We often hear that American parents are not a very happy group. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert tells us parents would rather be doing laundry than tending to their kids and that only when the last child leaves home do they start smiling. Parents recently catapulted Jennifer Senior’s All Joy and No Fun, a meditation on the demanding “Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” to the bestseller lists for more than a month.
There are lots of theories about the source of parental pain, but here’s one you probably haven’t heard: it’s the way Americans raise their kids.
Biologists tell us that the brains of human infants are less developed at birth than those of newborns of other species. While animals survive simply by following their natural born instincts, humans have to be encultured, that is, they have to learn how to adapt to the specific social environment in which they are born. Alas for beleaguered parents everywhere, mothers and fathers, with a little help from educators and extended family members, are assigned the task of helping their children build on that open psychic real estate using the materials of their culture, the shared beliefs and the related repertoire of behaviors that will eventually turn their children into Japanese, Italian, or American adults.
Middle-class American parents start that project almost immediately after their children arrive home from the maternity ward. Cross-cultural psychologists have found, for instance, that American mothers talk to their infants more frequently and expressively than parents in other cultures. They respond more excitedly to their babies’ kicks, they exclaim when they first roll over, begin to crawl, or stand up; baby’s first steps inspire stadium-loud cheers. As time goes on, they decorate their kitchens with their toddler’s earliest finger paintings and line their eight-year-old’s shelves with trophies they make sure are doled out to every child by schools and little leagues.
American mothers talk to their infants more frequently and expressively than parents in other cultures.
Culture tends to be invisible to its participants, and few parents are aware of why they do the things they do, but all of this has the purpose of promoting a particularly American form of individualism: expressive, assertive, and full of self-esteem. Self-esteem, in particular, is an American notion; most other languages don’t even have a word for it. This is true even in other cultures known for their individualism. Nordic children, for instance, are heirs of a tradition of modesty and reticence often referred to as Jante’s Law, a set of principles which can be boiled down to “Don’t think you’re somebody special.” American expat parents are often taken aback by this cultural divide. Kay Xander Mellish, an American mother living in Denmark, describes an incident that captures the contrast between American self-esteem vs. Scandinavian modesty perfectly. Seeing a little boy at a day care center take his first steps, she called out excitedly, “Come on! You can do it!” only to be reprimanded by a nearby teacher for giving the impression the child was doing anything special.
So why would our children’s full-throated individuality make us unhappy? To answer that question, consider a comparative study of Dutch and American mothers and babies by the University of Connecticut husband and wife team of Sara Harkness and Charles Super. The authors found that Dutch mothers were intent on keeping their young babies “calm, cheerful, and well-regulated.” They “spoke frequently about the importance of a regular sleep schedule, which they saw as fundamental to healthy growth and development.” The contrast couldn’t be more striking. American mothers saw their babies as needing “stimulation” and careful attention to their individual urges. Unlike Dutch parents who believe in teaching children regular sleep habits, “they described their child’s sleep patterns as innate and developmentally driven.” In other words, American parents feel they must organize their lives around the presumed needs of their children rather than prompting them to adapt to the family schedule.
And the kids do get with the cultural program. American infants are physically—and vocally—more active than Dutch. Harkness and Super observed that Dutch babies tended to be more often in a state of “quiet alert,” in contrast to the “active alertness” of American kids. It can’t be a coincidence that American children also seem to have more sleep problems. Dutch kids slept through the night earlier than American ones; in fact, at six months of age, they were getting an average of two hours more sleep per day. In her amusing mommy memoir Bringing Up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman reports that French babies also sleep through the night within a few months. It appears that debates about “Ferberizing” (letting babies “cry it out” at night) and the satirical storybook Go the F*** to Sleep (a minor yuppie sensation a few years ago) are cultural anomalies and the wages of a particularly American style of parenting.
American parents feel they must organize their lives around the presumed needs of their children rather than prompting them to adapt to the family schedule.
American parents also have a particular lexicon for disciplining their children, avoiding impersonal, prescriptive rules in favor of questioning individual behavior. One study comparing English and American mothers and their three-year-olds found that while English mothers were “more likely to discuss matters of behavior in terms of the norms of a wider world,” Americans tended to speak in terms of the child’s individual actions. “Tables aren't for walking on” and “You mustn't kick people,” the English caretaker might say; “You're going to hurt yourself” and “Why are you doing that?” is the American approach.
In a related way, children in other cultures are expected to learn ritualized courtesies. Druckerman was struck that while Americans view a child who says “Good morning, Mrs. Smith,” to a neighbor as a bit strange, the French insist that their barely verbal toddlers learn to say “Bonjour” to adults because, as one Parisian explains, they need to “learn they are not the only ones with feelings and needs.” This attention to manners may help explain why the only tantrums she saw on French playgrounds were thrown by her own kids and why French parents don’t have to deal with “shrieking or whining.” Another study comparing Japanese and American parents put it this way: “Japanese mothers expect their [four-year-olds] to be courteous—to say thank you and good morning—and compliant—to come when called,” while “American mothers expect [them] to stand up for themselves and argue their rights.” And as most American parents will tell you with a mixture of pride and fatigue, that’s exactly what they do.
Do their woe and exhaustion mean American parents are doing it wrong? There’s no simple answer to that question. We Americans have our reasons for our parenting exceptionalism, which I’ll explore further in my next post.
This post has been updated since its publication to better summarize the book All Joy and No Fun.