Why I Hate Parenting Books

Christopher Thurber, PhD
November 2018

The mother standing next to me was not my own, which was fine. I was seven when I visited the Washington Monument for the first time, with both my parents. The next time, at 43, I was the married parent of two boys, ages five and seven.

"Typical," said the mother, gazing up. Or was she rolling her eyes? "It's totally phallic." The pedantic linguist in me wanted to quip: "None of the other monuments and memorial sculptures in Washington, DC are obelisks. That makes it atypical, lady."

Or maybe I could drop something geekier, like: "Actually, the first Egyptian obelisks were sundials. And a sundial has to stick out to cast a shadow. So, if anything, it's functional, not phallic."

Maybe something more confrontational: "Why were male genitals your first association?" That one seemed collegiate in the worst way, like the mother's own trenchant analysis. So I bit my tongue.

The guy next to her, who I guessed was her husband, was also silent. Was he also sifting through various reply options? Maybe he was hoping that no one had heard her. No such luck.

"What does phallic mean?" asked my seven-year-old. My wife blanched; I reveled in the opening. Unsure whether the other mother had heard Dacha's question, I repeated it before answering. "What does phallic mean? It means something that looks like a penis." Ace.

I could see the mom and dad glance at me, but I pretended not to notice — or care — whether their own toddler had tuned in. I chided myself for being a smart aleck. Actually, I loved it. I was leveraging my impulsivity, sarcasm, and anatomical comfort to their maximum benefit. Downward social comparison is almost instinctive among newish parents.

"That's too big and sharp to be a penis," my son replied. Could this get any better? "You're right," I said. "Just because something sticks up in the air doesn't mean it's phallic." Ace again. Please tell me someone is recording this, so it can go viral on YouTube.

I couldn't hold back any longer, so I stole a glance at the mother. Now she was taking her turn pretending not to notice, but we were probably both thinking the same thing: I was, in that moment, the superior parent with the superior child. Game. Set. Match.

Pride cometh before a fall.

"Your penis is much smaller," continued my son.

And so it goes. Just when you think you've made a little parenting progress, your own flesh and blood brings you to your knees. I earned a PhD in clinical psychology, with a specialization in children and adolescents. I'm board-certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology. I've been an academic for more than 30 years and a clinician for more than 20. Yet, with all those credentials and just a bit less experience than I have now, I was being hobbled by a seven-year-old.

Like working at camp when it's in season, parenting is a 24/7 grind, whether you are working with your child, for your child, or both. (Yes, I think changing a diaper and paid employment are both forms of parenting.) There are moments of respite, of course, and those increase in frequency, unless your children have developmental delays. Youth leadership and parenting also change color as you and your kids age, but your role persists. And both youth leadership and parenting are sources of exquisite joy and profound frustration. So, we persevere. Until we relent. And then we do it all over again the next day.

Every camp season, like every school year, is different. And along the unchartered path there is no shortage of advice, from our own parents, friends with and without kids, bosses, coworkers, magazines, online courses, and — of course — books. Just under a quarter of a million parenting titles are listed on Amazon, 163,000 in English alone, plus 60,000 on leadership and 950 on youth leadership.

Most of these books promise quick solutions to vexing problems, which is the oldest recipe in the world for BS. If you want snake oil, parenting books are the mother lode, pun intended, with leadership not far behind. A few are spectacular because they are based on good science. Check out anything by Rex Forehand, Nicholas Long, Ross Greene, J. Stuart Ablon, Russell Barkley, Thomas Phelan, Foster Kline, Jim Fay, Michael Thompson, Adele Faber, and Elaine Mazlish. But you can pretty much stop there.

Real challenges — of which real parenting and youth leadership have plenty — take considerable insight, flexible responses, and sustained effort to overcome. Any parenting or leadership book that flashed that trio of bold truths on the cover would sell exactly zero copies, if it ever got published in the first place.

The alternative to quick fixes is courage and fortitude. Courage to embark on a unique journey, one that only resembles others' journeys. Courage to make lots of mistakes. Courage to own those mistakes and the fortitude to learn from them. The fortitude to carry on. And the fortitude to stand up for your principles, as a parent or youth leader, even when their implementation is fraught with expense and dismay. Somewhat paradoxically, we youth leaders encounter some of our strongest implementation opposition from parents. But meaningful partnerships are dynamic, not consistently tranquil.

Happily, there is strength in numbers. Simply knowing that other youth development professionals and other parents have similar vulnerabilities and setbacks renews our determination. I realized this unexpectedly during a series of free parenting workshops I facilitated at the Wright Start Preschool in Exeter, New Hampshire.

The directors of the school and I had thought of everything that would make this evening parenting series successful. We had arranged on-site babysitting, bought healthy drinks and snacks, designed four stunning workshops, and distributed a snazzy promotional flier.

Thirty minutes into my first one-hour workshop, I looked out at the two dozen politely bored faces and thought, I should have picked a different topic. They've heard this content before and they resent me for wasting their time. What's more obnoxious than a psychologist parent describing some disciplinary technique as if it actually worked? But I soldiered on, hoping that the video clip I'd cued up would generate some lively discussion in the last 20 minutes.

But I never got to the clip because my intro for the video included these two sentences: "I was so angry that I didn't care whether other families were at the playground. I just yelled at Dacha, ‘It's not OK to hit!'"

The politely bored faces lit up and another dad asked, "Wait, what did you say?"

"It's not OK to hit."

"No, before that. You said you yelled at your kid?"

"Yeah."

"You're my hero," he beamed.

"Mine too," said a mom.

"Because I yelled at my kid? All parents yell at their kids once in a while."

"I've never heard a child psychologist say that he yells at his kids."

By inadvertently humanizing parenting — and the work we all do with the young people in our care — I had broken the group open. What followed that evening and in three subsequent meetings were productive, honest discussions about our lives as parents. Less sex, less energy, and less personal time. Bigger guts, bigger tempers, and bigger bills. Lower self-esteem, lower frustration tolerance, and seemingly lower IQs. We laughed a lot too. About how crazy our own parents were; how we swore we wouldn't say certain things, and how we said some of those things anyway. Damn it.

We also talked about how awesome it was to interact with kids; how fantastic young people are; how enormous the responsibility of caring for other people's children is; and how — for those of us with a background in camp — those children had taught us so much.


The preceding essay is adapted from Chapter 1 of Fumble, a forthcoming book by Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP. Chris is a board-certified clinical psychologist who enjoys creating original content for youth leaders and professional educators. He serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy and consults for schools, camps, and other youth-serving organizations worldwide. Learn more at DrChrisThurber.com.