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Five tips for picking a parenting book

A portrait of a woman enjoying storytime on the playmat with her baby. [Getty Images]

How effective parenting books 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 may be helpful to readers – think tips about time management or healthy eating. And studies find that using books independently to improve well-being – what psychologists call bibliotherapy – is somewhat effective for addressing stress, anxiety and depression.

So it makes sense that reading a parenting book could be useful. In terms of quality and usefulness, however, they exist on a continuum.

Here are five questions to think about when you are looking for the best parenting book for you.

Who wrote it and why?

A good parent doesn’t need a PhD; neither does an author. However, an advanced degree in an area related to parenting helps in understanding and interpreting relevant research.

Another consideration is the experience of the author. Having one or a dozen children does not make someone an expert. Doing more parenting doesn’t necessarily make you better at it. Not having a child does not disqualify someone from being an expert, either, but should be thoughtfully considered. We taught parenting classes before having children, and it is fair to say that our own parenting experiences have added depth, insight and even grace to what we teach.

The reason someone wrote a parenting book can also be informative. Advice from authors who write out of angst about their own upbringing or who failed at parenting should be taken with a grain of salt.

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 longstanding in social science. If you notice inconsistencies between parenting books, it is because “few popular books are grounded in well-documented science.”

How can you tell if a book is grounded in science? Look for citations, names of researchers, sources and an index. Also, learn the basic principles of effective parenting determined through decades of research and outlined by Steinberg. They include: set rules, be consistent, be loving, treat children with respect and avoid harsh discipline.

Is it interesting to read?

If the book is not interesting, you are unlikely to finish it, much less learn from it. Before taking a book home, read the first page and flip to a page in the middle to see if it grabs your attention. Try to find books that you can read in small bites, skip around in, and return to in the future.

Avoid books that contain “psychobabble,” pseudoscientific jargon that has an air of authenticity but lacks clarity. 

Is it realistic?

Run, do not walk, from any book that tells you its method always works or any failure is because of you – or worse yet, ignores failure.

It is impossible to provide 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 recognising weaknesses and failures leads to growth and improvement, and no child is completely malleable. Even parents who do everything right may have children who become wayward.

Does it motivate and inspire hope?

Some parenting books offer insights related to general behavior, like “Raising Good Humans.” Others offer insights for specific issues, like “Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions.” Likely, you will be more motivated to read a book that reflects your specific needs and values and leaves you feeling hopeful.

A word of caution, however. One study found that parenting books that stress strict routines for infant sleep, feeding and general care might actually make parents feel worse by increasing depression, stress and doubt. 

Remember to trust yourself

When you read 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. 

- Denise Bodman is a Principal Lecturer in Social and Family Dynamics, Arizona State University and Bethany Bustamante Van Vleet a Principal Lecturer in Family and Human Development, Arizona State University. This article was first published in The Conversation.