In Defense of American Parenting
By Kellen Kaiser
I’ve been reading a lot lately about what Americans do wrong parenting wise, especially in comparison to the rest of the world. I’m not complaining about the proliferation of information on other cultures parenting techniques. I’m an amateur ethno-pediatrician myself and it’s fascinating to learn that the Finnish let their children nap in sub-freezing temperatures and that their governments advocate newborns sleeping in cardboard boxes.
I do though perhaps question the genre of “They do it better” books. Jared Diamond suggests we should emulate hunter-gatherers in their techniques. Not the Incest and knife-play parts, but the rest we should consider. He advocates co-sleeping, wearing children close to the body in things like slings, letting them stray a little farther and take more risks (no helicopter parenting here), and sharing parenting duties with many others. I’m for all of that and I believe a great deal of it is practiced by subsectors of American society already and has been for forty years (see the 1970’s).
In another example, Paula Druckerman, the author of “Bringing up Bebe” says we should borrow from the French, teaching patience, only feeding at mealtime, and speaking with authority so as to not let our children run our lives. Looking around further we can find advice on following African examples or the Japanese.
I not so recently returned from a two month trip to India. While I was there I set my sights on what I could glean from their parental strategies. Parenting there was definitely different in some key ways. It’s hard to say in a county that big that there is a unity of practice or belief but I saw stuff there that would just not occur in the States. Families of five rode along on one scooter. I saw kids walking alone in big cities narrowly dodging cars. I watched a mother hosing down a baby’s butt with freezing cold water next to a bus station while the baby yowled. Parents handed over their infants to me without any concern for my being a stranger. Taking a train from Agra to Varanasi, we shared a cabin with a couple who had a toddler. Less than ten feet away, the train’s door was open. In thirty seconds he could have taken off and ended up on the tracks. I was nervous enough myself, a couple of times, to get up and try to shoo him back in. The parents were much more laissez faire about it.
I was not however sure what meaning to make of the difference. Take the scooter example. The thing is people have to get places and they have to take their kids with them. Since affording a car is out of the reach of a majority of the population doing things like putting their kids on a motorbike is acceptable. Parenting, worldwide, is often about necessity.
I’m not sure the majority of global parenting is entirely as intentional as some of the literature might imply. Most of the world is consumed by the most basic foundation tasks involved, getting food on the table, keeping their children safe as possible, providing shelter.
Watching people parent internationally makes one question what is actually necessary though. We here take for granted that babies must be put in car seats but our parents were raised without them. People used to hold their children in hand while riding in the car and that was that. Since no better option existed there was an acceptance of what we’d now consider unsafe.
In fact much of what we are scared of is a decision. I’m not advocating making the world less safe for kids nor I am suggesting that people in the third world wouldn’t like to make their children safer. It did however remind me of the lyrics of the Mumia Abu-Jamal piece, Hip Hop and Homeland, which says “For here (in America) more than any place on earth wealth is more wide spread and so bountiful. What passes for the middle class in America could pass for the upper class in most of the rest of the world. They’re very opulent and relative wealth makes them insecure.”
We kowtow to fear as a luxury, a choice not afforded to most of the world, and it changes the way we parent. Different cultures have different freedoms, along with different philosophies and moral codes. The dangers may well be the same (there exists rape of children in India, as well as rapes here) but our reactions are different (we, in the US, shelter our kids more).
There are also structural differences that count for something. If I put my whole family on a scooter without helmets I’d be arrested. There would be legal issues if you tried to import all those enticing international practices here. You might end up getting your kids taken away. There have been multiple instances in which immigrants have come into conflict with the government because they were treating their kids in a way that would fly at home but not here. A great example comes in the form of the book “The spirit catches you and you fall down,” which pits the spiritually focused Hmong community in California against the strictures of Western medicine, in a case of a child with epilepsy. We may admire the way far off people parent but we can’t always successfully apply it back home.
Furthermore, no one is parenting in a vacuum. You can’t opt out of the society you exist in. One might layer in a variety of approaches but there is still the underpinnings of what sits outside the front door. You can attempt to withdraw but culture is pervasive. We internalize it into our perspectives to a point that it is inescapable. Even if we fight against it, we are from it and working in reaction to it. Is one Culture and its parenting better than another? Does it matter? Most of us don’t have the ability to uproot ourselves and try again elsewhere. Even if we did, we’d bring our culture with us.
My perspective is that I am a product of this culture but can appreciate others. What irks me is the suggestion that one form or another of parenting is RIGHT. As though somehow their ways of doing things are producing superior (smarter, braver, more well- behaved) children than our own. Now I don’t mean to be a crazy nationalist. I’m not saying Americans produce the “best” kids but judging parenting, culturally speaking, is a faulty and useless endeavor.
I am not such a cultural relativist to say that anything goes. I think corporal punishment, which occurs cross-culturally, is always wrong. I feel that way regardless of where it’s happening. “Good” and “Bad” parenting happens in every society, in every culture. My main point is that choosing how to parent or which trends to follow or even reading half the baby books on the market is a great priviledge and perhaps a fool hardy one. Because, in the end, a lot of the things people say are contradictory and although lots of the folks out there preaching the new ideas about global parenting say to give kids lots of space, engagement is my favorite thing about American parenting culture.