For a lot of families, parenting has never been harder than it was this year. Many have been struggling for months trying to provide child care and schooling at home while simultaneously working either alongside their children or as essential workers in the community, if they haven’t already lost their jobs.
The theme that emerges across our favorite parenting books of the year is how important connection and communication are. Whether it’s sensory communication between parents and babies during cosleeping, conversations parents have with their young sons entering puberty, or talking about scary news, one major key to children’s social and emotional well-being is warm, open parent-child communication.
These 2020 books offer science-based practical tips and sample scripts to help you communicate better with your children, build closer relationships, and set them up for happiness and resilience in life.
When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids, by Abigail Gewirtz
Amid the coronavirus pandemic and persistent racial injustice, this year has been really hard for kids and adults. University of Minnesota researcher Abigail Gewirtz’s book When the World Feels Like a Scary Place centers on navigating emotions through conversations. With her experience as a clinical psychologist specializing in trauma, she focuses on the kinds of conversations that help kids and parents understand stress and intense negative emotions.
“Talking and listening are the essential ways to nurture resilient, confident, and compassionate children, especially in times of stress,” Gewirtz says. “The work begins with you (and your partner, if have one) learning to recognize and process your own emotions.”
She begins by explaining how bad news and stress can elicit a variety of responses in parents because we differ in our perceptions, genetics, personalities, and life experiences. She invites parents to try practical exercises to explore where you feel stress in the body and how you respond to it. What’s more, she offers ideas for calming strategies, like taking 10 deep breaths, taking a news break, using humor, and distracting yourself.
Gewirtz shares the sobering statistic that parents spend an average of only three minutes each day talking with their kids. With this in mind, she shows parents how to listen, what to say, and how to say it, with sample scripts on topics like violence, natural disasters, climate change, technology, social justice, our divided society, parent military deployment, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Ultimately, the goal of an essential conversation isn’t only to calm your child, but to help her figure out that she has choices about how to respond to her big feelings when the world feels scary,” Gerwitz writes. “Indeed, these will be some of the many thousands of conversations that constitute childhood, and that will eventually help your child grow into a competent, engaged, and caring adult.”
Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence in Ourselves and Our Kids—from Toddlers to Teenagers, by Jennifer Miller
In Confident Parents, Confident Kids, Jennifer Miller busts myths that many parents have about confidence, a quality that most of us want our kids to gain. According to Miller, it’s not about being an extrovert, gaining power at all costs, having a high IQ, getting straight As in school, or repressing our feelings. Confidence—feeling sure of your own abilities—comes down to emotional competence.
To teach that emotional competence, Miller has worked to support parents, educators, and kids with social and emotional learning for over 25 years. There are five keys to help our kids develop these important skills: modeling (sharing how you deal with big feelings), coaching (guiding kids to find their own solutions), practicing (identifying opportunities to try new skills), creating positive learning environments (nurturing emotionally safe spaces), and appreciating (celebrating small steps).
Miller shares insights to help parents understand kids during different life stages, from birth to the teenage years. For example, preschoolers and early school-aged children experience many transitions in their lives—including daily travel from home to school to after-care and back home, with different rules and relationships with adults in each setting—at a time when they are still developing the skills to think flexibly across settings. These transitions can elicit lots of big feelings. She provides age-appropriate tips for parents to help cultivate children’s self-control and self-management skills, like making rules about screens, practicing deep breathing, creating a safe base to go to when they have big feelings, and reflecting together about anger using children’s books.
Miller sprinkles parenting scenarios into her book that bring to life how research-based, practical strategies can be used in everyday moments with our kids. “In a practical way, children raise parents,” she explains. “As we become more reflective about our own beliefs and educated about development—our children’s and our own—we gain enough mastery to resonate, to improvise, and to build up an increasingly complex, delicious sound that offers us deep joy, satisfaction, and meaning beyond our wildest imaginings.”
The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes Who Our Kids Become and How Their Brains Get Wired, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
“What’s the single most important thing I can do for my kids to help them succeed and feel at home in the world?,” ask Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in The Power of Showing Up. Their answer: Show up for them and be physically, mentally, and emotionally present.
This is not always easy, they acknowledge—especially during a time when work and family responsibilities are both happening at home for many parents. But focusing on this one task can help you alleviate the constant worry about doing the right thing and let go of parental perfectionism.
The goal of showing up is to nurture a secure attachment—a strong bond that’s forged by parents being sensitive, responsive, and reliable to children’s needs. With this predictable and warm reference point for what a relationship is, children feel more confident in understanding the world and are better prepared to explore it, rather than feeling stressed because the world seems so unpredictable.
The Power of Showing Up summarizes the host of benefits that a secure attachment brings to children, including stronger relationships with parents, friends, and romantic partners; better coping skills; higher self-esteem; stronger leadership skills; and better academic performance.
Siegel and Bryson break down how to show up into four Ss: feeling safe, seen, soothed, and secure. What strategies can parents use to provide the four Ss to their kids?
