The Gardener and the Carpenter

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

This philosophical book about parenting was written by a developmental psychologist who uses insight from her research and discussions of evolution to explore the ultimate purpose of the parent/child relationship. I found it hugely reassuring and even inspiring. Gopnik titled the first chapter “Against Parenting,” meaning that she disagrees with the way “parent” has become a verb in our culture, a form of work rather than a simple, fulfilling relationship. She thinks parents focus too much on working to make their children turn out a certain way. Instead, she says they should focus on simply creating a positive environment for children to grow up in. Children are individuals, after all, and parents’ and schools’ efforts to standardize their outcomes are likely to be futile. Gopnik makes very reasonable arguments for why parents worry about the wrong things, and why the things we do as parents don’t make much difference anyway, not in the way we think they do. She even weighs in on the endless screen time debate, comparing the new technology of tablets and smartphones with the old technology of the book, pointing out that people have always adapted to new ways of communicating and processing information. Along with All Joy and No Fun, I consider this one of the most helpful and comforting books on parenting I’ve ever read.

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What Unite Us

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner

Dan Rather draws on his decades of experience reporting on politics and world events to inform this set of essays, mixing anecdotes from the history he’s witnessed with stories from his modest childhood in Texas. His quietly inspiring exploration of what it means to be an American aims at bridging the current partisan divide to find principles that all Americans can agree on, ideals like inclusion, empathy, science, and service. Rather states progressive values in terms that conservatives can agree with, leaving the specific policy implications of these values for readers to decide for themselves.  He does all that without mentioning our current president by name. It’s a brilliant rhetorical move, one that I think George Lakoff would approve of.  Directly invoking that name would invite charges of partisanship, when Rather’s goal is to transcend party loyalties. Maybe Rather is too gentle and indirect in his arguments, and perhaps it’s impossible to change minds and hearts without offending someone. But I do think there is value in his project here, and that if we can all agree on these principles, even if we disagree on how to act on them, there is cause for hope. I’m considering giving this book to my Dad for Christmas.

Feel-Bad Education

Feel-Bad Education And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Kohn takes self-evident facts of human psychology and applies them to education, pointing out how conventional schooling goes against obvious principles like “Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.” I appreciated how he defines progressive education and explains why it’s so rare; this concept is something you often hear about in education circles, but one that I have never personally seen in practice. Some people might find Kohn kind of extreme: not only does he oppose standardized testing of any kind, he’s even against all forms of number and letter grades. But even though he argues for ideas that most would consider radical, he always traces them back to principles that most people would agree with, and thoroughly and persuasively explains his position. His work is very well-researched and based on evidence, as well as on his progressive views on the purpose of education.

 

The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

Often, in debating education issues, people talk about getting things back to the way they were in some golden age. But a careful look at the history shows that there were problems of some kind at every point in the past; there was no golden age, no perfect time that we need to return to. If anything, a broader perspective shows how much better things are now than even in the recent past. Still, it’s useful to know how we got where we are, especially when the mud starts slinging.

Goldstein goes back to the beginning of American education to illuminate how the teaching profession has changed over the years. I particularly appreciated learning about how teaching became a female-dominated profession: women teachers were pitched as a chance to save money on salaries. The missionary zeal of these pioneering young women is compared aptly to that of college graduates who join Teach For America today. I was fascinated by the stories of school integration and teachers’ strikes.

It becomes clear in this longer view that there is no one party or group that has always had the moral high ground in debates on education. At various times and places teachers’ unions have fought for both what I would consider ‘the good side’ and ‘the bad side,’ while concepts like local control have been used for good and for evil–to resist both charter schools and racial integration, for example.

I agreed with the majority of Goldstein’s concluding recommendations, especially improving teacher pay, using tests appropriately, and giving teachers time to collaborate and observe each other. I am more sanguine about teachers’ unions than she is, but that’s probably because I have had a positive personal experience with mine, while she has reported and written about cases where unions were in the wrong. Even so, a sympathetic, well-researched book like this can only improve teachers’ working conditions and professional standing, so even though she argues for ending “outdated” union protections, it’s a net positive for teachers.

Better Than Before

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin

This book is about habit formation and what it takes to adopt and maintain good habits, and break bad habits and keep from relapsing. I found it incredibly useful. Rubin talks at length about how people’s different tendencies and personalities should change their approaches to habits. She breaks people into four groups in regards to how they approach habits and expectations from self and others: 1) Upholders, who like to follow rules, 2) Obligers, who follow through on commitments to others but not to themselves, 3) Questioners, who only do things that they can see a good reason for, and 4) Rebels, who resist all habits and expectations on principle. In habit formation, the name of the game seems to be self-knowledge: know yourself so that you can choose the strategies most likely to work for you. Rubin lays out all the tools you’d need to do that. I’m mostly an Upholder, which means that Rubin did not have to sell the notion of habits to me; I was already on board. When you have a good habit, that means you don’t have to think about doing the right thing, you just do it automatically, saving your willpower for tackling other problems.

