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Hey, You, American Parent, Apparently You Suck

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On Sunday, I eagerly started reading Brigid Schulte's opinion piece in the Washington Post because of its headline "What's so bad about American parents?" Finally, I thought, finally, someone has come to their senses and realizes that our cultural habit of trashing all things parenting is ineffective and doesn't help anyone. Beginning with the tired parents who could use a little pick-me-up beyond their morning coffee. Instead, what did Schulte do? She trashed American parents.

Why I allowed myself to be surprised by this might be what frustrates me the most. It has now become sport between the media and the latest parenting guru/author to dismantle anything good that American parents might do and instead over-analyze it all. My other favorite tactic, willfully deployed by Pamela Druckerman and now it seems the Post Outlook section, is to make wide-sweeping claims about the bad habits of American parents in our child-centric culture.

First, to set the stage, Schulte claims we were all gripped with Tiger Mom anxiety. Really? Were we? I have yet to meet a parent who is fretting over being Tiger Mom, quite the contrary, I know only mothers who shared the sentiment that Amy Chua is overzealous; shall we say a little too much Captain Von Trapp before falling in love with Maria. After briefly mentioning the superior French parenting styles, Schulte posed a provocative idea -- that we instead pursue more happiness in our parenting approaches.

I appreciated that she suggested that part of the reasons American parents struggle to find happiness is because of the lack of government support in childcare, like the French have, and no federally mandated paid paternity leave. These are critically important issues to all of us and to see them in the Sunday Washington Post Outlook section is refreshing. My question is this -- why did the issue have to be book-ended by reminding us that American parenting is expected to be wholly done by mothers and the lack of support from our government feeds the Mommy Wars.

Really?

Again, haven't we moved past the Mommy Wars? And aren't we seeing new research regularly that discusses the increasing pressure fathers feel to meet the demands of work and home, while also taking on more responsibility in the home? Can't we agree that the needle is moving and that the only people who seem devoted to the Mommy Wars are those in the media?

Instead of devoting paragraphs to "child-centered, expert guided, emotionally absorbing" (read: lousy) parenting, wouldn't it have been refreshing to examine the changing role of fathers and by giving voice to the fathers, perhaps, in turn, we might be helping improve our business culture and attitudes towards flexible work policies? Until we stop positioning these issues as women's issues and issues facing mothers, nothing will change.

And about these claims of the child-centered parenting approach, who exactly, are we trashing here? Of course our parenting approach is child-centered in the first few years because the children can't do anything themselves. I'm certain this isn't unique to American babies. But I can't help but wonder this: is it really child-centered as they age? For instance, I have no shame in admitting that I do not like to play. I like to do art projects, I like to go to the park, play board games, but I have no desire to get onto the floor and play Little People or Barbies.

I feel that my job, as a parent, is to find the balance between undivided attention and teaching my kids to play themselves or better, yet, together. If I fail to establish these boundaries then I am surely raising monsters. But isn't this one of the most fundamental parts of good parenting? Maybe I'm just not afraid to admit I don't like to play but I know I'm not alone. And the core issue here is about setting boundaries and saying no and having the confidence to say no. Are we truly a culture that is afraid to say to their kid: Go have fun playing in your room. Or: I'm going out now, I'll be back later, mommy needs a break.

I argue that we aren't and we actually set these boundaries. Maybe it's just more fun in the media to whip us all into this harried, confused, insecure, over-eager parent.

What I did appreciate about Schulte's piece was her discussion towards the end about our pursuit of happiness and being an achievement-centered culture. I felt she buried the lede of her story, which is this idea put forth by Christine Carter, a sociologist, that instead we need to parent our children to find happiness first before we push them towards achievement. That we need to "expect effort and enjoyment, not perfection."

Before we can expect our children to appreciate this perspective, however, we as parents must first accept that the path to finding happiness in parenting is to expect effort and enjoyment and not perfection from ourselves. Our children aren't perfect, they all aren't gifted and talented, and each them of them will not go on to play professional sports or win the Nobel Peace Prize. But if we enjoy them, accept that parenting them takes an enormous, exhausting amount of effort, and that we'll make mistakes along the way, then we are teaching them that is life. It's flawed, messy and fun. It's hard and the path is bumpy.

Have we all really lost sight of common sense and perspective like the media keeps beating into our heads? Or have you also had enough of being told that you're doing it all wrong?