Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting

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Lesley Stahl’s “Becoming Grandma” has an identity problem. There’s no doubt in my mind that the veteran journalist wrote this interesting and often lovely little book as a memoir lightly sprinkled with references to science and anecdotes related by “girlfriends and colleagues.” Unfortunately, somewhere along the way—most notably in the subtitle “Science of the New Grandparenting” and the chapter on Hope Meadows, “a planned community in Rantoul, Illinois, created for the sole purpose of rescuing children who were abused”—the project acquired a veneer of serious reporting.

Once that happened, even Stahl’s repeated concessions—like “my small sampling” and “my admittedly unscholarly survey”as well as nods to “income inequality” can’t defend the book from the criticism that it draws sweeping generalizations from interviews with a narrow subset of humanity and two controversial sources (work on “innate” gender difference by Louann Brizendine, “whose books and conversations were central to [Stahl’s] education,” have been labeled “junk science” by some, and Wednesday Martin has been accused of blurring the lines between fact and fiction in her social scientific pursuits). Case in point: referencing tabloids and advice blogs works fine for a memoir, but not so well for serious nonfiction.

Accepting these caveats as table stakes and reading the book as primarily one of personal reflection, however, leaves much to enjoy. Stahl says of becoming a grandparent: “I was at a time in my life where I assumed I had already had my best day, my tallest high. But now I was overwhelmed with euphoria [similar to that generated by] … romantic and carnal love.”

She tells, with satisfying name-dropping and an almost unerring eye for relatability, tales of her own grandparenthood and the larger issues they implicate. Things like being part of the “sandwich generation” caring both for aging parents and new grandchildren, dealing with in-laws (“We find ourselves having to share the new center of our life with basically strangers”), and how perplexing her cohort of “have-it-all” women finds modern parents (noting “how much more engaged and eager-beaverly women today are about motherhood than I was”).

Stahl also speaks at length about grandparents like her feeling controlled and regulated:

We grans begin holding our tongues. We turn passive, lest we irk or antagonize. We see clearly that they hold a new card, the power to deny us access to the most precious thing on earth. So we enter a new precinct of best behavior and walking on eggshells. We live by their rules now, and rule number one is: Do it their way.

This can sometimes feel awfully crotchety, like when she writes, “Before I could hold Chloe, I had to sanitize my hands—on Taylor’s orders. I really do wonder how on earth my daughter survived all the germs I carried, the wine I drank when I was pregnant and the general carelessness I subjected her to.” That said, it’s often done in a self-aware way (“‘We’re becoming fussbudgets’”) and Stahl employs her formidable powers of perception to level with the reader: actually, she says, the younger generation doing anything differently “feels like a reprimand.”

Stahl tries to strike an objective tone when discussing issues of intergenerational strife:

I am issuing a call to arms to all grandparents: If you’re not already pitching in, start now; become actively engaged in your grandchildren’s lives…. I’m also calling on parents of young children who are denying or curtailing grandparent access: ease up (except in cases of egregious physical or mental abuse). It’s time to be forgiving. Swallow hard, if that’s what it takes, “for the sake of the children.”

Ultimately, though, the book is one written by a grandmother about grandparenting and as such it slants toward the older generation’s perspective. That said, it contains many reflections on life as a working mother that will make parents feel understood at the same time they’re being asked to stretch:

During the following summer in Nantucket, I grabbed any chance to be with [my granddaughter]. I would drop whatever I was doing, gladly. I’d give up a nap or stop reading the papers. I hadn’t been like that with [my daughter]. Back in those days I was never ever free just to simply, uncomplicatedly love my kid. Work intruded on her time, or she was intruding on my reading or my sleep. As a mother, I lived with teeth grinding and stomach turbulence from worrying about [her], my job, my husband’s depression, the bills, my parents, [her] piano lessons, my boss looking at me funny. My emotional neighborhood was an overcrowded tenement. I felt trapped; I was in a fight against an urge to unshackle.

Stahl waxes downright philosophic about how grandparenthood differs:

[We’re] playmates with our grandchildren versus the policewomen we were with our own kids…. [D]uring parenthood, [our feelings are] burdened with responsibility and fear, and lack of sleep. Grandparent love is unfettered, uncomplicated…. [W]ith grandchildren there is no weariness that competes with the elation and joy of being with them.

