KIDS, AMERICAN STYLE

Do we really have to turn to China or France for help raising our children?

By Alina Tugend

American parents seem eager to look to other cultures for help raising their kids. A few months back, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, written by Yale law professor Amy Chua, lit up the mommy blogs and op-ed pages with its lament that Western parents are too timid to raise their children the right — i.e., the Chinese — way. Then, in this year’s Bringing Up Bébé, a Francophile ex-pat living in Paris tells American parents to forget the Chinese — it’s the French who really know how to raise children.

And in April, a Canadian woman married to a Frenchman published French Kids Eat Everything, which focuses on children’s eating habits. Not too long ago, we thought that raising kids took a village. Now it takes a country — just not this one.

I’m all for studying other cultures. Both my sons were born while my husband and I lived in London, and I discovered some child-rearing policies that I would like adapted over here in a heartbeat.

But the strange thing about this confluence of books is that Americans are reading them — and talking about and debating them — in numbers that are probably unprecedented. Peter Stearns, provost of George Mason University and author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, told me that he can’t recall another time when this debilitating idea that some other culture knows what it’s doing — and we don’t — has been so prevalent.

“This is a bit of a new pattern,” Stearns says, “and it reflects an interesting level of uncertainty in Americans.” In the past, he explains, American parents were usually aware that other cultures treated their children differently, but the typical attitude was, “They’re wrong.” Now they’re right and we’re dumb.

“This trend catches us at a time when conscientious parents are unsure that they’re doing the right thing,” Stearns says. And they have less confidence than in the past that their children can handle life’s duties or setbacks without them. So they compensate with more parental supervision, more activities, more reading pulled off the Internet and best-seller lists, and more worry. Wealthy parents have the added concern that their children may succumb to the pressures and temptations of privilege, and that their future will be dimmer than that of their predecessors.

Globalization has made parenting, like just about everything else, more competitive. In many affluent areas parental anxiety begins with the battle to get into a top preschool; the other applicants are no longer just wealthy white people, but the kids of successful immigrants from China, India and the Middle East. The competition continues at highly selective boarding schools and universities that require grade point averages above 4.0 (yes, they exist) and are anxious to attract top-notch foreign students — just at the time when unemployment among Americans under 25, even those with an Ivy League degree, is double the national rate.

But the pressures of globalization can loom too large. American children are stronger and more capable than they get credit for, and American culture more competitive. One slip-up in eighth-grade algebra or failure to make the varsity tennis team won’t doom your kid. In fact, it might help. The new buzzword in education and the workplace is resilience — the idea that the ability to bounce back from failure is more integral to ultimate achievement than an unblemished record. By encouraging our children to enjoy the quintessentially American freedom to engage in trial and error — to make and learn from mistakes — we might be preparing them to succeed.

It won’t be long till we get the next book on raising kids the Indian way or the glories of the Swedish family. Uppercrust parents will snap it up. They might help their kids more by putting it down.

Alina Tugend writes the Shortcuts column for The New York Times and is the author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. Her website is alinatugend.com.

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