Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things. By Richard Wiseman, Ph.D. Basic Books. $26.
Great Kids: Helping Your Baby and Child Develop the Ten Essential Qualities for a Healthy, Happy Life. By
Richard Wiseman is a wise man. And he has a marvelous job: he is the first and only Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology at the
Stanley Greenspan’s books on family issues are always worth reading, and Great Kids is no exception. But there is something more important about it: it offers useful advice on helping children develop, over time and in small doses, qualities that will make their lives healthier and happier – and it does not demand that busy parents drop out of the work force and spend all their time giving their kids carefully apportioned doses of particular forms of enrichment and enlightenment. Greenspan’s “Ten Essential Qualities” are not particularly new: engage your child; model empathy; encourage curiosity; foster communication; balance your emotions so your child can learn to balance his or hers; build self-esteem; encourage self-control and persistence; support initiative and imagination; help your child develop logical thinking; and instill a sense of ethics/morality. But what is important in this book is not novelty. Greenspan explains why these particular qualities are indeed essential for a child’s future happiness, and then shows parents how to foster them in everyday life – not by setting aside special learning (or indoctrination) times, but by living in a way that allows the qualities to develop and strengthen naturally. The “balance emotions” concept, for example, is a complex one, but Greenspan’s approach is not: express a range of emotions to your child, always with an eye toward making him or her feel secure – but counter more-extreme emotions by leaning the other way. This means offering warmth and reassurance when your child is withdrawn and sad, and becoming calmer when he or she is overexcited. To take another example, Greenspan’s idea of building self-esteem has nothing to do with giving phony awards and praising even the most rudimentary success to the skies. He recommends encouraging a child to figure out how to get what he or she wants by using gestures or words or by taking action directly; praising him or her for doing something better than the day before; and constantly raising your expectations – while emphasizing the importance of your child being satisfied with his or her own accomplishments, not with praise from others. This is a way of looking at child-rearing that is attractive, intelligent, and quite within the capabilities of most families – whether single-parent households or two-earner ones in which the amount of time available for interaction with children is more limited than parents would like it to be. Greenspan is a knowledgeable guide – but just as important, he is a pragmatic one.