It’s too bad that I’ve starting reading a lot of parenting books because I get free business books in the mail every day, but I’m sick of them. I’ve been getting free business books in the mail every day for the last five years, and I shudder to think how many I’d get each day if I hadn’t spent the last five years changing addresses more often than a felon on the run.

It’s also too bad that I’ve started reading parenting books because my local library doesn’t have any. Well, who knows if they have any, because the books are shelved randomly by someone with no apparent knowledge of the Dewey decimal system. For example, Shakespeare’s Henry V is shelved in the biography section.

But I managed to find a few parenting books by ordering books from my library like a literary concierge or something. And things were fine for a while, until I owed three month’s fines for Raising a Self-Disciplined Child.

So now I just buy the books. Which makes me extra critical of them and forces me to write a list of books I hate:

1. Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
This book, by francophile mom Pamela Drucker, is about how French families are so laid back and Americans should learn something from them. Like, if you raise your kids as the French do, then your kids can grow up and be like all the other French: joining unions and cheating on their spouses. If the French were known for being a particularly happy culture, then maybe this book would make sense. But they are not Denmark or Switzerland.

I think this is a crock and I can’t believe all the attention it’s getting. It’s like the book French Women Don’t Get Fat. The French (and their groupies) should shut up with their proscriptive living diatribes or at least leave that to Proust. I lived on a French farm. And I lived on a French vineyard. And the Parisians are living on their own little island and they have nothing to do with the rest of the country and if the French weren’t such goddamn liars to themselves they would get off their butts and start working a 40 hour work week and get rid of their stupid archaic language that has less utility than Icelandic.

2. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother
This book is about the Yale law school professor mom, Amy Chua, who raises two over-achiever Chinese-American daughters who play string instruments and go to Ivy League schools and do not have sleepovers growing up because those are for academically sub-par white kids.

But this book is really about the disintegration of family. The focus of this parenting style is on individual achievement. The family measures success by the individual achievements of its members. There is no time for relaxing as a family because that does not lead to any measurable success. There is no time for board games, long lunches, and hanging out with the neighbors. There are lessons and homework and each parent has a big career as well. If each member of the family is a high achiever then the family as a unit is just a mix of this.

Another way to raise kids would be that the family is the most important thing, and individual achievement is not as important as being close and supportive as a family. Which would mean, for example, that parents do not run around driving individual kids to individual events, and homework does not take away from family time.

I’m not saying there is a right or wrong. Well, there probably is, but I struggle with this myself, and, frankly, most of the kids who play string instruments with my kids have tiger moms. However I do think we need to admit that individual achievement competes with family cohesion and Tiger Mom is an extreme example on this spectrum.

3. The Glass Castle
I know this isn’t supposed to be a parenting book. It’s supposed to be a tour de force about Jeanette Walls’ childhood, growing up with parents who were clinically insane—it’s unclear how, exactly they were insane—but they were unable to put the needs of their kids ahead of their own needs to sit at home all day doing nothing.

The whole time I was thinking, “Hold it. I’d like to sit at home all day and do nothing. I want to paint and read all day.”

Have I ever told you that I like to paint? I do it sometimes. Well, the times in my life when I have been unemployed with no kids. Which is not recently, believe me. But I see how the drive to read and paint would make someone forget to put their kids’ needs in the forefront. I worry that I am close to being like Wallis’s parents.

Intellectually I know that I am not going to do that. They were basically homeless, and freezing in the winter, and honestly, I cannot cope with being cold. So I wouldn’t read and paint. I’d go get a job to pay the heating bill. That makes me feel better. But I hate the book because I see myself in it. And I know I’m not supposed to.

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23 replies
  1. Mel
    Mel says:

    Here’s one you might like: Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by
    Leonard Sax M.D. Ph.D.

    I didn’t agree with everything in the book (like spanking boys) but it did give me a little perspective on why boys act the way they do. Since I am raising two of them, and have never been one, I thought it was interesting.

  2. Julia A
    Julia A says:


    How’s homeschooling going? Are you in it a month yet?

  3. renae
    renae says:

    Sorry about the state of your library. If you begin getting a bunch of home schooling/ parenting books, please consider donating them to your local library, which is likely underfunded. If you’re ever in the Seattle area, check out our libraries ( They rock, and I wish everyone had access to this type of free information.

  4. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    Penelope, you are self employed. You can allow yourself some balance in your own life. When I hear you say “I’d love to … but…” I cringe. It is simply not true that you can’t.

