March 30, 2006


Praising Boys Well. By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. Da Capo. $13.95.

Praising Girls Well. By Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer. Da Capo. $13.95.

     This is really a single book, bifurcated – often maddeningly so.  It probably makes marketing sense to sell this book as two volumes, and it can be helpful for parents who have only boys or only girls to believe that a work has been written just for their family.  But that’s not really the case.  Each of these books is subtitled “100 Tips for Parents and Teachers,” and each numbered tip is headlined identically, or nearly so.  No. 8 is “Acknowledge His Personal Strengths” in one book, “Acknowledge Her Personal Strengths” in the other.  No. 47 is “Let Him Feel Whatever He Feels” and “Let Her Feel Whatever She Feels.”  When a suggestion seems to be differently titled, it is more a matter of form than of substance: No. 30 is “Help Teenage Boys to Have Faith in Their Future” in one book, “Give Her Faith in Her Future as an Adult” in the other.

     Parents who have both boy and girl children are going to be mighty frustrated when they find they are reading the same words, or virtually the same ones, twice.  In the boys’ book, Chapter 7, “Common Mistakes to Try to Avoid,” begins, “Despite our best intentions to help boys do well and show how much we love and appreciate them, we can still say either the wrong thing entirely or the right thing but at the wrong time (or in the wrong way), and through clumsiness or ignorance, we can put our foot in our mouth.”  The chapter has the identical title in the girls’ book and starts on the exact same page – yes, the books are identically paginated – as follows: “Despite the best of intentions and our wish to help girls do well and show how much we love and appreciate them, we can still either say the wrong thing entirely or say the right thing at the wrong time or in the wrong way and, through clumsiness or ignorance, put our foot in it.”

     No, parents, this is not déjà vu all over again.  It is a characteristic of these books.

     The tremendous stylistic and verbal overlap is really a shame, because Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer – author of Raising Confident Boys and Raising Confident Girls, another case of good material in less-than-ideal packaging – not only acknowledges the different needs for praise in boys and girls but also shows, through a variety of specific examples, how parents and teachers can praise children meaningfully and with an understanding of the different maturation rates and psychological needs of the two sexes.  A single book with for-all-kids introductory material and overviews, and different breakdowns within chapters for boys and girls, would have been much more effective: parents with kids of both sexes would not have had to wade through so much repetition or try so hard to find what is different in the suggestions.  For in many cases, there is no difference.  For example, tip No. 45, “Hugs Are for Sharing,” is identical in both books.  But tip No. 34 is quite different.  For boys, it is called “Notice His Organizational Skills.”  For girls, the title is “Organization Matters but ‘Good Enough’ Is Also Okay.”  A couple of basic suggestions for parents and teachers are the same in both versions of No. 34, but Hartley-Brewer has more recommendations for girls than for boys on this topic, with different focuses both at home and in school.

     Both these books make it clear that praise and encouragement are important, but need to be delivered sensibly and sensitively, with understanding of your children’s unique needs and an appreciation of the different ways boys and girls seek and hear praise.  To the extent that the books offer unisex praise suggestions, they do quite well; to the extent that they recommend different approaches for different genders, they also do quite well.  What is frustrating is not the content but the presentation: it shouldn’t be so hard for already-stressed parents to untangle both-sexes suggestions from single-sex ones by flipping to identically numbered pages in two separate volumes.

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