How Not To F*** Them Up by Oliver James

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How Not To F*** Them Up by Oliver James

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Category: Home and Family
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: A jolly good, thought-provoking read. Unless you're an anxious parent with a child in day care, that is.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: April 2011
Publisher: Vermillion
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0091923938

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Child psychologist Oliver James can be relied on to fight his corner, whether it's about affluent society or toxic parents. Now he puts the first three years of life under the microscope and argues equally vehemently that parents need to identify their own needs accurately and build their children's care into a 'good enough' framework, in order for the whole family to flourish. He's a controversial figure whose interest in parenting goes back to his own childhood (yes, you've guessed it, his parents where psychoanalysts). He argues the case for modifying childcare decisions to accord with parenting styles while avoiding working mums' guilt trips: 'Why embracing your own parenting style is best for you and your child,' as the cover has it.

James starts by labelling parents as Huggers, Organisers and Flexi-Mums, and points out the strengths of each group. Psychologists always know best and sure enough, this guide doesn't hold back on the disadvantages of each parenting model. Recognising your own style implies finding a Hugging solution to parenting if you cannot provide this yourself. He points out that given sufficient honest discussion, parents can complement each others' differing styles without an all-out war.

His main thesis is that sensitive parenting during the first 3 years of life is vital to healthy functioning later on. Care of the under-3 is straightforward, but demands individual, responsive attention to his needs. For Oliver James (and most parents), this precludes group care in a day nursery, except as a last resort. Later on he reviews the evidence base against day care, although not knowing the literature, I can't comment on how balanced a view he presents. At times it seemed more like a rant.

To do him justice, Oliver James isn't trying to de-stabilise mothers' confidence. But having been dumped from the emotional high of childbirth, the reality of being entrapped in an unrehearsed role, with huge responsibility and no expertise, has even the strongest of women reaching for reassurance. A mother already confident that she is giving her child the best possible care isn't going to bother with a how-to book. I could imagine the reactions from less confident new mothers:

'Is my child a smiling, sociable baby ... or perhaps is she really prone to indiscriminate friendliness, like those poor Romanian orphans? Or is my baby being assertive, independent and inquisitive when she experiments with the toy train and the other kid's head … or aggressive? Or is her normal stranger anxiety really social insecurity and depression? Well I suppose it all depends if I really am a Hugger ... but perhaps I'm a closet Organiser …'

You see what I mean. Self-diagnosis can be confidence-sapping for the anxious. It's impossible to avoid self-pigeon-holing children and carers in the worst possible light. Personally I prefer the continuum concept in dealing with personality traits.

Oliver James was a youngster in the heydey of child-centred methods in the sixties. He remains absolutely convinced that it is the best approach, better anyway than using parental selfishness or economic necessity, as today's post-Thatcher parents are apt to cite in their decision-making. Though his argument is convincing, I do wonder if individualism is so totally more important than, say, being a good citizen within the community.

Reading this book is thought-provoking in the best kind of way. Oliver James reckons that couples should be considering these issues before and during pregnancy rather than trying to resolve crises on the run in the future, and I totally agree.

Oh … and if you are one of the 40% adults who are insecure, don't read the chapter on day care nurseries if that's your only option. Let me leave you instead with what Oliver James wrote in The Guardian, 8 May 2010:

“ … as far as we know, most children in day care do not suffer ill effects.” I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions for further reading

Depends what you are looking for. For all round commonsense, most people like Penelope Leach, who is still publishing after 30 years. Bookbag reviewers liked What to Expect: the First Year by Arlene Eisenberg, a fat handbook for day-to-day reference. Personally I like a bit of British humour in a survival situation, so I'd recommend: The Aargh to Zzzz of Parenting: An Alternative Guide by Joanna Simmons and Jay Curtis.

Buy How Not To F*** Them Up by Oliver James at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How Not To F*** Them Up by Oliver James at

Buy How Not To F*** Them Up by Oliver James at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy How Not To F*** Them Up by Oliver James at


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