Friday, September 9th, 2011
Why Americans Value Independent and Competitive Kids
raising-independent-children/ istockphoto- © IrinasCreativePhoto
What does Ann Coulter share in common with the average American anarchist? If you guessed parenting goals, you would be right. Hard to believe? Well, I’ve been rereading my favorite parenting book, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith Small, which looks at how parenting has evolved around the world. Every time I dive back into its pages something new catches my eye. Though it’s always fascinating to learn about exotic cultures, this time it was American parenting that made me pause.
Ms. Small defines the primary American parenting goal as independence, as opposed to say cooperation or social integration, and says it matches our society’s emphasis on individual achievement and self-reliance. It is a strategy that extends across class lines, religion and education level. If one side of the independence coin is a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps’’ mentality favored by conservatives, the other is the “fly your freak flag” attitude often associated with the left. Independence is something we want for our children across the board. In practice, this goal affects every facet of our parenting and each interaction with our children. The independence skill-building that we do as infants may in fact keep us from parenting in any other way–we are conditioned to need space, which can later conflict with our babies’ need for comfort.
From birth on, American parents push children away. Though as a culture we are slowly readjusting back towards the breastfeeding and co-sleeping that exemplified parenting for millennia and still holds for the majority of the world, most American babies spend disproportionate amounts of time alone compared to babies globally. We put our babies in their own beds and even their own rooms within the first few months. We use strollers and car seats, further decreasing the amount of time babies spend in physical contact with their parents. How many times have any of us encouraged a kid to play by themselves? We do this because we think it develops an autonomous sense of self and important self-soothing skills. We do it in an attempt to provide our children with the skills they will need to succeed in life. It’s like that parable about giving a man fish versus teaching him how to fish–we all want our kids to be able to fish. It’s just that success is culturally defined.
Ms. Small defines the ideal American child as “aggressive, competitive and highly verbal,” a child who can stand up for themselves. Hence, American parents across the internet lament the arrival of “helicopter parenting,” the parent who is invasive and overprotective. It’s because it grates against our parenting culture. We worry that sort of parenting behavior will create dependent children. We may not be conscious of why we feel the way we do because so much of it is internalized, but we know our feelings are strong. The unified underpinning to how we raise our children is largely unconscious and involuntary. There is really no way to escape it.
See, I’m all for baby carrying, co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand, and momentarily I thought I’d aligned myself in opposition to American parenting culture. Then, when I read about our obsession with talking to babies and how we think it makes them smart, I had to admit, I talk to babies all the time. It seems I too would be parenting in the American form since I narrate the world as best I can, describing during diaper changes every move I’m making out loud. This strategy is one that is culturally endorsed. I remember reading a study that explained the learning gap between children growing up in poverty versus those growing up in affluence as being the product of the number of words heard in the home. It is American parenting culture at work in that study, the same culture that has come to embrace flashcards for toddlers and the like. It was an interesting reminder that in many places, talking to babies is considered silly and superfluous. Even as a cultural relativist, I can’t help but think our way is “right.”
Every generation of every culture thinks how they parent is “right.” The most important contribution of ethnopediatrics is the field’s insistence that there is no such thing as “right” parenting. Instead, cultural and biological forces have shaped parenting traditions in various situations.
In this era of polarized politicking, it can sometimes seem like little unifies us culturally, but we share this culture in common, republicans and democrats alike, which means there are common values after all. It may in fact be the one bridge between people who seem to have nothing else in common. In listening to sex pioneer, Susie Bright, speak about parenting from a sex radical perspective, I noted her emphasis on privacy—the centrality of maintaining privacy for herself while also creating space for her child to be an individual. She is most likely unaware of the unconscious adoption of cultural values she’s perpetuating. The same set of values that sways tofu-munching liberals influences the bible-thumping conservatives down the street. So even as I question some of what we have adopted, I can’t help but be comforted that there is something we can embrace collectively.
© 2011 – 2013, Kellen Kaiser. All rights reserved.
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