The Importance of Being Little (★★★☆☆)

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Erika Christakis  *  Viking  *  February 9, 2016  *  400 Pages

Let me preface this review by saying I was SO looking forward to reading The Importance of Being Little. I love books about kids, families, parenting, life balance, blah, etc.–ALL of it! I have three young kids myself, ages 6, 4, and 1, and I was really hoping to learn something new about interacting with them.

In the introduction, author Christakis says her book is for parents, teachers, and policy makers who care about children. Her goal isn’t to point fingers, but to show, through research and her own extensive experience working with children, how we can all better connect with young kids while also preparing them for Real Life.

Wonderful. Great. I’m with you, Christakis! Tell me everything.

And, unfortunately, she really does. This book reads like a stream of consciousness ALL THAT I KNOW ABOUT KIDS soliloquy. Yes, I learned some interesting factoids while reading it, and I managed to eek out some decent pieces of advice, but yowza. I can’t believe how much the book meanders, how chaotically it is organized. Christakis can’t seem to take a position and stick with it. She can’t even choose a point and stick with it. She’s all over the place. The good ideas are there if you look hard enough, but they are buried in barely relevant clutter.

For example, Chapter 5 is called Just Kidding, and I’m still not even sure what its main point is. Here are all the topics Christakis covers in this ONE chapter:

  • The changing definitions and expectations of childhood.
  • The backlash against telling our kids they are “special.”
  • The history of problems that kids experienced in the past (as explanation for why adults might be inclined to think kids are special now).
  • The hardships that deaf children have faced.
  • How we use labels to define certain behaviors and traits (ADHD, autism, etc.).
  • The difficulty in not over-diagnosing OR under-diagnosing behavioral labels.
  • Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). Christakis gives a long example of an IEP gone wrong, including word-for-word dialogue between her and the child involved.
  • The tendency of adults to label kids + examples.
  • The tendency of adults to label kids according to sex and ethnicity + examples.
  • The positive consequences of parents hovering over and protecting their kids.
  • The negative consequences of parents hovering over and protecting their kids. Some of her examples of adults being overprotective:  parents who are “overly worried” about their kids with peanut allergies, and people who think kids shouldn’t be allowed to be left alone in a car. (FYI, these examples irritate me.)

I feel exhausted just writing that list. Dear Lord. It’s too much. And the whole book is like that. No clear outline or structure, just disjointed ramblings. The intro should have read:  Let’s get in a van and drive, man.

Ultimately, yes, I do think I understand Christakis’s main points, and my takeaway from the book is two-fold. First, kids need to have high-quality interactions with trusted adults who know them. Adults help guide conversations, fill in gaps, and provide context when children need it. But the flip side of that is that kids also need space. They need quiet and calm so they can notice, examine, process, discover, and feel on their own. Basically, kids need guided freedom.

I can acknowledge and appreciate this message. It makes sense, and I will definitely adjust my interactions with my kids accordingly. Still, this book needed a lot more structure. I wish there had been clear and relevant chapter titles, a more coherent introduction explaining what each chapter was going to be about, and perhaps a synopsis of main points at the end of each chapter. As is, there are good bits of info in here, but, boy oh boy, I really had to dig to find them.

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