What are American parents searching for in rearing their children? Bookstores have shelves of books offering answers to those who search. The internet brings unending streams of information and advice – often contradictory – for every aspect of parenting. The search has been international with Amy Chua telling why Chinese mothers are superior to American mothers, followed by Pamela Druckerman wishing to emulate the “superior” French parents she came to know while living in France.
More recently we have “ACHTUNG BABY: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children,” by Sara Zaskie. Living in Germany with two young children for a number of years the author reports, “We raise free and responsible children by giving them freedom and responsibility.” In particular, kids walk to school by themselves, ride the subway alone, cut food with sharp knives, play without direction from parents or teachers and spend more time outdoors.
But why do parents get caught by the idea that there is a better way to raise children than the way they are doing it? The ideas that seem to surface are those that relate to independence and self-reliance. Americans have been accused of helicopter parenting, creating dependent, less resilient children. Whether true or not, the search for new or better ways to parent suggests some dissatisfaction with current results. Does a feeling prevail that our children are not turning out the way we would like?
There are several reasons for a sense of inadequacy parents sometimes feel about their method of child-rearing. Implicit is the pervasive feeling of wanting to do it perfectly. Since it is impossible to raise children without stumbling blocks when they appear the feeling in a parent is of having done something wrong – that means imperfect. This in turn points to a second idea, that everything a child does is caused by the parent so if something is wrong with the child, it is the fault of the parent. Such ideas are reinforced by pop articles and reports on various kinds of research.
Much is written about supposed failings in children’s behavior which is then attributed to particular behavior on the part of parents. The various books and articles that report on child-rearing in other countries point to specific parental behavior that differs from ours, attributing supposedly better outcomes in the children to those supposedly superior parental behavior and attitudes.
This in turn rests on the simplistic cause and effect idea that doing certain things will produce a specific outcome, leading to parents search for the “right” way to do it. But if such is the case, what are the outcomes parents are looking for? Here we come back to the question of values. Parents have different aspirations for their children which influence their own behavior and their judgements of their children. Also, children are raised to live in a particular society and cultural values play a role in the outcomes parents seek.
This is what is missing in the judgments brought back about raising children in a different country and culture. Children reflect – as do parents – the values and behavior of the whole society. Chinese, French, German children have various personality characteristics which reflect not only their parents but the society as a whole. There are aspects to their personalities other than the characteristics admired which may be less admired.
In other words, different cultures produce behavior characteristic of the culture as a whole. Isolating individual child-rearing methods and applying them in the search for a specific outcome, ignores the less desirable outcomes that may result. The same is true for the search to produce specific outcomes in our own society.
Children are the product of their genes, family, social and cultural environment. They are total beings who only need help being who they are, which cannot be engineered through specific methods.