Like every parent, you want your individual child-rearing style to be the best for your baby. But is your way the greatest—or simply good enough? Thanks to the popularity of new parenting manuals, American moms and dads are now having some doubts.
Recent books like The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and now, Bringing Up Bébé, have caused controversy and chaos among new parents. The books themselves present very different perspectives on child-rearing. Tiger moms practice strict, structured and traditional ways of raising a child, with a heavy emphasis on discipline and academics. On the other hand, Bringing Up Bébé touts the laid-back, less "child-centered" style of French parenting as superior.
You heard me right—superior. Not just good or better, but best. When the authors of these books claim that their way's the "best" to raise a child, you might start to feel that what you're doing is flawed or foolish. Are you right?
Dr. David Lancy, Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at Utah State University and an expert on cross-cultural parenting says that the problem lies in the very idea that there is a "best" way to raise a kid. He calls it "the problem of optimization." According to this model, Lancy says, "Parents believe that children can be 'optimized'—and that it's the parent's job alone to see that this happens."
For optimizer parents, this means providing perfect parenting for their children at every stage of life. Along with this concept is the idea of the "critical window"—the idea that if parents don't provide the right experience at exactly the right time, it's too late, and their youngster has already missed out. "This model of parenting places an unnecessary burden of guilt on parents," says Lancy. "It's not up to parents alone to provide perfect experiences for their child every step of the way."
Once you discard the idea that there's a perfect system to create an ideal child, you can read about cross-cultural parenting practices with less panic. You aren't doing it all wrong—really! So discard the "optimizer" model and keep these key points in mind:
- The Promise of Perfection. Despite what Tiger mom and bébé's mère tell you, perfect parenting is a myth. The academic excellence that comes from hours of studying math is an important tool for success, but doesn't assure a flawless future for your child. French children may develop independence and maturity, but these qualities aren't a passport to a pain-free life. These mothers are simply striving to develop the qualities in their children that they—and their culture—value most. Not buying into the myth of the "perfect parent" allows you to zero in on the specific qualities you'd like your little one to develop, such as good grades, being a good listener or having compassion for those in need.
- A Bit of This, a Bit of That. Instead of focusing on one magical method, take parenting step-by-step and don't focus on a single system. You don't have to adopt just one method—such as the French or Asian model—wholesale. Like that Tiger mom's kids are musical masters? Use Amy Chua's "tough love" technique and force your child to tirelessly practice the piano. Want to teach patience? Ditch the guilt and practice the French method of delayed gratification. Be flexible and try different approaches to learn what works for you and your child.
- "Unpack" Your Parenting Style. A 1983 study in the Handbook of Child Psychology defines four primary parenting styles—from high control and engagement to low discipline and disengagement. French and Asian moms fall along this continuum—and so, most likely, do you. When Amy Chua enforces structured homework sessions and music lessons for her children, she is practicing a strict, disciplinary style of parenting. French moms aren't "better"—they just spend less time planning play-dates and more time on adult conversation—typical of a type of low-control, disengaged parenting. Find out where you fit on this scale.
- Define Your Goals. Perhaps raising an independent thinker's more important to you than producing a violin prodigy—and that's okay! You can't consciously choose a parenting style, or be critical of your own, without well-defined goals. If school success is important in your family, then plan and supervise regular study sessions for your child. If you want your child to be altruistic or socially aware, encourage her to volunteer or help her participate in community activities. When you read about a new and improved parenting practice from another time or place, ask yourself—is this consistent with my goals (and not somebody else's)?
- Optimize—or Opt Out?: According to Dr. Lancy, one of the biggest problems for "optimizer" parents is that some qualities that they want their children to develop are things that can't be directly influenced. For example, perseverance and resilience are often desirable qualities for young children—but when optimizer parents hover over their child's experiences to ensure success, the speed bumps in life are eliminated, and kids never learn how to bounce back on their own. Don't intervene in every small playground fight. Allow your child learn to play by herself. The better-behaved French bébés are quite possibly a product of less parental attention, not more. Often, children simply need to be left alone to practice self-sufficiency.
Above all, don't fall into a "bad better best" trap. Read about, study and observe the child-rearing customs of other cultures—not to make yourself feel bad—but to enrich and enhance your own parenting practices.