“Unfinished Business:” Work and Family, Success and Survival

In her new book, Anne-Marie Slaughter covers the vicious tradeoffs parents and caregivers are forced to make when it comes to balancing family and career.

A few years ago I was tasked with the unenviable job of developing the first employee handbook for a start-up I was working for. It fell to me to define everything from work hours to vacation to family leave. The first draft included a generous paid family leave policy which I had benefitted from after having my first child—four months of leave, two paid at 100% of my salary.

But when I gave it to my boss to review, she told me she “didn’t believe in paternity leave” and insisted we only give that benefit as a “pregnancy leave”—in other words, it was only for women who carried babies and gave birth. Everyone else was allowed 6 weeks unpaid leave. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. Did she not believe that dads want to raise their kids, too? What about families who adopt or use surrogates?

We argued extensively about it, but in the end, my boss was shockingly straightforward about her rationale. Bearing and raising kids—especially babies—was women’s work. And if she, a highly successful woman in her own right, could somehow run a household and also run a company, then we all could.

Sadly, the bias baked into that policy—and the reasons behind it—is not at all unique. Despite the massive cultural and demographic transformations American families are undergoing, traditional notions about who is responsible for childcare persist.

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter
Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter

This puzzle is at the core of Anne Marie Slaughter’s important book Unfinished Business: Women, Men, Work, Family, which she wrote after an article in the Atlantic on the same subject matter went viral in 2012.

Slaughter’s own journey began when she had to to leave her round-the-clock position as a foreign policy advisor for Hilary Clinton to attend to urgent family needs. Although she was already a full-time tenured professor at Princeton, the reactions of her peers showed that they subtly devalued her decision. The decision to “spend time with the family” was for women who had given up on promising careers and abandoned the ambition of “have-it-all” feminism which pushed women to simultaneously run their households and lean into punishing careers with no room for error.

Slaughter’s book is a clarion call to value caregiving and breadwinning equally, and to restructure our policies and laws to reflect the importance of family in our pursuit of living happy and fulfilled lives.

What’s holding us back? As Slaughter observes, it’s not just that we lack the political will and leadership to enact change, but on a more basic level (as my experience with my former boss shows), outdated notions of care persist up and down the socioeconomic spectrum and in all kinds of workplaces.

Slaughter systematically debunks the “half-truths” that women, men, and employers tell themselves, and which are responsible for maintaining the status quo. Most women cannot have it all even if they “are just committed enough” to their careers, “marry the right person,”  or “sequence it right” because none of us can predict what’s going to happen in our careers, marriages, with our health or our kids.

Workplaces that frame work/life balance as a “women’s problem”  shut women out from having the type of career they want while also erasing men from the caregiving equation. Flexible or part-time work schedules are not the answer, because research shows that, when it comes to things like salary and promotion, they penalize the caregivers—again, mostly women—who choose them.

All this may seem particularly surprising to younger generations, who are being raised at a time when the composition of the modern American family and workforce is radically changing. Today, 40 percent of women are the breadwinners in their families; in 60 percent of families in which there are two parents, both work; and over half of children are being raised in “nontraditional families”—with single parents, grandparents, or same-sex parents.

Many of our kids are also being raised by parents who are working in the “gig economy” or part-time jobs with no benefits, low-wage jobs with unpredictable hours, or workplaces with no paid family leave or sick time policies to speak of.

Maybe our kids will throw everything out the window and start from scratch when they become adults. Until then, Slaughter argues, just as the physical infrastructure of our nation—our highways, bridges and railways—needs updating and repair to support our modern ways of travel, our infrastructure of care—family leave policies, childcare supports, and workplace policies—need updating and an overhaul to support our modern way of parenting and working.

But where to begin? Slaughter argues that the type of change we need requires massive social, cultural, and political shifts, and so proposes tackling change in two realms—the personal and the political.

In our personal lives, Slaughter proposes we use a language of equality that does away with qualifiers like “stay-at-home” (implying that the office is the norm). She encourages us to talk about things other than work at social gatherings, to ask our potential hires how they plan to divide up care responsibilities at home, and to avoid overpraising dads for doing all the normal things that women do as a matter of course without praise (changing diapers, taking kids to the playground, taking the lead role at home while a spouse travels for work, etc).  

Some of Slaughter’s advice is naive: she urges couples to have, well in advance of adding a child to their family, the difficult conversations about careers and the trade-offs they’ll have to make.

It’s theoretically practical advice that’s unlikely to be followed by people who can’t really imagine the transformation that’s on the horizon. The arrival of a child is not like renovating a kitchen–you can’t draw up plans for what life will look like. Identities shift, career and life ambitions are revisited, prioriites and even personalities change.

And when Slaughter encourages us to think about our careers in terms of “interval training” (pushing hard, then stepping back), I can’t help but think about the number of women I know with advanced degrees who “stepped back” only to find it nearly impossible to step back into a workplace that penalizes them for ever leaving to begin with.

Slaughter points to promising models that are springing up around the country on an ad-hoc basis: for example, workplaces that are experimenting with results-only models of work, where employees co-create the policies, and where there are radically flexible work hours.

These are worthy examples, to be sure, but the irony is that these types of arrangements tend to flow to the people who can already afford other types of care, or have the skills available to go elsewhere. Slaughter has been accused of purveying a white-collar, elitist brand of feminism; and the “lifestyle” recommendations of the book’s second half do seem to shed the concern for working-class women, same sex couples, and other groups to whom she makes inclusive gestures in the book’s opening chapters.

