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Poem: Book Learning

I‘ve always loved reading. For as long as I can remember, I have turned to books for entertainment and comfort — and also for information and wisdom. So when I was pregnant with my daughter, Lucy (and even more so after she was born), I naturally devoured any book on pregnancy or childcare I could get my hands on.

I’d start with a simple question — is my baby supposed to be acting this way? — and somehow it would turn into an epic quest to find the One Right Answer, which I was certain must be found somewhere in the impressive stack of parenting books on my bedside table.

I was spending way too much time poring over these books — time that I could have spent finding my own way to mother her, or, I don’t know, catching up on my sleep.

So — after an intervention from my husband — I took a break. I stepped out of the urgent conversations about diapering methods, sleep training, and discipline, and tried to focus on my child and our days together.

I’ll admit — I still have a relapse now and then. Now that we have multiple kids, I wonder more than ever whether I’m “doing it right.” I’m drawn to shiny new parenting books, with their appealing philosophies and New Foolproof Methods. It sure feels good to be armed with a plan or to join an impassioned community.

But the reality is that kids are not omelettes — parenting them is not a technique to master, but a day-by-day trek toward greater patience, deeper love, and gutsier faith. We’re going to get things wrong. And then? We hug and cry. We ask to be forgiven. We don’t need a parenting book to explain that.

Book Learning

It unfolded so fast
past the hour of the nap
they never take:
one kid goaded the other,
who naturally sank her teeth
in the arm of her foe.

All I could think
was that justice
must be meted out,
and I’m supposed to do it.
But I stood still,
paralyzed —

not by the shrill howl
or the shaky hiccups,
but by the conflicting
voices of well-intentioned
parenting books

(with their absolute
confidence, catchy titles,
and celebrity review blurbs),
each forbidding
a different course
of action:

Don’t let it slide;
she’ll become
a holy terror!
Don’t spank her;
she’ll choose violence
to solve her troubles!
Don’t pay her extra attention;
she’ll learn to act out
to get more!
Don’t banish her to her room;
she’ll multiply her feelings
of isolation!

So to quiet all the voices,
I yelled at my holy terror,
then wrapped my arms
around her, and
we bawled.

© Sarah Dunning Park, from What It Is Is Beautiful (Peace Hill Press), 2012. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

I’d love to hear from you in the comments! Have you whole-heartedly embraced a particular parenting philosophy? Have you ever had to modify it, or to ditch the parenting books altogether?

This post was first published in February 2013.

Reading Time:

2 minutes





  1. Cheltz

    I think there are definitely parenting basics you can learn from books or even classes, but I think that eventually you and your kids have to work out your own ways. And that’s probably one of the reasons parenting is so good for you!

    • Sarah

      I completely agree, Cheltz — I’ve learned a lot from those books, and yet that doesn’t begin to compare with all the lessons that have come straight from the kids themselves.

  2. Alycia

    Great post! I too have been guilty of turning to books to find out how to parent or homeschool “the right way”. I find ironic now, looking back, that I spent so much time trying to find out how I was supposed to be parenting by reading books when I should have been spending that time working things out face to face with my children. I’ve made a point in the past couple of months to spend more time understanding my children by giving them more attention than my books and have found that my relationships with my kids have improved tremendously.

    • Sarah

      Thanks, Alycia. I know … I often have to remind myself to pay more attention to my kids. And not just that, but also to make — and hold — eye contact with them often, throughout the course of the day. It’s amazing what that simple action does for a relationship.

    • Kimberly

      I don’t think there is anything guilty about turning to the wisdom of others to get through something that is really difficult. I would find someone incredibly arrogant if they thought that no one else had valuable wisdom to offer in the mothering category.

      • Sarah

        Hi Kimberly,

        I think what both Alycia and I are trying to say is that we’ve been tempted to turn to books PAST the point of common sense. I agree with you that it’s very important to turn to others for wisdom! My problem comes when I lose my sense of perspective — when I see the books as the experts with the perfect answer and my own experiences with my kids as counting for nothing.

        My post is meant to be about balance, not about *only* listening to your own voice. Thank goodness we have wise voices in our lives, both from the mothers around us and the books we can read.

  3. tacy

    LOVED this.

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Tacy!

  4. steadymom

    Simply gorgeous, Sarah. Yes, I HAVE BEEN THERE!! So many, many times.


