . . . [T]here aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything that is now expected of us.”
  • “Cruel irony. I had yearned for years to have more time with my children. Now that I finally had time; being around them was a torment. I felt as if my ears would bleed from their shrieks and happy squeals. I loved them, of course . . . but all I wanted was to lie down, alone, in profound silence.”
  • “The problem boils down to this: Most jobs do not accommodate people who have children. Instead, we have this unwritten, unacknowledged, and unyielding expectation that working parents will make the accommodations necessary to do their jobs as if they don’t have children.”