Monday, June 3, 2013

Want to parent like the French, Chinese, Dutch? Move to France, China or the Netherlands.


It's happened again.  Another tract about all the things other cultures have to teach American parents and how American parents generally have it all wrong. This one, going viral on the Huffington Post, is actually titled: "How American Parents Have Got It All Backwards."  The author, who has just released a book with this thesis, catalogs the myriad ways that other countries are raising more patient, higher testing, more independent, more resilient, more responsible, more humble, overall more excellent children.

The comments range from "Totally agree. American parents suck/raise indulgent brats" to "This is bullshit. Our country produces more creative, more dynamic, more entrepreneurial people, so what could we possibly need to learn" to "Whatever. Parenting, shmarenting. Stop over-thinking all of this and trust your instincts. Kids will turn out fine." And a lot of nuance in between.

But the narrative is always as compelling as it is controversial. It's fascinating to see how other people do things - especially when it clashes with our assumptions. And when that "doing things" is raising children, it's impossible not to relate.  We were all raised in some fashion, and some of us are busy raising others.  It explains the success of Bringing up BebeBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, and the newly released Baby Meets World.

But the missing piece in all of this "do as the French/Chinese/Dutch" parenting commentary is we don't live in France, China or the Netherlands. And so often these parenting practices are reinforced by a community and some may even be impossible without that broader reinforcement.

I can think of a bunch of examples, but here's one: I was very convinced by Druckerman's argument that French children cultivate the ability to wait, to delay gratification (one of the biggest predictor's of future success) because they don't really snack.  Mealtimes are sacred and "but I'm huuungry mom" whining is not indulged.  Forcing children to wait for meals also forces them to teach themselves self control which leaks into other facets of their lives.  And - bonus - ultimately mealtimes are more pleasant because children are actually hungry when food is finally presented.

Persuaded by this logic, I tried this.  It lasted two-thirds of a full day. We might enforce this strict caloric intake regiment, but our neighbors, friends and school do not.  In Kenya, if there's something cooking and a child wanders in the vicinity, they will be given a morsel and sent on their way. I couldn't get around it.

Same thing happened when I attempted to institute Druckerman's "kaka" permissiveness.  Again, she very convincingly explains that the French generally indulge a bunch of "poo poo" "ka ka" talk because they view it as a benign outlet of natural toddler naughtiness and choose to get worked up about more important battles.

I agree. But my expat friends generally do not.  So, we've had to backtrack on letting Caleb loose with the ka ka talk after watching his friends parents admonish their own kids for such clearly offensive potty talk. We might think it's no big deal, but that could translate into turning our sweet boy into the playground smack talker in relation to his clean-mouthed friends.

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This is the crux of the problem. Americans generally parent as little islands.  We invent nuclear family rules that are sometimes reinforced, other times undermined and other times outright contradicted by wider society. We're constantly checking in with our friends and neighbors about what their children are allowed to do.  Can I give him a cookie?  Is he allowed to watch a cartoon?  Can I punish him for misbehaving?  What should form should that take?

But when everyone generally obeys the same rules, a lot of things happen.  First, you gain that oft sought-after "village" of support.  You can rely on your friends, neighbors, and relatives to help raise your children, confident that others are generally doing things the same way.

You also become a less neurotic parent, wracked with self doubt that the particular parenting philosophy you've adopted is somehow suboptimal compared the that of your neighbors.  There's simply not as much of a choice, so there's less to be insecure about. (And less insecurity your children can sense and then exploit to their own advantage.)

Lastly, whatever child-rearing strategy your "village" is adopting is a lot more likely to actually make an impact, to have an influence on behavior, because it's continually reinforced, sending your children a clear and unequivocal message about "the rules."

I suppose this is why French strategies work in France, and Chinese strategies work so well in China. In the US we have the freedom to make up our own rules.  But this also means we have the considerable burden of deciding, among a large array of options, what those rules might be and of being the sole enforcer and arbiter of those rules.  It might just be too much to ask.

