As 2021 comes to a close, parents are still trying to navigate the uncertainties of raising children during a period of disease and strife.
Most kids have gone back to in-person school, but that’s brought a host of challenges, from new routines to wearing masks all day to facing peers after too many months at home. Many children are facing losses that range from the deaths of family members to the cancelled rites of passage, like graduations and proms. For older kids, the news this year has been troubling. It started with the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol—and more recently, some parents had to have hard conversations about vigilantism when a jury delivered a not-guilty verdict in the shooting deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber by a 17 year old with an assault-style rifle. School shootings remain in the news, too, and recently include discussion about parents’ responsibility.
That’s why we’ve chosen to highlight books that might help parents help their children to emotionally navigate these social challenges. This year’s favorite parenting books center around challenging bias, promoting social justice, acting as digital citizens, and helping parents nurture cooperation, connection, and character in their children. All of the books offer research-based insights and practical parenting tips to promote kindness and compassion in children.
Unraveling Bias: How Prejudice Has Shaped Children for Generations and Why It’s Time to Break the Cycle, by Christia Spears Brown
“To unravel the biases that have restricted generations of children is to make the world more just for all of us,” writes Christia Spears Brown, professor at the University of Kentucky and founding director of the Center for Equality and Social Justice.
Brown, a developmental psychologist, researches stereotypes and discrimination in children. In Unraveling Bias, she focuses on bias across three social groupings: race and ethnicity, gender, and gender identity and sexual orientation.
Bias, she explains, comes in two threads that act to reinforce each other. The individual-level thread appears in stereotypes like perceiving a Muslim woman wearing a hijab is a terrorist. The societal-level thread is systemic bias that is baked into policies, laws, and historical practices like urban planning and real estate development that segregate neighborhoods.
In Unraveling Bias, Brown tackles both threads, with special attention to how they have shaped the lives of children in the United States: school racial segregation, denial of immigrant access to education, equal educational opportunities for girls, protection from sexual harassment, and current laws in multiple states that prohibit the positive portrayal of LGBTQ+ people in schools. She also looks at how social-scientific research has been shaped by bias, as well as what research to date has revealed about how bias works.
Brown concludes by providing an abundance of science-backed strategies about how we can begin to unravel bias at home and school, in our communities, and throughout our society. For example, she has eight recommendations for families:
- Take steps to become aware of and reduce their own biases;
- focus on cultivating children’s empathy for other people’s perspectives;
- provide children opportunities to interact with people from different groups so that they can begin to understand them as individuals;
- teach children about other groups and help them see how they share a common identity;
- talk openly and often about stereotypes, discrimination, and privilege;
- help children from marginalized groups develop a positive identity, particularly when children and parents belong to different groups; and
- encourage healthy sleep and coping habits.
“None of us can say we care about children unless we care about all children because bias is too entrenched,” writes Brown. “It will take us all to unravel it.”
Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World, by Traci Baxley
“The goal of Social Justice Parenting is to raise and nurture a child who can ultimately self-advocate, empathize with others, recognize injustice, and become proactive in changing it,” writes Traci Baxley.
Baxley is a professor of education at Florida Atlantic University who studies multicultural literature, critical literacy, racial identity development, and urban education. She also writes from the lens of being a mother of five biracial children, and a cultural and parenting coach.
She grounds Social Justice Parenting in the concept of “radical love,” which she defines as “an unconditional love that requires showing up for others, even when it’s difficult, and expects nothing in return.” In the first part of the book, she explains the important elements of social justice parenting. First, it honors the lives, interests, and experiences of all family members—children and adults—so that everyone feels a sense of belonging to a part of the greater whole. Next, it is pro-justice—doing the right thing to work against discrimination for everyone even when it’s difficult—and courageously, not passively, empathic. According to Baxley, another core element of social justice parenting is that it requires reflection and dialogue—a persistent process of thinking, talking, and acting. It also requires accountability to one another to uphold pro-justice. Finally, social justice parenting recognizes that we’re all in an evolving process in this work that will necessarily involve missteps, but that does not permit us to be paralyzed for fear of making mistakes.
