A book on family and parenting had not topped the New York Times best-seller list since the 1950s, when Dr. Spock's "Baby and Child Care" was No. 1. So when Richard and Linda Eyre's "Teaching Your Children Values" climbed to the top in the 1990s, they were naturally thrilled.
But, as they say in their latest book, "The Book of Nurturing: Nine Natural Laws for Enriching Your Family Life" (McGraw Hill, $19.95), "we knew it was not the best parenting book in 50 years, nor were we even close to being the best writers."
They keyed in on two reasons for its success: One was an appearance on "Oprah," and the other was the title and the times. Parents were urgently seeking values, and the book fit that need.
But amid that success, the Eyres began to notice something. They received a lot of letters and e-mails from grateful parents, but they also received a lot of disturbing ones — messages from parents who said the idea of teaching values was good in theory, but they were having a hard time putting it into practice.
"We realized," says Richard Eyre, "that there is even something more basic, more essential than values. There are some basic principles of nurturing that must precede and prepare the way for the teaching of values."
So this new book, they say, is essentially a prequel to their other one. And it's all about nurturing.
That's such an important word, they say, cozy and comfortable, a word that can be both verb and adjective. It's something that all parents can easily identify with. Yet it means more than just training, educating, nourishing. "Nurturing is the warm and wise application of love," Richard says, "and it's what takes parental love to the next level."
But it's something that often gets lost in today's busy world, adds Linda. "It seems like we spend so much time organizing our kids we don't have time to nurture them. We get them to all their lessons and games and programs. We spend time getting them where we think they need to be, but maybe what they need is to sit down together and read a story."
To help parents — and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and anyone else who loves the child — nurture, the Eyres discuss nine basic principles. And to help parents remember those principles, they have tied each one to a law of nature.
They have taught these principles in workshops and seminars for years. "Once, just for fun, we tried a pop quiz at the end, and most parents could only remember four of the nine. So, we decided we needed something catchier. And the idea of animal allegories was born.
They encourage parents and children to read and study the stories together. Then instead of saying "Billy, we need to communicate better," parents can say, "Billy, remember the whales." But it works both ways, says Richard. "Kids can also say, 'Mom, you're being like the crabs.' We all know these principles, but sometimes in the heat of battle, it's easy to forget. This simply makes it easier to remember. Besides," he adds with a grin, "we finally got to do a book with pictures."
(The illustrations are by a local artist, the son of a Russian immigrant who goes by the name Kvon. McGraw-Hill tried out five other artists, says Richard, as a side note. Then Kvon drew the whales, "and they knew the minute they saw it that was the look they wanted — warm and engaging.")
And while the animal stories help set up and reinforce the principles, the Eyres also draw on the experiences of other parents and families to help translate the ideas into human actions.
Parenting is not easy, especially in today's world where there are so many outside influences, they say. "Parents want to hunker down and protect their children physically and emotionally," says Richard. "But there's no way you can protect, shield, isolate children from everything. What you need to do is have a presence that is stronger than the world. The child has to feel in his heart that 'the world is tough, but I'm OK. I have a place. I have parents that love me.' That's what nurturing does."
And, says Linda, it's something that crosses all cultures and nationalities. "Parents in Africa can apply the same principles as parents in New York City, the same as parents anywhere in the world."
Nurturing is something we do with our hearts as well as our heads, she says. It's the hug we add to the schedule, the praise we add to the push, the warmth we add to the light. "It's about noticing who your kids already are and helping them toward what they can become."