11 comments:

  1. It all intrigues me too, Kim.
    Societal demands being trying to alter our basic biology are actually really good predictors to physical health, maturity and self-assurance or lack thereof. Here's an alternative and possible creation of a cultural norm: French kids have to wait for food and there are a heap of adult smokers who smoke instead of eat...

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    1. Oh... that's so interesting. I'd love to see some more on that. I suppose for some kids it cultivates the ability to wait maybe for others - those who get "low blood sugar" or just need more constant nourishment - it can be a bit damaging. I think like so many of these parenting strategies, it works in aggregate, but can be harmful to some personality types?

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  2. I love hearing your take on parenting trends. I tend to be wary of anything that claims to be the best parenting method. Kids are different, environments are different - what works for one doesn't always work for another -even with kids in the same family - but I do think you are on to something with the environment being important. It's an uphill battle when you have a set of rules that are not reinforced outside of your home. Another great post that has gotten me thinking!

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    1. I love this point! Of course different strategies work better for different kids, and that points gets swallowed in discussion. For me, having #2, only drives that point home more. And, anyway, none of these strategies gets the "results" 100% of the time and sometimes (as mentioned above) they get the "results" (obedience or patience or whatever) while causing some kind of internal stress or harm. But, still, it seems like if you are the only one enforcing your rules it's too much work and it's work that doesn't work so well. (if that makes sense)

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  3. Can I tell you again how much I love your blog? I totally agree! It is easy when everybody does the same thing. Besides, my father (who grew up in France) tried to install the French way of eating at mealtimes, ot snacking etc... with the outcome that I was miserable and furious! I don't tolerate hunger very well, and may be able to either lash out or become lethargic. This didn't work. My girls are the same and yes, they snack before mealtimes, and still end up eating their dinner. Fine with me. I may not be American, but it's not just American parents who get it all wrong, it's Western parents in general (in India, they breastfeed on demand, in Kenya too, and they're soooo independent,and we got it all wrong becasue we don't co-sleep or breastfeed, or whatever. I am pretty sure if we did all that, it'd be wrong too! I have a post coming on that.

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    1. Thanks so much Olga! I think your story is one that gets swallowed too. Sure, kids learn patience, but at what cost for what children? I hadn't thought of that probably as much as I should have. And I *think* I know what you're getting at with the bf and co-sleeping argument. There's such scant empirical evidence that these things lead to independence and security, and SO MANY other things that happen beyond babyhood that probably have more influence on independence. I'm not sure why those particular practices became so elevated in importance. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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  4. You know what I got from this post? Child-rearing as a community activity. Which makes me think part of the reason Americans get attacked for raising "indulgent brats" might be that community has been taken out of the equation in many places. Families raising children on the other side of the country from their families, living in suburban wastelands never meeting their neighbors... Just so you know, my kids walk around with cheerios in hand for a large part of the day.

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    1. Yes!! That's probably the thing that strikes me most living in Kenya. The community - however that is reinvented in modern africa - is still there. In the US we have to scramble to cobble one together. And that is the root of so many difficulties in modern parenting.

      And my kids snack throughout the day as well. You know, you hear a lot about how humans are "supposed to" be eating smaller more frequent meals and so maybe our kids have some insight here...

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  5. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! It's very difficult to say, "We're raising you like French kids now" and expect it to stick without all of France to back you up on a daily basis.

    I think there's also a question of cultural currency from the kid's point of view - if your kid is the only kid in his/her circle of friends who is not permitted snacks or whatnot then the kid has to figure out how to fit into a culture of snackers. Kind of like if you're that one kid who isn't allowed to watch TV and listen to pop music but you have to interact socially with kids who constantly talk about TV and pop music. TV, pop music, and snacks are just little things but for a kid trying to navigate the treacherous waters of grade school they can add up fast.

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    1. so true! It's hard to strike that balance between sticking to what you believe is right and not making your child a social pariah - which is HUGE in their world. Hopefully these things don't clash too much. As much as I hate screens (computer, TV, anything that starts with an 'i'), I don't think I'd deny my kids these things entirely and partly for the reason that I want them to relate to their peers. It's a tough balance. It's enough that adults don't have a strong community to lean on, I don't want to take that away from my kids too!

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