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The Social Animal by David Brooks

One of the books on my Mommy-Ed reading list for raising resilient children is The Social Animal by David Brooks. The first line of the book is “This is the happiest story you’ve ever read.” You could also say that it is the weirdest–in a weird, but wonderful sort of way.

The Social Animal uses the very bizarre framework of telling the story of a fictional couple named Harold and Erica and explaining their experiences through the lens psychological of research. He covers everything from mother-infant bonding, to the psychology of politics. There is a huge section on business management that was of only marginal interest to me, but is probably the favorite part of other readers.

There was one quote from this book in particular that I wanted to share, because it really spoke to the heart of raising resilient children:

“[Parents] don’t have to be supremely gifted teachers. Most of the stuff parents do with flashcards and special drills and tutorials to hone their kids into perfect achievement machines don’t have any effect at all. Instead, parents just have to be good enough. They have to provide their kids with stable and predictable rhythms. They need to be able to fall in tune with their kids’ needs, combing warmth and discipline. They need to establish the secure emotional bonds that kids can fall back upon in the face of stress. They need to be there to provide living examples of how to cope with the problems of the world so that their children can develop unconscious models in their head.” (pp. 60-61)

The more my kids can see me tackle hard things, mess-up, and bounce back…the better. It’s like that catchy Chumbawamba song from the 1990s. “I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never going to keep me down.”

I think one of the main points of The Social Animal is that the absolute hardest thing for the brain to learn is how to behave socially and relate to people. When Amy Chua of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother took her daughter out of school during recess, lunch, and PE to have extra practice sessions with the violin, she was denying her daughter some of the most significant learning opportunities available.

There is also a huge chunk of this book that deals with education begetting education. I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about how kids should be “free-range”. Of course I want my children to have lots of free time to goof-off, be creative, and be bored. The studies that David Brooks sites in his book however, show that too much free-ranginess is not a good thing.

Kids growing up in poverty have tons of unsupervised free time. Children from educationally advantaged homes have much more structured time and end up with a huge head start in life. Kids from educated families are having their minds filled up with good things and are learning how to interact with adults in a complex world. Children from disadvantaged homes are often missing out on this. That’s why snarky California teachers joke that the A.P.I index used to rate public schools should really be called the “Affluent Parent Index”.

I could blather on about this book for another hour or so, because it is really that interesting. Unfortunately, I am now running on Mommy-brain. I know that David Brooks would understand 100%. 🙂


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