Still, Slaughter knows that all the small-scale transformations in the world will not be able to compensate for a lack of a comprehensive infrastructure of care created and supported by government policies; it’s here where her recommendations are most inclusive and important.

High-quality and affordable child and eldercare, higher wages and training for caregivers, legal protections for part-time and flexible work, and financial and social support for single parents are among the essential elements of such a plan. Slaughter encourages more women to run for office, and for us to elect them, because female officeholders are more likely to propose and support family-friendly laws.

Unfinished Business stands at the gap between two worlds: the world we currently live in that values work and aggressively devalues care, and a seemingly inevitable world to come.

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In the world to come, women and men equally share caregiving, families aren’t shut out of benefits because they don’t conform to old definitions of what a family is, and, most importantly, caregiving is valued just as much as breadwinning. In our homes, Americans have already started this great transformation–never before have so many of us been modeling new norms of caregiving. It’s time for our aging institutions and policies to catch up, or we will all fall behind.

Why We Love “Guess How Much I Love You” So Much

“Guess How Much I Love You” is a tale about the limitless love between parent and child. But mostly it’s about how awesome we are as parents.

“Guess How Much I Love You,” by Sam McBratney, is a tale about the bonds of love between parent and child. It’s a beautiful exposition of how we perceive that love and its grandeur.  That love seems limitless to us and we can hardly express it.  

But mostly it’s about how awesome we are as parents.

We all love “Guess How Much I Love You” because it describes the golden age of parenting, or, in other words, the time in which we are bigger, better, stronger, and smarter than our kids.  

Guess-how-much-I-love-YouThe story details an evening conversation between Little Nutbrown Hare and his dad (uncle, grandfather, father-figure… we’re assuming here), Big Nutbrown Hare.  Little Nutbrown Hare has just realized how enormous his capacity to love really is and is totally stoked to share that with Big Nutbrown Hare.  So he makes himself vulnerable by asking his parent to “guess how much [Little Nutbrown Hare] loves him.”  Little Nutbrown Hare then stretches out his arms to their full extent and declares this distance to be that of his love for Big Nutbrown Hare.  And what does Big Nutbrown Hare say?

Well, of course, Big Nutbrown Hare stretches his arms out as far as they can go and declares the same thing.  Only Big Nutbrown Hare’s arms are much longer than Little Nutbrown Hare’s because as you grow up your wingspan increases.  That’s an important side lesson.

Anyway, the point is, we are bigger than our kids and that’s awesome.

Little Nutbrown Hare rebuts with the fact that he loves his parent/guardian (?) “as high as [he] can reach.”  Oh, Little Nutbrown Hare… so much to learn.  Again, Big Nutbrown Hare is able to prove his bigness pretty easily, because when you’re bigger than someone else it’s usually pretty much all-encompassing.  As parents we love this rule because we are able to show off our bigness often and in many different ways.

Little Nutbrown Hare comes up with a new idea which he is sure will make him the victor in this whole who-loves-who-more game.  He stands on his hands and leans his feet up against a tree, saying that he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “all the way up to [his] toes.”

But Big Nutbrown Hare comes in with the curveball here by swinging his son into the air and saying that he loves Little Nutbrown Hare all the way to his toes (which is a greater distance now that the rabbit is elongated thusly. 

We parents have lifting abilities that need to be flaunted whenever possible.

So Little Nutbrown Hare is left feeling somewhat Nutbrown bummed and wishing he hadn’t even brought this love thing up in the first place.

He decides to use his athleticism to try and gain some ground here, so he claims he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “as high as he can hop.”  But, as predicted, Big Nutbrown Hare demonstrates his remarkable hopping skills and has us all beaming with pride.

Little Nutbrown Hare, at this point crying out (some may say out of excitement, but I wager it’s just because he’s overcome with rage), says that he loves Big Nutbrown Hare all the way out to a river that happens to be visible to him in that moment.  Big Nutbrown Hare can see farther because when you are taller it’s easier to see over things like trees and rivers.  Another important side lesson. 

(We all love this part because we are reminded of how much better we are than our kids at most stuff.)

Meanwhile Little Nutbrown Hare just wishes Big Nutbrown Hare would shut his Big Nutbrown mouth.

Finally, Little Nutbrown, using his last ounce of willpower, rather inquisitively considers just the sheer hugeness of the sky above.  He whispers that he loves Big Nutbrown Hare “right up to the moon.”  Big Nutbrown Hare just can’t let it go — just cannot lose this game — so he administers the line we all remember most from this book, “I love you right up to the moon and back.”  

We cherish this moment as a perfectly natural one, where parents claim their place of superiority over their kids and all is right with the world.

But at this point, Little Nutbrown Hare is fast asleep, having given up on this stupid game entirely.  And that’s when we realize that, not only is it super cool to flaunt our awesomeness to our kids, it’s also a really great way to piss them off into a slumber.

Way to go, parents.  Keep being badasses.

“NeuroTribes” And The Surprising Truths About Autism

Especially for parents raising kids on the spectrum, “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity” is nothing short of a revelation.

Earlier this year, my 5-year-old son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.  The diagnosis did not come as a complete surprise.

Over the previous year, my husband and I had grown increasingly aware of our son’s socially averse behavior and rigid thinking. He avoided eye contact with most people and melted down if routines or food weren’t precisely as expected. And he seemed not to understand – or even be concerned with – social cues.

Still, despite his social and behavioral challenges, my son had unusual abilities.

He had taught himself to read when he was four and was a book lover with an incredible memory. His singular focus over the previous year had been learning everything – EVERYTHING – about outer space, writing “books” about the solar system and drawing thousands of pages of the planets in fine detail, including the hundreds of moons which he knew by name.