In the second part of Social Justice Parenting, Baxley invites parents to remember the building blocks of social justice parenting with the acronym ROCKS: Reflection, Open Dialogue, Compassion, Kindness, and Social Justice Engagement. For each building block, she includes journal writing activities, conversation starters, practical parenting tips, or suggestions for kid-friendly activism. For example, in the chapter on social justice engagement, Baxley provides a couple of levels of acts of activism kids can participate in, beginning with things like volunteering, contributing to consciousness-raising, and engaging in internet activism. At the second level, she suggests how children can write letters to lawmakers, attend demonstrations, or boycott.
“I want Social Justice Parenting to offer you hope and direction when you get stuck or you need support to keep doing the work,” writes Baxley.
Digital for Good: Raising Kids to Thrive in an Online World, by Richard Culatta
“The digital world is now our primary residence,” writes Richard Culatta. “Our children will always be digital.”
Culatta is the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, which works to help educators globally to harness the power of technology to solve problems in education. Formerly, he was appointed by President Obama to lead the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education in 2012. His goal for Digital for Good is to begin a new positive discussion about how to raise kids in a digital world that leverages familiar science-backed parenting tools rather than stoking fear or avoidance.
He begins by providing a reality check about some of the important problems of the digital world. These “digital dysfunctions” include the pitfalls of a system based on targeted ad-clicking, cyberbullying and exploitation, inauthentic and distorted reality, and acceptance of heightened incivility. Notwithstanding, he explains how parents can think about ways the digital world offers opportunities for children to become digital citizens, where we all can be members of effective community spaces analogous to physical spaces that form around shared interests or experiences.
He argues that what’s missing in many digital community spaces are norms and shared agreements—both written and unwritten—for how children (and adults) are expected to behave. Rather than framing this conversation between parents and children exclusively around online safety or only providing a list of things children shouldn’t do, he proposes a framework to help kids learn about digital well-being with five parts: balanced, informed, inclusive, engaged, and alert.
Digital for Good reminds parents how children engaged in digital communities can change the world for the better. Culatta encourages parents to make clear to kids how much we recognize that their voices, perspectives, and actions matter. He tells the story of kindergarteners in Scotland learning about community challenges like insufficient sanitation infrastructure and how they practice using digital tools to problem-solve, like making a video to explain the public health consequences and making suggestions for specific ways the community can contribute to solutions. At the end of each chapter, Culatta concludes with suggestions for action items and conversation starters for parents to consider as next steps.
Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, by Michaeleen Doucleff
“Parenting advice today has one major problem,” writes Michaeleen Doucleff. “The vast majority of it comes solely from the Euro-American perspective.”
Doucleff is currently a correspondent for NPR’s Science Desk who also earned a doctorate in chemistry. In Hunt, Gather, Parent, she integrates a multitude of research findings with what she observed and learned firsthand about parenting from Maya villagers in Mexico, Inuit villagers in the Arctic Circle, and Hadzabe hunter-gatherers in Tanzania during her travels.
In the book, she identifies four common parenting aims across all six inhabited continents that have likely been in existence for hundreds of thousands of years, and that parents in the United States practiced up until about 50 years ago. They are the basis of the “TEAM” parenting acronym: togetherness, encouragement, autonomy, and minimal interference.
Togetherness recognizes that young children have an intrinsic predisposition to be present and work with caring others—parents, grandparents, siblings, other family members, friends—rather than be alone. Doucleff suggests minimizing child-centered activities, but ensuring children are together with you during chores and your adult activities, like taking them to appointments, errands, and even your workplace.
To nurture helpfulness, she suggests giving kids lots of opportunities to practice at home, model what kind of help they can provide, and acknowledge when they are contributing. Doucleff stresses the importance of encouragement for children and the consequences of trying to force compliance. She recommends parents speak with children calmly and respectfully rather than trying to motivate them with threats, bribes, and punishments.
