March 13, 2014


How Much Is Too Much? Raising Likeable, Responsible, Respectful Children—From Toddlers to Teens—In an Age of Overindulgence. By Jean Illsley Clarke, Ph.D., Connie Dawson, Ph.D., and David Bredehoft, Ph.D. Da Capo. $16.99.

Mayim’s Vegan Table: More Than 100 Great-Tasting and Healthy Recipes from My Family to Yours. By Mayim Bialik with Jay Gordon, M.D. Da Capo. $21.99.

     The very title How Much Is Too Much? reflects supersizing of a sort: this book is a revised and updated version of 2004’s How Much Is Enough? Apparently enough isn’t enough anymore. Taken from the results of 10 studies (the original book was based on three), the book in large part consists of common-sense ideas that do not seem very common anymore: “Overindulging children is giving them too much of what looks good, too soon, and for too long,” and “frequent overindulgence can be painful to [children] – and to the people around them.” Many of the authors’ recommendations are commonsensical, too: “We’re not suggesting you consider eliminating playmates; just consider putting balance in your family schedule.” And: “Remember, the word ‘No,’ used only when you mean it, helps children feel safe, even when they resist it.” So if the material here is indeed largely a matter of common sense, why do we need the book? Because, say the authors, “overindulgence has become the cultural New Normal,” with wide-ranging deleterious effects of which people are insufficiently aware. Jean Illsley Clarke, Connie Dawson and David Bredehoft identify 14 “risky raindrops” of overindulgence, in a somewhat overdone metaphor created on the basis that “rain can nourish the land and replenish the aquifer or can become a deluge and create muddy holes that keep us stuck.” These include such feelings and behaviors as helplessness, an overblown sense of entitlement, lack of gratitude, confusion of wants and needs, poor self-control and more. The negatives emerge from homes in which there is overnurturing, “soft structure” (unclear boundaries), a tendency to give kids too much – or some combination of those factors. The authors urge parents to think of ways to turn “murky raindrops” (yes, their terminology is inconsistent) into strengths, shown graphically as clear raindrops (which, however, are quite as capable of causing a flood as are murky ones). Thus, entitlement should be turned into an expectation of earning from effort; poor self-control should become good self-control; goals of wealth, fame and image should become goals of personal growth and meaningful relationships; and so on. What should a parent do if, for example, she “wants to exchange the soggy raindrop [sic – aren’t all raindrops soggy?] of her son’s lack of appreciation for the nourishing drop of appreciation”? Specific suggestions range from thanking the cook and helpers at the end of each meal to asking a child what he appreciates about school, his clothes, etc., and if he says “nothing,” replying that he should think about it and you will ask again the next day. Whether this and the other prescriptions here will work is largely a matter of the individual personalities of parents and children, the overall family dynamics, and the age of kids when parents try to deal with overindulgence – so it is impossible to say whether the recommendations will do what the authors hope. But they are recommendations, and the fact that the authors focus on the prescriptive rather than simply reciting the results of their research is a significant strength of the book. There are enough ideas here so that if one does not work, it is possible to try another, and then another. The book also includes a helpful, if scarcely comprehensive, discussion of what adults who were themselves overindulged as children can do to counter the effects of their childhood. And it has sections on grandparents who overindulge – and grandparents concerned because their children overindulge the grandchildren. On balance, How Much Is Too Much? is something of a hodgepodge, both in content and stylistically. It contains “In Their Own Voices” sections drawn from the authors’ research and helping to personalize it; quotations of varying levels of relevance sprinkled around the pages; occasional footnotes in the middle of the page; many bulleted lists; and a writing style that seesaws between the academic and sentences such as this one: “STOP. THINK. CHOOSE. DO.” (Capitalization as in the book.) The choppiness of the presentation, which also includes elaborate charts and diagrams, makes the book disproportionately difficult to read, but it does contain a considerable amount of interesting descriptive information as well as some useful recommendations. If read in small chunks, it has more to offer than if tackled head-on and read straight through.

     Mayim’s Vegan Table, like other recipe-focused food books, is not intended for straight-through reading. It is a straightforward vegan-cooking book for fans of actress Mayim Bialik, who wrote the book in collaboration with pediatrician Jay Gordon. Eat-the-vegan-way books inevitably begin by discussing the vegan commitment itself and explaining why plant-based eating is better for humans, even though our teeth and digestive systems clearly show us to be omnivores rather than herbivores. Thus, Bialik’s book has a fairly straightforward introductory chapter (one of several introductions) called “Is Plant-Based Eating Really Better for Us? Nutritional Choices.” It will not convince non-vegans and will not be needed by vegans, but it does give Gordon the opportunity to make some rather questionable advocacy statements: “If milk were good for you, the dairy industry wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars [each year] to convince you of that.” Of course, what the industry is actually trying to do is to get people to drink milk instead of other beverages, and it is using the “health” angle to try to do so; but this is too much nuance for the presentation here. Similarly, Bialik herself is so convinced that “we can and will be satisfied with wholesome plant-based foods” that she states that kids would not argue with vegan eating if they knew how good it would be for them when they reached, say, their 50s. This may be true but is scarcely helpful. What is helpful here are not the arguments or argumentativeness but the recipes, which take up most of the book and are the only real reason to consider buying it. They come in the usual categories, among which are breakfast, soups and salads, snacks, vegetables and other side dishes, main courses, breads and desserts. Bialik, who is Jewish, includes some interesting vegan versions of tzimmes, mandel brot, rugelach, sufganiyot, hamantaschen, and matzo ball soup, with explanations of what the foods are and where they fit into Jewish culture. She also offers recipes for such decidedly cross-cultural foods as spanakopita (misspelled as “spanikopita”), tacos, pesto crostini, Mexican bean dip, udon with edamame and Vietnamese banh mi with do chua. The many special recipe ingredients will be familiar to vegans, and the preparation instructions will be clear to those used to the particular time needs associated with vegan food preparation, especially for those who have recently decided to try this form of eating. Mayim’s Vegan Table will not convert anyone to a vegan lifestyle, but for those who already believe in it, it offers some interesting and healthful (not “healthy,” as the subtitle has it) recipes that families committed to vegan foods will enjoy trying.

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