    • Sarah

      Jamie, thank you so much!!

    • Sarah

      By the way, is that a hearthstone stove in the pic on your blog post from today? LOVE that post! And love the beautiful wood-stove!

      • steadymom

        It’s actually a gas-stove in our barn, which is the most beautiful writing space I’ve ever been granted the pleasure of working in!!

        • Sarah

          SO lovely!! Happy writing!

  5. Jenn @ A Simple Haven

    “But the reality is that kids are not omelettes — parenting them is not a technique to master, but a day-by-day trek toward greater patience, deeper love, and gutsier faith.” Fantastic. A great thought to cling to. Reminds me of what I heard at the Mom Heart Conference I attended recently–we don’t need formulas, we need to parent by faith.

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Jenn!
      Hey, I like your Bare Pantry Soup — I, too, make and freeze chicken broth in ice cube trays!

  6. MomofTwoPreciousGirls

    Excellent post! I was the same way and always got mad at my husband for not studying up on how to be a parent! I still wish he would get a little informed about some things but he is just winging it. I find I learn a lot more from this online community of mothers that I interact with. I do not subscribe to any one method of parenting my children. While I had assumed I would be all about schedules and routines, my oldest was happier when I followed her lead. I did not insist on letting her wait to be fed because of what the clock said! When she had her hungry cry I fed her. She was more relaxed when we co-slept (although she was in a bassinet in the early days). My youngest was the opposite. She was happier to sleep on her own! While I do look for answers on things that I am unsure of, I don’t turn to books it’s mostly my mommy boards and google! I also utilize my children’s daycare caregivers, as people that deal with kids day in and day out. I had no idea when or ow to potty train and they were a great resource for me! It ends up being a mix of instinct, the child’s personality and community!

    • Sarah

      Thank you! Isn’t it amazing how different each kid is? A prime example of why simplistic parenting equations aren’t a great idea!

  7. Leigh

    So true, so true.
    I found myself too busy to read the many books I had and so worried that I could be mothering better. Then, when I finally got around to reading those books I found out I did alright! (And the fact that my girls are patient, loving and think I’m great helps, too)

    • Sarah

      Kudos to you, Leigh! I love catching glimpses of the wonderful, mature adults they’ll one day be…

    • Sarah

      Oh, wow. That’s a hilarious find, Monika! Yeah, it can get pretty confusing… 🙂

  8. 6512 and growing

    I love that poem and I get what you’re trying to say here, how the noise of everyone else’s opinions can become so deafening, you may miss out on the kernels of your own wisdom. I agree. However, at some of the most challenged times in my parenting journey, I have wanted advice, needed someone to show me there is a different way (because we all know the definition of insanity, right?). And truly, some of the coaching I’ve received and the books I’ve read and the websites I’ve paid attention to (which turned my previous thoughts on parenting upsidedown), have helped me immensely. And for that I am grateful.

    • Sarah

      Rachel, I wholeheartedly agree. I would never trade the help I’ve received from books along the way. I only wish I didn’t have the tendency to be so all-or-nothing about the philosophies that I sometimes end up in a place of greater confusion than I started out in!

  9. Jennifer Campbell

    Oh. my. goodness. This post couldn’t have been more timely. I have lately wondered a lot if I will ever get this parenting thing right. The latest book I’m reading makes the most sense to me (probably because I naturally followed some of the principles), although it still hasn’t helped with my older (5 & 7) kids. My 3-year-old daughter is so well-behaved, and minds me beautifully. But those boys… *sigh*.

    • Sarah

      I’m so glad it struck a chord with you, Jennifer! Sometimes I try to encourage myself about these discipline / behavior struggles by taking the long view… while some kids may ‘get it’ right away, with others it can take years to teach and train them. I guess that’s part of why we have them home for 18 years?!?

  10. Lisa

    Books on parenting can help to a certain extent. Each child is so unique and different, that you just have to take all that advice and adapt or read from the book of learning and life. 😉

    • Sarah

      I agree, Lisa! Parenting requires (and creates in us) the ability to adapt… and adapt again… and again….