In contrast to independence, autonomy is nurtured in the context of parents instilling in children a sense of responsibility to others and when parents honor children’s rights to make their own decisions about how to spend their day rather than relentlessly giving orders to kids or occupying their time.
Finally, minimal interference diminishes conflicts and helps children to practice entertaining themselves. In turn, children are less demanding of parents.
Throughout Hunt, Gather, Parent, Doucleff provides numerous practical “Try It” sections for key insights, like how to train helpfulness and cooperation, learn to motivate and have less anger toward children, discipline with stories and through dramas, boost confidence and self-reliance, and build emotional support for the family.
Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, by Michele Borba
Michele Borba’s father grew up in poverty and lived in an orphanage for a number of years. But despite those obstacles, he lived to be 100 years old after going to college on a scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford, and became a school superintendent.
Borba is an educational psychologist, teacher, educational consultant, and a sought-out parenting contributor to major news outlets. Her book stems from trying to understand how a man like her father who experienced tremendous childhood hardships could ultimately succeed in work and life, while so many children—even those raised in prosperity—struggle today?
She begins Thrivers with a story about a conversation she has with a privileged 16 year old who lives in an affluent Orange County community and attends a fancy private school. She is a competitive swimmer who wakes up at 4:00 a.m. for practice, is enrolled in AP and honors classes with three to four hours of homework in the evening, and gets about five hours of sleep every night. She wants to meet her parents’ expectations to get into Stanford, but admits to being burned out. A few months later, Borba learns the girl was hospitalized because of severe depression. It becomes clear that this is not a rare case—Borba finds this experience to be pervasive for Generation Z.
What are these kids missing? She finds the root of this crisis that affects children from all walks of life in the United States is in our culture’s fixation on boosting cognitive capacity to improve their academic achievement so that they can get into prestigious colleges.
Borba explains how cultivating key character strengths in children helps guard them against malignant stress and expands their awareness that a fulfilling and meaningful life is much more than grades and academic awards. These seven character strengths include self-confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism. When combined together, these strengths act to multiply children’s capacity to flourish. For example, empathy and curiosity help children understand shared interests and identities to fortify social connections.
Throughout Thrivers, Borba explains each of these strengths, their science-backed benefits, and how parents can nurture them in children.
Prizeworthy: How to Meaningfully Connect, Build Character, and Unlock the Potential of Every Child, by Mitch Abblett
“Prizing is when an adult stops whatever else they are doing, drops all their assumptions, expectations, and agendas, and expresses how much the apparent pain or bubbling up of possibility within a child simply matters,” writes Mitch Ablett.
Ablett is a licensed clinical psychologist who was also previously the executive director of the Institution for Meditation and Psychotherapy, and the clinical director at the Manville School at Judge Baker Children’s Center at Harvard University. During his career, he has focused on serving marginalized children such as adjudicated adolescents in prisons, children with significant trauma history and extreme behaviors in residential programs, and students with intensive social and emotional needs that require attendance at a therapeutic school.
“Prizing” is distinct from praising, which he characterizes as leading to an ephemeral hit that might feel good at best, but can potentially have unintended negative side effects. Ablett’s book teaches parents skills to nurture their own mindful awareness to strengthen their ability to respond to their children’s behaviors with compassion, humility, and authenticity. Then, he guides parents to learn about how to reframe children’s challenging behaviors to shed new meaning and permit problem solving, and to nurture their own emotional agility.
Finally, Prizeworthy teaches parents how to practice prizing with their children: Speak with them with mindful authenticity, affirm their feelings, give to them compassionately and without expectations of receiving something in return, and set limits with compassion. Ablett provides over 30 practices for parents to cultivate the skill of prizing—and he also humbly and authentically weaves illustrative stories from both his clinical and parenting experiences.