As a parent of three young children, I found these words reassuring. Maybe we don’t need to feel guilt about not slowing down to smell roses with our kids, maybe that’s just not our role right now. Along these lines Stahl offers up a fascinating thought: Because contentment bottoms out around our thirties and forties, she says, “[B]abies are being raised by people in the unhappiest phase of their lives. Which makes it all the more important that we happy, satisfied zikna step in.”

Though “Becoming Grandma” isn’t perfect—with the organization slipping and repetition in the back half—many grandparents, especially those of Stahl’s socioeconomic standing, will find much to love, and parents like me will find a number of true gems of expression and point of view.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

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There’s a reason “Quiet” is a New York Times bestseller and Carnegie Medal finalist: Susan Cain makes a powerful argument for rethinking the way most Americans view introverts in an accessible, engaging style.

Cain starts from the premise that at least one-third of us are introverts, a style of temperament that likely evolved to counterbalance the impulses of those who sit at the other end of the spectrum. According to Cain, the two groups diverge as follows:

Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast (sometimes rash) decisions, and are comfortable multitasking and risk-taking. They enjoy “the thrill of the chase” for rewards like money and status. Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration [and persistence]. They’re relatively immune to the lures of wealth and fame….

Extroverts think out loud and on their feet; they prefer talking to listening, rarely find themselves at a loss for words, and occasionally blurt out things they never meant to say. They’re comfortable with conflict, but not with solitude.… [I]ntroverts prefer to work independently [and tend to be conflict-avoiders] ….

Extroverts tend to like movement, stimulation, collaborative work. Introverts prefer lectures, downtime, and independent projects….

Because they tend to speak less loudly, quickly, and often in a society that has embraced “the culture of personality,” introverts get treated as if they’re less intelligent, creative, and capable of leadership than extroverts—even though social science research disproves these notions. In response, Cain says, some introverts “act like extroverts, but the effort costs them in energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama.”

Recognizing truths like “solitude can be a catalyst to innovation,” Cain says, can help us move away from “think[ing] of introversion as something that needs to be cured.” Instead, we’d do well to respect introverts as much as extroverts and question corporate culture that blindly values “quick and assertive answers over quiet, slow decision-making.” We should give both students and employees more privacy and autonomy than do the fads of open-plan offices, teamwork, and group learning in large classrooms, Cain says, as well as “actively seek out symbiotic introvert-extrovert relationships, in which leadership and other tasks are divided according to people’s natural strengths and temperaments.”

Cain illustrates each of these observations—as well as explaining various other psychological concepts like “high sensitivity,” reward sensitivity, flow, self-monitoring, and “person-environment fit”—with attention-holders like the following:

If Abraham Lincoln was the embodiment of virtue during the Culture of Character, then Tony Robbins is his counterpart during the Culture of Personality.

During the 1988–89 basketball season, for example, two NCAA basketball teams played eleven games without any spectators, owing to a measles outbreak that led their schools to quarantine all students. Both teams played much better (higher free-throw percentages, for example) without any fans, even adoring home-team fans ….

Most importantly, Cain chooses an approach that works for every personality type: “None of this,” she writes, “is to denigrate those who forge ahead quickly, or to blindly glorify the reflective and careful. The point is that we tend to overvalue [the one] and discount the [other]: we need to find a balance ….” Cain certainly strikes a good one in this fascinating, well-written read.

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design

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At cocktail parties, on the playground, and, much to my husband’s chagrin, in the bedroom, I cannot stop talking about Happy City. The book rivals Jeff Speck’s fabulous Walkable City in the wealth of information it provides regarding the history and future of cities, towns, and suburbs as livable places. Charles Montgomery’s take differs in that it pivots on the idea of happiness, using social science research to make recommendations for innovations that will ease stress and increase community.

Though Happy City tends to belabor points with excess verbiage, its pace is redeemed by a wealth of interesting content like the following:

Even the smallest of private cars takes up about 150 square feet of road space when standing still. That’s thirty times the space used by a person standing, and 7.5 times the space used by a person on a bicycle or on a bus. The numbers diverge exponentially as we start moving. Someone driving alone in a car moving at thirty miles per hour takes up twenty times as much space as someone riding on a bus at the same speed.

“How would we build differently,” Montgomery asks, “if we could chart the connection between the designs of our cities and the map of happiness?” He starts by establishing that “the greatest of human satisfaction lies in working and playing cooperatively with other people.” And yet, the proliferation of “sprawlscapes [in] modern North America”—characterized by cul de sacs and strip malls rather than dense neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential use—combined with the fact that many jobs still sit near urban centers, means people spend more and more time stuck in their cars and deprived of the opportunity for casual contact with neighbors and the feelings of belonging and trust such interactions produce.