  11. Sarah @ FitFamilyTogether

    Sarah, you know I’ve been a total bookworm. Whereas my husband is decidely not a reader. I went to college. He didn’t. Guess who packs the greater wisdom and uses his thinking cap more? Sure I can quote a lot of books and authorities – but my own carefully wrought conclusions from putting observations together? Not so good.
    I’ve come to the conclusion after 16 years of parenting side by side with him that the biggest mistake we make as parents (and humans in general in this society) is to not develop our own powers of observation, deduction and problem-solving. I look back at much of my book-oriented education as a time learning to only trust who I quoted or referenced, but not my own thoughts. Reading is easy. Thinking isn’t. Books are great for hearing other perspectives and learning lots of facts. And I still love them. But I’ve learned to limit my booktime and look up. observe. think. look again and really look this time. develop my instincts. Develop wisdom. It’s in all of us.

  12. Sarah

    Exactly! Reading is still good — but observation, contemplation, and application are even more vital.

  13. Zipporah Bird

    I think I want to bawl, too.

    • Zipporah Bird

      PS: I mean that in a “I am moved by the honesty of this poem” sort of way.

      • Sarah

        Thank you, Zipporah!! ha, I’m glad you clarified… or else I was going to want to bawl (again), too. 😉

  14. Pam @Mommacan

    My mentor in Kindermuzik was the best at reminding we the teachers under her wings that parents are simple doing the best job they know how. And as a parent, I try to tell myself that but I can’t seem to hear myself clearly.
    Pam you are doing the best job you know how.
    But Pam , is it good enough.
    I have been parenting for 25 years and my little Johnny was the surprise at the end. I am tired, am going through PMDD and there are times when I feel completely out of touch with where I am going. One thing I have learned, is that giving myself a mental hug from time to time or even “gasp” sending myself some flowers, really sets me up for a better day.
    I learned this from a writer that I love, Crescent Dragon Wagon. If you ever get an opportunity for one of her classes grab it!

    • Sarah

      Thanks for writing, Pam. I agree — the voices are hard to control. It can be a challenge to ignore the negative or doubting ones in favor of the encouraging, self-care-oriented ones.

  15. Courtney

    Hooray for this poem! Love everything about this, especially the end. So glad to be introduced to Sarah here today.

    • Sarah

      Thanks so much, Courtney! I’m pleased to meet you! 🙂

  16. Cynthia

    This was amazing! Thank you so much! As someone who works in child development, I have to work hard to get out of my head and just do what feels right with my kiddo. LOVED the post and the poem. THANK YOU.

    • Sarah

      Thank you so much, Cynthia. That’s a great way of describing it — it’s that dichotomy between parenting with your head or parenting with your heart. And I suppose the best case scenario is that we find a balance between the two!

  17. Alison

    It tore me up as a new parent when my high-needs little one didn’t follow the neat prescriptions I had absorbed from parenting books. Now I joke that the problem was he didn’t read them too, but reading all those books negatively impacted my early days as a mother and my opinion of parenting experts! Wish I had your poem instead 🙂

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Alison! That is exactly what I’m talking about… And hey, I saw your latest post — my husband and I are reading the Power of Habit, too. I can completely identify with that I’m-bored-so-I’ll-scroll-through-stuff-on-my-phone habit. I might just need to delete the FB app, too!

  18. Rebecca

    I LOVE this. Now that I am on baby #2 (now 2 months old), I am finding this to be so true. The more I parent, the more I realize what I don’t know…and what even experts don’t know. My mother gave me some great advice when I had my first baby: she told me I should just digest all the advice, pray about it, talk to my husband, and decide what was best for OUR family. She didn’t tell me there was one particular way I should parent. Just that I should discern what was best for OUR family. That helps a lot.

    She is also the one who passed on your post to me and I’m so glad to discover you! I used to write poetry and haven’t written it for years except for one poem last week. You give me a vision of what poetry can be now that I’m a mom! Might have to pick up your book!


    • Sarah Dunning Park

      Thank you, Rebecca! Please let me strongly encourage you to make time and space for the poetry writing (though I know it’s hard) — it has made such a difference for me in how I view this chapter of life. And it has helped to connect me back to my pre-kid self.
      And I love your mom’s stance / advice on child rearing — that’s wonderful. Thanks for sharing!

  19. Ms. HalfEmpty

    The “One Right Answer” always seems to elude me. But I still want it too! =)
    “But the reality is that kids are not omelettes.” I love it! If only they could be that perfect…

    • Sarah

      I have yet to make a perfect omelette, so I’m glad that’s not the test! 🙂

      Thanks, Ms. HalfEmpty!