He often spoke like an adult and could sit and focus on tasks for long stretches of time. Although his introverted nature was not unlike many of our nerdy, socially awkward family members, we knew he probably had Asperger’s syndrome, that particular part of the autism spectrum that applies to kids like him: verbal, focused acquirers of information who can’t seem to make sense of the social world around them.

The moment the developmental pediatrician confirmed that our son had Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s syndrome having been folded into a broader umbrella diagnosis in 2013), we found ourselves part of the strange fellowship of parents with children on the autism spectrum who are told to look at their child’s challenges and strengths with new eyes.

While it was a relief to have an explanation for the behavioral challenges we were confronting on a daily basis, in the context of an autism diagnosis, our son’s precocious ability to read was reframed as a “splinter skill.”

His unusual ability to focus was “perseverating.” And his passion for data and facts was determined to be a “classic sign of autism.”  “I wish I had better news for you,” the doctor said apologetically as we left his office, “but at least some of these kids are really smart!”

We were frustrated. How was it possible that his strengths and abilities were pathological?  In the months that followed, we waded through the morass of behavioral, dietary, psychiatric and educational advice, becoming more confounded. The dominant focus on autism seemed to be on research into causes, preventions, and cures. Why? Where was the chorus of experts providing us with advice on how we, as parents, could champion and channel our son’s abilities while helping him cope in a world that would always seem alien and confusing?

Cover-largeFor a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, Steve Silberman’s NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity is nothing short of a revelation.

Silberman’s premise, which he makes clear from the beginning, is not only that is there a place in the world for autistic intelligence, but that one of our greatest challenges as a society (especially given the rising number of autism diagnoses, which currently stands at one in 68)  is creating a world in which that intelligence is fully utilized, where neurodiversity is not just “accommodated,” but celebrated.

The book grew out of reporting Silberman did for Wired magazine, largely in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, one of the regions where the “epidemic” of autism has been most closely watched (and where two crucial countercultures – that of the nerdy tech sector and the vaccine-fearing counterculture – find strange intersections).

The book begins with a lengthy history lesson, and indeed, it is through Silberman’s sweeping and lovingly detailed history of the evolution of autism that the reader unlocks the understanding of how our society came to our current understanding and response to autistic people today.

Although autism has always been present in humans, its characteristics were not fully articulated, nor was it identified as a unique disorder, until the 1930s, when it was “discovered” simultaneously by Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore.  Both Asperger and Kanner noticed behavioral similarities amongst some children brought to their respective clinics. These were children who had difficulty making eye contact and with social interaction were preoccupied with rules and systems, and had extraordinary abilities in areas like math, art, music, and science.

Asperger was convinced that it was possible for children with this disorder (which he called “autistic psychopathy”) to thrive with the help of tailored teaching methods that would draw on their fascinations, and he foresaw important roles for them in contributing to the betterment of society.

Asperger was also the first person to recognize that autism was clearly a continuum, with nonverbal and verbal children sharing core characteristics. He called these children, affectionately, his “little professors,” since many of them were prone to talk about their pet interests at length. As the Nazis accelerated their plans to rid society of “mental defectives” with a large-scale campaign to euthanize disabled children and adults, Asperger gave the world’s first public talk on autism, in which he defended his patients’ right to exist.

Cognizant of the Nazis’ intolerance of visibly disabled children, Asperger focused on what he called the “most promising cases” of children in his care, arguing that these children were not only capable of accomplishing great things in the world, but that their social difficulties were inextricably linked to their gifts. His framing of autism likely saved the lives of many children, but before he was able to disseminate his work widely, his clinic was destroyed in an air raid–and with it, the case studies of all of his patients.

Silberman’s examination of Asperger’s life and contributions is made all the more poignant when one considers Leo Kanner’s radically different understanding of autism, which was to shape the diagnoses and approaches to treatment for decades to come.

Kanner, who saw only the most challenging cases of autism, determined it to be a very rare disorder consisting of a narrow range of behaviors. More significantly, he promoted the idea that autism had somehow been triggered by cold and distant parenting styles. “Refrigerator Mothers” were likely to blame, and only psychiatry could ameliorate the damage that had been done.

By emphasizing the most debilitating aspects of autism, and by implicating parents, Kanner paved the way for decades of mistreatment of autistic children.

The chapters detailing the lifelong institutionalization of children in horrific conditions where shackling, neglect and corporal punishment were the norm, as well as a chapter on the darker side of treatments such as Applied Behavior Analysis that are still widely used today, will be particularly difficult for parents to read.

Perhaps most significantly, Kanner’s work shaped the current emphasis on finding causes, prevention and “cures” for autism, rather than focusing on expanding services and designing adaptive technologies and spaces for autistic people. It also ensured that autism remained stigmatizing for families–a legacy that sadly persists today. From the moment of diagnosis onwards, parents are told to view their child’s strengths as deficits, to question the causes, and to hope for a cure.

NeuroTribes Review

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Asperger’s work was rediscovered by the British cognitive psychologist Lorna Wing, who was seeking answers to the variety of autistic traits she was discovering in the general population.

Largely due to her efforts, the clinical definition of autism was expanded to include the true spectrum it is today, and Silberman makes clear that it is the broadened diagnostic criteria that have been responsible for the rise in autism cases.