To help kids feel safe, pledge not to be a source of fear at home, make amends to repair ruptures in your relationship, and nurture a feeling that home is a haven. Help kids feel seen by being curious about them rather than making assumptions or judgments, and have conversations so that you can enter their world. To help them feel soothed, parents can offer affection and show kids how to use calming strategies when they’re upset. Feeling secure comes from all of the above, as well as helping kids learn that they have inherent worth and the capacity to offer themselves safety and soothing.
Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, by Madeline Levine
“Anxiety is now the number-one mental health disorder for both adults and children,” writes psychologist Madeline Levine. “Ready or Not is about addressing that anxiety. It is about the damage unchecked anxiety does to parents’ decision-making at the very moment we need greater, not lesser, clarity about everything from which preschool will best nourish our toddler to which university will be the best fit for our high-school senior.”
The consequences of parent and child anxiety are evident in five main areas, Levine writes. Parents’ unreasonable expectations can put a tremendous amount of pressure on kids and constrict the space they need for deep learning, leading to unhealthy overachieving. A false self emerges in kids who are dependent on others’ approval (especially on social media) rather than engaged in self-reflection to understand who they really are and want to be. Many kids are suffering from social isolation, leading to fewer opportunities to cultivate critical interpersonal skills. Parents micromanaging and providing excessive oversight can deprive kids of the experience of recovering from challenges or failure and make them feel powerless. And the shaky sense of morality that many kids have orients them toward materialism, unethical rule-bending, and cheating.
How can parents help their children overcome these challenges and cultivate resilience and love of learning? Levine suggests nurturing proficiencies and skills like digital literacy, data analysis, critical thinking, curiosity, creativity, flexibility, educated risk-taking, collaboration, perseverance, and self-regulation.
“Of all the qualities parents can cultivate in their children, hope and optimism are the most precious,” says Levine. “We can nurture hope and optimism in our kids by demonstrating that we always have some control over our environment and ourselves. The future isn’t a tide that’s going to crush us, it’s a wave we’re a part of.”
Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions, by James McKenna
Like a lot of new parents, anthropologist James McKenna was confounded by expert advice on infant sleep arrangements. He and his wife turned to parenting books for guidance and found that they lacked any reference to research on human infant biology, the significance of maternal touch in helping babies thrive, or anthropological research in cross-cultural and primate sleep arrangements. He realized that the sleeping guidance in these parenting books was largely based on recent, unscientific Western cultural ideas from male physicians who did not have experience with the everyday caregiving of babies.
McKenna’s book summarizes this missing research and offers important insights about how cosleeping can be made safe and what kind of benefits it might promote for children’s development and parents’ well-being. Cosleeping, or sleeping together, involves important sensory stimulation and communication between babies and parents—touch, scent, sound, taste—that matters for neurological development. Physical contact helps to forge the physiological and social bonds that help children mature. Cosleeping, McKenna says, is also where parents and babies experience love.
His perspective is different from that of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends room-sharing, but not bed-sharing. But he believes an anti-bed-sharing campaign is counterproductive because it endangers honest conversations between parents and their pediatricians. While pediatricians recommend sleeping “separately,” McKenna and his colleagues counter with, “together, but safely.”
“It is not my intention to tell you what to do or how your infant should sleep,” says McKenna. “The purpose of this book is to provide the best information available in order to help you make your own choice about what sleeping arrangement will be the safest and most beneficial for your family.”
Decoding Boys: New Science Behind the Subtle Art of Raising Sons, by Cara Natterson
In Decoding Boys, pediatrician Cara Natterson wants to help parents support their sons through the transition to puberty, which mostly begins when they’re nine to 14 years old. She says parents might start to notice that their once-chatty sons start to get quieter around this time. She wants parents to keep trying to engage them because they need us to keep the lines of communication open.
“Despite what they say (‘I’m fine’; cue closing door) and despite social convention (if he doesn’t want to talk about it, leave well enough alone; ‘He’s fine’), not talking to your son about his evolving physical, emotional, and social self is the biggest parent trap of them all,” says Natterson. “Because if you don’t have the conversations, someone else will: a friend who’s got it all wrong, or a family member who doesn’t exactly share your ideology, or the Internet.”
Natterson offers 10 suggestions about how to talk to boys about puberty and the changes that accompany it. First, start talking because however anxious you may feel about it as a parent, it’s likely that your son feels even more embarrassed by puberty. Then, listen and ask questions so that you can find out what he is thinking. Avoid eye contact in the beginning; find opportunities to talk when you’re not looking directly at each other, like at bedtime, and turn off devices so that neither of you are distracted.
Grab teachable moments from media or people you meet to illustrate your rules and expectations, she advises, and explain them without lecturing so your son can understand the reasons behind them. Be patient with your son—he may need a lot of time before he breaks his silence or replies in more than a few words. To help with that, find your surrogate—another trusted person that your son feels comfortable talking to when he doesn’t want to talk to you.
Point out the bright side, but don’t overpromise that there won’t be hard parts about puberty. Last, take do-overs when you make mistakes—acknowledge your missteps, apologize, and give yourself grace and another chance to try again.