Perfect Little World tells the story of a crazy experiment, one that could only be financed by an eccentric millionaire: raising 10 children for 10 years in a tight community with their parents (who are forbidden from having any other children!) and a large cast of psychologists and other helpers. The story is told from the perspective of a teenaged single mother who is seeking an environment to raise her son that will be more nurturing that what she can expect as a high school graduate in a small town with no family to help out.
Of course, the experiment is bound to run into some issues, many of them apparently not foreseen by the researchers or the founder. I liked the witty observations of the complicated relationships between the adults (the children seem to do quite well, thank you very much). There is also a wonderful portrait of an older coworker of the mom’s who becomes a substitute father and grandfather. After all the adventures, the ending seems abrupt and overly sweet, but the story itself is a lot of fun.
The goal of The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children is to tell us that anxious parenting, hovering, is simply the wrong way to raise children. The best part of the book is the middle third, in which the author details the ingenious experiments that have made her famous, here experiments about how young children learn about the world. It turns out that young children are better than older ones (and adults) at figuring out unlikely scenarios. They can also distinguish remarkably well between experts and charlatans. Sadly, to get to that middle third we need to navigate a long, hectoring tirade against those who want to build the perfect child (the carpenters), extolling instead the virtues of the gardeners, who simply provide a loving environment and step back. And then there is the last third, with a curious rant against the way we treat older people. Agreed but what does this have to do with child development?
I heartily recommend the author’s other books instead of this one, in particularThe Scientist In The Crib.
Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family is the true story of a family with identical twins, one of whom, from an early age, aspires to be a girl rather than a boy. The parents are baffled, but help their (now) daughter first live as a girl and eventually transition to a woman, and the community around them reacts in a helpful and supportive, if sometimes awkwardly. (Kids, interestingly, seem entirely unfazed.) But a rabid bigot, coupled with a school system that’s afraid of lawsuits, makes the family’s life an ordeal. So sad to see how one person can poison the well.
Great story, told in an overly dramatic voice, to my taste.
Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time takes the author, a journalist with two children, on a quest to understand how her to-do list (which serves as the book cover and merrily jumbles a shopping list and finding a geometry tutor with action items for work) remains forever undone and makes her crazy as a result. The part of the book I enjoyed most was the discussions with time research scholars, members of the very serious International Association for Time Use Research. Who knew that this was such an active field of research? While said scholars have not found any miracle cure to our terminal busy-ness, they have supplied apt labels for our troubles such as “contaminated time” (time when our to-do list runs through our heads while we should be enjoying a moment of leisure) and “leisure episodes” (moments of leisure that are too brief to really enjoy) — and even identified key life transitions when time trouble sets in (at the birth of the first child, for instance).
I did not enjoy as much the longish sections on companies and organizations that have managed to provide a better work-life balance to their employees (which sounded, to me, like those vapid Working Woman magazine awards), or how the Danes have managed to arrange reasonable work schedules (good for them; not so helpful so us who live in a society that values long hours at the office and provides very little practical support for parents). And I had to chuckle at the to-do list she provides in the appendix to switch to a more serene life: it runs a good eight pages, single-spaced. You can take the woman out of the busy-ness, but not the busy-ness out of the woman, apparently!
The author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood does a great job of capturing the contrast between the drudgery of raising children (childcare seems to rank lower than even housecleaning as a non-enjoyable activity) and the great joy of having children and seeing them grow into independent adults. But I found the book to be rather weak otherwise. For one thing, the author seems to have chosen parents for the many vignettes throughout the book who are quite extreme. There is a mother of three (including a toddler) who somehow thinks she is going to raise them full-time while running a business from her home. Who could possibly achieve this feat? There is another who, although exhausted, will not, absolutely not, allow her children to cry during the night without getting up, against the opinion of her husband. And that brings up my other beef: why are the fathers portrayed in the book so calm and efficient (and involved!) and the mothers such airheads? Surely there are a few mothers out there who are smart enough to hire a babysitter, who expect their children to sleep through the night, and yet are having no fun trying to survive it all.
And where are the practical recommendations at a societal level? Where are the public nursery schools? The arrangements for emergency childcare for sick kids? The schools that don’t shut down at 3pm? It may be true that parents should be less protective of their children but we can’t really abandon them entirely!