In addition to Asperger and a handful of researchers willing to question the status quo, the true heroes of Silberman’s book are parents and autistic people themselves who have fought for the full inclusion and acceptance of autistic people in schools, workplaces and the public sphere.  Without the parental advocacy groups of the 1970s, disabled children would still be denied the right to a public school education; and parents are still on the front lines of fighting for services for their children in their schools and communities every single day.

Autistic people themselves have also stepped out of the shadows with the rallying cry “Nothing About Us Without Us,” proudly carrying the autistic label and insisting on full inclusion in policy discussions having an impact on their lives.

The neurodiversity movement is leading efforts to promote social support systems and highlight the necessity and value of neurological differences. And while Silberman’s focus is on autism, the concept of neurodiversity extends to anyone whose brains are wired differently, including those with dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, and mood disorders.

Silberman, who spent years with autistic individuals and their families to write this book, is  remarkably restrained when detailing the medical interventions approaching quackery that certain members of the medical community have pushed on parents desperate to help their children. However, he clearly believes that we need to redirect at least some of the money that is being poured into the research identifying causes into expanding services and destigmatizing autism, and he makes a persuasive argument based on history alone.

A portion of Silberman’s work chronicles autistic innovators: from Henry Cavendish to Nikolas Tesla to Temple Grandin to Silicon Valley’s geeky workforce, many innovations in the modern world have come from autistic minds.

I recently got together with a group of parents who have young autistic children. As we shared stories of parenting our kids, two common themes emerged: the extraordinary abilities our kids have, and the immense challenges we all face in getting access to the services and support that our kids need. One of the strangest things about receiving an autism diagnosis for your child, in fact, is simultaneously receiving the message that your family is now part of a ballooning “epidemic,” even as the experience of advocating for your child often feels like a solitary exercise in having to proffer the same explanations and reinvent the same wheel, over and over.

Parents like myself are mired in the daily worries, exhaustion, and yes, joys of raising a child on the spectrum.

For me, the greatest contribution of NeuroTribes is that it reinforces and gives historical vindication to our instincts to create learning and living environments that respond to our children’s challenges while supporting their abilities.

That Silberman combines this analysis with so much warmth and respect for his subjects–autistic children, their families, and their champions–makes the book not just part of a parent’s toolkit, but also a source of wisdom and companionship, as if the caring hero of Silberman’s narrative, Hans Asperger, were still among us.

A “Wild” Parenting Message: “Where the Wild Things Are”

“Where the Wild Things Are” has always been a classic children’s story, well before it hit the big screens in 2009. I think Maurice Sendak is something of the Faulkner of children’s literature;  I mean, the book is basically one long sentence. But even if I didn’t think this about Sendak, “Where the Wild Things Are” would still be one of my all-time favorites.

Sendak tells a tale about a boy named Max, who runs around his house in his monster costume and causes a bit of trouble here and there. Then his mother sends him to bed without supper, and instead of just being glum in his bedroom, Max imagines that the room has transformed into a beautiful forest near an ocean. So Max sails off on that ocean through time and to another land where all the inhabitants are big monsters like him (but bigger and more monster-y).

Suddenly Max realizes that these monsters listen to what he says, so he starts to command them to do things like “be still” and “let the wild rumpus start.” He becomes the king of the wild things (of course, because that’s how the progression of power works), but he is not satisfied by that (because being king is never as awesome as everyone says it will be). Even though the monsters love him, they don’t love him most of all, so he decides to leave them and return to his bedroom in his own home.

Max realizes that his family (his mother, more specifically) loves him most of all, which is already a phenomenal lesson. But I am going to suggest that this book says a little more about parenting than just that.

Some will say that the premise of the book (a boy being punished by his mother for causing all kinds of trouble) doesn’t shed the best light on the role of parenting. But, I think the progression of the story actually does something quite different.

See, the book opens with Max playing around in the real world, wearing a silly costume and running around the house. His mother calls him “wild thing,” which appears to put him in the position of being sent to bed without dinner, but also sort of challenges his playtime entirely.

Suddenly, when Max is told that he is a wild thing, he transforms from just a boy in a costume to a member of a whole crew of monsters having exciting adventures. Furthermore, while he was just running around actual rooms in a house before, he is now able to see a huge world of possibilities before him. He looks at his very bland bedroom and is now able to imagine trees and vines growing everywhere and the room becoming an entrance into a new world. And all of this is thanks to a mom who prompted him to expand his imagination beyond what was right there in front of him.

And some will say, “but wait, she was starving him, wasn’t she?” But trust me, that’s not the point of the book at all, and no one is encouraging anyone to withhold food from their kids. The spoiler alert (if you haven’t read it or are just a little foggy on the details) is that she doesn’t actually keep dinner from him (while I know the threat of doing seems a little unnecessary).

In fact, after encouraging him to use his imagination in a more exploratory way (and as a perk to her, without destroying stuff all over the house), she brings dinner right to him.

Now that’s some good service and some good parenting.

The Real Hero of the “Corduroy” Book Is the Mother

Don Freeman’s classic children’s story, “Corduroy” tells the tale of a stuffed bear who travels through a giant mall on the lookout for the button that has gone missing from his green overalls.  On his search, he discovers all of the cool things that department stores have to offer, from escalators to big comfy beds.

The reason that Corduroy goes off looking for his button is because the mother of a child who notices him in the store won’t allow her daughter Lisa to buy the bear.  “I’ve spent too much already,” the mother says, and continues, “Besides, he doesn’t look new.  He’s lost the button to one of his shoulder straps.”

Now initially, we’re thinking that the mother is being a little bit cruel. But we don’t really know the background story here, and how many times have we heard kids tell their mothers that they have been waiting forever for some specific toy?

