This article originally appeared on The conversation.
Denise Bodman is a senior lecturer in Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University; Bethany Bustamante Van Vleet is a senior lecturer in Family and Human Development, Arizona State University.
Babies do not come with instruction manuals. Children are at once joyful, sad, confusing, predictable, generous, selfish, gentle and mean. What does a parent have to do when faced with such confusing offspring? Given the complex interactions of parent, child and environment, parents often feel lost. Many may be looking for answers in parenting books.
Parenting books are big business, and there are tens of thousands of titles for sale. The big question, however, is: Do parenting books help?
How effective they are is a matter of debate, especially given the lack of scientific evidence regarding their usefulness. Limited research has found that problem-focused self-help books can be helpful to readers — think about time management tips or healthy eating habits. And studies find that using books independently to improve well-being – which psychologists call bibliotherapy – is somewhat effective in addressing stress, anxiety and depression.
It therefore makes sense that reading a parenting book can be helpful. In terms of quality and usability, however, they exist on a continuum.
We are scholars of human development, have taught thousands of students about parenting and write about family, parenting and development through life. One of us (Bethany) is the mother of six little ones, while the other of us (Denise) has two grown children, one of whom is Bethany. We believe that parents can become critical thinkers and choose the books that will be most suitable for them. Here are five questions to think about when looking for the best parenting book for you.
1. Who wrote it and why?
A good parent does not need a PhD; nor a writer. However, an advanced degree in a field related to parenting helps to understand and interpret relevant research.
Another consideration is the experience of the author. Having one or a dozen children does not make anyone an expert. Doing more parenting does not necessarily make you better at it. Having a child also does not disqualify someone from being an expert, but must be carefully considered. We gave parenting classes before we had children, and it is fair to say that our own parenting experiences added depth, insight, and even grace to what we were teaching.
The reason why someone wrote a parenting book can also be informative. Advice from writers who are writing out of anxiety about their own upbringing or who have failed in parenting should be taken with a grain of salt.
Finally, do not let celebrities’ books fool you. Most of these were written by ghostwriters and were primarily designed to sell books or build a brand.
2. Is it based on science?
Psychology researcher and parenting expert Laurence Steinberg writes that scientists have studied parenting for over 75 years, and findings related to effective parenting are among the most consistent and long-lasting in social science. If you notice contradictions between parenting books, it’s because “few popular books are based on well-documented science.”
How do you know if a book is based on science? Look for quotes, names of researchers, sources and an index. Also learn the basics of effective parenting that have been determined by decades of research and outlined by Steinberg. These include: setting rules, being consistent, being loving, treating children with respect and avoiding harsh discipline.
If the book you are considering is not in line with these guidelines, reconsider its parenting advice. Most likely it is not based on science but on opinion or personal belief. Opinion and faith have a place, but science is better in this space.
3. Is it interesting to read?
If the book is not interesting, you are unlikely to complete it, much less learn from it. Before you take a book home, read the first page and turn to a page in the middle to see if it catches your eye. Try to find books that you can read in small bites, can jump around and return to in the future.
Avoid books that contain “psychobabble”, pseudo-scientific jargon that has a sense of authenticity but that does not have clarity. For example, the publisher’s description of the book “The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived” reads: “The Indigo Child is a child who exhibits a new and unusual set of psychological traits that reveal a behavior pattern that was not previously documented. “This pattern has general yet unique factors that require parents and teachers to change their treatment and education to achieve balance. To ignore these new patterns is to create potentially great frustration in the minds of these precious new lives.” Pass.
4. Is it realistic?
Run, do not walk, from any book that tells you its method always works or any failure is due to you — or worse, ignore failure.
It is impossible to give advice for every single parent, child and situation! An effective parenting book appreciates context and complexity and informs the reader that not all answers are in the book. No parent is perfect, but acknowledging weaknesses and failures leads to growth and improvement, and no child is completely malleable. Even parents who do everything right can have children who become wayward.
Make sure the book gives you detailed instructions and things to do, as well as ways to track improvements. In other words, make sure it is doable.
Finally, a parenting book should respect a parent’s instincts.
5. Does it motivate and inspire hope?
Some parenting books offer insights related to common behaviors, such as “Raising Good People.” Others provide insights into specific issues, such as “Safe Baby Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Sleep Sleep Questions.” You will probably be more motivated to read a book that reflects your specific needs and values and makes you feel hopeful.
A word of warning though. One study found that parenting books that emphasize strict routines for baby sleep, nutrition, and general care can actually make parents feel worse by increasing depression, stress, and doubt. Parenting research does not support too strict routines, and it is easy to understand why most of these parents did not find such books useful.
Remember to trust yourself
When reading a parenting book, the goal is to feel empowered, more confident, excited and even relieved. You are not alone, nor are you the only parent with questions.
Psychologist Edward Zigler described parenting as “the most challenging and most complex of all the tasks of adulthood.”
Yes, parenting can be difficult. In your parenting adventures, you will probably need all the resources and tools you can muster. With thoughtful and critical exploration, you can find books that enhance your personal wisdom and intuition to help raise these delightfully intricate little people.