The 6 Most Honest, Least Insulting Parenting Books

I’ll confess: most books written by parenting professionals on HOW to parent haven’t been all that helpful to me. Typically, they’ve sent me into one of two states: panic (because I am apparently doing everything wrong) or defeat (because I’ve apparently done everything wrong up to this point).

These reactions, coupled with titles that might as well be: “How To Raise A Kid Who Will Have At Least One Friend” and “Do You Know The Signs Of A Future Serial Killer?” or “Is Your Child Two? Then It’s Already Too Late,” caused me to forgo childrearing books completely when I found out I was expecting my second child.

The result? I was much calmer. The second time around, I realized that pretty much all you need to know about babies is that they just need to be fed and wiped and loved and kept away from marbles and awls and toaster ovens.

However, by not reading any books, I did miss out on some literary gems. Some that I’ve just recently caught up on.

Here they are: my all-time favorite, most honest, least insulting parenting books. You’ll notice that only one of them is written by a professional. The others? Just moms and dads. Because truthfully, parents really don’t need someone telling them what to do. They just need someone telling them that’s it all going to be okay. Sympathy is always preferable to advice. And advice is almost always just opinion.

(Well, that’s my opinion.)

Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood, by Michael Lewis
What started as a series of essays for Slate developed into this delightfully dry-as-toast memoir by Michael Lewis, husband to MTV’s Tabitha Soren, father of two girls and a boy, and author of (among others) Moneyball and The Blind Side. Lewis delivers an upfront and witty take on sibling rivalry, exhaustion, gender roles, camping at Fairyland, and vasectomies. He turns poignant, but never sappy, when his son is hospitalized with RSV and his wife is struck by postpartum anxiety. This is a must-read for dads AND moms.

Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, by Anne Lamott
This is, without a doubt, the most candid book (about parenting or otherwise) I’ve ever read. Here, Lamott chronicles her first year of single motherhood though diary-like entries that hold nothing back. Lamott’s frankness is simultaneously comforting and raw and hilarious; you will probably spend most of your time reading this book like I did: wet-faced and roaring. This is a book that just makes you weep from wistfulness and howl in hysterics the entire time. It’s the kind of literary accomplishment that eventually disintegrates from being picked up and cried on and having coffee snorted on it, over and over again.

Dad Is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan
Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan might be the most self-deprecating guy on the planet. This father of five—who lives in, of all things, a FIFTH-FLOOR, TWO-BEDROOM WALK-UP in New York City—spends most of his time eating ice cream. That is, when he’s not in a tour bus with his kids or regretting a ski vacation or miserable at Disney World. In brief, Jim just plain makes you feel good. About yourself and your kids and never being able to find your kids’ shoes, and, okay fine: life in general.

On top of that, his humor is nearly impeccably clean, which I think is the sign of a truly brilliant comic. This book is yet another one perfect for both fathers AND mothers. (Jim’s wife Jeannie is his producer, so she gets lots and lots of props here. Actually, she may have written the book.)

The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting, by Christie Mellor
Oh, thank goodness for snarky little tongue-in-cheek books like this. This slim beauty extols the virtues of keeping one’s children out of the way—unless they’re serving hors d’oeuvres and mixing gimlets. It also does a pretty good job of outlining the types of over-achieving parents under-achieving parents best avoid. This is a great one for parents to read when they return from one of those kid’s birthdays parties that makes them question the entire meaning of life.

Hatched! The Big Push From Pregnancy to Motherhood, by Sloane Tanen
Sometimes, you just want to look at pictures. As a new mother, the most I could read without falling into a coma was a single Far Side cartoon. So this visual gem is the perfect baby shower gift. It consists entirely of photographed dioramas in which little plastic fuzzy chicks act out various pregnancy, labor, and parenting scenarios. Each laugh-out-loud scene is accompanied by an even funnier caption. I love this book. I think it’s the only book I read for the first five years I was a mom. Unless US Weekly counts as a book.

The Happiest Baby on the Block, by Harvey Karp, M.D.
Once, at the peak of my oldest son’s colic and desperate for any sort of advice, I went to the bookstore (probably in just pajama bottoms and nursing nipple shields) and bought a stack of baby advice books.

The first was written by a British nurse who gave detailed instructions on how to boil turnips for infants and how long babies should be allowed to scream “out in the garden.” I think the answer was 18 hours. She was from the WWI era of burlap nursing bras.

The second book advised attaching my baby to my back for six or seven years, through sexual relations and scuba diving and shiatsu.

And the third? It was this saving grace. The Happiest Baby on the Block is a gentle, sensible read on how to soothe babies. In my humble, still-sleep-deficient opinion, this is the only baby “advice” book you need. Dr. Karp isn’t condescending and he mostly talks about what bothers and worries parents most: an inconsolable child.

Read this. It’s so kind and good. I wish I’d had it BEFORE my eardrums shriveled into golden raisins and fell out of my skull.

Which parenting books do you recommend?

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