As a fast-selling genre of adult books, we all know how effective some self-help books can be. From enabling one to be able to teach their children about money to setting off self-improvement to dealing with the cosmos and its energy, writers such as Robert Kiyosaki (Rich Dad, Poor Dad), Stephen R Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) and Rhonda Byrne (The Secret) have changed many a lives through their works.
In fact, when you enter any bookstore, you will see shelves upon shelves of self-help books for adults—from coping with grief to relationship advice to confidence and self-esteem building. Even though the range is nothing short of amazing, contemporary writers across the world have managed to add another slot in this expansive list: self-help books for children.
While there are even books that help ease the perils of parenting, such as The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep (a book that uses psychological techniques to help children fall asleep), ones written for children were not as common before. Written by Swedish author and psychologist Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin in 2010, the sleep-inducing book was created keeping in mind words aimed to relax the over-active imagination of a child.
Effective as they might be, it has no long-term benefits for a child, aspiring child psychologist Shambhavi Tiwari throws a dampener. Tiwari, 27, an alumna of the University of Delhi, is of the opinion that a sudden flare in self-help books for children is no surprise. “The fact that such books are being written and read is reflective of the changing times. The requirements of childhood in 2018 are very different from the 90s (which is fondly remembered as the last idyllic era for children) and may as well require children to equip themselves with such books,” she says.
So what has changed? “I guess in the past, life was simpler for children (and for parents too). We had huge family support systems; life was less competitive; and the great beast of social media didn’t exist,” says author Sonia Mehta. Mehta, who is the co-founder of children’s content and design company Quadrum Solutions, feels that children were exposed to less in a controlled, supportive atmosphere.
Nowadays, most urban families live in a nuclear set-up, giving way to more exposure at an early age. Unsupervised access to social media, coupled with meeting societal expectations set by parents and peers, may create stress or self-doubt. This can even result in children having greater psychological issues that parents are neither unaware of nor equipped to handle.
At such a point, Mehta feels the key to raising confident adults is to be able to reassure children and let them know that they are not alone. This is the bigger theme the author tackles through her current works, Being Curious Can Be Tricky, There’s No Need to Be Scared and Sulking Isn’t Any Fun, etc. With her writing, Mehta attempts to help children navigate negative emotions, which they may be coming to terms with for the first time—through characters who seem to think like them, talk like them and feel like them.
Alternatively, author Ravi Subramanium feels that the self-help genre for children actually consists of smartly-written books, which communicate the author’s message in an interesting manner. Subramanium, who has so far only written financial thrillers, feels that the self-help genre for children had not picked up until now, as parents would rather help the children with their issues themselves instead of buying them a self-help book. “Parents feel their kids may not have the maturity or the ability to filter out relevant content from the books and use it selectively.”
Due to such parental concerns, the author thinks that the knowledge that children have about money is also very limited. Therefore, Subramanium, who feels that children struggle with money in the real world because their parents do not talk to them about it enough, demystified the concepts of money for children through his book, My First Book of Money. The book, which follows young twins Aman and Anya through a journey of discovery, has been co-authored with fellow banker Shoma Narayana.
Another striking release on the stands, I Need to Pee by author Neha Singh, functions on the same principle as Subramanium’s. Stemming from the author’s own experience as a little girl, the book is a fun adventure story about a little girl dealing with a very real problem: the lack of good, safe and clean public toilets. The author wanted to write a story that is equally funny and engaging, and at the same time, a tool that could give children the means to express their own concerns about using public toilets and beyond.
Reluctant to label her book solely as ‘self-help’, Singh shares her opinion on why such books should be written: “I feel we need to equip children with stories, art and a vocabulary that they could use in their own lives to comprehend, question and find solutions to the universe they live in and deal with on a daily basis,” she says. Singh’s protagonist, who takes little readers through her funny discovery of the sad state of sanitation in the country, is quirky and relatable.
Character-building, as it turns out, is a very important side of writing for children. The characters in the storyline act as a link between the readers and the author, as per psychologist Sumit Kumar. Kumar, who previously practised at the Institute of Behaviour and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), shares how characters in storybooks can set an example and positively influence children’s behaviour instead of parents who pose as authority figures (whom children may not relate to).
Another principle to abide by is to avoid preaching to the choir. Author Sharanya Manivannan, who has penned The Ammuchi Puchi, shares that while writing for children, she keeps in mind that children are intuitive, emotional and complex. Manivannan, who explores themes such as the loss of a beloved grandparent and the bereavement that follows, feels that children turn to books for many of the same reasons as adults. “I have a great deal of respect for children as individuals in their own right, and the only thing I am afraid of is talking down to them,” Manivannan shares. The author, who features dark-skinned children in her book along with a splash of Tamil, distinctly south Indian landscapes, including a grandmother who chews betelnut and narrates ghost stories, wants children reading it to see themselves and their culture in it. “This will positively impact their sense of self in the world,” she shares.
As one wonders how children, with countless distractions and ever-shortening attention spans, will be steered towards these books, Singh reasons as to why they would probably need them. “While there is a lot of information that is available to children, human interaction has definitely taken a backseat. This makes it far more critical to engage children through art and stories that help them understand and navigate their world in a better manner,” she says.
Mehta agrees. As per the veteran, the Internet has opened up children to a plethora of confusing information. Yet, the confusion may not come to the children directly from the Internet. Sometimes, quite unwittingly, parents themselves add pressure to children through their own perceptions—also driven by social media. For instance, massive online parent groups and apps help feed competition and comparisons that eventually add pressure on a child.
Facing such crises at a tender age, it is safer for children to seek advice and comfort from books (or counsellors, if available), rather than equally ill-informed peers or classmates, says Kumar. Many a times, children also tend to turn to other sources of comfort or familiarity even as it may be virtual, when the parents do not play an active role in their childhood.
While it is important for parents to guide their children through development, can self-help books, especially the ones about dealing with feelings and learning to express oneself, really be temporary stand-ins for (busy) parents? Meeta Kumar, one of the contributors to The Children’s Book of Truths, feels children learn from everywhere. “If parents are not around, they will learn from whoever (or whatever—TV, Internet) is. The chances that children of really busy parents don’t read at all are likely to be high… so self-help books may not work at all.”
While that is true, author Roopa Pai (The Gita for Children) believes that, on the contrary, such books can only be beneficial if the parents are actively involved. “I think self-help books for children are most effective when there are family discussions about them around the dining table or at bedtime after the child has had a chance to read it on their own.” What the author suggests is that children who enjoy reading may read through the books quickly, but may still have unresolved questions that a discussion can help clarify, and children who don’t like to read will benefit from a family reading and discussion—getting two birds with the same stone. The author warns, “It is important not to use the book as a tool to lay blame on the child, though, the discussion should be as open as possible.” Pai wants parents to encourage their children to have the freedom to point out how adults fail on some parameters as well, benefitting as a result.
While books are great friends for children, they can never be a replacement for human interaction, feels Singh. Not just parents, children can enrich their lives by interacting with various kinds of people, be it their teachers, neighbours, friends, family, the vegetable vendor, house help, etc. As Singh points out, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Ultimately, nothing can replace parental support and guidance. These books can, at first level, make a child self-aware, and know that some of the emotions he or she is experiencing are common—that others feel them too and that they are not alone. Any further, it is the parents who can take a cue from these and focus on the particular issue their child might be facing and be able to handle it better.