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4 new books offer advice on raising decent humans in our topsy-turvy world


After 18 months of what felt like the longest, most emotionally draining game night ever, families with young children have begun cautiously enjoying the "new normal" of not being together for every second of every day. Instead of just being mom or dad, they can pursue adult interests, like work or sleep.

But children haven't just gone back to class. They've returned to a topsy-turvy world, where battles rage over masks, vaccines, race, discrimination, climate change and so much more, never mind perennial childhood problems like simply getting along on the playground. Four new books offer ideas about how parents might help kids navigate some of these challenges — and raise decent human beings, period.

"How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A--holes: Science Based Strategies for Better Parenting — from Tots to Teens," by Melinda Wenner Moyer

Kids say the darndest — and sometimes more self-centered, insensitive and downright cruel — things. Perhaps that should come as no surprise these days, when hate crimes are on the rise, and crass, bullying behavior has become increasingly normalized. "If all of this makes you want to throw up your hands and drown yourself in wine, I get it," writes Moyer, a science journalist and former Slate parenting columnist. But through her years of reporting, Moyer has grown optimistic that research holds the key to raising kids who aren't, well, a--holes.

Each of the 11 chapters tackles a single trait or impulse, like lying and picking on others. Moyer breaks down the problem, and then offers strategies to counteract it, relying on insights from studies and approaches she's tried with her own two kids. Many of her tactics involve talking openly as a family, especially about hard subjects like emotions, race and sex. Moyer also urges parents to model desired behavior, and use their inevitable mistakes as teachable moments.

One of those common blunders? Barking out orders. That's authoritarian parenting, explains Moyer, who promises you'll get better results from authoritative parenting, which means setting clear rules, but also explaining them to your kids. And she implores parents to teach their kids that failure is "a brief, but essential, stumble on the road to success." Praising their effort rather than their skill boosts resilience and self-esteem. Moyer's suggestion: "More You worked so hard! and less You're so smart!"

"Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World," by Dr. Traci Baxley

Parents typically should stop staring at their phones so much. But you have permission to take a good, hard look at your contact list. Are most of the folks on there the same race, class and background as you? "If you can't diversify the people on your phone, you won't be able to tackle the systemic issues in our country," writes Baxley, a professor of education, a cultural coach and mom of five biracial kids.

Her philosophy of Social Justice Parenting is built on the belief that advocacy and activism start at home, and ideally, at birth. To guide the way, she's created the acronym "ROCKS," which pulls together the five essential qualities to raising kids ready to change the world: Reflection, Open dialogue, Compassion, Kindness and Social justice engagement. Each topic inspires a chapter that includes relatable anecdotes from Baxley's life and offers actionable advice for parents, such as having siblings clean up their rooms together rather than separately to teach them how great it feels to help others. Plus, she offers age-appropriate questions and sample dialogue to help start conversations about all sorts of touchy subjects with young children.

The culmination of this process is to identify a "passion project," so your family can figure out ways to work as a family to make a difference. As Baxley notes, "My kids need you, and your kids need you."

"The Musical Child: Using the Power of Music to Raise Children Who are Happy, Healthy, and Whole," by Joan Koenig

Banging on pots and jars with wooden spoons while belting out a song in gibberish might just be the therapy we all need right now. It's also one of the activities Koenig recommends for parents to introduce their kids to "musiking," her preferred gerund for describing the act of playing with melody, rhythm and movement.

Koenig — a Julliard graduate who founded L'Ecole Koenig, a musical preschool for kids in Paris — doesn't agree with the idea that listening to Mozart gives tykes a cognitive boost. "Throw away the baby genius materials," she tells parents. The magic of music isn't that it makes kids smarter. The real benefit is helping developing brains tune into communication skills, creativity and learning to cooperate with others. The method starts by giving kids "musical names" to go along with their spoken ones. Learning to recognize these notes (which can be borrowed from "Do-Re-Mi" or any other song) helps them take part in their first duet with you or other caregivers. This is adorable, of course, plus it builds on neuroscience research on how to make babies feel emotionally secure.

Chapters focus on each of the first six years of life and how musiking fits in. By year three, she writes, her students are practicing self-control using a xylophone and trying to be attentive to musical cues. Koenig believes these skills are critical for preparing young people to solve problems, connect across cultures and face challenges generally. "We just have to get out of the 'I'm not musical' rut, or worse, the 'music is a pleasant pastime' mindset," she writes.

"Raising LGBTQ Allies: A Parent's Guide to Changing the Messages from the Playground," by Chris Tompkins

When Tompkins brought a female friend to hang out with his family in 2015, his six-year-old nephew wanted to know, "Uncle Chris, is she your girlfriend?" The rest of the family burst into uncomfortable laughter. That's because all of the adults knew Tompkins is gay. But why didn't the kid?

It was a moment that gnawed at Tompkins, who realized that the supportive people in his life weren't comfortable talking to their children about LGBTQ matters. What began as a letter to his family evolved into a TEDx Talk and now this book. Silence around the subject can hurt even more than insensitive language, Tompkins says, because it teaches children that there's something shameful about being gay. For LGBTQ youth, that can lead to depression, substance abuse and even suicide. Drawing on his experiences as a closeted young man, a bartender at a gay bar and, now, an advocate and educator, Tompkins shares how this trauma manifests and lingers.

In addition to several visualization and meditation exercises, he offers ways for parents to open lines of communication with their kids about the subject. For example, you can ask your children about what words they've heard classmates use at school to make fun of other kids, and have them list what they consider to be "girl activities" or "boy activities." Only by challenging these ideas and discussing them, Tompkins argues, can we make playgrounds more welcoming for everyone.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer in Washington.