October 29, 2009


29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life. By Cami Walker. Da Capo. $19.95.

Partnership Parenting: How Men and Women Parent Differently—Why It Helps Your Kids and Can Strengthen Your Marriage. By Kyle Pruett, M.D., and Marsha Kline Pruett, Ph.D. Da Capo. $15.95.

     Most of life is made up, not of grand triumphs and failures, but of small, everyday successes and less-than-ideal outcomes. And in the long run, the daily accumulation of positives and negatives turns out to be what matters most – not only to adults but also to children. In the case of 29 Gifts, the small successes were a way to pull out of a very deep and dark hole indeed. Author Cami Walker was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was in her early 30s, and soon found herself depressed, sleepless, in constant pain, and addicted to prescription drugs designed to keep the effects of the incurable disease at bay. Then Walker, a believer in alternative medicine, got some surprising advice from an old friend, a South African medicine woman: start giving gifts to others – 29 of them in 29 days. Initially skeptical, Walker soon embraced the concept as a way to change her perception of herself and her MS. By Day 29, she wanted to give a gift to the world, and did so by launching the Web site, www.29gifts.org. Thousands of people have signed on and are now doing their own forms of gift-giving. Interestingly, a reader need not believe in shamanism, “natural healing” or any of the other alternative-medicine buzzwords to understand how the 29 Gifts approach could work. It forces the participant to think outside herself and beyond her disease, focusing – even if only briefly – on other people and what they want or can use. The reason is that the gifts need to be mindful, not arbitrary. For example, you can give more money than you usually would to a street performer, and you can listen empathetically to a friend who is having a tough time; Walker did both these things. But you cannot do the reverse. Walker interweaves her own story with that of the movement that she now so strongly supports. For instance, she talks about her husband, Mark, not being a believer: “Though I’ve tried several times, I still haven’t managed to convince Mark to try the Giving Challenge and sign up to share stories. He thinks it’s uncool to ‘brag’ about the things you do for others.” Mark is apparently not an Oprah fan: this book practically exudes Oprah-ishness, with all sorts of heartfelt comments and teary moments and affirmations galore. In fact, it is so relentlessly upbeat (despite the sections devoted to Walker’s struggles) that it wears rather thin after a while. “While I was busy comparing our outsides, I lost sight of what we have in common on the inside.” “Over time, my relationship…evolved and we are now close friends.” “I want to send out a sincere thank you to every person who has chosen to take part in the 29 Gifts Movement.” And so on. It’s all very uplifting, potentially of genuine value in teaching people to look outside themselves and the daily grind of their lives, and often quite syrupy.

     Partnership Parenting is more matter-of-fact and more child-focused. Actually, its focus is the traditional family unit of mother, father and child; and the husband-and-wife team of Kyle Pruett and Marsha Kline Pruett focuses on the need for a “parenting team” to turn the “inherent contradictions” between male and female parenting styles into learning opportunities. The basic argument here is that men and women naturally gravitate to different styles where children are concerned: mothers tend to protect and nurture, while fathers tend to push kids toward independence and exploration. It is absolutely necessary to accept this underlying premise for this book to have any value – arguing with it undermines the foundation of the whole approach. Indeed, the authors are fond of absolute statements throughout. For example, when writing about discipline, they say, “By age two…shame arrives on the scene to help children control their impulses. It works now – as opposed to when they were younger – because the child’s growing moral sense and self-awareness combine, rendering her capable of figuring out embarrassment and, more importantly, its causes and effects.” Or, regarding “retaliatory behavior” such as pushing buttons on household media, it “isn’t expected until a child is closer to three.” And: “Even when mothers and fathers are equally involved in raising children, mothers may feel a sense of ownership of the children compared to fathers.” Readers who accept the Pruetts’ comments at face value – and, to be fair, many of them are backed up by solid research – will find suggestions in this book for embracing different styles of parenting instead of arguing about them and then seeking a “middle ground.” Think of parenting as a team sport, the Pruetts suggest: each parent plays a different position, and each needs to understand and appreciate – and support – what the other does. Partnership Parenting is mostly about ways in which to develop that support system, which the authors say will be good not only for children but also for parents themselves. One particularly useful idea is to be sure you and your partner agree on really major issues, such as schooling and values, and then allow yourselves to disagree on various everyday matters, even if that seems inconsistent. The Pruetts argue that this teaches children to handle diversity better. Much in Partnership Parenting is not intuitively obvious, and some elements will be questionable, especially if parents have significantly different styles. But the book’s suggestions for managing conflict, handling discipline effectively, and finding ways to strengthen the parental bond even when two people approach child-rearing differently, are certainly worth considering – and may make it easier to develop a family structure that works better for children and adults alike.

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