Review: Mommy Knows Worst


Does your baby have sticky-out ears? Such a departure from physical perfection “may be a source of annoyance to mothers,” according to one American baby manual from the 1940s. Thank goodness then for the “Ear-Binding Head Net,” author James Lileks points out, aptly describing an illustration of a strange wrap around baby’s head. In Lileks’ newest book, _Mommy Knows Worst_, the reader is treated to a tour of baby manuals from the Dark Ages, or as Lileks refers to it, “the Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice.”

Like his other books about bizarre popular culture from the recent past _(The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations)_, _Mommy Knows Worst_ is full of “ripe fodder for smug moderns.” Lileks’ commentary and imagined scenarios that accompany illustrated reproductions of pamphlets, advertising, and manuals are never actually smug, though. Instead, Lileks has a way of being funny without ever being mean-spirited, and he often surprises with just plain silliness. “Do Not Kiss Me,” reads the bib of a baby in one photo. Said baby has rather large peds, and Lileks guesses the consequences of planting one on the little tyke: “Or I will strangle you with my giant monkey-feet!”

The gems that fill _Mommy Knows Worst_ are often hard to believe, ranging from the stupid to the dangerous. Advice to leave the baby in the crib most of the time because “holding the baby habitually may cause spinal curvature” is met with Lileks’ bewildered incredulity: “They’re not made of pipe cleaners.” And in one serious moment, Lileks comments on the artwork from a sleepwear box of a sleeping baby—a face-down sleeping baby—“Right now in bookstores across America, hundreds of modern parents are instinctively pawing the page, _trying to turn the baby over_.”

Some child-rearing practices have swung from one extreme to the other, as Lileks shows in his chapter “Sun & Air.” Ye olde advice was to take baby outside during the hottest part of the day to soak up that vitamin D. “Rotate the baby to assure even basting,” jokes Lileks. Okay, so maybe that much sun wasn’t such a great idea. But now “parents regard the sun as the big giant flaming ball of death, and will not let children stand near the window unless they are covered in gunk whose SPF rating is equivalent to roofing tar.”

Overall, Lileks’ shenanigans in _Mommy Knows Worst_ have the effect of making us take ourselves less seriously. If we aren’t already laughing at ourselves, fifty years from now, someone else will be laughing at us—and that’s okay. “No doubt our current manias and phobias will seem amusing someday, should history recall that America fell to the armies of China because they grew up hardened by pesticides while we poisoned our children with organic food,” he muses.

The next time you attend a baby shower, consider getting _Mommy Knows Worst_ for a gift. Everyone else—including the terrified mommy-to-be—is going to buy the mommy-to-be the latest bossy baby manuals with their Nazi pregnancy diets and developmental skill schedules for Junior. But what Mom really needs isn’t more advice. What Mom really needs is more laughter, and _Mommy Knows Worst_ is just the ticket.

_Carrie Mercer is a writer and artist living in Minneapolis with her husband and fur-child (the dog). You can contact her at or read her blog at_ “”: