Several months ago, I would have said I didn't have much interest in reading parenting books. Parenting Eden as a baby felt a lot like an extension of pregnancy: fairly organic and natural, and tended to unfold in the way that was best for all of us. It felt natural to keep her close, hold her lots, and feed her on demand, and she rewarded us by being a happy, easygoing baby.
Parenting a toddler is a totally different story.
In the old days, I think we would have learned what to expect from young children by being around them. I know the Amish are constantly surrounded by (many) younger siblings, young cousins, nieces and nephews, friends' children, etc, so the transformation that occurs within a child around the time they learn to walk must not come as a surprise to them. On the contrary, Matt and I have few younger siblings, few young cousins, no nieces and nephews, and also relatively few friends with children, and so as a result, the change from sweet, happy-go-lucky and easy-to-please infant to strong-willed, contrary, and sometimes-defiant toddler took us both somewhat by surprise.
A month or so ago, I felt my parenting reserves starting to become exhausted as I constantly struggled to walk the line between cutting Eden enough slack for being, after all, not even two years old, but at the same time, making sure she had what my parents would call "some fetchin' up." Since lifelong exposure to multiple young children and their wise and loving parents wasn't really in the cards at this point, I turned to the next best substitute: books.
In particular, three books that came highly recommended from a variety of parenting blogs were: Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline; How to Really Parent Your Child: Anticipating What a Child Needs Instead of Reacting to What a Child Does; and Playful Parenting.
Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. I found the name a bit cumbersome, but did think that many of the concepts were solid. In particular, the book talks a lot about the idea that it's impossible to teach something you don't know how to do yourself-especially anger management, saying that you can't expect your children to manage their anger well (ie an absence of tantrums, disobedience, talking back, etc) if you haven't yet managed to do that yourself and are setting an example via road rage, losing your temper, complaining about other people, etc. If I'd read the book before I became a parent, I would have found the emphasis on anger management kind of weird. After becoming a parent? I don't know that you can talk enough about how to manage the constant stream of day-to-day frustrations, whether it's having your sleep interrupted, your coffee spilled, your words ignored, your favorite shirt ruined, your conversations aborted, your phone calls hung up on... you get the picture.
How to Really Parent Your Child, interestingly enough, also focuses heavily on anger management. This book is written from a Christian perspective (unlike the above book, which is written from a strongly socio-psychological perspective), which is interesting, because in general I have found most Christian authors to be difficult to read and relate to--coming off as though they have something to prove. This book was quite the opposite--I felt like the spiritual component was a natural and effective complement to everything else he was saying. The author notes how many loving Christian families he's seen torn apart by the intense anger of the children. He notes that in their efforts to "train up their children right," many Christian parents seem to overdo the heavy-handed discipline and under-do the unconditional love. Not that these parents don't unconditionally love their children--it's just that, tragically, their children never get the message that they do. His solution is integrate far more empathy and nurturing into parenting--things, he points out, that come fairly naturally to parents anyway.
This was where I came to prefer the style of How to Really Parent Your Child over Easy to Love. Easy to Love relied almost exclusively on scripted interactions; some of which were helpful, like teaching your children how to resolve conflict with each other by giving them words to use--such as "Don't hit me, ask me to move"--rather than just telling them "Work it out or you're going to your room." I identified with the idea that kids don't show up in the world knowing what's rude behavior, or knowing how to solve problems with each other, and that we adults have to first figure it out for ourselves and then teach them. However, a lot of the language seemed unnatural, and especially they book's insistence that you shouldn't really praise your child by saying "Good girl" or "good job with that," but instead should just neutrally reflect what your child did ("Look, you put away your books"). I thought this approach was a bit rigid and over-the-top. By contrast, How to Really Parent was much looser, and even made the point up front that while some of the approaches in the book might seem new at first, eventually the idea was to go with the flow, your empathy, and intuition, and parent naturally based on an augmented understanding of the way children think (and act, and learn). To me, this approach made much more sense.
Both books also made a point of giving your child the benefit of the doubt, where possible, and seeing them as having positive intent instead of negative. I've found that this especially helps with parenting a toddler--it's easy to see her playing in the dog's water dish yet AGAIN and thinking Boy, she knows better, isn't she naughty! And get extremely frustrated when my barking "Eden. EDEN! GET OUT OF THE WATER! EDEN! NOW! I MEAN IT!" Trying to see her perspective and realizing that her motivations are, more likely, either "Hey, what an interesting sensation when I splash this on the floor and then slide around in it," or "Mommy isn't paying attention to me when I say her name, but she always turns around real quick when I'm in the dog's water, so I'm going to go with what works here" have helped me feel much more patient about physically removing her from the situation (because she doesn't seem to be quite at the point where words are especially effective with her yet) and saying "I know it's fun to play in the water, but Mommy and Daddy have told you NO, and now we're going to clean it up." Whereas before I would have used a much more shaming approach (and oh, how I remember that feeling from being a child--and more often than not, that DID make me want to be naughty and get back at someone!), it helps me now to realize that 99% of what Eden does is not aimed at me personally, to make more work for me or make me mad or whatever--it's to get her needs (for attention, for stimulation, for working out where the boundaries are) met as best she can. I've also found it helpful in dealing with people in general--whether it's a multigenerational household or someone cutting me off in traffic, it's much healthier and more realistic to think things like "They must be in a hurry, I've felt like that before" than feeling like people act the way they do because they bear me ill will.
Playful Parenting didn't especially speak to me, and I didn't wind up finishing the book. While some of the basic concepts--play is how children communicate, connect, and process feelings-- were good reminders, on the whole, I thought it also relied on scripted games and interactions which mostly just felt painfully silly to me. I also thought that it sometimes overly relied on play, to the extent that I thought that as a child of such a parent, I might feel like the parent couldn't be depended on to be serious if I needed them to be. That being said, it helped me understand why Eden feels such a strong kinship with her grandmothers and will sometimes choose them over Matt or me when she's scared or hurt--both are absolutely wonderful about sitting on the floor and playing (repetitively) with her for hours, which is kind of a child's "love language"--and means much more to them than being told that they're loved, or hugged and kissed or even held, all of which are how we would love for her to show her affection, but are a little further along on the developmental spectrum than she is right now. So both Matt and I have made more of an effort to engage in regular and lengthy play with Eden lately, and I think we've both felt like our relationship with her has warmed up considerably as a result.
All that being said, Eden has an intense personality and I still struggle at times with what the right answer is. I also struggle with the idea that we're soon to have a newborn in our midst, and a lot less sleep at night, when right now our first child seems to take all of my time and energy (and then some). Obviously, though, mothers have been doing it for a long time, with children whose needs are more demanding than Eden's, and with fewer helping hands around to do it, and so I keep taking the leap of faith that I'll be given whatever stamina and resources I need to parent through the challenges.