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 Bebe, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, and the newly released Baby Meets World.
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.
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.