Mom School. By Rebecca Van Slyke. Illustrated by Priscilla Burris. Doubleday. $16.99.
Stress-Free Discipline: Simple Strategies for Handling Common Behavior Problems. By Sara Au and Peter L. Stavinoha, Ph.D. AMACOM. $14.95.
Parenting is all about kids, but what kids and adults think about it is quite different – as these two books neatly show. Mom School is a lighthearted picture book for ages 3-7, with Rebecca Van Slyke imagining a little girl thinking about just how her mom learned to be a mom. What parent hasn’t wished, at least a little and at least occasionally, for a school at which to learn how to handle all the stresses of parental life? It would be delightful if there were one as charming as this, visualized very amusingly by Priscilla Burris. The girl narrator imagines Mom School as a place where mothers learn how not to lose kids while grocery shopping, how to read stories, how to pitch balls slowly so kids can hit them, and much more – with every illustration showing some moms observing activities and absorbing information while others take the role of children. For instance, “how to go on scary rides at the fair” shows two moms sliding down a slide (with expressions ranging from glee to worry) while three others observe (with supportive joy or alarm, as the case may be). Burris’ capturing of mothers’ expressions as kids engage in all sorts of activities is spot-on, and Van Slyke comes up with wonderful examples of the sorts of things mothers might learn at Mom School, from baiting a fishing hook to “making dinner while listening to a song I just made up” (whose illustration shows a mom trying hard to focus on a pretend stove while another mom sings loudly and gestures operatically). There is so much for moms to learn, the girl narrator thinks, that it is simply wonderful to know that her mother has been so well-schooled in everything from building forts out of couch cushions to pumping up a bicycle tire. The book ends as the little girl observes her mom balancing the needs of everyday life in the way that moms (and dads) must do constantly – and, thanks to Mom School, affirming that her favorite job of all is being the little girl’s mother. This is a wonderful early-childhood fantasy that, alas, is a fantasy – but parents can always strive for something like it.
Real-world Mom School, though, has a curriculum that looks more like the one taught by Sara Au and Peter L. Stavinoha in Stress-Free Discipline. Parenting is not all about baking cupcakes and tucking kids into bed, after all, and is scarcely stress-free. Au, a journalist specializing in parenting and health issues, and Stavinoha, a pediatric neuropsychologist, are well aware – from their own experience and that of other parents – that tantrums, mealtime meltdowns, bedtime difficulties, learning issues and peer-group problems are the stuff of everyday life. Their straightforward, rational approach to these and other issues will be welcome to parents who 1) read the book before their children engage in parental-stress-provoking behavior and 2) internalize its basic concepts. One of those is determining family absolutes – behaviors that you will absolutely not tolerate in your family. “Keep your family’s list of Absolutes very short. These are things you’re going to go to the mat for, and if you choose too many, you’ll be on the mat too often.” Another priority is being a good role model, teaching behaviorally (not verbally, or not just verbally) in a way that may not sink in immediately but that, over time and through repetition, will produce the desired result: “If you clean up messes without complaining, that’s what they’ll (eventually) do.” Another recommendation – a particularly good one – is practice sessions “for things that give you or your child trouble.” Part of a more-general concept of coaching a child – talking with him or her before getting into a possibly problematic situation – practice sessions involve explaining that you noticed the child having difficulty the last time the circumstance arose (grocery shopping, restaurant eating, whatever), then going through the situation at home and in calm surroundings, building familiarity with potential behavioral triggers and finding ways to defuse possible emotional blow-ups. Again and again, Au and Stavinoha make suggestions that are easy to follow and understand (although not, it should be noted, necessarily easy to put into practice day after day, time after time). For example, the authors urge a “disengaging strategy” when a child throws a tantrum: give bland, automatic responses; do not feel you have to justify the limits you set; give conditions under which you are willing to discuss the matter; take your focus away from the child and do something simple and even dull, such as housework. This is much more easily said than done, as any parent who has endured a monumental tantrum knows; but it is an approach worth considering and definitely worth trying. So, in general, are the other strategies in Stress-Free Discipline, some of which involve deliberately separating yourself from your child (getting a sitter and going out to dinner as adults, for instance, if restaurant meals are difficult family outings). Some of the advice here is overly simplistic but nevertheless worth remembering (“taking care of yourself will make you a more effective parent”); other suggestions are exceptionally well-thought-through and can make handling difficult situations bearable, if not easy (e.g., how to tell children about a separation or divorce). The ultimate goal of Stress-Free Discipline is the worthy one of helping parents develop and maintain a positive relationship with their kids. Even if some of the book’s reasonableness and mildness makes it seem like a journey to Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood (or Mom School), it contains a great deal of sensible thinking that parents would do well to consider in calm moments, in the hope of defusing the inevitable not-calm-at-all ones.
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