During our parenting journeys, what we have in common are experiences of stress and confusion as well as uplifts and joy. At the same time, each parenting journey is unique. Some of us are parenting children with chronic health challenges that require us to have additional caregiving skills. Others are parenting children entering or in the thick of puberty and under stress from toxic achievement culture. Some parents are further down the road in parenting adult children with new challenges to explore.
Our favorite parenting books of 2023 provide parents with timely and practical, science-based guidance on how to nurture love, connection, and resilience. They cover topics ranging from how our parenting is intertwined with the natural world to how parents can break the generational cycle of adverse childhood experiences and how parent well-being is an essential prerequisite to child well-being.
The Evolved Nest: Nature’s Way of Raising Children and Creating Connected Communities, by Darcia Narvaez and G. A. Bradshaw
The evolved nest refers to the system of adaptations inherited from our ancestors for nurturing babies into thriving members of the adult community, including practices like extended breastfeeding, frequent touch, and multiple responsive caregivers. “Every species’ nest . . . is a tried-and-true system validated over millions of years. The more an Animal and their young mesh with the natural surroundings, the better chance they have to thrive,” write Darcia Narvaez and G. A. Bradshaw. “The same goes for humans. We and our children do best in conditions like those in which we evolved as a species.”
Narvaez (a professor of psychology whose research focuses on morality, human nature, and well-being) and Bradshaw (executive director of The Kerulos Center, where her work focuses on human-animal relationships) bring a deep understanding of how both humans and animals raise their children to this scientifically rich book. Each chapter explores how a species’ evolved nest supports child rearing, from how beavers support free play to how gray wolves develop their young’s sense of moral commitment.
These chapters dive deep into neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology to explain how the evolved nest is perfectly designed to meet the needs of the specific species’ young. The chapters then zoom out to remind us that human young are not so different from animal young and re-ground the reader in the ways that human children are designed to be raised with “tender, supportive care” and in harmony with the natural world.
This beautiful and wise book describes the ingenuity of the natural world in ways that will leave you in awe, and highlights the disconnects in how children are raised in Western colonizer societies that will raise serious questions for many readers. Narvaez and Bradshaw describe the stress and isolation that many children experience today and make an urgent call to address it.
“By adopting and cultivating Nature-based practices that promote thriving in individuals and communities, we all can reknit and revive the vitality of our planet. Instead of building technologies to escape reality and Earth, we can, like the Octopus and other Animals, direct our complex brains and minds to cultivate the beauty in which we live and care for everyone around us, all of our kin.”
Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—And What We Can Do About It, by Jennifer Breheny Wallace
Never Enough explores how the incessant push to perform takes a toll on children’s mental health. Journalist Jennifer Breheny Wallace integrates the science of resilience with real stories from children and parents to highlight ways we can help our children learn that they matter beyond what they achieve or produce.
Breheny Wallace explains that toxic achievement culture is fueled by parents’ anxiety about our children’s uncertain future. At the root of this uncertainty and anxiety are economic and social trends, like rising income inequality, lack of accessibility and opportunities, and changes to government social policies. Parents are trying to cope with unpredictability by using their time and resources to try to safeguard their children’s future socioeconomic status.
Breheny Wallace warns that children’s sense of their own worth and value can be chipped away when they are not reaching the unrealistically high expectations for achievement set by their families, schools, and society. But she explains that a child’s sense of “mattering” can “act as a protective shield buffering against stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.”
Mattering is a deep human need that involves knowing that you are seen and cherished by others and that you can add something worthy to the world with your presence. There are seven key ingredients to mattering: attention, importance, dependence, ego extension (recognizing someone is emotionally invested in you), noted absence (feeling you’re missed), appreciation, and individuation (being known for your true, unique self).
Never Enough provides numerous practical ways for parents to take action at home. For example, Breheny Wallace recommends to never worry alone—reach out to coparents and friends for support and build a go-to committee of people who can provide you with unconditional love. Relatedly, she suggests being a “selfist”—acknowledging and fulfilling your own important needs rather than falling into the trap of overlooking and denying them. Parents need to be well for their children to be well. She also recommends striving to be a “good enough” parent rather than a perfect parent—our kids benefit from learning how we practice self-acceptance, including being clear-eyed about our shortcomings and failures.
Raising a Resilient Child in a World of Adversity: Effective Parenting for Every Family, by Amanda Sheffield Morris and Jennifer Hays-Grudo
What’s the key to raising resilient children who can move forward and flourish despite hardships and setbacks? According to Amanda Sheffield Morris and Jennifer Hays-Grudo, it’s “balanced parenting.” This involves “giving [children] freedom to explore while keeping them safe, allowing them independence while staying connected, and letting them make mistakes while helping them succeed.” The coauthors are developmental psychologists whose research on parenting, adversity, resilience, and child development spans decades.
Morris and Hays-Grudo explain that over half of parents have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like abuse, neglect, divorce, violence in the home, and mental illness. Children who have experienced ACEs tend to face greater challenges in adulthood, like physical health problems such as cancer and heart disease, and problems with managing stress and regulating emotions, which can contribute to difficulties with nurturing relationships and parenting.
They offer five steps to break the cycle of intergenerational adversity. First, acknowledge both the good and hard parts of your past, but don’t feel the need to relive these experiences, especially without professional support. Next, notice and learn to navigate your emotions with mindfulness practices. You can also identify ways you’ve coped in the past that no longer serve you well and find new healthy ways of coping, like holding family meetings to discuss challenges before they grow to be overwhelming. Finally, appreciate that while there may be similarities, your children are different from you and have their own life journeys.
