In recent years one fact has emerged as a base assumption in all parenting literature: Americans are terrible at parenting.
Luckily for us American parents we can take comfort that apparently so are Canadians, Brits, Aussies, and Kiwis. Sorry to say it, guys: overwhelming politeness and/or endearing accents aren’t enough to get by this go-around. Chances are, according to the parenting literature of books, pamphlets, parent groups, and whispers in the wind, if you’ve given birth and are in the process of not-letting-your-progeny-die (also known as “raising children”) as an American, Canadian, Brit, Aussie, or Kiwi, you’re doing it wrong.
According to this mountain of literature, you can tell you’re guilty of being a terrible American* parent if your child between the ages of 0 and 30 exhibits any of the following behaviors at any time: is a picky eater, cries too much, cries too little, doesn’t sleep well, throws temper tantrums, uses a pacifier, has too much independence, has too little independence, doesn’t exhibit expert conflict resolution skills, eats snacks, tests boundaries, likes to get dirty, doesn’t like to get dirty, talks a lot, talks too little, wants to go to school, or doesn’t want to go to school.
Do any of these sound like your child? Well then, the problem isn’t that your children are human beings, the problem is apparently rather their parents speak English. Simply put: you parent like an American.
I am the first to admit I personally first bought into the notion of “chic, generally northern European parents do parenting better” hook, line, and sinker with Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, a book I have talked about many times before in this blog. I still reference back and re-read portions of this book when things aren’t going particularly well for me in the parenting department and I need to calm down and re-center my beliefs about independence and boundaries. Toward my due date and my nesting instinct kicked in I read French Kids Eat Everything and vowed never to allow my children to snack, eat on the go, or be picky about anything. Ever. (Please feel free to continue reading once you compose yourself from your laughing fit I assume you are throwing.) As my firstborn got older and I looked toward firming up my own “educational philosophy” I started devouring articles about the Finnish school system and their lack of pressure on young children – play-based! no forced reading until age 6 or 7! – all with better educational outcomes. I ripped through The Danish Way of Parenting and found many of the themes in the other books, but was fascinated by the idea of hygge, which as far as I can understand it translates to, “that feeling you get when you’re all cozy and happy with close friends and family.” It seems to be no coincidence that we English-speakers don’t have a word for this, n’est pas? I watched in awe of the slew of videos of young – 3 years old, sometimes! – Japanese children able to do things many American kids couldn’t even fathom doing at ages 8, 9, 10 nowadays, things like go to the corner grocery store and pick up a few items for the family, or walk to school by themselves. There is now a new book I have not yet had the chance to read – but it’s on my list! – about German parenting and highlights German children’s expert conflict resolution skills called Achtung Baby.
The theme of these books, articles, and essays is consistent: other countries have a generally unanimous view of what raising children should be, there are no “mommy wars” in these countries, and their children are better behaved, better eaters, better educated, and more independent than the dependent monsters we raise here.
Of course, there’s an inherent flaw with this literature I have yet to see addressed fully: those parents live there, and we live here.
Our children are supposed to eat like the French, argue like the Germans, be educated like the Finnish, love togetherness like the Danish, and be independent like the Japanese, all while their parents live in a society that in no way supports any of these endeavors.
It’s a question to which I have no answer for: sure, these books and articles about other ways of parenting are wonderful, and demonstrate the better outcomes for families as a whole. Yet, how does one actually go about implementing them on a day-to-day, non-conceptual level when you don’t live in these other countries, countries where you are not only supported in raising your children that way, but rather expected to? If I believe (and I do) that “hunger is the best seasoning” and that arriving at dinner without snacks filling my son’s belly will all but eliminate pickiness, how do I reconcile that when I am out and about and every other child’s mom whips out a delicious fruit gummy snack every hour? Yes, the books about French parenting tout that waiting is an important life skill, but if in France all the children are equally waiting for their meals without snacks it makes the entire experience infinitely easier. The temptation to beg for a bag of Goldfish crackers would simply never present itself. The problem of being a little bit hungry and watching every other child eat in front of you doesn’t exist in these other countries where children don’t generally snack. The lessons we are teaching children are fundamentally different when presented in different conditions.
“Mothers must take care of themselves” is another lesson with which I wholeheartedly agree in the pages of “Americans are parenting wrong” literature. Learning that parents exist outside of their children is a vital life lesson for children. It’s also a life lesson more easily learned with high-quality, free/subsidized** childcare available en masse. Back up even further and ensuring a maternity or paternity leave for parents is not something that is available in America, nor will it be in the near-to-distant future. (Non-American English-speaking parents of course can now sneer down at us as being with Papua New Guinea and Suriname as the only countries in the world without guaranteed parental leave.) Yes, self-care and healing are vital to all parents, we can agree after reading these books and articles. But doing so without spending an astronomical amount of money on babysitters or lost wages is very often not feasible in this country.
I keep coming back to this dialogue for almost every topic with which I completely agree in these books and articles. I want my children (and others!) to play and learn through interactions with each other for the first formative years of their life and early schoolhood, and yet our schools seem to be losing this concept. I truly believe in allowing children to attempt to resolve their own conflicts early and often as practice for later in life, yet actually allowing this to happen in America with other American parents can almost amount to getting Child Protective Services called on me. I want my child to feel comfortable and independent enough to walk to the park down the street by himself when he’s older, but I also would prefer not to land in jail.
For every time I find myself nodding my head in adamant agreement I also become baffled as to how to put these theories into practice in a different culture with different parenting norms, expectations, and support structures (slash, lack thereof).
