by Chris Jackson

I wanted to quickly recommend three books that I've recently read that speak to some of the topics on Ta-Nehisi's blog this week.  


The first, Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn, is a book I'd recommend to any parent (or potential parent, or anyone who was ever a child) who is at all anxious about the potential rise of Tiger Mother parenting techniques (the book, I just noticed, is #1 on Amazon.com).  When Unconditional Parenting was first recommended to me when my son was born two and a half years ago, I dismissed it as hippie nonsense (and this coming from someone whose life has been more or less devoted to hippie nonsense).  Coming back to it now, at the point when the question of discipline has become somewhat more urgent than it was when my son was a newborn, it is a revelation—not just for what it says about how we discipline our children, but for what it says about our values as a society.  One of the gifts of parenting is that it allows you to observe another human grow into himself and confront the world for the first time—which makes you think more deeply about self and world than you were able to when you were first confronting the concepts as a toddler yourself.  And, in my case, at least, it also forced me to think about how I became the person I am, and how our society has become the thing it has become.  Anyway, Kohn's notion is simple: that unconditional love must be the sole premise of our parenting.  This means letting go of the idea of modifying your child's behavior through force or power or shame, but also getting rid of seemingly benign ideas like time-outs and positive reinforcement, anything that seems to place conditions on our love and attention.  Which doesn't mean that kids should be allowed to set the house on fire—he argues that you can deal with children exclusively through love and reason.  I can't do Kohn's work justice in a paragraph, but here's one excerpt that gets to the heart of his argument:

Ultimately, conditional parenting reflects a tendency to see almost every human interaction, even among family members, as a kind of economic transaction.  The laws of the marketplace—supply and demand, tit for tat—have assumed the status of universal and absolute principles, as thought everything in our lives, including what we do with our children, is analogous to buying a car or renting an apartment...But unconditional parenting insists that the family ought to be a haven, a refuge, from such transactions.  In particular, love from one's parents does not have to be paid for in any sense.  It is purely and simply a gift.  It is something to which all children are entitled.


It's a challenging book, and demands of parents a fierceness and commitment that would make a tiger mother wilt.  The (few) negative comments from readers on online sites say things like, "thought-provoking, but unhelpful," and maybe that will be the case with you, too.  But it's certainly thought-provoking. More than just rethinking parenting, it forces the reader to rethink a lot of assumptions we make about the transactional and conditional nature of all of our relationships—with friends, lovers, family members, and even strangers.

Another recommendation: Dan Charnas's The Big Payback.  This is narrative history of hip-hop and business, and is one of the juiciest, flat-out most enjoyable books I've read in a long time.  It's not just the great scenic details—like the image of a young Lyor Cohen getting so turned on by a negotiation that he starts humping the air mid-conversation—but it's the broader canvas that's so impressive.  Charnas did an incredible reporting job and the book is a delicious read, but his greatest gift was to enstrange a story I thought i knew.  Maybe just through the sheer accumulation of detail, he makes fresh the sheer unlikelihood of hip-hop's ascendence, the constant, throbbing undercurrent of physical violence and organized crime that stalked the business from the beginning, the audaciousness of young men like Chris Lighty and his Violator Crew, who went from being the muscle at Red Alert's party to multimillionaire dealmakers, and the remarkable rise-and-fall of legions of hustlers, from Sylvia Robinson to Damon Dash.   It doesn't matter if you love hip-hop or not, this book is just an incredible epic about business and culture in America.

Finally, Sarah Bakewell's How to Live, about the life of Montaigne, also known as the Kanye West of Renaissance France.  I read this while on a 20-plus hour journey from France to Brooklyn just after the Christmas blizzard, a journey that took me, reluctantly, from a small village in Provence to Nice to Paris to Philadelphia to an Amtrak train to Penn Station to the dysfunctional subway, to a walk through the unshoveled streets to get home.  Every time I reflected on how stupid I was for ever leaving the very pleasant house I was staying at in France rather than just waiting till everything blew over, I turned back to the book and regained my sang-froid.  "Yes," Bakewell writes of Montaigne, "he says we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it."

I've enjoyed my time here, apologies for the foolishness, thanks for having me.

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