June 10, 2010


Verbal First Aid: Help Your Kids Heal from Fear and Pain—and Come Out Strong. By Judith Simon Prager, Ph.D., and Judith Acosta, L.I.S.W. Berkley. $15.

What Would Rob Do? An Irreverent Guide to Surviving Life’s Daily Indignities. By Rob Sachs. Wiley. $16.95.

     Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune” are one thing, but the nits and nastinesses of everyday modern life are another. Far from being great elements in the turning of Fortune’s wheel, they are small irritations and pains that can eat away, day after day, at our physical and emotional comfort – and our children’s. Judith Simon Prager (who consults with hospitals on pediatric issues) and Judith Acosta (a licensed independent social worker and homeopath) have a thoroughly modern recipe for handling them. There is more than a whiff of New Age thinking here, although thankfully that element does not emerge fully until the very end of the book, when Prager makes it explicit: “As the mother of two, the stepmother of two, and the grandmother of four precious being on this turbulent jewel of a planet, I have, as I imagine you do – as everyone does – a vested interest in the future. …I see [this book] as a summoning to our full potential to connect and interconnect in a uniquely new way. …[L]et us see with new eyes.” Fortunately, it is not necessary to absorb or accept this pseudo-philosophical underpinning to try the techniques in the book; doubly fortunately, those techniques have real potential to help children through difficult times in their lives and prepare them to handle future problems more effectively. What Prager and Acosta urge parents to do is accept the hurts, physical and emotional, that children will encounter, using “pacing words” to acknowledge what has happened and then providing positive healing suggestions. For example, a parent might say, “Oh, that’s sad” or “Oh, show me where it hurts,” and then, after commiserating with the child, move on to, “Let’s stop the bleeding right away” or “Imagine how much better you will feel as you let the medicine do its job of making you well.” The book is filled with good examples, such as one involving a four-year-old who hits his head hard enough to make it bleed and whose mother has to take him to the hospital. The child gets the primary message that “it’s going to be all right…because you’re a good healer.” And he does heal, and when he injures himself next time, he is able to tell his mother that it will be all right because he knows he is a good healer. Is this a realistic example for most families, or is it way out on the edge of most parents’ capabilities? Prager and Acosta argue that this “verbal first aid” technique can be learned, and that it ought to be a parent’s standard approach to the inevitable setbacks of childhood. “Our lives are not about what happens to us so much as how we perceive what happens,” they write, and while this is a vast oversimplification, it can be a salutary lesson for parents who might otherwise tend to “awfulize” every slight and setback that their children encounter. “Say what you want to have happen, not what you don’t,” the authors advise. What they are recommending is a form of psychosomatic medicine – that is, medicine that takes advantage of the mind-body relationship and the ability of the former to influence the latter. This goes beyond the placebo effect, although it is related to it: “verbal first aid” includes a crucial element of trust, which can lead children to accept healing suggestions that adults might reject as naïve. Prager and Acosta tend to overplay their hand rather too often, as in their chapter on talking about death and the loss experienced by survivors: “It is an awe that can defy description and a pain that can bend a heart that thought it was steeled and ready.” But at least the authors make an attempt to tackle this and other difficult issues. Their prescription is not the panacea they suggest it can be. But it will surely be helpful for many families, in some circumstances if not all. Besides, a reasoned approach like theirs can certainly help calm parents who are faced with children’s hurts and fears – and a calm parent will surely be better able to help an injured, frightened or confused child.

     One thing wholly lacking in Verbal First Aid is a sense of humor, but that is a big part of the prescription in What Would Rob Do? Of course, this is a book for adults – or pseudo-adults, given the rather juvenile nature of much of the writing and many of the examples. Adapted from a National Public Radio podcast, Rob Sachs’ book shows that what works on a computer screen will not always do equally well between traditional book covers. Every single short discussion about the annoyances of everyday life includes the “What Would Rob Do?” phrase, to the point where the phrase itself becomes one of those annoyances. So here is one thing you will not find in the book: “A surfeit of ‘What Would Rob Do?’ ideas – What Would Rob Do?” Rob would presumably laugh all the way to the bank; and in fact, some of his thoughts and suggestions here are quite amusing. But most have a practical bent in addition to a fun factor. Get stopped for speeding? “What works best is to act as penitent as possible.” Looking for the best value at a buffet? “Be moderate in your portions and stay away from the starches.” (And, on the lighter side, “consider bringing your own ladle with an extra-long handle and a wide basket for optimal scooping.”) Looking for a good deal at a flea market? You can “name your price, take out your money, and literally put it in the seller’s hand” so he or she must actually give the money back to reject your offer. As these few examples show, What Would Rob Do? has a little of this, a little of that, and a bit of everything. It’s a hodgepodge – and it’s not entirely about what Rob would do, anyway, since Sachs gets much of the pragmatic advice from people he interviews: appraiser Gordon Converse on antiques, professional poker player Phil Gordon on card games, organization-business owner Jonathan Marder on clutter, and many others. Readers seeking no-nonsense ideas on what to do if stuck in an elevator, cooking a romantic meal, being underdressed for a party, beating a bad habit, losing weight, performing onstage or naming a baby will have to wade through a lot of sidelights, sometimes-amusing commentary and information on Sachs’ background before getting to the kernels of information in What Would Rob Do? But those who find Sachs’ chatty style congenial won’t mind. It is, in fact, the style that will determine whether you enjoy this book or pass it by. There is little new or surprising information here, but what is included is delivered with a certain charm (if you like the way Sachs writes) or a level of overdone boyishness (if you don’t). You pays your money (or you chooses not to) and you takes your choice.

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