From reading American newspapers, listening to our media, and eavesdropping on mom bookclubs these days, the natural conclusion is that the institution of American parenting is in crisis, under siege, about to shatter into a million razor-sharp fragments. Americans are the worst parents ever. We all should immediately give up our children for adoption – preferably to parents in France or China.
First there was Judith Warner’s Perfect Madness, a 2006 bestseller that contrasted French parents with American mothers. USA moms came off as truly terrifying three-headed monsters obsessed with producing perfect bake sale cupcakes along with perfect children. It was a great read, prompting derisive giggling over how infantile other mothers were – until you recognized yourself in its pages.
The takeaway: White college-educated moms throughout the U.S. were too crazy to be left alone with our own offspring. Bring on the rubber rooms!
More recently came The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. An Asian-American mother of two, Harvard grad, Wall Street veteran and Yale law professor, author Amy Chua wrote candidly of applying strict, near-abusive Asian traditions of child-rearing to produce daughters who got straight As and performed Juillard-level piano recitals. The eldest was accepted at Yale and Harvard a few months after the book hit the best-seller lists, so Chua MUST have been right.
American parents were clearly not strict enough, not obsessed enough with raising achievement-oriented children, to compete in the global economy. We had become the lazy laggards, the white trash of the worldwide parenting spectrum. Get out the cilice!
Then last month Bringing Up Bebe arrived. Pamela Druckerman brought us One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. The main points: French parents don’t obsess about raising perfect kids. They drink a glass of red wine instead. As a result the kids sleep through the night, don’t bicker in public, and eat leeks instead of chicken nuggets. Turns out Amy Chua was wrong! We Americans are not too easy-going – the answer is that we are not easy-going enough!
All of this prompted Washington Post writer (and American mother) Brigid Schulte to ask What’s So Bad About American Parents Anyway?
Part of this is typical American ethos: Let’s be the best! Parenthood is like the Olympics! We must be better than any other country in the world! In pursuit of self-improvement we are perhaps too adept at criticizing ourselves and looking to upgrade just about every action we take, including the tiniest details about the way we raise our kids.
We Americans spend so much time thrashing ourselves as parents, it’s amazing we have any time left over to actually be parents. Much less enjoy it. Surprisingly, though, we have plenty of time to read about parenting – especially when the moral is that we are awful parents who need drastic, immediate workouts and self-improvement sessions in order to dominate our playgroups and the world with our parenting superiority.
I side with Brigid Schulte. Americans can’t really be that bad, as parents go. Do we keep our children in dungeons? Feed them to hungry witches? Force them to peel our grapes? Perhaps we would be better off putting our psychic energy into feeling GOOD about our uniquely American approaches to raising children. Maybe we are missing the point about parenting and childhood.
No one parent – no single country – can ever be “the best.“ Parenting is on-demand manufacturing of one-of-a-kind products — people. Bringing up children is completely individualized, based on the personalities of the parents, the values of the culture, and the needs of each kid. We will never be the best at this sport. By constantly comparing ourselves to other parents around the world, all we ensure is our own insecurity.