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.