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by Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer
Da Capo Press, 2004
Review by Burton R. Hanson on Jun 9th 2005

Raising a Self-Starter

William James, author of the classic The Principles of Psychology (1890), was one of those rarities, a popularizer of his own ideas. One of his most-endearing, and useful, popular titles was Talks to Teachers on Psychology (1899) [now in public domain, available online], a slim volume of public lectures on psychology he gave to Cambridge (MA) teachers in 1892. In a lecture on "Interest," he proposed a simple way for a teacher to engage the attention of a child: "Begin with the line of his native interests, and offer him objects that have some immediate connection with these." What sort of connections?

Fortunately, almost any kind of connection is sufficient to carry the interest along. What a help is our Philippine war at present in teaching geography! But before the war you could ask the children if they ate pepper with their eggs, and where they supposed the pepper came from. Or ask them if glass is a stone, and, if not, why not; and then let them know how stones are formed and glass manufactured.

James was talking about finding, like Archimedes, a simple lever to move something -- in his case, the lever of what he called a child's "native" interests.

Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer is author of a number of "how to" books for parents, including books on raising "happy" kids, "confident" boys, and "confident" girls. In this book, Raising a Self Starter -- Over 100 Tips for Parents and Teachers, she sets out to provide parents with "tools and tactics" to "help children help themselves," that is, to help motivate them.

Thirteen chapters comprise the core of the book, each chapter articulating a specific "principle" of motivation identified by the author and providing specific suggestions for applying each principle. The first such principle is "to start with your child: to recognize who he is," what his interests and unique qualities are. This all seems pretty obvious, and the other principles articulated are equally obvious. But to say that they seem obvious is not to be critical. William James' childhood friend, Justice Holmes, famously said, in another context, "We need education in the obvious more than investigation of the obscure."

The main problem I have with Hartley-Brewer's explication of the seemingly obvious "principles" of motivating children is not that she doesn't do so creditably and in detail and with many examples. The main problem I have is the problem I have with most, but not all, "how to" books for parents: they seem to be written according to formula. The formula, as I see it, is to take a few basic principles or ideas, principles or ideas that could be articulated well in an essay or a slim volume, and stretch them out as much as possible to fill, say, 213 pages, and then design a paper cover that is colorful and that depicts a smiling kid and that contains the word "tips," preferably preceded by a big number, say, 100, in order to attract as many buyers/readers as possible.

A second problem is that the book, in my opinion, is not as fluidly written or as easy to read as the best of the "100 tips" how-to books. Instead, the author's style, unlike, say, William James' in his Talks to Teachers, is opaque. One typically buys a how-to book with a cover like this one thinking the book will make difficult but useful material easier to understand and apply. One who is willing to struggle to understand, say, one of the earlier books by the well-known Jungian depth psychologist, James Hillman, expects and finds a book by Hillman's lucid popularizer, Thomas Moore, not to be a major struggle. For me at least, reading this "how to" book was a struggle. While it might be worth the struggle for well-educated parents greatly needing help in motivating their kids to study and learn, reading a "how to" book shouldn't be a struggle.


© 2005 Burton Hanson


Burton R. Hanson, of Minneapolis, MN, is a graduate of Harvard Law School with a long-time interest not just in law but in many other subjects, including psychology. He is the father of two adult children, both "self starters." He may be reached by visiting his law-related weblog, http://www.lawandeverythingelse.com/, and using the e-mail address supplied there.