Raising a Resilient Child in a World of Adversity explains that there are 10 antidotes to ACEs, called protective and compensatory experiences (PACEs). They are love, guidance, friendship, affiliation, benevolence, stability, comfort, knowledge, movement, and recreation. The book describes each of these PACEs and how they are expressed throughout the lifespan, including specific guidance, stories, practical tips, research, and key takeaways around balanced parenting for children of all ages. The final chapter provides a recap of the resilient benefits of balanced parenting, which include trust, courage, character, competence, and confidence.
Advanced Parenting: Advice for Helping Kids Through Diagnoses, Differences, and Mental Health Challenges, by Kelly Fradin
Advanced Parenting provides guidance to parents who are navigating how to care for children with intense, chronic health challenges that require additional caregiving skills—almost a third of all families. Author Kelly Fradin is a pediatrician who has worked at a children’s hospital caring for children with complex health challenges, like congenital heart disease and respiratory failure.
The book encourages parents to build a solid base for this journey by getting curious about our reactions to our children’s health challenges. One way to do this is by reflecting on what we bring to these caregiving challenges and how our tendencies help us show up with both strengths and weaknesses.
Fradin explains what it means to worry the “just right” amount, how to notice and change catastrophic thinking patterns, and how to become aware of and work with our default modes for handling stress—taking it out either on others or on ourselves. Other foundational skills include finding out what matters most for our children and squaring that with our own perspectives and needs as parents. She also helps parents navigate the health care system, including school-based health supports.
Advanced Parenting provides parents with tools to take action, like carefully researching our children’s health challenges, managing day-to-day caregiving activities, adapting to the needs of the whole family, successfully coparenting, and communicating with and recognizing children’s unique developmental needs and preferences. It also provides guidance on being agile with our child’s and our own emotions, including resistance and burnout as well as joy and motivation.
Throughout the book, Fradin shares research-backed advice, along with her own personal story of childhood cancer, her child’s health care challenges, and stories of her patients, to illustrate advanced parenting skills in action. “The essential aspects of who we are can be fundamentally formed by our challenges, but when we reframe challenges as being part of life, expected and inevitable, we see ourselves as all walking the same path,” writes Fradin.
This Is So Awkward: Modern Puberty Explained, by Cara Natterson and Vanessa Kroll Bennett
One of the first points This Is So Awkward makes is that puberty has changed, and our own personal experiences of puberty will be different from our kids’ experiences. Coauthors Cara Natterson, a pediatrician, and Vanessa Kroll Bennett, a puberty educator, explain that modern puberty begins two years earlier and takes longer—now almost a decade. What’s more, it happens in the age of smartphones, social media, and not-difficult-to-come-by online pornography (to which most boys are exposed by around age 12). This is a complex backdrop that parents did not have to navigate during their own puberty.
Natterson and Kroll Bennett are trusted and relatable parenting guides who also admit to their own fair share of failures trying to parent their children during puberty, despite their professional training and experience. “The most important lesson is this: Guiding kids is easier when we give ourselves permission to not know everything, to screw up occasionally, and to get a grip on this new world order,” they write. “It works better when we separate what they’re going through from our own feelings and personal histories.”
The early chapters of This Is So Awkward cover obvious body changes, as well as topics like acne, growth spurts, and body odor. The middle of the book has chapters explaining how puberty influences sleep, brain development, mood swings, and mental health. The book ends with chapters discussing youth sports, sex, and friendships. Each chapter presents the science, what’s changed over the past several decades, how to talk about it, and insights from people just out the other side—wise youth voices.
Importantly, the book provides guidance to parents on listening to their tweens and teens rather than just talking. The authors explain that listening is key for many reasons. It helps kids feel heard and respected and helps you understand their world and reality, so you can provide the most helpful responses to them.
You and Your Adult Child: How to Grow Together in Challenging Times, by Laurence Steinberg
While parents can find plenty of research-backed guidance between pregnancy and the teen years, it’s hard to find parenting books about our grown children. Parenting doesn’t automatically stop when our children graduate from high school. Many parents of young adult children face new challenges, like what to do when your kid moves back home or whether to help your kid with their graduate school applications (the short answer: “please don’t”). You and Your Adult Child was written for parents seeking answers to questions about how to navigate the parenting journey when our kids are in their 20s and 30s.
Author Laurence Steinberg is a leading developmental psychologist whose research has focused on parenting and adolescence over a nearly 50-year career. In his book, he explains how parenting adult children has changed a lot compared to previous generations due to economic and social trends, like rising housing costs and steep college student debt. Parents are much more likely to have been and have remained highly involved in their children’s lives. What’s more, it takes grown children a lot more time to transition to a traditional adult role—completing formal education, securing a job that can ensure financial independence, and creating a home of their own.
Combining personal stories and research, You and Your Adult Child offers guidance on a wide range of topics, including providing financial support, interacting with your adult child’s romantic partners, and being a grandparent. Steinberg answers common questions about communication, like whether or not to bite your tongue and how to collaboratively problem-solve when conflicts come up. He also addresses how to help adult children with common mental health problems like depression and eating disorders, and also how to help ourselves as parents who are concerned about our children’s emotional well-being. Finally, the book provides advice on how to tell whether your grown child is flourishing or floundering, and how to help.