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Lisa Belkin Headshot

Are 'American' Parents Really That Bad?

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I am a skeptic by nature. I'm that annoying friend who responds to your forwarded email about the most UNBELIEVABLE news not with a WOW, but with a series of links to Snopes and Urbanlegend.com, to show you how gullible you are. 

Yet yesterday I spent part of my morning trying to track down books with titles like "Matriarchs of the Yurt" and "How the Welsh Invented Modern Motherhood." That last one was described as arguing that "Welsh mothers are far superior to the French, the Chinese and the Bolivians because 'the Welsh keep their mouths shut and don't keep reminding their kids how special they are.' "

Yes, it was a joke. Had I known from the start that it was written by the satirist Joe Queenan, I would have figured it out sooner. But all I had was the headline, "Why Italian Moms Are The Best," from the same newspaper that recently told us that French mothers are superior, and before that, the Chinese

Humor only works when it jabs us where we live. And we parents live in insecure times. That's why another satire piece -- "Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults" -- had phones ringing off the hook at the California Parenting Institute last fall, when The Onion attributed a very fake study to a very real organization.

Yes, The Onion "got us." (And I suspect Joe Queenan would be pleased to know he got me...) But that's because something larger had already gotten TO us. When there's a wave of studies telling parents how their every action can cause unintended harm, along with a wave of books pointing out how every other country is doing it better, then the far-fetched blends with the actual and becomes strangely believable. It can only happen, though, when the message resonates in the first place. If parents didn't have doubts, there would be no nerve for these books and studies to hit. 

A lot has been written refuting the notion that the French (or Asians, or Welsh or mothers of Ulan Bator) are better than we are. (For the latest heated argument, see the thread on UrbanBaby.com titled "Why Would I Want to Take Advice on Being a French Mom?" which includes such conclusions as "Why would I want to raise my son to end up as a high brow, petulant and condescending french adult. Have you people been to France? I was born there and lived there as an adult as well. I would rather raise a brash, but open minded and kind, American, thank you.") 

Every one of these very many words is based on a singular, unspoken assumption, and that's what I want to explore on Parentry today. All these ethnic and cultural parents are described as being better than American parents, which leaves me with a question: What on earth do we mean by American parenting? 

Is there such a thing in this polyglot place where parents spend too much time doubting themselves and judging each other? Do we mean overindulgent parenting -- in a country where so large a percentage of families are suffering economically? Do we mean hovering parenting -- when the most vocal subgroup proudly calls themselves Free Range? Do we mean Asian parenting, since five percent of the population is of Asian ancestry, and therefore, part of American parenting? Or maybe we actually mean French parenting, since nearly 12 million households in the US speak French?

Whatever this American parenting thing is, it reflects choices we have made as a culture. Choices we can undo, or rethink, or adjust if we decide we've ended up someplace we'd rather not be -- but first we have to agree on where we are and where we'd prefer to be headed. Because whatever American parenting is, it's the result of the "my problems are my problems and I have to fix them" thread of the American psyche, which leads us to treat parenting as a private not a communal concern. The countries we are told are so much better don't do that. They believe that raising children, particularly very young children, is best done with the generous dollops of maternity leave and health care and child care. 

And whatever American parenting is, it's also the result of the macho "I can sleep less than you do" work ethic, and "I don't dare take all my vacation time because I will be looked on as a slacker" worldview. The French, in contrast, legislated a 35-hour workweek, rioted when politicians suggested it be made longer, and religiously take the month of August off. 

So it is time that American parents, whatever and whoever they are, stop beating themselves up over how they aren't good enough. Thoughfully examining what we can learn from others and change in ourselves? Fine. Gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair because we are failing? Enough. 

To help you, we offer an essay by Josette Crosby Plank which ran in Blogher last week. Titled "French Parents Are Superior -- Just Like All Other Parents,"  it contains a list of all the groups that are clearly better at this gig than you. So you might as well just get over it. You can read the entire essay HERE, (and you should) but here's a taste: "Parents who vaccinate; Parents who don't vaccinate; Parents who keep a clean house and who carry hand sanitizer in order to keep their kids healthy; Parents who allow their kids as much contact with germs as possible in order to build up their immune system and keep their kids healthy..."

No matter what your parenting style, she writes, "Other parents are better. They are better than you in all ways. They are better at disciplining their kids, motivating their kids, and keeping their kids out of harm's way. Their children will have more friends in school, lead more fulfilling lives, and never need therapy. Their kids will rule. And it will all be because other parents were much better parents than you can ever hope to be. Sorry."

Yes, she is joking. 

Really.