With another Father’s Day approaching, I’m reminded of all the scolding, guilt-inducing, finger-wagging advice I’ve gotten across two decades of reading parenting books.
As the father of two boys, I’ve collected, read and discarded dozens of books, primarily those focused on three topics: boys, teens and drugs.
My kids were born in the late ’90s, before the Internet had all the answers. My wife and I started where many parents start, with the “What to Expect” series — “When You’re Expecting,” “The First Year,” “The Toddler Years”; we dabbled in some Dr. Spock, too.
Those books provided comfort and cute mom/dad/baby tips during our tenuous first years as parents. It wasn’t until my boys, both willful and rebellious skateboarders, entered their bizarro middle school years that I returned to parenting books with a vengeance.
I’m not sure whether it was a hobby or an addiction, but my nightstand and bookshelves were overrun with a self-flagellating assortment of titles: “The Secrets of Happy Families,” “The Smartest Kids in the World,” “All Joy and No Fun,” “Masterminds and Wingmen,” and, my least favorite title, “Do Fathers Matter?” For a while, this frenzy was fed partly by my job as an editor and book reviewer at Amazon. Boxes and padded envelopes arrived daily, and I was amazed at how many of the books we received were about parenting. I’d slip those titles into my backpack, and they began piling up around our house, on coffee tables and toilet tanks.
I bought a few classics of the canon: “The Wonder of Boys,” “Raising Cain,” “The War Against Boys” and “Parenting Teens with Love and Logic.” I’d flip eagerly through their pages, circling and highlighting passages, scribbling notes in the margins, looking for clues.
My boys took notice. One day my youngest, age 13-ish, saw me reading on the couch, picked up a book from the coffee table — “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” — then dropped it like it was poison. He started to walk away, then turned back, whipped out his phone and took a picture, then typed what I assumed to be a snarky caption. (I found it years later, on Instagram: “My parents have had a little trouble adjusting to my ‘adolescence.’ ”)
My older son, 15-ish, once tucked a Sharpie-scrawled note inside “How to a Raise Drug-Free Kid”: “SERIOUSLY?! STOP READING BOOKS ON HOW TO RAISE ME!”
Were these books even helping me become a better dad, or just making me feel ashamed?
A sample snippet from “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”: “schoolwork always comes first . . . an A-minus is a bad grade.” Yellowed by my highlighter in “The Teenage Brain”: “best tool as they enter and move through adolescence is to be good role models. If there’s anything I’ve learned with my boys . . . they were watching me.”
In my search for secrets I often felt chastised. I was told: “When parents waffle, adolescents win.” And this: “A lot of parents fall down on the job in late adolescence.” And this: “When it comes to granting freedom, parents must drive a hard bargain.”
The author of “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence” blamed “indulgent parents” for allowing their kids to believe that “self, fun, and now are all that matter in life.” (Wait … that isn’t true?)
That book in particular angered my eldest, who once hid it in my closet, where I found it with a rant of a note, a slice of which read, “I don’t think you’re gonna get any help from a book on how to raise a child you’ve already had for 16 years.”
My kids, I eventually realized, had a point. Was I really learning anything from books by strangers? Or was it parental masochism, reminding myself of all I was doing “wrong”? So many of these books seemed written for other parents, those looking to micromanage, crack a whip, tiger-parent. Maybe there was a reason I often bailed after 50 pages, sufficiently chastened.
At times, I did find words that mattered — usually in memoirs. I found books by parents of kids who have Down syndrome (as my sister did). Or parents who dealt with far more rebellion or chaos, books I’ll reread for years to come. I’m talking to you, David Sheff (“Beautiful Boy”), Debra Gwartney (“Live Through This”) and Michael Greenberg (“Hurry Down Sunshine”). I also appreciated occasional gems like Laurence Steinberg’s belief (paraphrasing) that teens are fine and it’s the parents who need to chill, or Jennifer Senior’s view in “All Joy and No Fun” that too many schools treated teens the same way farmers treated “wild horses and penned veal.”
My kids are now 20 and 21. My wife and I are thankfully past the high school danger zone. One kid is in college, and the other has a full-time job he loves. We’ve done the best we could. We love them like mad, we believe in them and we always will. The rest is up to them.
I don’t have an “aha” revelation to share here. Except that on this, my 21st Father’s Day, I’ll be liberating myself and my bookshelves by donating all of those parenting books — 35 as of this writing — to every neighborhood Little Free Library book box I can find.
Other parents can decide what to make of them. Or not.
Neal Thompson is a journalist and the author of five books, most recently “Kickflip Boys: A Memoir of Freedom, Rebellion, and the Chaos of Fatherhood.” He lives in Seattle.