Saturday, 19 May 2007

Book: Kid Wrangling by Kaz Cooke

Lowdown: A hitchhikers guide to handling babies from 0 to preschool.
What would a father to do in order to get a grip on what's up ahead? Well, one of the things I tend to do when I get into new stuff is to read books about them in order to get to know my enemy. The question that follows then is, which book should I get? Which is not an easy question to answer given that I don't have a clue on anything remotely to do with raising children.
The extent of my knowledge, at least as far as books were concerned, was limited to books handling whatever happens up to the birth itself. There I was exposed to the pregnancy book by the British Miriam Stoppard. We got a second hand version through the family, but after reading a few chapters I failed to be impressed with its rather detached, preacher like, and idealistic view of the world; it didn't feel like it was addressed to real people. However, through friends we also received Australian Kaz Cooke's book Up the Duff (published in the USA as A Bun in the Oven); I never really even touched that book, but my wife Jo really liked it because of its informal and realistic approach. Up the Duff's babies are not all rosy and the writing is less clinical and more at the eye to eye level.
Then we went to Borders in search of the ideal baby book that we will actually read, and Kaz Cooke's sequel, Kid Wrangling, was quickly identified as the best pick. Not that there's a shortage of baby books to pick from, but all of them seem to have some shortcomings; some are way too focused, others focus on one particular kid raising philosophy that they become obsessed with it to the point of advising you to shoot the child in the case he/she refuses to follow suit, while others seem to be catered for the American public with paragraphs such as "what should I do if my baby sticks something in their left ear" immediately followed by the paragraph "what should I do if my baby sticks something in their right ear" (and no, I haven't made that example up).
In contrast to most of its contenders, Kid Wrangling is quite broad in its scope. A thick 750 plus pager (albeit at a relatively big font), there is quite a lot in there: it covers babies since they are born and up until they are pre-schoolers; it covers parenthood; and it covers what it refers to as "stuff", meaning things around child raising such as equipment and vaccines. Each of the subjects is divided into many paragraphs, some short and some longer. For example, the baby bit covers items such as breastfeeding, bottle feeding, addressing the baby's exhaust "fumes", sleep, and baby routines (to name just a few); while the parenting part includes issues such as baby raising philosophies, teaching your baby how to behave, and what to expect the baby to know and understand at various ages. Even issues like names and circumcisions are addressed, and there and everywhere Cooke is not afraid to say what she thinks.
So yes, there is quite a lot of scope there in Kid Wrangling; but that said, nothing is really thoroughly covered, and often enough you are just referred to other books or experts in order to get to know more (our version refers to Australian references; I would imagine that the American version has been updated to refer to American references, otherwise there is no way Amazon would have sold the book). The child raising philosophies section, for example, mentions something like a dozen of them, but they are all mentioned briefly and at very shallow levels; levels that might suffice for regular readers of New Woman, but they're definitely far from allowing me to decide whether a certain philosophy is up my street. I guess this is both good and bad, because if the book was more detailed it would have been to heavy to read. More importantly, there is nothing wrong with referring you to a specialist; and even more importantly, the book looks you in the eye all the time and pretty much tells you quite explicitly to forget about all these philosophies and realize that there is this thing called real world and that you baby is going to be growing up in that world, not someone's imaginary vision. The book pulls you down from the philosophical realm and from the realm of the "raising a baby is eternal pleasure" into the realm of the real - and that is simply an excellent approach.
This real world, eye to eye approach is at the core of the book. Even the author's name and the book's title signal towards it: I mean, Kaz? I suspect it's Australian for Catherine or something. The book is full of pages telling you to be prepared for the lesser things in child raising, because these are going to be the things that you're be handling most of the time; and that is where it is different from the likes of the Stoppards. The writing is witty, or at least it's trying to be witty, but often enough it is trying too hard to be witty; not that I can do better, but don't expect a Shakespeare with Kid Wrangling. Language wise, it's as if you talk to someone in the street.
This streetwise approach is probably the book's main selling point as well as its main failure. While street talk is easy to follow and easy to implement, it is also incredibly shallow. By far the most annoying aspect are the occasional widespread contradictions (which seem to feature in everything to do with raising babies, including all the other books we looked at so far): one chapter may tell you to do one thing and to avoid the other, while the next chapter will tell you (albeit at a slightly different context) to do the opposite. Most readers and most of the mothers we have been talking to don't seem to notice these issues, but to the analyst in me they seem scream out. It's everywhere: it's with what you are allowed to eat, the way you're supposed to put your baby to sleep, the way you should set the baby's routines... But I guess you can also say that this is intentional: At the bottom line, the book pretty much tells you that raising a baby is a matter of high variance. No book, Kid Wrangling included, can offer you the exact baby user manual; if a book promises to do so than you know you should look elsewhere. Kid Wrangling definitely sets the expectations right in this department. One way in which it does so is quoting from real mothers that answered surveys on which the book was based; those quotes can be both interesting because they tell you what takes place out there, but there's also a heavy element of conformity there that is combined with a heavy spicing of the "babies are so sweet" type (noticeable mainly because the book usually avoids such tinting).
Last, but not least: While the book is aimed at parents in general, and while it keeps on saying it was written for both mother and father, the reality is that it is written by a mother and for mothers (other than some very thin chapters that are directly aimed at the father and say things like "don't expect your wife to fix breakfast for you anymore"). I was quite tired of reading how much my boobs would hurt when I breastfeed.
Overall: I cannot really grade this book so I won't. For a start, I didn't read it all; a lot of it will only be of relevance to me in several years' time. And then there's the obvious fact I am no subject matter expert on raising babies.
Kid Wrangling is definitely not a book I would read for fun; I read it because I have a necessity on my hands, and it took me a long time to go through because it is not the most inspiring read ever. It's also a conformist's book that tries to pass under the radar as an innovative and cool book. However, from what I can tell, it is up there at the top of the pile when it comes to your idiot's guide to raising a baby; not a particularly good book, but it does seem more suitable to the real world than most of the rest, especially if you're after a lighter book and not a heavily analytic one. Then again, I always prefer the analytic approach...

1 comment:

Moshe Reuveni said...

One thing I forgot to mention in my already too long review is that although the book is relatively new (published in 2003, if memory serves me right) there are several issues where it's out of date. Either that or Cooke is out of touch, anyway.
The best example I can give is to do with warming up baby food with the microwave. All the parents I have seen do it, but the book tells you to avoid doing it and instead proposes stone age like techniques that would mean you have to go out with your kitchen sink attached, for a start.