The best parenting books that don’t pretend self-help is a magic solution to all problems

Who am I?

I’m an economist fascinated by the ways that early opportunities shape lifelong success. My interests go way back to the big public schools I attended in Southern California, where I watched some kids benefit from tutoring, counseling, coaching, and other private resources that most kids couldn’t access. I went on to get a PhD in economics, then taught at Brown University and advised Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign on child development policy. After years of research and teaching – and becoming a dad myself – I wrote The Parent Trap to expose the monumental challenges facing so many parents and the solutions most likely to make a difference.

I wrote...

The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis

By Nate G. Hilger,

Book cover of The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis

What is my book about?

The Parent Trap is a mind-warping, research-driven tour of our nation’s largest and most important industry – parenting. By shining a light on the hidden complexity of everything parents do, it reveals the true origins of success and the monumental promise of public support systems designed to help families thrive. To build these systems, however, parents will have to join forces and tap into their dormant political power in new ways. The Parent Trap combines cutting-edge research, surprising case studies, and on-the-ground investigation to expose our society’s unrealistic expectations around parenting, and to lay out a profoundly hopeful blueprint for reform. 

The books I picked & why

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Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

By Annette Lareau,

Book cover of Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life

Why this book?

This is one of the best books ever written about anything! It’s a classic that remains underappreciated even after its big role in Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. First, it’s entertaining. The author’s team got to know dozens of white-collar and working-class families up close. They lived in these families’ homes. They slept over, watched TV, and brushed their teeth with them; accompanied them to supermarkets, doctor’s appointments, and parent-teacher conferences. It’s crazy! After reading this book it seems impossible to believe that advantageous parenting (1) doesn’t matter all that much or (2) is something “anyone can do if they put their mind to it.” In an appendix Lareau describes what a monumental, stressful, and awkward undertaking it was to observe people like specimens in every aspect of their private lives.

How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

By Douglas B. Downey,

Book cover of How Schools Really Matter: Why Our Assumption about Schools and Inequality Is Mostly Wrong

Why this book?

I discovered this book after struggling to convince skeptics that schools are by far the most equal part of childhood, not the bastions of inequality most people believe based on misleading news articles and (great) books like Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol. I didn’t seem to make much progress no matter how much data I showed people, so I found it cathartic to hear a top sociologist work through this exact problem in a different way. The book is rigorous but the author writes in a plainspoken, wry style that keeps things lightweight. I already agreed with him and he still greatly enriched my perspective. 

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

By Paul Tough,

Book cover of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why this book?

As a writer, I admire this book as a great work of creative nonfiction. The book uses captivating stories and research to make a deep point with bipartisan appeal. Yes, “character” matters. That impulse to exert effort, that strength to persevere through challenges, that discipline and self-control, and patience – all the stuff that many people especially on the Right celebrate as “personal responsibility” can and does drive success. But where does “character” come from? Mostly it doesn’t come from individual choices or innate endowments determined at birth. It comes from environmental influences – opportunities and safeguards we provide for children’s development – and that many people especially on the Left try to provide through public policy. If entire demographic groups appear more likely to lack “character,” that reflects our shared collective refusal to make character-building opportunities more widely accessible. 

Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage

By Kathryn J. Edin, Maria Kefalas,

Book cover of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage

Why this book?

Two researchers moved into a lower-income neighborhood and got to know over 100 young single mothers. They wanted to know: what were these women’s lives like in the years, months, and seconds leading up to pregnancy and parenthood? I love this book because it makes me feel like a fly on the wall for long, honest, intimate conversations between close friends, some of whom happen to be freakishly talented sociologists. The main lesson is not that surprising to economists but shocks everyone else: most teen mothers are not making “mistakes” in the heat of the moment. They’re doing their best to make hard choices in situations where they perceive no better options. Beautiful, heartbreaking, and galvanizing. 

Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise

By Scott Rozelle, Natalie Hell,

Book cover of Invisible China: How the Urban-Rural Divide Threatens China's Rise

Why this book?

This book spoke to me because it shows that parents in China are just like parents in America. Of course we all love our children, but we struggle to master the complex information, logistics, and expenditures involved in modern child development. One of the authors has shown that a shockingly high share of children in rural China is cognitively stunted due to infectious worms, untreated vision problems, and under-stimulation. Interviews with Chinese families show how challenging it is for parents to diagnose and address these issues without public support. This book shatters American stereotypes about China, and for me, it confirmed much of what I argue in my own book through a different lens. 

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in self help, health, and childhood?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about self help, health, and childhood.

Self Help Explore 70 books about self help
Health Explore 62 books about health
Childhood Explore 120 books about childhood

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry), Mommy Laid An Egg, and How to Raise an Adult if you like this list.