My Favorite Parenting and Education Books

I often want to explain to people my parenting philosophy, my teaching theory, and my opposition to some traditional ways of education in particular, but it’s very hard to put it all into a few words. I could tell you it’s “play-based,” but this is weak–and I’ve seen people struggle to implement “play-based” learning. I could tell you it’s “non-punitive,” but this leaves out all the stuff that I actually do. I could tell you I value “education,” but this is super vague, especially given what is typically associated with “academics” or “education.” I could tell you it’s “in tune with the emotions of a child”…. wait, this one actually cuts close to what it is I’m trying to say and do. I could also recommend a book, but I find there is no book on the planet that I agree with 100% nor is everything I’ve learned contained in one book. So I decided to make a running blog with my favorite parenting and education books, along with what I got out of them. Here be the list!

The Montessori Method by Maria Montessori

My introduction to a play-based, observant educational philosophy came from Montessori. I read her books well before I even became a parent. The Montessori Method is her primary book. I also enjoyed The Absorbent Mind. I greatly value how Montessori isolates a concept for a child. For teaching the words “big” and “small,” she designed blocks all the same color, such that we focus on the size of the blocks only. After a child shows they can line the blocks up big to small, you give the child the word by simply stating “big” while pointing to the big one and “small” while pointing to the small one. This kind of vocabulary building, tying the concept to what it is in reality, drives my entire homeschool. I also appreciate how there are no terribly formal academics in a Montessori classroom, the classrooms of which traditionally go up to age 9. This undoubtedly popularized the idea that children can do more open-ended activities all the way up to this age, without any damage from not doing terribly formal academics until then. Many brilliant minds came from a Montessori background. That said, I do think the system can be a bit rigid. I did not follow the system of working at mats, for instance, in my homeschool, and I’ve seen Montessori teachers reprimand behavior that I don’t think should be reprimanded. I could go on but that’s for another blog.

Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Thomas Gordon

This book puts forward a method of resolving conflict within a family that is negotiation-based. This method has held up for our family from the time our children were toddlers to now as I write this, when my oldest is 11. There are basically three steps. 1. Identify the problem/need of the child. 2. State your concern/problem with what’s going on. 3. Brainstorm of how to resolve the conflict if there aren’t enough resources to fix it or the needs conflict. I use this for nearly everything. For instance, if I want my children to join a summer camp, I generate many options of where they could go. We then talk about it and try to find one that actually suits my children. Generating many ideas of how to handle a conflict is part of Step 3, where you brainstorm ideas. I think the world, in general, could handle just pausing and thinking about how we do things and how we might set up systems better aligned to fit human (and children’s) needs.

The Awakened Family by Dr. Shefali Tsabary

This is a pretty powerful book. It helps parents handle their emotions. Whenever something happens that you get frustrated, tell yourself, “I am frustrated right now.” You bring the emotion into conscious awareness. Without even trying, you better get to the root of the actual issue. Are you actually frustrated with your child? Or are you feeling guilty about something? Being able to stay patient as a parent really is key and can get you through many situations.

Liberated Parents, Liberated Children by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

People tend to prefer How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by these authors but I liked this book better, which unfortunately is harder to obtain. I learned a lot about how to handle children’s emotions from this book. I also liked their book on Sibling Rivalry. Forgive me if I get what’s in what book confused. But they explain, for instance, why you should never compare one child to another. “Look at your brother! He gets good grades!” It is actually possible to truly devastate a child with just a few words. We should handle what we say with care.

Help Your Preschooler Build a Better Brain: A Complete Guide to Doing Montessori Early Learning at Home by John Bowman

This book had endless ideas for doing hands-on activities with preschoolers. We did many. I also really appreciated that Bowman says to get off of the phonics train early. After a child knows letter sounds, you can just point to words and say what they are. It’s highly effective at teaching children to read, and I wish I could shout this on top of mountain tops for people to hear.

