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. 

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The books I picked & why

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

Nate G. Hilger Why did I love 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.

By Annette Lareau,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unequal Childhoods as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Class does make a difference in the lives and futures of American children. Drawing on in-depth observations of black and white middle-class, working-class, and poor families, "Unequal Childhoods" explores this fact, offering a picture of childhood today. Here are the frenetic families managing their children's hectic schedules of 'leisure' activities; and here are families with plenty of time but little economic security. Lareau shows how middle-class parents, whether black or white, engage in a process of 'concerted cultivation' designed to draw out children's talents and skills, while working-class and poor families rely on 'the accomplishment of natural growth', in which…


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

Nate G. Hilger Why did I love 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. 

By Douglas B. Downey,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How Schools Really Matter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Most of us assume that public schools in America are unequal--that the quality of the education varies with the location of the school and that as a result, children learn more in the schools that serve mostly rich, white kids than in the schools serving mostly poor, black kids. But it turns out that this common assumption is misplaced. As Douglas B. Downey shows in How Schools Really Matter, achievement gaps have very little to do with what goes on in our schools. Not only do schools not exacerbate inequality in skills, they actually help to level the playing field.…


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

Nate G. Hilger Why did I love 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. 

By Paul Tough,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked How Children Succeed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why character, confidence, and curiosity are more important to your child's success than academic results. The New York Times bestseller. For all fans of Oliver James or Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys, Raising Girls, and The Complete Secrets of Happy Children.

In a world where academic success can seem all-important in deciding our children's success in adult life, Paul Tough sees things very differently.

Instead of fixating on grades and exams, he argues that we, as parents, should be paying more attention to our children's characters.

Inner resilience, a sense of curiosity, the hidden power of confidence - these are the…


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

Nate G. Hilger Why did I love 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. 

By Kathryn J. Edin, Maria Kefalas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Promises I Can Keep as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Millie Acevedo bore her first child before the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to care for her newborn. Now 27, she is the unmarried mother of three and is raising her kids in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Would she and her children be better off if she had waited to have them and had married their father first? Why do so many poor American youth like Millie continue to have children before they can afford to take care of them? Over a span of five years, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas talked in-depth with…


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

Nate G. Hilger Why did I love 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. 

By Scott Rozelle, Natalie Hell,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Invisible China as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the glittering skyline in Shanghai seemingly attests, China has quickly transformed itself from a place of stark poverty into a modern, urban, technologically savvy economic powerhouse. But as Scott Rozelle and Natalie Hell show in Invisible China, the truth is much more complicated and might be a serious cause for concern.

China's growth has relied heavily on unskilled labor. Most of the workers who have fueled the country's rise come from rural villages and have never been to high school. While this national growth strategy has been effective for three decades, the unskilled wage rate is finally rising, inducing…


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By Clifford A. Wright,

Book cover of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

Clifford A. Wright Author Of An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Philosopher Historian Researcher Gastronomer Bibliophile and reviewer

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What is my book about?

An Italian Feast celebrates the cuisines of the Italian provinces from Como to Palermo. A culinary guide and book of ready reference meant to be the most comprehensive book on Italian cuisine, and it includes over 800 recipes from the 109 provinces of Italy's 20 regions.

An Italian Feast is a gastronomy about Italian culinary history and consciousness, about how Italians cook, eat, and how their food is an intimate part of their culture. It is the first book in any language to comprehensively explore the gastronomy and cuisine not just of Italy, and not just the regions of Italy, but all 109 provinces of Italy, linking each with each other in terms of history, agriculture, economics, and the material culture of creative food illustrated with recipes.

An Italian Feast: The Celebrated Provincial Cuisines of Italy from Como to Palermo

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