And how do we know that all that other money spent earlier that day wasn’t also spent on the daughter?  Corduroy could just be one more thing that Lisa is requesting in a long line of new toys.

I mean, let’s be real, as parents we are onto this story, and it doesn’t seem genuine.  Even further, we don’t know that this Corduroy bear isn’t being sold at way too high a price.  Maybe we just can’t afford this bear, ok?  Get off our case!

So, though this mother is coming off as sort of the enemy here, we all know she doesn’t deserve it at all.  We get her.

Then we think about this whole button issue for a second. I mean, even if I had gone to the store for the specific purpose of buying my kid a new bear, and this Corduroy bear was really exactly what my kid wanted, I know I would second-guess myself for at least a minute about spending my hard-earned money on a bear that appears to be used versus buying a new one.

So while we would be quick to think of this mother as the penny-pinching, button-shaming nemesis, maybe we can all just take a second and see a little of her in ourselves.   Because, while we’d like to be on the child’s side in most of these stories, we know that we are all a lot like the mother here.

And, as it turns out, that isn’t all bad.  Because at the end of the story, while it’s often skimmed over in our readings, we notice that the reason Lisa gets to go to the store and buy Corduroy after all is because her awesome and practical mother said she could if, and only if, she used her own money from her piggy bank.  So Lisa had to pay for the bear herself to purchase it.  Which teaches her to value the bear more because she had to use her earnings to buy him.  Ahem, massive character lesson?  Check.

Of course, we parents get the short end of the stick again here because the mother doesn’t even show up in that last scene to accept her medal as best parent around and firmly reform our image of her.  So it’s easy for us to forget that she ended up being everything we’d hope we are after all.

Man, parenting is so unfair sometimes.

The (Unofficial) Children’s Book Animal Kingdom Power Rankings

Armadillos get no respect in children’s books; they’re at the bottom of the fictional food chain. Where do all the other animals rank? Glad you asked.

There’s a major plot twist at the end of “But NOT the Hippopotamus,” Sandra Boynton’s heart-wrenching tale of exclusion, sorrow and, ultimately, redemption.

It’s the kind of plot twist that comes completely out of left field, like when that random Massachusetts State Police officer/apparent FBI informant (SPOILER ALERT!) kills Leonardo DiCaprio’s character at the end of The Departed.

After pages and pages of being ignored by seemingly every other animal in the kingdom—or at least the ones that like to dine, try on hats, and go for jogs together—the hippopotamus finally gets the (sympathy?) invite to join the rest of the gang. But that’s not the real twist. Any six-month-old could have seen that left turn coming.

No, the real twist comes on the last page, almost as a throwaway. It reads, simply, “But NOT the Armadillo.”

That’s cold. Boynton no doubt intended it for our children’s amusement. It’s just so utterly random and unnecessary. The Armadillo doesn’t appear anywhere in the story until the final page, and gets instantly rejected upon entering the picture. And in a mocking way, too. Like, “Just kidding, Hippo. We’ll begrudgingly invite you into our little jogging/dining/shopping club. I mean….at least you’re no Armadillo!”

What does Boynton have against armadillos? Whatever it is, she’s not alone—at least not among children’s-book authors.

Peggy Rathmann takes a much more subtle shot at armadillos in “Good Night, Gorilla,” a story about a zoo jailbreak that’s light on dialogue but heavy on visual effects. The Armadillo is the last one the Gorilla breaks out of the zoo (after the Elephant, the Lion, the Giraffe, the Hyena and even a damn mouse tasked with carrying the Gorilla’s banana for him!). Adding to the slights, the Armadillo is last in line when all the animals follow Joe Zookeeper single-file all the way home. Even the mouse has the better pole position.

It’s a limited sample size. But clearly, armadillos get no respect in books meant for babies and toddlers. In fact, based on the books I’ve read my 15-month-old 237 times (in the last week), I’d say armadillos are at the very bottom of that fictional food chain, trailing caterpillars, ladybugs, bees and, yes, mice.

Where do all the other animals rank? Glad you asked.

There are 8.74 million animal species on Earth. For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my list to 25.

8.74 millionth: Armadillos….


25. Rhinos: Hippos and Rhinos are basically the same thing. Both are rotund, leathery, clumsy, easily mocked mammals that live primarily in Africa. In fact, Rhinos are seemingly cooler—at least to a child—because they have horns. But while Hippos are everpresent in your child’s books, Rhinos are scarcely mentioned. Yeah, the Hippo gets ignored in “But NOT the Hippopotamus;” but Rhinos are ignored by virtually every author out there. Of the hundred or so children’s books I’ve read to my child, a Rhino has appeared in exactly one of them: “The Zoo.” And he (actually it’s a she) only appears as part of an ensemble, mixed in with the likes of kangaroos, camels and puffins. Not much of a showing.

24. Kangaroos
23. Llamas/Alpacas
22. Camels
21. Fish (all of them…there’s rarely a distinction)

20. Geese: Geese get plenty of attention in children’s books. But not necessarily by name. And that tends to create confusion. It’s not always clear what’s a goose and what’s a duck. Geese tend to blend into the background of your kid’s books. And when they are mentioned by name, it’s usually only as a means of furthering the plots of more prominent characters like a dog or a horse. Maybe I’m being too nitpicky with the poor geese. All I can tell you is this: When I ask my son, “What does the duck say?” he immediately responds with a “quack!” (or “kack”). When I ask him what a goose says … he gives me a blank look that roughly translates to, “Um…where are those building blocks again?”