Let’s Play Math by Denise Gaskins

Looking to the slightly older years, I really recommend all of Denise Gaskins work on how to teach math. I taught my oldest, now 11, how to do math primarily with math games. He doesn’t just execute the algorithms for the mechanical manipulation of numbers, he truly understands the ideas. He can use math to solve problems. I used math games for my daughter, my middle child, and it helps her do math without getting hard on herself, as she does in general, and does especially when doing mere dry math equations. I would recommend using Gaskins’ book on math to teach literally all arithmetic, including adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, negative numbers, fractions, decimals, and exponents. Then switch to her word problems when you want to start doing math on paper, rather than mentally. As I write this, my oldest, 11, who would be in fifth grade, passed a test to start Prealgebra, traditionally an 8th grade course, which we will start soon. I’m not saying all children will be this advanced, but I am saying that doing math mentally, eschewing traditional math with its algorithms, is an entirely viable course. You can use math games as young as 3, but I would recommend them for children by the time they are 6-1/2 for sure.

The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System–and How to Fix it
by Natalie Wexler

I haven’t even read this book, but I already love it. The premise is that children don’t need to be learning “reaching comprehension skills” in the elementary years, but building their knowledge base. This is what I basically saw with my children as they went through their elementary years. I focused mainly on building their vocabulary (see my first recommendation about Montessori) and helping them have very clear definitions and understandings of what they were learning. We learned, we lingered, we went slow. In this, I saw their knowledge base just absolutely explode. My oldest, for instance, read entire history series, several times over, when he was 7. My daughter similarly read all of the Harry Potter series when she was 7. (My youngest, 6, is just starting in on all of this.) They would binge watch videos about science, etc. They did this spontaneously, on their own. Traditional schools focuses too much on “analytics.” They want you a child to prove they “understand” any given topic, after but dry explanations in test or in lectures. Children in traditional school are in an endless lecture/test/repeat cycle, where, as I think it is commonly thought, they aren’t truly retaining the information. If children are immersed in a topic and knowledgeable about it, they will have strong reading comprehension about it. I honestly don’t understand this idea of taking “10th grade history.” My children read all that would be taught in that and ten times more, when they were between the ages of 6 and 9. I do think children can learn some spelling and some grammar in these elementary years, but I think these years should mainly be dedicated to hands-on experiments and story-telling, with some social activities, sports, and the like to round some other aspects of their development. Somewhere in and around here–in games (including math and board games), storytelling, reading, sports, etc.–is what I mean by “play-based” learning. I don’t entirely mean, “just let them go out and play,” which, without adult mentorship, I find can often be boring and even disastrous for children.

The Writing Revolution: A Guide to Advancing Thinking Through Writing in All Subjects and Grades
by Judith C. Hochman and Natalie Wexler

This is co-written by the same author who wrote The Knowledge Gap. I am not entirely sold on everything in the book, but, as a writer of 20 years, I am sold on the idea that writing a strong sentence is the building block of all good writing. There are several activities in this book to help teach children how to write a strong sentence. I also found a curriculum I really like called Daily Paragraph Editing. Instead of “decontextualized lessons,” it lets children edit a paragraph, thus learning grammar in the context it would actually be applied. On any given homeschool day, if I don’t have a strong lesson plan made for that day, I do math games or math word problems with my children, as well as work through the Daily Paragraph Editing books.

Misbehavior is Growth by Amber Domoradzki

Ok, hi, it’s me. I wrote the books in this series. I do child development research, where I document the age-related “stages” children go through. It’s those times children “act up,” or just change really (but change is usually turbulent), but it’s because they are growing. In my book series on these milestones, I give educational ideas at every single milestone, which often come at a rate of about every month. My work is widely used and parents often tell me it helps them stay patient. I honestly think keeping on top of how your child is rapidly changing is one major key to successful parenting. For instance, when my oldest turned 10, it was pretty clear to me that he needed challenges to stay happy and occupied. The previous open-ended play-based activities, which I previously described, weren’t cutting it anymore. (This is probably why Montessori principles typically only get successfully applied up to about age 9.) We had to shift our entire homeschool. The amount of change and growth that children go through is truly astonishing, and it can even vary among children. Staying on top of this, for your unique child, might be one way to best help your child, all while keeping the peace in your house!

That’s my list. it involves a mixture of minding their emotions while also nourishing their mind. What would you add?

Amber documents the age-related “stages” children go through. She can’t put it into exact words but she believes following a child’s developmental timeline probably gives them the best education. Send your friends and family to The Observant Mom.

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