Anyone can find the most popular, most hyped and most acclaimed parenting books in a second at that behemoth online bookseller. These are not those books. Here instead you’ll find some insightful books relevant to modern childrearing not necessarily found in the parenting and family section. Some have garnered high praise. Some might be familiar. None will tell you how to stop a tantrum or instill grit but every single one can expand your perspective and maybe even challenge your beliefs if not behavior. All to some degree question what we know or how we think about weighty topics including neuroscience, adolescence, vaccinations, anxiety, creativity, breastfeeding and postpartum depression. Even NPR's Samantha Schoeck, who swore she'd never read another parenting book, might be tempted by these offerings.

 Great Myths of the Brain, Christian Jarrett. 

Let Jarrett, neuroscience PhD and Brain Watch columnist at Wired, help you relearn what you know about the brain (or suspected wasn’t quite right). He challenges myths from old timer notions about the brain and mental health (e.g., drilling holes into the cranium releases evil spirits) to perennial favorites (e.g., the female brain, the pregnancy brain, the creative brain, the lefty brain, the aging brain, the sleeping brain, the lazy 10% used brain) to current brain hits including the pernicious effects of social media, concussions, traumatic brain injury and last but not least how brain imaging (e.g., fMRIs) can solve mental illness, crime, poverty, in short, save the world.

In a single chapter alone Jarrett takes on brain scans, brain training, fatty acids in brain development, glucose and will power, sugar and hyperactivity, the health benefits of chocolate, the Internet, Facebook, Google, video games, vegetative patients, lie detection, mind-reading -  and be still my empirical evidence-loving heart -  the media's misinterpretation and exaggeration of neuroscience and the research community's role in both producing and calling out botched neuroscience. If talk of hemispheres and neurotransmitters turns you off, rest assured, the brain doesn't have to be so unpleasant. As Jarrett shows, the brain itself is as fascinating as the lore and hoopla surrounding it.

Age of Opportunity: Lesson from the New Age of Adolescence, Laurence Steinberg 

Forget babies and toddlers. You can put them to bed early and there are plenty of books and websites about them. Their older, acned, equally complex siblings receive less far less attention. Enter noted psychologist and adolescence researcher Laurence Steinberg and his latest entry into the adolescent genre, Age of Opportunity. Adolescence is not only longer than in the past, Steinberg argues but more perilous and given new insights from neuroscience (especially the malleability of the teenage brain) adults need to re-think this critical time that can leave kids vulnerable to risky behavior but also prime them for new experiences and personal growth.

Adolescence is the "new zero to three" according to Steinberg. Parents, prepare yourselves, because kids undergo a second stage of brain plasticity that holds great potential for their future. At least this time around you won't have to endure any Baby Mozart.

Note: I also enjoyed Jennifer Senior’s chapter on adolescence in All Joy and No Fun (best title?).

On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss

This is an unusual book, part health article and part literary essay. Biss, a much-lauded non-fiction writer, weaves together her personal experience, facts about disease and the immune system in addition to a host of literary references making for a unique perspective. For instance, Biss notes the militaristic language to talk about both vaccination (“shots”) and the immune system (“attacking foreign invaders”). On Immunity landed on the New York Times Book Review's 10 Best Books of 2014. It is reassuring to read an intelligent, seemingly objective examination of a hotly debated topic that provides insight into how a mother, a non-scientist, perceives vaccinations. Biss did, by the way, vaccinate her child.

As for the book’s scientific accuracy, I wish the parts about the now debunked link between autism and vaccines would have been tighter, more precise. Biss refers several times to Wakefield's "inconclusive work," a description that doesn't fully capture the flawed nature of the infamous, possibly fraudulent and now retracted study behind the scare. Imprecise language also distorts an explanation of why science can never “prove” a link doesn’t exist (i.e. the null hypothesis) and could leave the impression scientists can't make any reasonable strong conclusions about autism and the MMR. People often aren’t persuaded by science, Biss reports, but follow their own beliefs regardless. How true. Did she water down the technical details in part because she didn’t think readers would pay attention to the science or does she not fully trust it herself?