Rubin tries to talk generically, so that her info is applicable to almost any habit that you might want to take up or drop. She ends up talking a lot about food, especially low-carb eating. Her particular personal habits and preoccupations are a little idiosyncratic, to say the least, but her voice is charming, and she’s usually just using her experiences to make points that are well-researched and reasonable.

Here are some of my habit advice takeaways from the book:

  • Avoid feeling deprived.
  • It’s often easier to abstain entirely than to consume moderately.
  • Anticipate and minimize temptation.
  • Habits, good and bad, have momentum and are self-reinforcing.
  • It’s ok to make exceptions to your habits, but only if you plan it ahead of time. If you decide at the last minute to break a habit, you’re in danger of dropping that habit altogether.
  • Schedule time for the things you value.
  • Make it convenient and easy to follow your good habits. And if you want to break a bad habit, put obstacles in your way to make it harder to do that thing.

Unfinished Business

Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family by Anne-Marie Slaughter

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This book has been on my list to read ever since I heard that the author of the widely shared Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” got a book deal. It lived up to my anticipation, presenting an analysis of American work/family issues that goes beyond issues of gender.

Slaughter’s main thesis is that American society has a widespread bias against care work and caregivers, which has historically disadvantaged women in the workplace. She argues that gender discrimination is often discrimination against people with family responsibilities, or people who are otherwise unable to be the ideal worker/corporate drone that companies prefer to hire and advance. She wants flexible workplaces and career tracks, more pay and respect for caregiving professions, and a shift in attitudes and policies to truly value caregiving, and not just pay lip service to it.

I found myself nodding along with the book frequently, agreeing with Slaughter’s analysis almost always. She studiously avoids gender essentialism while acknowledging historical inequities between men and women’s experiences of work and home. She places the blame for our current situation primarily on institutions and cultural narratives rather than on individuals, while advising women and men on how to deal with today’s reality and work toward improving things for everybody.

My main critique is just that Slaughter is perhaps too pro-capitalist. In my opinion she’s overly enthusiastic about freelance work and companies like Uber and Thumbtack, especially in the absence of national health care, which she acknowledges we need. I think flexibility is not enough, and would prefer companies and clients simply to require less slavish dedication of workers. Slaughter buys in too wholeheartedly to the necessity of overwork, accepting too readily the idea that long hours are necessary to advance in most fields. She doesn’t even bring up ideas for slowing the pace of work for everybody, for example, by disabling after-hours email, outlawing overtime, or limiting the work day to six hours, as some European countries and companies are experimenting with now. But these critiques are perhaps a little radical.

Slaughter worked for the State department under Hillary Clinton, reporting directly to her and calling her a great, understanding boss. Had Clinton won the electoral vote, and not only the popular vote, Slaughter would almost surely have had the president’s ear and might have been able to advance these ideas toward creating concrete policies that would help families. But now, even if Democrats win the next congressional and presidential elections, it might be too late for me to enjoy more generous family policies, like paid parental leave. This is one of the many things I continually mourn  as we watch the current administration’s plans unfold.

Playing Big

Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message by Tara Mohr

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This women’s career self-help book is focused on women who have not quite reached their high potential. It’s a much more inclusive, less corporate version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. Mohr strikes a delicate balance–asking women to take responsibility for their success while acknowledging the pervasiveness of discrimination, the double bind, and other factors that limit them. She explains the difficult situation we find ourselves in, and gives solid advice for motivation and confidence. She also includes a lot of examples of women diving into hobbies and activism as a way of “playing big,” decoupling women’s ambition from striving for prestige and money in the business world. Her advice is mostly focused on building confidence and on encouraging women to take bigger risks. She hopes to inspire women to stop constantly putting off focusing on their goals, to refuse to settle for mediocrity. Along with The Confidence Code, I’d say this is my new favorite self-help book targeting women and their careers.

Mohr does discuss parenting and the ways that family plans change and limit women’s careers. But she doesn’t talk about how for many women, getting married and/or having children is itself the way that they “play big” and reach for their dreams. Planning a family and making the decision to conceive a child or buy a house could be the thing that makes them excited, that gives them the feelings of awe and excitement that Mohr names pachad and yirah. Maybe that’s controversial to say, but it’s a feeling I have had and that many women share. It’s hard to talk about family-making as a dream without implying that all women will be totally content, with their ambitions completely satisfied and their talents fully utilized, by the work of raising children. Maybe Mohr believes that women don’t need as much encouragement to leap wholeheartedly into plans for family as they do for career and personal development. I’d agree with that, so or that reason I can understand why Mohr focused instead on career and creative pursuits. She wrote this book at an interesting moment in her life–as she was pregnant with her first child. I will be interested to see how motherhood influences Mohr’s later writing.