Pity the American children: No one is writing books about how great they are. Instead, praise has lately been reserved for kids overseas, who—according to a profusion of books and articles in the past decade—possess deep stores of resourcefulness and resilience, those sought-after traits that allegedly set kids up for a lifetime of contentment, or at least success.
These thriving children develop under the guidance of parents who are in some cases carefree and in others completely overbearing. In 2011, the author and law professor Amy Chua detailed the strictures—and the payoffs—of a hard-driving “Chinese” (as opposed to “Western”) approach to parenting in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The following year, Pamela Druckerman, an American writer living in Paris, walked American parents through the seemingly effortless child-rearing techniques of the French in Bringing Up Bébé, telling of “a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters, and reasonably relaxed parents.”
Not all American parents are monitoring, much less trying to emulate, other cultures of parenting, but these books have an audience—Tiger Mother and Bringing Up Bébé have each sold hundreds of thousands of print copies in the United States.
Questioning their own methods, these parents—likely the ones with the most resources and time for fine-tuning their parenting styles—are searching abroad for alternatives. It might be “a tacit recognition that the North American style of parenting is so exhausting on so many levels that people are looking around to see, Are other people doing it better?,” says Linda Quirke, a sociologist at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University who studies parenting advice.
A bookshelf’s worth of titles addressing that question has been published in the 2010s, following Chua’s and Druckerman’s contributions. Many are country-specific: For a tour of other parts of Europe, there’s The Danish Way of Parenting, Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, and The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (And Themselves) by Doing Less. Other books survey several countries, including Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us and Do Parents Matter?: Why Japanese Babies Sleep Soundly, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Families Should Just Relax.
The takeaways from these books are as varied as the cultures that inspired them, but a common thread—Tiger Moms excepted—is an emphasis on raising children in a way that is not so burdensome on both parent and child. These books offer models of parenting that require, well, less parenting. One presents the philosophy, common in France, that parents can speak to babies and toddlers much as they might speak with older children or adults; another shares the idea, common in the Netherlands, that kids should be permitted to wander and explore. The way the Dutch do it “hits that elusive balance between parental involvement and benign neglect,” observe the authors of The Happiest Kids in the World.
Researchers, of course, were studying the world’s cultures of parenting well before any of these books were released. The earliest precursors to today’s globally oriented portraits of family life are childhood-focused works such as the anthropologist Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Growing Up in New Guinea, which were published roughly 90 years ago. Meanwhile, Robert and Sarah LeVine, the married authors of the aforementioned Do Parents Matter?, told me that they started conducting anthropological fieldwork outside the U.S. more than 50 years ago, though that book was their first written for an audience of parents rather than academics.
And Americans have been comparing their parenting practices with Europeans’ for far longer than that, according to Paula Fass, a former history professor at UC Berkeley and the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting From Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Fass says that since the beginning of the republic, raising children to be self-reliant has been an important national project, one reflective of the strength of American democracy. Early American educators and doctors who wrote about parenting, Fass told me, “were constantly talking about the need to be different than the Europeans, who were hierarchical and patriarchal.”
A major shift in the 20th century was that parents came to rely heavily on expert guidance, but they were primarily interested in what other Americans recommended. "They didn’t look positively toward Europe or elsewhere, because they thought of American culture as superior and exceptional,” Fass said.
More recently, though, in the past few decades, the comparisons Americans make between the U.S.—where the ideal of hands-on, “intensive” parenting is the new normal—and other parts of the world come with more humility. Fass attributes this to a set of three interconnected developments. First, “the United States doesn’t see itself as any longer in the same economically privileged situation that it was in in the past,” she said. America’s economic primacy has been contested by the dynamism of several countries, particularly European and Asian ones, which leaves American parents concerned that their kids won’t succeed in a hypercompetitive, globalized economy.
Second, and relatedly, international standardized testing that compares various countries’ educational systems has given Americans a sense of how unremarkable theirs is. For instance, in the first Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, in 2000, students in the U.S. were shown to have middling math and reading skills, giving American parents a sense that their children had fallen behind those in other wealthy countries. A decade later, after Chinese students first participated in PISA and performed best in every category, the secretary of education at the time, Arne Duncan, said, “We can quibble [with the results], or we can face the brutal truth that we’re being out-educated.”
The third factor Fass cited was the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce, which—because men rarely take on an equal share of child-care duties—made motherhood “a much more fraught experience than it used to be,” Fass said. For all the opportunities that working opened up to women, being an attentive parent was easier when it wasn’t being balanced with professional duties. These three trends established a sense of insecurity and, therefore, a market for international parenting books. (Perhaps more Americans would be interested in parenting books focused on the global South if children there were outperforming American kids on standardized tests.)
Druckerman was working on Bringing Up Bébé as these trends were about to crest, even if she says she wasn’t looking to capitalize on them. At the time Bringing Up Bébé was published, Americans (particularly affluent ones) were already a decade or two into practicing helicopter parenting; a dispatch from a land where child-rearing was relatively more laissez-faire naturally held appeal.