19. Snakes
18. Whales
17. Deer
16. Frogs

15. Pigs: You would think these guys would be higher up on the list. Perhaps studies have shown that the pig noses and oinking sounds parents inevitably make when reading about swine actually frighten children. I could see that. Or maybe pigs are such filthy animals that they were deemed too unsavory for babies’ and toddlers’ eyes. Whatever the reason, “Babe” is the rare farm animal that doesn’t get a ton of ink in children’s books.

14. Ducks (dragged down by their association with geese)
13. Rabbits/Bunnies/Hares (though you could make the argument that “Bunny Rabbits” rank higher)
12. Zebras (the stripes are appealing to baby, but “Z’s” can be hard to say)
11. Giraffes (even harder to say)

10. Horses: “Neigh” doesn’t roll off the tongue the way “moo,” “woof” or “roar” do. And I’ve yet to encounter a children’s book in which a horse was the main character. But horses are everywhere, if not always fully noticed.

9. Elephants (the trunks are a big hit)
8. Cows (what pigs aspire to be)
7. Cats (my kid said “cat” before he said “Mama” or “Dada”)
6. Dogs (baby’s best friend)

5. Monkeys: Like fish, this is an all-encompassing term. Monkeys, gorillas, chimps, apes, orangutans—they’re all the same in children’s books. “Five Little Monkeys Jumping On the Bed” gets my kid going just as easily as “Good Night, Gorilla” and the chimps in “The Zoo.” You know why? Because monkeys embody every characteristic he holds dear: complete disregard for the rules, an unquenchable thirst for mischief, a knack for unintentionally inflicting bodily harm on himself and others, and an insatiable appetite for bananas.

4. Hippos (the muse of many a children’s-book author … the Edie Sedgwick to their Andy Warhol)

3. Lions (and…)
2. Tigers (and…)

…1. Bears: Oh my!

Yep, lions are not the King of the children’s-book jungle. Bears are far more deified. Authors contemplate what Brown Bears see and what Polar Bears hear, and devote an entire book (“Your Are My I Love You”) to examining the Papa Bear-Baby Bear relationship.

In “Each Peach Pear Plum,” three bears are portrayed as lovable protagonists despite “accidentally” firing their hunting rifles (twice!), including once in the general direction of a baby! In “The Big Hungry Bear,” the bear never actually appears on the page, and instead serves as a manipulative omnipresent narrator, bullying a poor mouse into sharing his hard-earned strawberry with him after having a near panic attack from the bear’s scare tactics. Bears will eat all your blueberries and blackberries (in “Jamberry”) and your sandwich (in, you guessed it, “The Bear Ate Your Sandwich”) without any handwringing or repercussions. It’s like they’re mob bosses, ruling by instilling fear rather than inspiring love. Even the authors are too scared to fuck with them.

That said, it makes sense that bears rule the animal kingdom in our children’s books. Their portly appearance makes them perfect for snuggling in a crib (after all, there are no Teddy Lions or Teddy Tigers). And that extra heft makes them more relatable to kids who still haven’t shed their baby fat. The authors may be honoring them out of fear, but to a 2-year-old, bears are soft, non-threatening, lovable creatures.

Being loved will get you a lot of attention in children’s books. Even more than being mocked.

*Note: I have not read every children’s book in existence. If I have left your kid’s favorite animal out of the rankings, I apologize. Maybe next year.

The best book for exploring and sharing nature with kids

My very favorite book for exploring and sharing nature with kids is “This Book Was a Tree: Ideas, Adventures, and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World” by Marcie Chambers Cuff. It’s both a hands-on book of crafts and activities and a book of principles and ideas for reconnecting with the natural world.

My very favorite book for exploring and sharing nature with kids is “This Book Was a Tree: Ideas, Adventures, and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World by Marcie Chambers Cuff.

It’s both a hands-on book of crafts and activities, as well as a book of principles and ideas for reconnecting with the natural world. It’s a book for budding scientists, before they even know what science is.

“You don’t need expensive new equipment and supplies to get to know the world; you need only to have an open mind that asks good questions.” – Marcie Chambers Cuff in “This Book Was a Tree”

Through the lens of nature, “This Book Was a Tree” encourages kids to “touch, collect, document, sketch, decode, analyze, experiment, unravel, interpret, compare, and reflect.” Each project is designed to spark an insight, illuminate a scientific principal, or teach a positive behavior.

Sample activities include making a pinhole camera, sketching maps, creating different types of terrariums, inspirations for what to look for when wandering, creating sundials (and using them to schedule a day of exploration), tips for getting dirty, building card-based eco-calendars, measuring natural patterns like tree rings, making natural bug lotions, building nests, creating habitats, guerrilla gardening and so much more.

“All life is an experiment. The more you make the better.” – Emerson

 

While this book is about nature, it isn’t anti-technology:

A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century. In between uploading , replying to texts, friending and unfriending, listening to podcasts, and Googling, we all drifted off the trail. It’s a complicated story, since, in many ways, our complex networked lives have mostly been improved with high-tech devices and gadgets. But, in the end , technology has displaced our exposure to the natural world. 

I love how this book identifies kids as modern pioneers:

And now you— yes, you—are the modern pioneer. Not a leathery, backwoods deerskin-wearing salt pork and hominy sort of pioneer, or a lab-coat-wearing research type, but a strong-minded, clever, crafty, mudpie-making, fort-building pioneer.

“This Book Was a Tree” isn’t overtly a book about “saving” nature; rather, it’s about experiencing and learning about nature.

