Book Review: Cracking the Parenting Code

Cracking the Parenting Code: 6 Clues to Solving the Mystery of Meeting Your Child’s Needs by Laura Lee Heinsohn addresses the question, “Why do children walk away from their parents’ value systems, and what can we as parents do to make sure our children don’t reject us?”

In her research, Heinsohn interviewed thousands of individuals to seek out the factors which enabled a child to grow up embracing his parents’ value system. Her conclusion, while far from astonishing, seems to be something our culture currently lacks: children adopt the value system of the people who meet their needs. If their parents don’t meet those needs, the children turn to their peers or another outside influence, and they adopt those individuals’ values.

Heinsohn cites six specific needs universal to children:

  1. The need to trust
  2. The need to be heard
  3. The need to be valued and to understand true value
  4. The need to have purpose and not pampering
  5. The need for support
  6. The need for specific boundaries

I agree with all this. I’d like to gripe for a moment, however. On page 31, Heinsohn writes the most interesting sentence in the book and then never follows up on it: 

An overwhelming majority — 196 of the first 200 — of the people I interviewed said they left their parents’ values and beliefs because their parents didn’t respect each other and conveyed hostility to them about the other parent.

That’s the last we hear about marital respect and the effect of the parents’ relationship on the children, and in my opinion, we needed a lot more about that. The remainder of the book is about meeting the six needs I listed, but not what she cites as the most important, the child’s need to feel his parents are a unit that act to keep the family safe and functional. Especially in a culture where half of new marriages end in divorce, this should not have been brushed aside. Particularly since this was the entirety of the book I mentioned earlier on this blog, “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,” where the author studied in depth how children of divorce reject their parents’ worldview and strike out to forge their own.

The chapters each contain a discussion of the need under scrutiny, questions about how that need was met or unmet in our own childhood, and questions about how we’re meeting our children’s needs. These questions are tough, and no punches are pulled. Answering all of them would dig up painful memories as well as pleasant ones, and I don’t think any parent would walk away from this book unscathed. It seems like a good therapy session would be in order after reading much of this, particularly if a parent had unresolved childhood issues that were spilling over into how she parents her children.

My criticism of her method would be that Heinsohn expects every child to respond rationally to parental instruction (as if) and she expects parents to have limitless amounts of time. For example, she recommends a half-hour bedtime ritual for each child. I have four children. In order for me to get to bed by 9:30, I’d have to start putting them to bed at 7:30. For parents with more than two children, expectations would need to be adjusted.

Very young children and those who are neurologically atypical (such as my son with Asperger’s) will not necessarily respond to her suggestions as well as older children who are neurotypical.

Similarly, she tells the story of herself as a girl with an unmet need. She wanted her mother to sit beside her scratching her back as she fell asleep. Her mother worked two jobs and functioned as a single parent in a household with an alcoholic father and three other small children; Heinsohn doesn’t give her age at the time but she sounds at least six years old. I can tell you right here, the God’s honest truth is that in her mother’s position, I wouldn’t have been as nice as her mother was in telling her NO, that’s a “want” and not a “need.” I’m sorry she’s carried that burden through her life, but her mother’s needs rightly supplanted her wants in that situation. Unmet needs are different from unmet desires.

So while her premise and her explanations were spot-on, I had difficulties with some of the examples given in the book because of those two presuppositions, that wants equate to needs in children older than two, and that parental needs count for nothing at all.

Overall, Cracking the Parenting Code is excellent and I do recommend it. It also has a guide for working through it as a series of scheduled sessions, and  would be a good fit for a church parenting group.


  1. Memphis Aggie

    Awesome comment. I’m a child of divorce and radically different from my parents, who are secular. At the same time I noticed how much it affects my sons when my wife and I argue. Thanks

  2. ArtK

    While I agree with you that parents’ disrespect for each other is a very serious issue, I think that it falls into several of the defined needs. (FTR, I haven’t read the book, so I’m speculating.)

    First, and foremost, it’s a matter of living your values. Little kids have very powerful hipocracy detectors. Whether you’re staunchly secular or deeply religious, if you don’t demonstrate your values in what you do, your kids won’t pick up on them. “Do as I say, not as I do” is tremendously damaging.

    How can a child accept the trust of a parent, when they see that their parents don’t trust each other. Or be certain that they are being heard when their parents don’t listen to each other. The same thing with support and values. If you can’t demonstrate these by applying them to your spouse, then your child won’t really believe them when you try to direct them at the child. (Boy, was that a clumsy construction — Edit!)

  3. knit_tgz

    Interesting. In fact, not all children of divorce reject their parents’ worldview (the affirmed one), because many times the worldview their parents say they support is one they could agree is great. The worldview their acts support, on the other hand…

    1. philangelus

      I don’t think I’ve rejected my parents’ worldview. But statistically speaking, adult children of divorce are more likely to cohabit rather than get married, to not get involved in relationships at all, and not to have children when they do get married. When they marry, they’re much less likely to take “traditional” roles in their families.

      The most telling thing, she said, was that 100% of them said they absolutely never wanted their children to endure their parents’ divorce. Not, “It would be bad, but they’d survive” but rather “I will do anything in my power to prevent my child from growing up in a divorced home.” That’s total rejection.

      The divorce-book author’s premise was extensively documented and I’m not doing her justice, but her conclusion was that in general children whose parents divorced rejected their parents as role models and then had to make their own worldview out of whole cloth, resulting in a drawn-out “adolescence” which didn’t resolve until their late twenties or early thirties, and in many cases involved a parent-figure role model from outside the nuclear family.

      Heinsohn didn’t deal with the parents’ need to nurture their marriage, by which I don’t mean “we need to go on a date once a week” but “We as parents need to parent as a team, we need to respect one another, and we need to listen to one another.” The parents’ relationship is going to set the tone for their parenting, IMHO.

      1. knit_tgz

        Again, interesting. I am not a child of divorce (though my parents are divorced), as my parents only separated, and later divorced, when I was on my 20s. (They did have a troubled relationship from very early on, and that was impossible to hide). So, my perspective is different.

        Anyway, yes, if parents do not parent as a team, do not respect each other and do not listen to each other as parents, lots of things may (and will) go wrong.

      2. blue

        A friend and I (who both had bad parenting) had a similar theory – if you did not have a normal adolescence you feel like you missed out, and you feel compelled to try and replace those experiences after you leave home.

        Unfortunately, some things work better than others. If I want to eat cookies for dinner and play video games all night, no one cares. But if I want to show up to work in goth makeup, I’ll get some pretty funny looks. 🙂