And if most American parents are unsure, overwhelmed and freaked out, all you have to do is walk into any bookstore and, as a friend recently pointed out, you’ll find 25 different parenting books by 25 different parenting experts, all of which say 25 different and often contradictory things. Or visit any American parenting blog or Web site, where different styles are often held as sacred as a religious belief — if you don’t “attachment parent” and wear your baby for a couple of years, you are castigated for “abandonment parenting.”
Kathryn Masterson, writing in the Washington City Paper last year, brilliantly — and depressingly — captured the scarred American parenting battlefield among a certain demographic by tracking the anonymous mortar attacks after a simple query about baby strollers on one fairly typical parenting site, DC Urban Moms. Soon, epithet-laden assumptions about class, education and income level were hurled based on stroller type, until one commenter blasted another: “You are a planet killer, waste your money, and dress your kids funny. How can one not judge you?”
But this unending, merciless judging of other parents in the name of what’s “best,” this constant comparing of ourselves with parents in other countries, this gnawing fear that kids are falling behind and our nation is losing its superpower edge, point to a deep insecurity that is not only draining American parents but fostering insecurity in American children.
To Christine Carter, a sociologist with the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, the answer for American parents is in our Declaration of Independence: the pursuit of happiness. What she teaches in online parenting classes is that, in our achievement-obsessed culture, we have it backward.
“The underlying American assumption is, if our kids get into a great college, they’ll get a great job, then they’ll be happy,” Carter said. “Our cortex of fear is around achievement. So, in order for our kids to get into a great college, get a great job and be happy, we get them piano lessons, after-school Mandarin class, we think more, more, more, more, more is better. And it blossoms into such pressure that by the time the kids get to college, about a quarter are on some kind of anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. Our hovering and insecurity as parents breeds insecurity in our kids by teaching them that they can’t handle discomfort or challenge.
“What we need to be parenting for,” Carter said, “is not achievement first, then happiness — but happiness first.”
To do that, she advises parents, when they can, to lose the self-sacrifice and take care of themselves; expect effort and enjoyment, not perfection; savor the present moment; and do simple things together such as have a family dinner. “When our children are happy, when their brains are filled with positive emotions like engagement, confidence and gratitude, we know from science that they are more likely to be successful and fulfill their potential,” Carter said. “It does not mean they will be above average if, in fact, they are average children.”
Indeed, Carter said, studies are finding that achievement does not necessarily lead to happiness, but that happiness is what fosters achievement. She points to an analysis of 225 studies on achievement, success and happiness by three psychologists that found that happy people — those who are, as Druckerman writes of the French, comfortable in their own skin — are more likely to have “fulfilling marriages and relationships, high incomes, superior work performance, community involvement, robust health, and a long life.”
And really, what more could parents — of any nationality — want for their child than that?
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post staff writer and a New America Foundation fellow. She is at work on “Overwhelmed,” a book about time pressure and modern families.
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