However, the truth is that we’ve never been more disconnected from nature, or more divorced from our surroundings. Around the earth, ecosystems are being converted into wastelands. Rather than preach or panic, “This Book Was a Tree” simplifies this reality into a practical coda:

“Just do the best you can with what you’ve been given and don’t try to do everything at once. Look around and identify a problem that needs solving, pick a few things to get done, and experiment with ecological alternatives. Every little bit helps.” – This Book Was A Tree

It’s more critical than ever that kids get outside, explore and learn about nature when they’re young. As “This Book Was a Tree” makes clear, authentic reconnection with the natural world comes via the most human pursuits of all: exploring, imagining, making and thinking.

This is a book to own. Get it on Amazon or Powell’s. Marcie shows you how to make seed bombs.

Author and sociologist Dalton Conley: You can’t recreate the feral childhood

Dalton Conley is a professor and sociologist at New York University and author of several books, including his most recent, “Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Kids But Were too Exhausted to Ask.” Freakonomics also posted a great Q&A between parents and Dalton, which you can read here.

Parent: Dalton Conley

Kids: daughter, E, 17; son, Yo, 15

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Parent Co: How do you describe the notion of “parentology?”

Dalton Conley: I guess I would say that it’s this idea of improvisational yet scientifically informed decisions in terms of parenting strategies. In other words, not relying on a single formula or tradition, like an ethnic or cultural or family tradition, and it’s not Doctor Spock “go with your gut,” necessarily. It’s the idea of being flexible and being adaptive to each kid and the specific issues that come up, but to do that by going to the science or literature and figuring out what it says that you should do.

Who was the first generation of parents to do it this way?

That’s a good question. Noone’s asked me that. So, let’s see, I don’t know. I think that always parents are just trying to figure out what to do, and what they’re told by parenting books has changed dramatically over the last hundred years. I think it reflects the time – I think there’s a reason why the 1960s produced Dr. Spock’s guide to parenting, which was trust your gut, everything will be okay, kids naturally develop just fine and you’re not going to screw them up forever. That’s the 60s ‘everything’s cool, let’s just be’ kind of ethos.

So maybe it’s that now we’re in the information age, and the age of Google Scholar, and science at anyone’s fingertips, the democratization of information, that a book like mine should come along and say, ‘no, that’s just too hippy-dippy to trust your gut on everything. There’s information and there are, for our particular time and place, better and worse answers and you should try to uncover those.’

I think I say in the book, I’m advocating this for particular outcomes, for a group of people who are very anxious about the future of their kids in a knowledge economy, where they see inequality rising and the competition increasing and the need for high-tech and intellectual skills really ratcheting up. It’s all meant to be a little bit humorous and laughing at myself, kind of thing, but I think that there’s a real, rational parental anxiety under all that given the way the economy is evolving and has been evolving.

Absolutely. So this is a method that you’re putting forth that parents can learn and follow in order to help produce children who will be competitive in the knowledge economy?

I wouldn’t say ‘learn and follow,’ maybe ‘learn from.’ At least to feel like they’re not alone in their anxieties and they’re not crazy when they don’t agree with 1970s-style parenting. That there’s this new backlash to, say, ‘oh, just give your kids Kool-Aid and send them out for the whole summer and let them do whatever they want.’ Whenever I hear (the argument) ‘we were feral kids, we turned out okay,’ I say, well, it’s not the 70s anymore.

We turned out okay in a much less globally competitive environment. We turned out okay in (a different) social environment of childhood. If you left your kids in the 1970s, maybe they’d play with matches, maybe they’d get into some trouble, there were definitely perils. It was more crime ridden, they were probably more likely to be killed or abducted or hit by a car, but the actual activities they would be doing – there was one TV in the house. My mom used to sometimes literally take the knob off the TV, so I had no choice. If I didn’t have TV, I had to read a book or make a fort or get into some other trouble.

But today, literally the landscape of technology is that kids’ default would be, if you let them do whatever they want, they would be on their computer all the time consuming video images and playing games. I think that most parents probably think that is not ideal for their kids, I certainly don’t. So you can’t recreate the feral childhood.

Maybe if you move to Vermont, like you did, and you cut off internet access and all that kind of stuff and send your kids out without a phone, but most parents aren’t doing that. And it’s pretty hard to do that. So I think that parents should go easy on themselves given the state of the technological landscape and the economy and so forth and say, ‘look, my desire for an academically gifted kid is totally rational, and more parental involvement is not crazy or irrational, it’s actually a very rational response.’

But I read somewhere that you also advise against the idea of the helicopter parent?

Well, I’m definitely more of a helicopter parent. There are certain things I’m totally intense about and all over and in their business, and certain things that I’m pretty relaxed about.

I’m way too focused on academic achievement and not enough involved in things like developing good non-academic work habits, like enforcing rules about chores and stuff like that. I really focused more on the academics at the expense of other things.

I’m really curious about that because, being a sociologist, you understand people and how they work. So if you’re not teaching them, do you expect that your kids will learn those skills elsewhere or that they’ll just be okay without them?

No, I’m at this point praying that they’re learning them elsewhere because I regret that I was so anxious about academics; that I was happier to be like their personal slave and do all the dishes and chores and everything so that I’d free up more time for them to do their homework or extra math or whatever. I think I went overboard.

The book is not meant to be a prescription, it’s meant to be more of a fun read, so I hope people see that – that I’m a little bit aware of how extreme or crazy my approach is. But that they still can see some things that they can take away from it.

Do you believe in family rituals of any kind – just normal practices that keep you close? I think that would be particularly tricky with two teenagers who probably have full lives outside of your family.

