Thursday, December 03, 2009

Best Parenting Books of 2009: The First Annual Momma Data Book Awards


Take those dusty parenting guides to Goodwill.   Tear yourself away from the Mommy Blog of the Moment...

Here are my picks for the best parenting books of 2009.  You won't find most of them in the parenting section but that's true of some of the best evidence-based discussions related to children these days.  Nor will these good reads tell you how to get your baby to sleep, which stroller won't fall apart, or what you should be telling your child about sex.  These books are more ambitious in scope - challenging the proliferation of misinformation in the parenting sphere and beyond.   In short, the best books relevant to parents take on the myths, the half-truths, the plain bad advice, faulty science, and poor communication that's created anxiety, confusion, distrust and other needless controversey and division among parents today that are ironically the most (best?) educated set of parents ever.  When we look back at the decade years from now I fear this will be the dominant theme, our legacy for future generations of parents not to mention our children.  So, in no particular order, the books that made me stand up and cheer this year:

1. NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Love that other parents out there (in this case, journalists) not only wonder about current parenting advice and practices, but actually took the time to write a well-researched and intelligent and readable book discussing some faulty beliefs circulating among parents and some experts.  Beliefs without scientific merit (e.g., praising achievement encourages achievement, siblings fight over parental attention).   Sure, NurtureShock doesn't take on the biggest or most controversial issues (hello, breastfeeding) but it's a promising start in setting straight parenting advice.  It's an easy read, with plenty of research discussed in plain English.  Though I don't agree with all their conclusions, this is a breath of fresh air for parents who care about the evidence behind the advice.   As opposed to those who outright dismiss empirical evidence, a population of concern to our next author...

2. Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives  by Michael Specter

A journalist's passionate look at America's distrust and flat-out dismissal of scientific evidence.  Two of the six chapters take on topics beloved to parents, especially our more affluent and educated members - vaccines ("Vaccines and The Great Debate) and organic food ("The Organic Fetish").  I appreciated the lengthy index at the back of the book, the bibilography of research, and the notes.   Specter's blog and website provides even more information.  Specter, a New Yorker staff writer, doesn't mince words.  Score one for the scientifically literate.  Speaking of which...

3. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum

Another look at anti-science sentiment in our culture by a science-friendly duo, one a science-writer, the other a real scientist.  Talk about impeccable timing.  The book came out just as a new Pew poll showed the disconnect between scientists and the general public on issues ranging from global warming to evolution to toxic substances.  I read it a while back but applauded their many references to the mistaken but passionately held belief vaccines cause autism.   They also make the point that much of the scientific misinformation (and rejection of traditional science) comes not from people unfamiliar with the sciences, but from well-educated folks eager to push their own agendas who are adept at picking studies that fit their argument.  In other words, people who can easily argue their cause, wielding bad science with relish and an air of authenticity and authority.  Hmmm.  Who feels most passionately about breastfeeding and organic food?  Who champions the anti-vaccine cause?  Who's most worried about Bisphenol-a?  That's what I've been saying for a while now.   They also make the point academic, industry, and government scientists need to do a better communicating about their work.  Ditto that.  Which brings me to the final selection...

4. Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style by Randy Olsen

The title captures one of the biggest problems facing parents, really media consumers, today.  The inherent conflict between the goals and nature of the new media versus science.   Olsen, a one-time tenured Harvard-trained biology prof, left academia for Hollywood and science-minded films.  The marine biologist-turned-filmmaker argues scientists need to become more adept at story-telling and entertaining their audiences.  I know, that's often what goes missing when we strive for accuracy.  I've written enough scientific papers to bore myself.  I know.  Sure, Olsen tells a lot of stories about his life and aquaintances, but I enjoyed the book.  Scientist-parents and journalists might be the most interested in this one, but I recommend it because we've got to deal with all the crappy information and the state of science writing is only gonna get worse.  


BTW, I just got The Philosophical Baby by researcher Alison Gopnik about the minds of babies.  Heard it was good with plenty of detailed studies but haven't yet read it.  

Also on my Kindle - Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It by Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist about gender differences.  Read some positive reviews.  Can't wait to dive into it.

FYI: In keeping with the new FTC guidelines for bloggers - I will emphatically state that I did not receive any of these books for free nor in exchange for an endorsement.   This blog receives no funding or gifts from any persons, organizations or corporations.  The new regulations require bloggers to disclose any such agreements.  Good news for parents who often run across websites and blogs chuck full of testimonials and conflicts of interest that aren't always obvious.

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