The best books for raising self-reliant children

Who am I?

I am a writer who lived in Germany for more than six years with my family. That experience opened my eyes to a different way of parenting in a country that had learned hard lessons about too much authoritarian control. It also taught me that much of what we believe is “true” about raising kids is actually cultural—and therefore, can be changed. In addition to my book about raising kids in Germany, Achtung Baby, I’ve written extensively on raising self-reliant kids, including articles in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time.com among others.


I wrote...

Book cover of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children

What is my book about?

When Sara Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, she knew the transition would be challenging, especially when she became pregnant with her second child. She was surprised to discover that German parents give their children a great deal of freedom--much more than Americans. In Berlin, kids walk to school by themselves, ride the subway alone, cut food with sharp knives, and even play with fire. German parents did not share her fears, and their children were thriving. Was she doing the opposite of what she intended, which was to raise capable children? Why was parenting culture so different in the States?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Free-Range Kids: How Parents and Teachers Can Let Go and Let Grow

Why did I love this book?

No other book – and arguably no other personality – has done more to help loosen the lock-hold helicopter parenting has on our kids than Free-Range Kids and Lenore Skenazy. The book is a primer on ways to give your kids the freedom to grow up while it tears apart many of the paranoid parenting myths: from child predators lurking on every corner to the overblown dangers of choking on uncut grapes. Even better, Skenazy is hilarious and her book is great fun to read.

By Lenore Skenazy,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Free-Range Kids as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Free Range Kids has become a national movement, sparked by the incredible response to Lenore Skenazy's piece about allowing her 9-year-old to ride the subway alone in NYC. Parent groups argued about it, bloggers blogged, spouses became uncivil with each other, and the media jumped all over it.

A lot of parents today, Skenazy says, see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range. Any risk is seen as too much risk. But if you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child's everyday life, that child never…


Book cover of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Why did I love this book?

An evolutionary psychologist, Gray argues that human children, like all mammals, learn best through play. He advocates for a learning process that is kid- and play-driven. Using an innovative school as a model, Gray makes a compelling case for revolutionizing education by putting it in the hands of the kids themselves. Even if you can’t send your child to one of these schools, this book will give you many ideas on how to let your kids take charge of their own academic interests and pursuits which will ultimately help them grow up to take better charge of their own lives and happiness.

By Peter Gray,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Free to Learn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In Free to Learn , developmental psychologist Peter Gray argues that in order to foster children who will thrive in today's constantly changing world, we must entrust them to steer their own learning and development. Drawing on evidence from anthropology, psychology, and history, he demonstrates that free play is the primary means by which children learn to control their lives, solve problems, get along with peers, and become emotionally resilient. A brave, counterintuitive proposal for freeing our children from the shackles of the curiosity-killing institution we call school, Free to Learn suggests that it's time to stop asking what's wrong…


Book cover of Mommy Laid An Egg: Or, Where Do Babies Come From?

Why did I love this book?

When my daughter was in first grade in Germany, her teacher read this book to her entire class. Sex education is considered a right in Germany since knowing how your body works is essential for your reproductive health. In the U.S. it’s left to us as parents to teach sex ed to our kids—which I’d argue is less than ideal, given the high costs of keeping kids ignorant. (The U.S. has higher rates of teen AIDS, teen pregnancy, and abortion than Germany.) If you don’t know how to broach this subject, this book is a good, age-appropriate, place to start when your young kids first begin asking questions.

By Babette Cole,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Mommy Laid An Egg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Two children explain to their parents, using their own drawings, where babies come from.


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

Why did I love this book?

If we want to break through America’s overparenting culture, it might help to redefine the rather narrow definition many of us have of success. Using research and real-world examples, Tough shows that a pure focus on grades and other external markers of success actually fails kids in the long run. Instead, he looks at ways that foster intrinsic characteristics that help children become resilient adults who are able to overcome difficulties and succeed at whatever they decide to do.

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 How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success

Why did I love this book?

A former Stanford dean, Lythcott-Haims saw many intelligent but fragile college students. While they were high achieving students, they had been escorted by their parents from “milestone to milestone,” and as young adults, they were unprepared to deal with challenges themselves. Some had trouble even making their own decisions without consulting their parents. This book not only reveals the problems with overmanaging kids’ school work but provides practical advice on how to give kids the space they need to learn how to manage their own lives.

By Julie Lythcott-Haims,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked How to Raise an Adult as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Across a decade as Stanford University's dean of freshmen, Julie Lythcott-Haims noticed a startling rise in parental involvement in students' lives. Every year, more parents were exerting control over students' academic work, extracurricular, and career choices, taking matters into their own hands rather than risk their child's failure or disappointment. Meanwhile, Lythcott-Haims encountered increasing numbers of students who, as a result of hyper attentive parenting, lacked a strong sense of self and were poorly equipped to handle the demands of adult life. In How to Raise an Adult, Lythcott-Haims draws on research, on conversations with admissions officers, educators, and employers,…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in parenting, helicopter parenting, and play and playing?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about parenting, helicopter parenting, and play and playing.

Parenting Explore 303 books about parenting
Helicopter Parenting Explore 8 books about helicopter parenting
Play And Playing Explore 12 books about play and playing

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Self-Driven Child, My Freshman Year, and At the Intersection if you like this list.