 My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread and The Search For Peace of Mind, Scott Stossel

If there were a Guinness World Record for anxiety, Stossel, an editor of The Atlantic magazine might win it. Here he chronicles his personal experience with profound, nearly lifelong anxiety including panic attacks and an astonishing array of phobias including heights, enclosed/tight places, fainting, flying, public speaking, cheese, vomiting, and vomiting on a plane. In between stories from his life that could inspire a sitcom (including an unforgettable toilet incident at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port), Stossel opines on the nature of anxiety, it's socio-cultural and history context, and reminds readers that forty million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder at any given time.

Parents repeatedly get the message raising children is more difficult, stressful and anxiety-provoking than ever and I often wonder if this is true. The empirical evidence is limited so it's hard to answer. Are parents highly stressed? More stressed than previous generations? I don’t know. If they are then Stossel provides a primer on how to cope while appearing calm and competent – some of his friends and co-workers were amazed to learn he suffered from anxiety. His story also provides a reality check. I thought I knew anxiety before reading this, so it forced me to re-think my own rather mild bouts.

Guilt-free Bottle Feeding, Madeleine Morris and Sasha Howard

Morris, an award-winning former BBC reporter, joined forces with pediatrician Dr. Sasha Howard, to challenge the Breast Is Best ideology and offer ample evidence children who are bottle-fed (even with formula!) can grow up happy, health and smart too. The duo also provide practical advice for bottle-feeding but make no mistake, this book offers valuable knowledge for all parents such as infant feeding research, the culture of parenting and yes, the media. This book is a gift for parents seeking unbiased, accurate, nuanced and practical feeding information. 

Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women's Stories of Trauma and Growth, Walker Karraa

Karraa, the founder of and a maternal mental health activist, tells why the current medical model of understanding and treating postpartum depression is limited and just isn’t working for women. Karraa offers a more positive model of postpartum depression as a period, an opportunity in fact, for transformation and personal growth. Is postpartum depression a traumatic experience? Are any positive changes associated with PPD, such as a newly discovered sense of self-empowerment or passion, merely an “illusion” that help women cope with the experience? How could a fuller understanding of PPD impact screening and interventions? Karraa explores these and many other questions along with documenting the stories of women who’ve survived and even flourished perhaps because of PPD.

Things I learned: PPD is not a formal diagnosis in the DSM but coded as depression with postpartum onset. Official maternal health guidelines do not require screening new mothers for PPD. 


Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined. The Truth about Talent, Practice and Creativity and The Many Paths to Greatness, Scott Barry Kaufman

Everything you wanted to know about talent, practice, creativity, greatness, intelligence, genius and more from a Yale Ph.D. who spent the first part of his life trapped in special education, a remarkable personal story behind a remarkable career (he's still young) and riveting book. Read it before the school sends the note home about standardized testing. I'm sure the principal will welcome an email about the many paths to greatness. 

The Sports Gene, David Epstein

Yes this book is about sports but Epstein delivers an engaging portrait of the complex interplay between genes and environment. Not a huge sports fan myself, I bought this for my husband but got sucked into the pages before I could wrap it. If you think your young athlete is a future Olympian or if you question whether your 10-year needs to play a year-round sport, please read this book. There is something for everyone here. Personally, I'm waiting for the parent version of this book to come out. Surely Mr. Epstein has something to say to soccer moms, hockey dads and travel team coaches.


The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson 

Daily life might seem a challenge but at least no one's asking most of us to solve the mysteries of human life. Wilson, the famed biologist and naturalist pleas for the sciences and the humanities to get along and join forces to figure out the human race. Now if he could figure out how to get my teen daughters to stop bickering and do the laundry together without creating drama, he'd be a genius in my house. Here's your chance for a post-collegiate interdisciplinary brain challenge. Pack it for that child-free, laundry-free weekend get-away. I can almost guarantee you will not think about your life, certainly not laundry or argumentative teens, while reading this book that requires full concentration.   

The News: A User's Manual, Alain De Botton

A look at the news, including an all too short bit on health stories from the man who brought us How Proust Can Change Your Life. I kept waiting for the parenting/children's health section but maybe that's in the next addition. Anyhow, if you want to know what's wrong with the media, have at it. It's a quick read.

So what books did I miss? Did any books encourage a new perspective for you recently?

About the Author

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media.

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