“More than anything,” Druckerman told me, echoing Fass, “there was an ambient feeling of insecurity and a realization that we may not have the best recipe for everything, and that people in other countries have things to teach us." She sees this playing out in other realms too, as journalists and policy experts have looked abroad to see, for instance, how other countries legislate gun safety and health care.
If Bringing Up Bébé appealed to American parents’ desire to be more relaxed, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother caught on in part because of the fear it inspired—both of Chua’s brutal tactics and that they might actually be effective. Chua wrote that she banned sleepovers and playdates, and mandated that her daughters earned the best grades in their class in nearly every subject. She presided over hours-long piano practices and once called one of her daughters “garbage.” (After the book’s release, many Asians and Asian Americans denounced these methods.) A decade later, both of her daughters are Harvard grads—so Chua’s methods “worked,” if the goal was elite educational achievement.
Later in the decade, books about Scandinavian parenting simply presented American parents with blueprints for raising happy children. These books (and countless articles about northern-European lifestyles more broadly) came on the heels of new research: In the annual United Nations–supported “World Happiness Report” (launched in 2012) and UNICEF’s accounting of children’s well-being in 29 wealthy countries (launched in 2007, with the latest results released in 2013), the Netherlands and Scandinavia have been dominant, consistently ranking above the U.S. And when other people are quantifiably happier, Americans get curious about what they could do differently.
Of course, one pitfall of this body of parenting literature is that parents might imagine themselves to have more power over their own happiness than they really do. When Jennifer Glass, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, and her fellow researchers looked at happiness gaps between parents and nonparents in 22 wealthy countries, they found that their sizes varied widely. The two biggest factors shaping these gaps, Glass told me, were the average cost of child care as a percentage of a country’s median wage and the extent of policies that covered paid vacation and sick days.
Which means that several important components of being a happy, relaxed parent have nothing to do with parents’ behavior, but depend on the support system in place where they live—something American parents can’t emulate. “It’s not surprising that the U.S. had the biggest gap in happiness,” Glass said, given the scarcity of affordable child care and working parents’ uneven access to paid leave. In France, she noted, the happiness gap was nonexistent; there, working mothers get four months of paid leave before and after giving birth and, as Druckerman writes, the government pays for most or all of the cost of physical therapy for mothers to recondition their abdominal and vaginal muscles after birth.
Similarly, economic conditions can shape how easy it is to parent in certain ways: A book published earlier this year by two European-born economists living in America includes data indicating that in countries with higher levels of economic inequality, parents are more hands-on in guiding their kids’ success, because the stakes of success are higher.
Druckerman is well aware of society-level differences like this. “My book is implicitly an effort to show that there are other legitimate ways to spend our tax dollars, and you can have these structures without ending up in the Soviet Union,” she said. “But I do think that a lot of parenting is private, too. Getting your kids to sleep through the night and teaching them how to eat vegetables and conceiving of yourself, especially for women, as a person outside of your role as a parent … those are things that, once you realize that you’re following your own cultural script, maybe you can get outside of it a little bit.”
When parents try to import some European practices, though, laws and social norms can impede their efforts. Sara Zaske, in her 2018 book on German parenting, Achtung Baby, explains that “Berliners place a high value on children getting fresh air, so leaving a baby outside [in a stroller] is considered [a] healthy thing to do.” However, she writes, “the practice of leaving a sleeping baby unattended for even a short time is so antithetical to the American idea of safety that when a Danish mother left her small child outside a restaurant in New York City, she was arrested for it.”
Having the freedom to leave children outside may not be something that American parents yearn for, but they can’t be blamed for wanting something different after reading about laid-back parents in other parts of the world. Yet given how much of parenting culture is out of parents’ control—and in governments’—these books, enlightening as they are, can also be stressors. “If you feel overwhelmed, and everyone around you feels overwhelmed … doesn’t it feel worse to think that there are a whole bunch of women in Europe who are just having a fabulous time?” says Quirke, the sociologist studying parenting advice.
This doesn’t seem to be hurting demand, and in fact, the market of concerned parents extends far beyond American borders. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Bringing Up Bébé have each been translated into roughly 30 languages. Druckerman said she was surprised to see the book catch on in Brazil, Russia, Japan, and elsewhere, and takes this as evidence that parents around the world, not just in the U.S., are frazzled and overwhelmed.
One place the book didn’t sell particularly well was France, where Druckerman has witnessed a different relationship to parenting guides. "It’s more about educating yourself and digesting information and figuring out the way that you want to do things,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a sense that you need or want a parenting guru." (Indeed, the sociologist Caitlyn Collins has found, in interviews with middle-class American and European mothers, that the latter “rarely invoked expert views, instead talking about traits they wanted to instill in their children (stability, independence, kindness) and wanting them to feel safe and loved.”)
Of course, Druckerman also noted that French parents might not have been clamoring for her book simply because they didn’t need their own methods explained to them. Perhaps, I suggested to her, someone could write an account of American parenting for a French audience, like Bringing Up Bébé in reverse. She suggested that it should be a satire.
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