Close to my kids you mean? Well, I think Jennifer Senior’s book, “All Joy and No Fun,” really tackles this issue. She basically makes the argument that adolescence is difficult for the kids, sure, but it’s actually more difficult for the parents – especially this generation of parents.

Because we go from being totally involved in helicopter-y type ways to being pushed away. And that’s normal, but it feels like late adolescence is like going through a break-up or something.

So we’re experiencing the empty nest feeling way earlier than our parents did?

I don’t  know how much they experienced it because they weren’t as focused on their kids; it wasn’t as central a social bond. Back then parents talked about how ‘I love my kids, but I have to devote time to my marriage or to my friends or to my cousins – whoever.’

But now kids have so become the number one, two, and three priorities in parents’ lives that when the kids actually do, inevitably, need to carve out some freedom and push their parents away, which is, as we know, completely developmentally normal, it’s a really difficult experience for the parents.

The book kind of ends in early adolescence, so I’d have to write a whole separate book about teenagers. but I’m not sure if I could write it. I need to read one rather than write it.

I usually ask parents if they have any wisdom they’d like to share with other parents, but I think you already did that in your book. Maybe I could just ask if there’s an overriding theme to parenthood that’s presented itself to you in your own experience?

I guess I would say maybe it’s “trust but verify,” in the famous words of Ronald Reagan… Which is part Doctor Spock and part Mr. Spock. Trust your gut and know each kid is different – even two different siblings in the same family are going to have very different reactions and needs to different things you do. But you should also verify with observation and reading about the science of childhood development and so forth, and then be not afraid to revise your hypothesis and do a 180.

…There are answers out there in science, but there’s not a single answer. Part of the work is sifting through the various answers and coming together with a nuanced approach.

Review of UNBORED Games: Serious Fun for Everyone

UNBORED Games: Serious Fun for Everyone is more than an awesome activity book. It’s also a guidebook to creativity, adventure, and learning. It’s one of my very favorite books for kids and families.

One of the persistent (and often annoying) questions parents hear from our kids is “What should I do?” This book amply answers that question.

UNBORED Games is the second book in a series that began with UNBORED: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun (reviewed here). It’s described as the “best games book” ever, and I have to agree. There are more than seventy games featured in the book (including 50 new ones). 

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Read the UNBORED Games Manifesto

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Games are divided into four sections, each featuring a mix of high and low tech games, as well as active and sedentary games. The sections are:

PWNAGE, with clapping games, Highland games, Secret rules games, more.

Home Games, with game night games, board game hacks, apps to play with grownups, backyard games and more.

Game Changers, which encourage cooperation, team building and even activism.

Adventure Games, based around exploration, role-playing, and experimentation.

UNBORED Games has three levels of utility: it curates the best games around, it presents brand-new games, and it’s guided by an ethos.

That ethos is: “gaming is a whole culture for kids to explore.” To that end, UNBORED Games explains how kids can hack, extend and reinvent games for themselves. Fun, yes, but also increasingly critical skills in our culture and economy. It’s the only games book I know of with this point of view.

A bit of a confession: I’m never excited about family game night until we’re actually playing a game together. Then, of course, I love it. So, even though I love this book,  I’m not naturally a huge “games book” person. When I confessed this to authors Joshua and Elizabeth,  Josh had a brilliant suggestion: get snacks. Go for the snacks, stay for the game. It totally works.

This book is written for kids to read. In fact it has sections telling kids how to involve their parents and grandparents in games. But parents will really want to read it, too.

unbored-chapter-1

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Joshua Glenn is cofounder of the influential web sites Significant Objects, Hilobrow, and Semionaut. He has authored and edited a number of books. He lives in Boston and has two sons. Follow Joshua on Twitter (as Hilobrow).

Elizabeth Foy Larsen was a member of the team that launched the awesome magazine Sassy.  Her writing on families has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, Daily Beast, and elsewhere. She lives in Minneapolis with two sons and a daughter.  Follow Elizabeth on Twitter.

MORE INFO

For more information on UNBORED Games as well as the original UNBORED Book, visit Unbored.netConnect on Facebook at Facebook.com/unboredguide.

Look inside the book on Amazon.com. Get it there or direct from Bloomsbury Publishing.

 

Unbored: An Essential Guide to Serious Fun

From a series about our favorite books for parents.

Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun is billed as “the guide and activity book every modern kid needs.” It’s a fantastic resource, full of instructions, DIY advice and creative how-to guides designed to spark engagement with the wider world.

The book also goes beyond instruction, presenting activities in the context of history or culture. It includes trivia, lists, and interviews with leading thinkers.

Not all of the activities are strictly educational, or even strictly safe. In that way, “Unbored” has a welcome rebel spirit.

This book seems best suited for 9 – 12 year olds. Many of its activities are a bit advanced for my six year old, though she loves hearing about them. (Browsing the activities make great bedtime reading with younger kids.) Even for older kids, the book encourages grownups to participate.

The book looks and feels fantastic. It has bold typography and illustrations on every page. It’s divided into four big sections: You, Home, Society and (my fav) Adventure.

Activities include green chemistry experiments, classic science experiments, kitchen experiments, crafts and upcycling, board game hacking, spycraft, code-cracking, geocaching, skateboard repair, how to yarn bombing, stop-action movie-making and much more.

Check out the book’s awesome website, which is full of great activities, links and resources for further adventures. Here is the book’s Twitter page.

We’re looking forward to checking out the next book in the series “UNBORED Games: Serious Fun for Everyone