Journalist Pamela Druckerman's new book Bringing Up Bébé, which generally praises French child-rearing techniques, is causing quite a stir. Druckerman, who lives in Paris, writes that French children sleep through the night at three months, eat well-rounded meals at regular hours (no snacking) and are generally much better behaved than their American counterparts. And French moms apparently have a much easier, calmer sense of authority and aren't as harried as American moms.
Druckerman, who used to write for The Wall Street Journal, has provided yet another tome in the growing library of "foreign-moms-are-better" literature. How can we forget Yale Law School professor Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which extolled the virtues of her Chinese mom tough-love philosophy? All of this seemed to be designed to make American parents feel downright pitiful.
While Americans debate the value of discipline and self-control -- clearly throwbacks to the Puritan philosophy -- the French prefer to talk about "education" of children, which is more in line with their Enlightenment principles. One of the keys to childhood education is learning to delay gratification, which is accomplished not by harsh measures, but by the firm, calm exercise of authority. French children are not permitted to interrupt adults in the middle of a conversation, and are not allowed to eat except at prescribed mealtimes. And French parents are shocked that American children can go to the refrigerator any time they please for a snack.
Although childrearing approaches can be endlessly debated -- and seem to be in constant flux not only from culture to culture, but also from generation to generation -- the impact of childrearing on society is clearly enormous. Starting in the 1950's with Dr. Benjamin Spock's parenting books and later in the 1960's and '70's with the generation of baby boomers coming of age amidst rapid social change, Americans became increasingly permissive -- and at the same time overly attentive -- to their children.
There has been much handwringing over helicopter parenting, hyper-parenting and all the rest. Whether it is the result of our overindulgent parenting styles, or our conflicts about discipline and boundaries, it is absolutely clear that American society has lost much of its traditional sense of self-control. We see it in everything from the mountainous level of personal and national debt to the high rates of divorce and addiction, and from the excesses of the media to our rancorous political partisanship.
In my recent book, Idonomics: How the Pleasure Principle is Destroying the American Dream, I cite the landmark study by Walter Mischel, an Austrian-born research psychologist who conducted an interesting experiment at Stanford University involving four year-olds and marshmallows. He offered the children a tempting choice -- they could have one marshmallow right away, or if they waited a few minutes, they could have two marshmallows. Videos of the kids struggling with deferred gratification show their anxiety as they cover their eyes and fidget anxiously, trying to avoid eating the delicious treat that is right in front of them. Most of the kids couldn't hold out more than three minutes before eating the marshmallow. About thirty percent, however, were able to delay gratification for about fifteen minutes.
Mischel's experiments, along with his follow-up of his subjects over the next thirty years, spawned a whole range of studies into the mechanics and sources of delayed gratification. Mischel's findings that the thirty percent of children who were able to resist temptation had higher academic achievement and better personal relationships later in life also generated great controversy. This in turn led to studies into the psychological, neurological, genetic and cultural sources of delayed gratification. Theories sprung up in the fields of social psychology, medicine, political science, economics and even philosophy about the reasons why people might delay immediate gratification.
In purely Freudian terms, these children were struggling to control their "id" - which Freud suggested was the center of unconscious impulses. By extension, "idonomics" is the unleashing of the collective id on all of our social institutions -- from politics and economics, to religion and family life. My book Idonomics explains, for example, how this operates in the worlds of business and the American consumer. With easy credit, looser regulations and lots of tempting offers, one might sympathize with the young couple who take advantage of the no-money-down, zero-income offers to buy a house or a car. Or why a homeowner might jump at the chance to refinance her home with a cash-out deal to upgrade her kitchen.
While it's easy to ignore the consequences of a million individual economic decisions, they can add up to one great big systemic risk, as we discovered during the 2008 financial meltdown that precipitated the Great Recession. While the average person may be only taking a small risk, the big players are often taking gigantic risks. Idonomics is when people simply abandon common sense in pursuit of the pleasure principle, and we all end up suffering as a result. Whether it's politicians grasping for short-term fixes while ignoring long-term problems, media companies sacrificing truth for ratings, or even religions offering wealth, health and happiness through prayer, our reckless pursuit of the pleasure principle has brought us to this mess.
The answer may not be to embrace French or Chinese parenting techniques, but as a society we need to examine our helter skelter approach to the American dream. By sacrificing long-term happiness for short-term pleasure, we have cheated ourselves and our children, and have endangered their legacy. The key to achieving and sustaining the American dream is not so simple as greater discipline, or Puritanical self-control, but rather in recognizing the difference between instant gratification and genuine fulfillment.