Parenting books are like prescription medications: They must fit the need in order to be useful. The wrong prescription can be worse than nothing at all.

For example, a book on empathic communication will probably not be useful for parents of an infant. Dr. Spock or a sensible book on diapering, sleep, and colic would serve them better.

A book on tough love could be poison for a child with attention deficit problems. Russell Barkley’s Taking Charge of ADHD is much more appropriate.

The Two Plagues of Parenting

While there are an abundance of child-rearing maladies that parents may need to deal with, I believe that there are two plagues that cause most problems for parents:

1. Parents may be good at toughness but weak at nurture, love, warmth, and involvement.

2. Parents may be good at tenderness but have a hard time setting limits and being tough.

Some might argue that most parents are at least moderately good at both. That is not my experience. It seems that our strengths tend to define our weaknesses. People who are tough probably have a hard time with tenderness. Those who are tender may find it very difficult to set limits.

It is clear that a book on nurturing—even if it is a great book—may not solve the problems of parents who do not know how to set limits. In fairness, I should note that almost all mortals could benefit from learning to be more nurturing. But parents who are already good at nurturing may need additional help at setting limits more effectively.

A Worrisome Trend

There is a trend among some parenting advisors to recommend that parents take charge in their families. “Let the kids know who is boss.” This trend appeals to those who have watched fellow parents steamrolled by children who have become tyrants. While it may be deeply satisfying to take charge, research shows clear problems with this approach. When power is emphasized, everyone loses. Children become passive or rebellious. Parents become despots. Quiet power—not muscle-flexing—is the best power.

My wife Nancy is the best example I know of quiet power. She is one of the gentlest people I have ever known. She loves her children more than life itself—and they know it. Yet she also has strong feelings about right and wrong. If one of our children started to veer even slightly off the path, she would not need to yell or lecture. The wrinkle on her brow would bring the children back. That is quiet power. I wish there were more Nancys.

Out of the Best Books

What are the best parenting books to learn to be more nurturing? Dr. Haim Ginott’s classic Between Parent and Child, which I helped revise, or Dr. John Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child are simply the best. Ginott combines insightful stories with human warmth. Gottman provides the research background for his emotion coaching recommendations.

What is the best parenting book if a parent wants to be more effective at setting limits? Faber and Mazlish provide some limit-setting in How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. But the most popular among the limit-setting books tend to focus too much on solving the parents’ management problems and not enough on providing the children vital skills at self-regulation. I simply don’t know a great parenting book for teaching limit-setting.

The good news is that if parents effectively love their children, they will have less need to be tough. I don’t want to minimize the importance of limit-setting; it is vital. But nothing matters as much as love. That is why every parent should read both Ginott’s and Gottman’s books. They put compassionate love at the core of parenting—which is right where it belongs.

Highly recommended:

Ginott, H., Ginott, A., & Goddard, H. W. (2003). Between parent & child. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Gottman, J. (1998). Raising an emotionally intelligent child. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Also recommended:

Barkley, R. A. (2000). Taking charge of ADHD. New York: Guilford Press.

Faber, A. & Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. New York: Avon.