Bebes and tigers and guilt — oh my!

If there were an Olympic event for parenting at the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia, the Chinese would take the gold medal for overall academic achievement, the French would earn top marks for living a relaxed and civilized life, and the U.S. team would probably be feeling too guilty and stressed to even make it to the competition. 

Global parenting styles are a hot topic, with plenty of conversation swirling about which country is doing the best job of producing model citizens (including debate as to what exactly a “model citizen” is supposed to be). Sparked by last year’s New York Times bestseller on the Chinese means of mothering, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua, the topic picked up steam with Pamela Druckerman’s view of French parenting styles in Bringing up Bb. There’s even a book that promises to provide child-rearing wisdom from Argentina to Tanzania “and everywhere in between,” in How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, by Mei-Ling Hopgood. And slated for 2013 is an exploration of the American style/ Fast Forward Family.

Tiger Mom/ 

‘A-minus is a bad grade’

As the one that started it all, Tiger Mother is the book that’s actually created a verb. “To tiger” is now the accepted term for raising kids with the guiding principle that academic achievement reflects successful parenting. While Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, is Chinese-born herself, she insists that ethnicity has nothing to do with her tenacious methods, saying, “I’m using the term ‘Chinese mother’ loosely. I recently met a super-successful white guy from South Dakota … and after comparing notes, we decided that his working-class father had definitely been a Chinese mother. I know some Korean, Indian, Jamaican, Irish, and Ghanaian parents who qualify, too. Conversely, I know some mothers of Chinese heritage, almost always born in the West, who are not Chinese mothers, by choice or otherwise.”

Chua outlines these basic parenting principles in her book/ “Schoolwork always comes first; an A-minus is a bad grade; your children must be two years ahead of their classmates in math; you must never compliment your child in public; if your child ever disagrees with a teacher or coach, you must always take the side of the teacher or coach; the only activities your children should be permitted to do are those in which they can eventually win a medal; and that medal must be gold.” Are her methods successful? Recent studies show that while Asian Americans are only five percent of the U.S. population, they comprise up to 20 percent of the population at Ivy League schools such as Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. If academic achievement is indeed the measure of success, then, as Chua insists, perhaps those Tiger Moms have the right idea.

The French bbé/ 

chic and relaxed

With a cup of café au lait and a copy of 

Le Monde in hand, Pamela Druckerman provides cultural observations from the land of la belle vie. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal who lived in France while raising three children, she grew curious about the reason that her friends’ kids seemed so calm and well-mannered in comparison to her own. 

In Bringing up Bb, she reveals the French secret for raising a society of good sleepers, adventurous eaters, and relaxed parents. Druckerman says that the French assume that parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there’s no need to feel guilty about a lack of constant supervision and entertainment. They have an easy, calm authority with their kids, with the result that most “bbs” will sleep through the night at two months old, are on their best behavior in restaurants, eat a wide variety of foods, and don’t interrupt adult conversations.

The French, she says, do not even have a word for discipline, instead referring to the concept as “education.” And while she credits parental attitudes with much of this resulting good behavior, she also notes that French parents enjoy affordable, high-quality day care managed by experienced, certified child-care professionals.

American parents/ 

guilty as charged 

So where do American parents fit into this global parenting assessment? According to Tamar Kremer-Sadlik, Director of Programs, Social Sciences Division, University of California – Los Angeles, there is one word that best sums up the state of mind of most U.S. parents/ guilty. 

As part of UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), she conducted studies that contrasted the daily interactions of middle-class families in the U.S. and Italy. One of the most pronounced differences centered on the notion of spending time together as a family. In the activity logs kept by both groups, Americans were careful to designate specific “family time” set aside for pancake breakfasts or trips to the children’s museum. Their European counterparts didn’t even make such designations, Kremer-Sadlik reports. 

“Americans used the word ‘try’ repeatedly,” she says, “as in ‘we try to set aside time just for the family,’ making it seem like something difficult that had to be strived for. The Italians, in contrast, didn’t feel they had to carve out this sort of time, and tended to have leisure activities that were much less structured and more intergenerational.” Kremer-Sadlik, who is co-editor of the soon-to-be-published Fast Forward Family/ Home, Work and Relationships in Middle Class America, says that “quality time” is a concept that’s unique to the United States, with parents behaving as though each activity, even during what is often ludicrously called “free time,” must be planned, plotted, and perfectly managed. 

“Parents will arrange their children’s free time when they’re young with an eye to filling out the application for Harvard when they’re 17,” she reports. This idealization of a family’s off-hours can create considerable pressure, usually, she says on mothers, who often take on the role of social chairwoman and event planner.

There is additional institutional pressure in the United States, she says, and notes how many schools insist that parents commit to volunteer activities on the first day of school. “Nonworking and even working parents must manipulate their work schedules to do this. If they can’t volunteer, they feel guilty and their kids say, ‘Why were other parents there and you weren’t?’”  

Declare your independence

Kremer-Sadlik urges parents, especially mothers, to acknowledge the good jobs they’re already doing, and to try to feel a little less guilty. And even if your kids aren’t as brilliant as the Tiger Mom’s or as mellow as those chic bbs of France, at least you can declare your own U.S.-style independence from the guilt and struggle that seem to characterize so many modern American families. •

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