    You can find a way. You can choose to allow yourself the luxury of time to do more of what you love. Look how far you have come in just the past few months in re-making yourself and your life for the better.

    It will benefit you, and as a result it will benefit your kids and your blog and everyone will be happier. Besides paintings are something you can monetize :)

    Share painting with your sons. It may not be the most tranquil experience for you right away, because your sons are young, but in coming years, having an interest like this that you share with them is a form of wealth no amount of hard work will ever buy.

  5. karelys
    karelys says:

    when i find myself craving more laying around time doing nothing but pretty arts and crafts and watching big bang theory all day is when i realize i am exhausted. well, i just found that recently, before i didn’t know it.

    i don’t want to be a tiger mom, a mom that thinks being french is the IT way. sometimes i look back in my childhood and try to avoid pitfalls my parents’ way made for us and i try to keep the good things.

    it doesn’t matter if my kids are different than me.

    if you’re good at painting you can get money from it so it’s great. reading obviously pays money because you do research for your blog.

    my mom would never sit down and relax and when she did she felt disgusted with herself as if she was lazy.

    i have the same issue which i think was passed down; i just learned to be this way and i’m trying to unlearn it.

    i don’t want to work crazy hours like sandberg but i don’t want to lay around all day and not make anythign for myself because if i ever end up with no husband (or a husband that can’t work due to an illness) everything will be super stressful.

    plus kids watch everything and i want to inspire them to be entrepenuerial (i can’t evers spell that!) and self made and resourceful. i don’t ever want them to fall in the mentality that the only way to get money is to be spoon fed through a job. if they ever get a job in the typical sense i want them to treat it as a customer-client relationship with their boss.

    for many reasons.

    that said, sit down and read and paint and you’ll feel refreshed. but not right away, maybe. most likely right away you’ll fret that you’re being unproductive but if you care about self discipline this is probably the best way to have self discipline; to care for yourself before you breakdown so bad it takes too long to recover or you’ll limp through life. ouch!

    • victoria
      victoria says:

      “my mom would never sit down and relax and when she did she felt disgusted with herself as if she was lazy.”

      Yes!! This!

      It’s a terrible lesson to have internalized because it makes it hard to relax even when you are relaxing. (I’m a hardcore Type B in a family full of Type As, and I’ve learned the hard way that when I don’t keep on top of my stress levels I don’t do well physically or mentally.)

    • Susan
      Susan says:

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure homeschooling is illegal there, isn’t it? I heard about families who have been forced to flee the country in order to continue homeschooling. We are so blessed to live in the USA! A day doesn’t go by when I thank God for all of the freedoms we enjoy here, especially the freedoms to worship the Lord and to homeschool.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        yes, homeschooling is illegal in Switzerland and Germany, don’t know about France. But you can worship in any way you like, there is freedom of religion. The history in the US is very different from the one in Germany, partly due to the vastness of the country itself homeschooling has much more of a tradition in the US,. Originating in the desire to give children in far out hamlets and farms schooling and education. Very few people in Germany have the desire to homeschool, there is rather large variety of schooling options (not the the system itself is perfect, I doubt there is perfect way to school for all kids), and they are more accessible in terms of distance and often money than in the US. Since it is considered the responsibility of the state to provide good and affordable public schools the difference in quality is much less than in the US. Public schools are free and due to the mindset that even higher education should be affordable the majority of university education is also supported by the state. The tuition is minimal, and the major expense are costs of living. The burden for education is borne by all taxpayers.

  6. emily
    emily says:

    Oh man, you are so not the mom in the Glass Castle. That mom made it seem to her kids that the world was falling apart only in their imaginations, not in the real world around them. That’s the big harm done – not the painting or the reading – but that the kid doubted her own sense of reality for so long.

  7. Nowgirl
    Nowgirl says:

    I bet your library would love to get these books you are sent as donations… Easier than feeding them to the pigs?

    Interesting that you are worried you are like the Glass Castle parents. Like all of us you have plenty of struggles, but you never abandon your kids. You are devoted to your sons. Whatever resonates for you there, it doesn’t look true from out here.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Give the books to my library? Libraries do not want donations of books that sold 300 copies. There is a reason that a book only sells 300 copies: It sucks. And today, when there is no barrier to publishing one’s own book, most books suck. I mean, most books suck.

      So it just seems ridiculous to me to assume that libraries are dumping grounds for any book that gets published.

