It wasn’t that long ago that American parents were gripped with Tiger Mother anxiety. Did we overpraise our kids in the name of promoting self-esteem? Were we forfeiting an Ivy League future for them if we didn’t force them to practice endless hours of violin or rip up birthday cards that weren’t perfect? Were we, as Amy Chua said in her best-selling memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” raising children who were “soft” and “entitled?”
Now, though, it’s the French who have it figured out. Just like Chua’s book, journalist Pamela Druckerman’s recently released “Bringing Up Bebe” — which lauds the “wisdom” of French parents, who love their children but don’t live for them the way American parents do — has hit the bestseller lists. Another new parenting-by-comparison book, “How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm,” extols the virtues of the Argentines, who keep Baby up late for special occasions, and the Japanese, who let their kids fight it out.
Such frenzied fascination with foreign parenting raises a question: Are American parents really that bad?
The simple answer is no. Of course we love our children and want what’s best for them. Our problem is that we’re not sure what, exactly — in our driven, achievement-oriented country — is best. Perhaps instead of snapping up the latest foreign fad or obsessing over every international test score ranking, American parents would do well to look no further than a very American ideal: the pursuit of happiness.
The American stereotype is pervasive: the hovering helicopter parents who rush to prevent a toddler from falling on the playground; worry that their child isn’t zooming through Piaget’s stages of development; are hawkishly on the lookout for any signs of giftedness; stay up late perfecting that popsicle-stick diorama of Fort Ticonderoga for their second-grader; ferry the middle-schooler to travel soccer, violin, ballet and fencing lessons; demand online grade books to check up on a high-schooler; call and harangue college professors; and now, according to a recent report on NPR, submit grown children’s resumes, sit in on job interviews and demand a “Take Your Parent to Work” day.
Researchers who analyze what people do with their time have found that, on average, American parents indeed spend more time with their children than parents in other developed countries. (French fathers? From time studies, you’d think they didn’t even have children.) American mothers who work outside the home — and that’s three-fourths of all moms, many of whom work full-time — spend more time with their children today than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s. They do so by forgoing sleep, personal care, housework and any shred of personal leisure. Their “free time” is largely spent with their kids.
Still, surveys show, they worry it isn’t enough. And new studies are finding that the same breathless time stress is becoming an issue for young American fathers, who, like mothers, are juggling intense demands at work and increasingly intensive standards for what it means to be a good parent.
“American parenting is child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, financially expensive and is expected to be done by mothers alone. And it is impossible to do alone,” said Sharon Hays, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented. We expect selfless devotion to what we interpret as the child’s needs, wants and interests at every moment of the day. And with the vast majority of mothers working, that puts them in an impossible paradox.”
While the intensity is at its most acute in the middle and upper-middle class, she said, her studies have found that low-income parents feel the same parenting pressures, compounded by the guilt of having neither the resources nor the time to meet them.
No wonder that what Druckerman sees in Paris — chic mothers with good posture who calmly watch their children play while sipping a latte from a nearby bench — looks so good in comparison. She writes: “They don’t radiate that famous combination of fatigue, worry and on-the-vergeness that’s bursting out of most American moms I know (myself included).”
But if French parents are calmer and more confident, it’s not just because their parenting standards aren’t as intense. Another reason is on the corner: In France, that’s where you find the crèche, a government-subsidized child-care center where virtually everyone, after a four- to five-month, state-subsidized, paid parental leave, sends their children — working and at-home mothers alike.
In contrast, the United States is one of only three countries in the world, along with Swaziland and Papua New Guinea, that have no federal paid parental leave policy. After President Richard Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Childcare Act of 1971, which promised to ensure quality, affordable child care, American parents were left to fend for themselves. In a country that pays its child-care workers less than its janitors, that is a time-consuming, expensive and often fraught search. Child-care costs, which consumed 2 percent of the average family budget in the 1960s, now take up 17 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, second only to a mortgage or rent.