What I find most infuriating, of course, is that for every article I see posted by my friends on social media about letting kids play freely, working out their own issues, and driving independence, I have struggled immensely to see this philosophy in action with other American parents. Of course we always talk bigger game on social media than our three-dimensional selves are ready to play, but I am nevertheless shocked every time I get a death glare when I don’t immediately jump in to mediate my children’s conflicts with others. “But didn’t you share an articles about not doing what you’re doing with no fewer than three touchdown hand emojis?” is a sad thought I have, quite literally, thought to myself on multiple occasions.
The issue of starting to think in the language of emojis aside, I don’t have a solution to this problem. In fact, I don’t even have a suggestion. (If you have any insight, please let me know.) The popularity of these “American-parents-do-it-wrong” books and articles is telling that I’m not the only one who is desperate for another way of doing things. However, at some point we have to call a spade a spade about parenting in America. The menus and food offered to children are almost universally tan and fried and I certainly have no idea how to change the restaurant industry. We have a culture where the expectation of running interference in children’s conflicts is simply expected. Finding schools that emphasize play and soft skills like interpersonal development rather than reading before age 5 is either impossible, next to impossible, or prohibitively expensive. Guaranteed parental leave, prenatal, and postnatal care is a laughable concept in 2018. Because we are unable to allow our children a free moment to themselves we have overpacked their schedules to such a degree there are articles talking about trying to figure out “one meal a week” where everyone can take 15 minutes to sit down together. Once a week! Our social trust is declining to such a rate that often children are not allowed to cross the street to walk to school, let alone down the block to go to the store.
As a parent I try to be the change I want to see in the world. My biggest phrase on the playground is yelling from afar, “You can do it, try it yourself first!” and not, “Oh my gosh, be careful, no no no, here, let me help you!” I stand back when my kids have a conflict to see if they can peacefully work things out. (Which, spoiler alert, they usually can. Next time you jump in watch how all the kids see a mediator come in and fall apart – you’ve taken the motivation for them to resolve anything internally because they know someone else will do it. The switch is immediate but palpable.) I let my kid go “up” the “down” part of the slide because I think playing is sacred and my adult rules and impositions have no place in his learning how to think outside the box and test limits safely. I am only considering schools that emphasize play in the early years, give children ample recess, and value independence and self-starting.
There are immense limitations to implementing these “other” parenting styles touted in the “look at other parents in other countries” literature, though. As much as I try to limit snacking I know that it’s part of our culture, and trying to put my kids on a “French” eating schedule in America isn’t feasible because at school they’ll snack and are annoyingly accustomed to it. I want to maintain some level of social acceptability among my parenting peers and so I do end up coming in to mediate conflicts much more than I’d like. Finding time as a family for hygge would quite frankly require a monumental shift in American work culture as a whole. We are losing an immense amount of social trust, which can at least partially explain why children in Japan are able to go out and perform tasks Americans cannot fathom.
None of these barriers really stack up to our biggest limitation, though: Americans’ intense desire to judge each other. That earlier example about kids going “up” the “down” part of the slide? It’s not hypothetical. This is a real life thing parents debate. I happen to fall on the, “If climbing up the slide will burn energy off, climb on, and if you have been warned about others coming down and get knocked down yourself, then that’s a lesson you’ll only have to learn once.” It has become abundantly clear over the years that other parents do not feel this way. What happens in America is then these differences come to define us, instead of our similarities. This isn’t limited to parenting, of course, as anyone with a pulse and access to the world around them can tell. But with every difference and camp we divide ourselves into, our village gets smaller. Our social trust erodes that much more. Humans love categorizing things and finding themselves in these categories. Dog or cat person. Tea or coffee person. Free-range or helicopter parent. Stay-at-home or work-outside-the-home. Up-the-down-part-of-the-slide or down-the-down-part-only. These ideas and theories make us feel part of a community, but our communities are growing further-reaching and, sadly, sparser.
I think there’s something deeper in our obsession with other cultures and their parenting styles. Maybe at the core of these books and texts about other countries is a sense that those parents are more supported, both by the culture and infrastructure at large and by each other. The books and articles almost always portray parents who go about the day-to-day parenting without the fear of wrath of other parenting cliques. A parenting choice is simply looked at as a choice, not a declaration of a side in the “mommy wars.” We read about what’s working in other countries not just to learn about what we can do and take into our own lives, but also to get a hopeful glimpse into what we wish we felt as a parent when we ourselves make a million little decisions every single day that amount to raising children. This doubt we impose on ourselves in parenting is lifted when we imagine ourselves simply existing in our family units as we see best fit. I think maybe that’s the true appeal in these parenting books, and maybe the hardest lesson of all to integrate.
Whether or not you agree with the premise behind the mountain of literature in the “here’s how other countries do parenting” category, I have personally found it intensely difficult to consistently reconcile my own beliefs with which I agree in these books with the realities of American parenting. I will never be the chic French mom who does not want a cupcake at snack time. Allowing children to fully self-mediate like the Germans results in my being barred from every parenting get-together known to mankind. My kids will go to school in America, not Finland, and finding a school that fits my educational philosophy has been a trial I can no longer think about without needing a glass of wine. My husband’s work schedule means I am lucky if I see him for half an hour at night, so our hygge is a wonderful theory, but sadly remains largely theoretical. If I allowed my children outside like the Japanese, even when they’re older, I would more than likely have the cops called on me.
The crux of the matter is, I find myself parenting like an American because I am an American. I think now that we understand what it is we like about these other societies we can frame American parenting into what we want that to mean. My hope is that it means more setting up a village, and less setting up war camps.
And maybe some wine with our cupcakes.
*For the sake of ease, I shall henceforth lump the native English-speaking parents into one group and refer to us as “Americans,” because, 1) I am an American and most of my readership is, too, and, 2) many non-English speakers automatically assume English-speakers are American, especially when they are doing something they don’t approve of, such as parenting in English.
**Yes, yes, yes, “free” means “taxpayer-funded.”