There’s been a lot of press in the last year about the wonders of French parenting and the glories of Asian tiger mother parenting. I can’t imagine these parenting methods are getting much attention in Europe. A German mother unlikely cares much how a French mother parents. Why? Because in those countries, their traditions and culture run so deep. This is part of the strength and charm of these societies, but it’s a limitation in some ways, too.
When you’re Italian you’re expected to parent like an Italian, not a Japanese parent. These old-country parents seem to move into their parenting role accepting the norms and principles passed on to them from their parents. French parents don’t read about parenting or examine their own parenting like American parents do. It’s just not on their radar.
We Americans are hyper-aware of our role as parents. Some folks mock us for this. So what? Frankly, I’m grateful that I live in a country in which it’s normal and acceptable — even admirable — to examine the standards and expectations embraced by previous generations. I think this is part of what makes Americans interesting in general and what gives me hope for our children – not just my children, but all of our children.
We don’t have to get stuck in some cultural rut if we make a conscious choice to examine our parenting habits with honesty. In cultures where norms and mores are passed on unconsciously and aren’t questioned, both the good and the bad can become impossibly entrenched. American parents have the freedom to scrutinize their assumptions about children and their role as parents so that they can identify whether there’s a mismatch between those assumptions and what kind of adults they want their kids to become. American parents can parent consciously.
I read in passing that French children are better behaved than American children because French parents exert a calm, assertive authority. I would need to know what these writers mean by “better behaved” and “calm, assertive authority” to know whether the French have any tips worth my attention when it comes to parenting. I love their cheese and their enamelware, but after spending time as a tourist in Paris I’m not sure I want my children to grow up with the manners of the average French adult. Just sayin’.
I’ve been reading recently from studies in “ethnopediatrics” – cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary (pediatrics, psychology, and anthropology) investigations into how a parent’s cultural assumptions and choices affect a child’s personality and health. These are studies of modern day parenting practices as they exist in different cultures, in both traditional and industrialized societies. It’s easy to assume that parenting just comes naturally to new parents, and on some level it does. But our judgments and choices are shaped by many things, including our cultural assumptions and goals. All parents come to parenting with certain cultural beliefs and these beliefs affect our parenting choices. Those choices are not neutral. They have a huge impact on the child’s eventual adult personality and even their health.
Reading about how parents in other cultures choose to parent their children on a daily basis is fascinating and enlightening. Two things have crystallized for me during this reading:
1) Parents can carry with them cultural theories about children and parenting that are based on incomplete information or misinformation, which often results in unfortunate outcomes for children. For example, I read about a nomadic people who are suspicious of babies born bald, as babies are nearly always born with a full head of hair in that culture. In fear, the tribe buries bald babies alive. Because they lack basic information about genetics, they make horrible choices in ending the lives of perfectly healthy newborns in a brutal, cruel way.
Are we immune from such misjudgments in the west? Of course not. While the example given is dramatic, there’s no doubt American parents carry with them parenting scripts that are also based on misconceptions and bad information.
John Watson had a huge influence on parenting practices in American culture in the early 20th century. His book “Psychological Care of Infant and Child” advised parents to avoid touching their children — no hugging, coddling, or kissing. The goal? To train children to have “good habits” early on. Who wouldn’t want their children to have good habits? He convinced parents with what sounded like common sense:
Treat [infants and children] as though they were young adults. Dress them; bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task. Psychological Care of Infant and Child, 81-82.
Yikes! This was common sense for many parents. Horrible advice from a respected expert. It led to debilitating depression and emotional scarring.
What cultural theories do American parents at this hour carry in their minds that may be based on errors, misjudgments, or even lies? This question, in itself, is explosive. At least we’re willing to face the question. I hope.
2) We can have unconscious cultural biases that make it very unlikely that we’ll achieve our parenting goals despite our best intentions. What do I mean by “goals”? Well, parents aren’t passive translators of culture; we are active participants, making daily choices in our hope to raise a particular kind of person and citizen. These are our parental goals even if they are unconscious, and they influence the way we speak to, interact with, and shape our children.
I live in and was raised in a culture that places a premium on individualism, which I do value, but not at the expense of social responsibility. I live in a culture that values independence, but I see independence as the adolescent cousin of interdependence. When people from outside our culture observe us, they see the problem so clearly but we’re blinded to it. In our effort to create self-sufficient citizens (which is admirable) we are creating citizens who lack of sense of duty to others, even to those closest to them (which is tragic). I want my own children to become independent and self-sufficient as an intermediary step to true psychological and spiritual maturity which is grounded in self-gift and love.
Because my personal goals for my children are so contrary to those of my culture, I need to be very aware of my unconscious assumptions and parenting scripts. I can see clearly how these assumptions played out in the parenting of my first son because Philip and I were inexperienced parents. Even though we considered ourselves empathic parents, we were very concerned when our baby didn’t sleep “right”, eat “right”, or do what the experts thought he should be doing at every given moment – he wasn’t conforming to the standard.
Now that I’m more clear about my goals for my children and now that I’m more confident as a parent, I’m willing to make choices that are counter-cultural, and I am willing to make those choices no matter the eye-rolling or head shaking of the peanut gallery. I’m willing to dig deep, to question, to scrutinize, to seek the truth. This is conscious parenting and, to me, it’s real American parenting.
Photo Credit: Juan-Carlos Herrera-Arango (photos.com)