At the crèche, Druckerman, with typical American fears about “institutionalized day care,” worried that she’d be consigning her child to the DMV. Instead, she found the Canyon Ranch spa. After that, her children went on, like all French children, to the state-subsidized ecole maternelle. The 34-country Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks France No. 1 for 100 percent preschool attendance, even though it’s not mandatory, while the United States ranks toward the bottom, with 46 percent.
The absence in America of the crèche on the corner symbolizes most profoundly how Americans are still fighting the exhausting Mommy Wars: whether it’s better to sacrifice career and education and stay home with Baby, or cobble together expensive child care and schlep into work in a guilt-induced haze.
For French parents, whether mothers should work is not even a question. “In France, there is a long tradition of full-time working mothers, even with young babies, so they don’t feel much guilt. Look at Marie Curie,” said Catherine Sofer, 60, an economist who studies gender at the Sorbonne in Paris and whose own mother was a lawyer. “Maybe in that way, it helps them be more relaxed.”
If French parents are more relaxed, it’s also because they tend to parent the same way, using what Druckerman calls a discipline cadre — setting firm limits, teaching patience, granting autonomy.
And if most American parents are unsure, overwhelmed and freaked out, all you have to do is walk into any bookstore and, as a friend recently pointed out, you’ll find 25 different parenting books by 25 different parenting experts, all of which say 25 different and often contradictory things. Or visit any American parenting blog or Web site, where different styles are often held as sacred as a religious belief — if you don’t “attachment parent” and wear your baby for a couple of years, you are castigated for “abandonment parenting.”
Kathryn Masterson, writing in the Washington City Paper last year, brilliantly — and depressingly — captured the scarred American parenting battlefield among a certain demographic by tracking the anonymous mortar attacks after a simple query about baby strollers on one fairly typical parenting site, DC Urban Moms. Soon, epithet-laden assumptions about class, education and income level were hurled based on stroller type, until one commenter blasted another: “You are a planet killer, waste your money, and dress your kids funny. How can one not judge you?”
But this unending, merciless judging of other parents in the name of what’s “best,” this constant comparing of ourselves with parents in other countries, this gnawing fear that kids are falling behind and our nation is losing its superpower edge, point to a deep insecurity that is not only draining American parents but fostering insecurity in American children.
To Christine Carter, a sociologist with the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the answer for American parents is in our Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness. What she teaches in online parenting classes is that, in our achievement-obsessed culture, we have it backward.
“The underlying American assumption is, if our kids get into a great college, they’ll get a great job, then they’ll be happy,” Carter said. “Our cortex of fear is around achievement. So, in order for our kids to get into a great college, get a great job and be happy, we get them piano lessons, after-school Mandarin class, we think more, more, more, more, more is better. And it blossoms into such pressure that by the time the kids get to college, about a quarter are on some kind of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Our hovering and insecurity as parents breeds insecurity in our kids by teaching them that they can’t handle discomfort or challenge.
“What we need to be parenting for,” Carter said, “is not achievement first, then happiness — but happiness first.”
To do that, she advises parents, when they can, to lose the self-sacrifice and take care of themselves; expect effort and enjoyment, not perfection; savor the present moment; and do simple things together such as have a family dinner. “When our children are happy, when their brains are filled with positive emotions like engagement, confidence and gratitude, we know from science that they are more likely to be successful and fulfill their potential,” Carter said. “It does not mean they will be above average if, in fact, they are average children.”
Indeed, Carter said, studies are finding that achievement does not necessarily lead to happiness, but that happiness is what fosters achievement. She points to an analysis of 225 studies on achievement, success and happiness by three psychologists that found that happy people — those who are, as Druckerman writes of the French, comfortable in their own skin — are more likely to have “fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health, and a long life.”
And really, what more could parents — of any nationality — want for their child than that?
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer and a New America Foundation fellow. She is at work on “Overwhelmed,” a book about time pressure and modern families.