  20. Dana B

    {Gasp!} That took my breath away. Unexpectedly beautiful and poignant. Killer last stanza.

    • Sarah

      Dana, thank you so much.
      Be well!

  21. Dawn

    Oh, this was so, so good. Thank you! My favorite quote was: “But the reality is that kids are not omelettes — parenting them is not a technique to master, but a day-by-day trek toward greater patience, deeper love, and gutsier faith.” By nature, I am prone to wanting to find formulas for most things (which don’t exist in much of life) and want to follow them perfectly (impossible) rather than viewing things more as a process (or a trek as you termed it – I like the visual of that) on which to be continually learning and growing.

    However, I HAVE learned a few things and my husband and I use principles, etc. that work well within our family values and according to who our individual kids are. But our “parenting style” is always a work in progress. The other day, a friend asked for parenting book suggestions on FB and I took some time to think about what I’d suggest. I did suggest a few, but they were less books about “how to” and instead books to spur her on to consider more about creating a certain family culture in which to parent, etc. Overall, I realized that instead of books, I have mostly learned from older, wiser parents who have already walked down the same path and who have parenting styles that I deeply admire and respect.

  22. Dawn

    Wow, this was excellent! My favorite line was, ““But the reality is that kids are not omelettes — parenting them is not a technique to master, but a day-by-day trek toward greater patience, deeper love, and gutsier faith.” I am so prone to looking for formulas (which there are very few for life, I’m finding) and then wanting to implement them “perfectly” (impossible) and this reminds me that there’s no parenting formula, but that rather, it’s more of a process (“trek” – love the imagery of that, btw) on which to continue learning and growing. SO good.

    I have learned some principles by which we have decided to parent, but after thinking back more on which books they’d come from, I’d have to say that they didn’t come from books (which I realize there are some good ones out there), but rather from people. My husband and I have made it a point to intentionally learn from older, wiser people who are further on the parenting path, and whose parenting styles and values are ones we deeply respect and admire.

    Great post! Thank you for sharing it with us.

    • Sarah Dunning Park

      Thank you, Dawn! I think you’re so right — people with more experience are one of the best sources of wisdom. For one thing, it can be much easier to understand a parenting ‘principle’ when you observe it in real life, rather than reading about it in a book.

  23. Anne

    I’ve had to ditch the parenting books and advice columns on the internet altogether. I get so caught up in doing the “right” thing that I forget there’s a whole lotta grey in parenting (and life). I love your poems because they beautifully capture the tumultuous heartbreak and joy of parenting.

    • Sarah Dunning Park

      There is *so* much grey, isn’t there?! I’m glad you enjoyed my poem — thanks, Anne!

  24. Carmen Niemela

    Hi! I am a person who looks for books to find comfort on my daily battles, in these days with the internet I do find it on reading blogs or writing on my blog. I agree with you on the fact that every kid has their own and unique way to parenting. I love to be part of my nephews life, my husband and I parenting them on the regular basis, our own lives are richer with their doubts, fears, tears and joys. They are a canvas where we can paint the bright side of life and we are happy to do it!! A hug and thanks to share! ~Carmen~

  25. Crystal

    BEAUTIFUL poem, Sarah. I love it. Thanks for this reminder.

  26. Jenn

    I loved this post! I read a lot of books before and after out first child. All the books telling me the right way to do things stressed me out. I finally got rid if a lot of them, and refer to a select few now and then. I’ve learned that my mother is a wealth if information, and there is no one way to raise our kids. Thank goodness for grace and the power of love. My mom told me you love and pray for your kids and trust that love covers a multitude of wrongs. No one gets it right all the time.

  27. lisa

    I was the same way in the past. I wanted to get this parenting gig right! I read so much, much of it opposing, and I became so anxious and confused. It almost became addicting to me. I read so much especially if I was having a problem with some situation (and the problems came up a lot with 7 children). Thankfully, God slapped me with a 2 x 4 of a problem and I snapped out of it.

  28. Mary

    Sweet, sweet poem, Sarah. I’m late getting to it, but it brought tears to my eyes. I love your exposure of family yelling and embracing all in a moment of seconds.

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