The current landscape of our suburbs makes parents “sicker, fatter, more frustrated, socially isolated, and broke,” while simultaneously depriving children of the community, independence, and prosocial busyness that comes with walkability.

Meanwhile, those who reside in downtowns and neighborhoods close to them (dubbed “streetcar suburbs”) deal with commuters slicing through their world, making conversation-stopping noise, displacing public gathering spaces, “clogg[ing] the main streets and slow[ing public transportation].”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, until relatively recently, it wasn’t.

We got here, Montgomery says thanks to “the twentieth century’s dual urban legacy: First, the city had been gradually reoriented around private automobiles. Second, public spaces and resources had largely been privatized.” He looks at cities like Copenhagen that have made great strides (pun intended) toward improving walkability and concludes: “If a poor and broken city such as Bogota can be reconfigured to produce more joy, then surely it’s possible to apply happy city principles to the wounds of wealthy places.” After all, “Paris’s most glorious public gardens were built for the enjoyment of a ruling elite but now provide hedonic delights for all.”

Happy City includes a host of suggestions for reform, including “neighborhood upcycling” which entails making more room for “people of different incomes … and tolerance for proximity” in cities. When changes in zoning and building laws allow for conversion of garages to cottages and more: “Th[e] vast majority of … single-family lots in the city can legally include at least three households.” Streets can be “pedestrianized” to create public spaces, like when New York City closed Broadway to traffic near Times Square or a group of neighbors reclaimed an intersection now called Share-It Square in Portland, Oregon. “All the real estate now used to facilitate the movement and storage of private automobiles,” Montgomery points out, “is public, and it can be used any way we decide.”

Other “happy redesigns” include “bike lanes, traffic calming, good transit, and … bylaws that ensure vibrant commercial streets.” Innovations called “sprawl repair,” look at filling in those yawning Target parking lots and, “‘returning cities to a human scale.’” There are, Montgomery says, “a thousand ways to retrofit proximity and complexity into cities.”

We just have to resolve to do it.

“We have been seduced by the wrong technologies,” Montgomery concludes: “[T]he struggle for the happy city is going to be long and difficult. The broken city lives in the rituals and practices of planners, engineers, and developers. It lives in law and code, and in concrete and asphalt. It lives in our own habits, too.” But “[i]t is not too late to rebuild the balance of life in our neighborhoods and cities.”

Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer in San Francisco. Her work has been published online by The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Salon among others. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

First Dads: Parenting and Politics from George Washington to Barack Obama

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First Dads offers a fascinating glimpse at the personal lives, parenting styles, and historical legacies of our nation’s presidents. Written in an accessible, engaging style with good flow and pacing, the text should appeal to anyone with an interest in parenting and appetite for history or celebrity.

Kendall doesn’t offer up much by way of parenting advice, aside from confirming the old Goldilocks theory: not too permissive and not too authoritarian, but just right, has proven best for America’s “first kids” too. A novel conclusion rocked one of my core beliefs though. I’ve always thought everyone should strive to be the best parent they can be, and that those who manage and attend to children well will naturally excel in other areas too. But Kendall says the best dads haven’t made for the most effective presidents. It’s a new lens through which to consider our attempts to “have it all.”

In this respect and others, I wonder whether Kendall can possibly offer the right take on the vast number of presidencies and historical events he covers. His presentation of the likelihood of George Washington having an illegitimate son, for example, differs with Thomas Fleming’s extensive research on the subject. (Kendall basically says, “Could have been true,” while Fleming writes in The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers that it almost certainly didn’t happen.) Generalizations about the effectiveness of the Obama administration also may be premature.

That said, First Dads is well worth reading, even if just for interesting factoids like the following:

As Grant’s volunteer aide-de-camp, Fred would live and eat in his father’s tent for most of the war. On many a night, father and son would sleep side by side.

Decades later, the White House staff was still telling stories about how “there was never a morning in the year that the whole five did not go and pile in to the bed with President and Mrs. [Teddy] Roosevelt.”

Play was as essential to the President as to his offspring. That Christmas, between lunch and dinner, Roosevelt squeezed in several hours of single stick—a form of fencing—with two friends from his Rough Rider days . . . whom he dubbed his “playmates.”

Like TR, [Hayes, a] Republican, who easily identified with the concerns of children, would also insist that it was the President’s duty to help protect America’s little guys from its big guys.

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World

 

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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

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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.

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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.