      And I was thinking this, and then I was thinking, no, don’t write this in the comments section – it’s so off topic.

      But now I’m thinking it’s not off topic. Because there is a fundamental shift in what libraries are good for. They are not a place where you can get any book you need. And they are not a place where you can find most books. Online is where you can find most books because most books today are electronic only. It’s much cheaper.

      So I’m not sure what libraries are, but they are going to become a space to be with books, similar to what Barnes& Noble is now. And if you want to teach kids how to find books, teach them how to do it online.

      There are two ways: Amazon has everything, that individual sites curate books in interesting ways. It’s more important to understand how to sort through curators than it is to learn how to sort through a library.

      This is why I throw out almost all the books I get in the mail.


      • Nowgirl
        Nowgirl says:

        I spend a fair bit of time working with rural libraries. They are starved for acquisitions and can evaluate whether to shelve a book, offer it for sale in their discards fundraiser, or offer it to another library with a specialty collection. Or recycle it.

        You’re right about where libraries are going. The other role they are increasingly playing is Internet access provider of last resort.

      • Mark W.
        Mark W. says:

        I agree. In fact, it appears Madison, WI ‘s library is not accepting books as it’s going bookless – .
        I read the above site and blog to get a sense of the direction libraries are headed. They are based out of the UW-Madison School of Library and Information Studies. They promote and highlight how artists, art organizations, and libraries are working together.
        Libraries are changing because they need to in order to better serve their community and for monetary reasons. Here’s a post I liked about a music library in the UK – whose title is “Get It Loud In Libraries – Amplifying Everything We Have Got”.

        • Erika
          Erika says:

          Mark, Madison’s libraries are not going bookless. They’ve closed the central branch for 2 years for renovations, so had a pre-renovation celebration/fundraiser called “Bookless.”

          Rest assured, the new library will open in summer of 2013, and will have books.

          Penelope, do give the books to the library. If they don’t want them, they’ll sell them at a fundraiser.

      • Julia A
        Julia A says:

        I have 3 kids. All have gotten 10 books at the library every week for .. well, since they were 2 or 3. So, just the kids now, we’ve checked out something approaching 15,000 books now. And then there are the DVDs too.

        I guess I could have gotten them from Amazon, but .. well, I guess I couldn’t have.

        When I hear people say they don’t use the library, I assume they’re super rich or that they’re not bringing enough books into their home. Books are a Field of Dreams scenario. They gotta be there to make it happen

  8. B
    B says:

    The last parenting book I read was “Raising Your Spirited Child.” Honestly, I had more epiphanies that informed my parenting reading “Ender’s Game” than I did reading that text.

    I find parenting books altogether uninteresting. The vast majority seem to pull anecdotal evidence or “case studies” from hither and yon in order to bolster the author’s personal philosophy. In general, I find parenting books to be such an odd, quasi-scientific mixture of theory and practice that I tend to find them inaccessible and lacking. It’s not difficult to make some empirical observation or consult some research in order to justify your personal parenting philosophy, in turn allowing you to create an entire “how to” narrative on raising children (or anything for that matter). Parenting styles/philosophies are usually such an extension of our personality types, socioeconomic and educational background, cultural and religious affiliations that it causes me to approach the whole parenting book genre in the same way I would an ethnography. And frankly, I’d rather just read an ethnography.

    I do like reading child-centered research that has implications for parenting strategies. I just find the instruction manual-type parenting books repetitive and tedious. So much so I gave up on them.

  9. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    “However I do think we need to admit that individual achievement competes with family cohesion”

    That depends on your culture…

    Sheena Iyengar’s research on the cultural perspective of intrinsic motivation showed that Anglo American children demonstrated less internal motivation when the choice was made for them, but Asian American children were most motivated when the choice was made for them by authority figures or trusted peers.

  10. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    Question: why are you sticking with the violin/cello lessons? It seems you hated Amy Chua’s book because you saw yourself in it too. Ok, your younger son is thriving, but your older son hates it.
    It is a honest question, because I am thinking about doing the string instrument routine with my daughter too. I really would like to understand why you are doing it, because sometimes it seems contrary to what you have been preaching in your blog lately.

  11. Aaron
    Aaron says:

    Have you read NurtureShock? I don’t know how much would apply to you considering the ages of your kids, but the scientific approach and the methods it uses to confirm or reject conventional wisdom would probably support much the research you often reference.

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