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June 18, 2009 8:48 AM   Subscribe

How are American parenting practices unique?

How are the parenting practices of Americans unique regarding the success of their children?

I know every family is unique but I'm looking for generalizations.

Do Europeans "groom" their kids like some American parents do? Is there an overemphasis on their children's resumes like there is in the USA? Are kids in other parts of the developed world taking test-prep courses and music lessons and being labeled as gifted at the same rate?

As an American parent I notice that many parents are hyperfocused on their kids' future and present abilities. We seem to worry a lot about how talented our kids are. Many are preoccupied with giving their children a "cutting edge".

Do other cultures invest this much time and energy in their kids academic and athletic success? What are the differences and attitudes?

I'm curious about these differences because I'm always seeking balance when it comes to parenting. I feel like I am a relaxed parent but admit to occasionally feeling competition and believing I should have "above-average" children.

posted by Fairchild to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Chauffeuring kids everywhere in a car, not letting them walk or take public transit, seems pretty uniquely "American." Even moreso: cars as gifts.

And no, American parents are not more invested in their kids' academic success than are parents in other countries. Quite the opposite, I'd have to say.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:03 AM on June 18, 2009 [5 favorites]

I think it's a mistake to generalize any "American parenting technique" from one social/economic class to another. That's how you run into problems like "ethnomethodologist" does - on one hand saying that kids are generally not allowed to take public transit (which is false in most places that have adequate public transit, and for most families that cannot afford several automobiles), and then saying on the other hand that parents are generally not invested in their kids' academic success.

In other words, my (poor) parents and my friend's parents did not raise me the same way an upper-middle class parent would raise their kid. However, upper-middle class concerns and viewpoints get a hell of a lot more press than poor concerns and viewpoints.
posted by muddgirl at 9:08 AM on June 18, 2009 [9 favorites]

America is too large a country to make these sweeping generalizations.

There certainly is a subset of high-achieving parents who put a lot of pressure on their kids to do well academically and careerwise, however, there is also a very large underclass who invests very little, if any, attention in their kids.

Most parents fall somewhere between these two extremes, I would guess.
posted by dfriedman at 9:09 AM on June 18, 2009

The "hyperfocused" parenting style you are noticing (laregly from the upper demographic strata) probably has to do with the more dog-eat-dog society and economy of the U.S. Such parents are responding to realities that children ending up in the bottom half of the economic ladder (as adults) will find themselves to be (or at least feel) major 'downgrades' in living standards. In Western Europe, this is less true.
posted by Risiko at 9:21 AM on June 18, 2009

You need to look into Chinese parenting. Children there are sometimes chided as "Little Emperors" based on the devotion that two parents and four grandparents lavish on them as a result of laws limiting families to only one child. Parents or grandparents have been known to quit work and literally sit next to children in school to help them learn.

posted by jefficator at 9:21 AM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life is about class rather than country divisions, but you might find it an interesting read nonetheless.
posted by kmennie at 9:24 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Broad brush and stereotype warning, but here's my mental association with (mostly bad) "American-style" parenting (some repeats from above, consider it seconding)...

No spanking or physicality
No playing outdoors unsupervised (irrational fear of abduction)
Irrational Fear/Panic/Anger if anyone else (even a teacher) touches or disciplines your child
Cell phones way too young
Designer clothes/shoes/handbags way too young.
Cars as gifts, esp. for graduation for the 'achievement' of turning 16.
Crazy cosmetic enhancements (braces for baby teeth, fake boobs for teenage girls)
Shallow scariness like pre-teen beauty pageants
Crazy over-fear of alcohol and drugs, even for teenagers.
Trying to overachieve (piano lessons then soccer then baseball practice then tutoring then sleep)
Pushing too hard (parents freaking out at little league games)
All school is about college, all college is about a career, all careers are about marriage/family.
The 'college fund' (education is ridiculously expensive in the USA, keeping it rather elite).

Again, while these are certainly also true of some other parents in some other countries, my reflex is to associate them all with that (white, middle-and-upper-class) "American" thing in a bad sense.

(Don't hate me, some of my best friends, why I even, USA #1 etc.)
posted by rokusan at 9:39 AM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

I used to teach English to immigrants and we teachers used to marvel about how many of our adult students lived with their parents. It was partly economic, of course, but there was also far less of a stigma than in American families. All that "he still lives with his mother" or "she's run home to her mother" or "I can't wait until I'm 18 and can leave" didn't apply--their families were mostly tight and respectful.
posted by eve harrington at 9:49 AM on June 18, 2009

Ha! I'm American and my family's American roots are literally centuries deep, but I had none of those things that rokusan mentioned. Literally none.
posted by ishotjr at 9:51 AM on June 18, 2009

rokusan, Americans are huge spankers. This (see also) paper goes so far as to say "almost all" American kids are spanked at some point (!).
posted by kmennie at 9:54 AM on June 18, 2009

Seconding "Unequal Childhoods," which will certainly disabuse you of the notion that there is such a monolithic things as "American parenting."

I suspect that stories we hear about other countries--like China's "Little Emperors"--are also anecdotal and based on people who may or may not be representative.
posted by not that girl at 10:01 AM on June 18, 2009

I think the American parenting style of which you and ethnomethodologist speak belong to the upper middle class --- or a portion of the suburban upper middle class. It's very different for urban kids, and I'm sure it's very different for rural kids. Just as an anecdote, where we live, high school students are given transit passes to commute to and from (public) school. They don't have school buses for the regular commute but use them for events where a sports team may have to travel together, for example. Living in an urban environment has definitely shaped my parenting because some things just aren't relevant to me. My urban baby has been in a stroller twice --- at his grandma's. I can also name every single time he's been in a car because he hasn't been in one all that much. He rides the transit system with me or his dad frequently, and I expect if we're still in this area 10 or 11 years from now, he'll probably learn the transit system in order to be able to ride, or to at least navigate, it himself --- those parts that are relevant to the area we live in anyway. We don't use a stroller because it's a hassle on the subway and we don't have space for one in our one bedroom apartment, so I learned about slings and carriers and wore him everywhere, which I think has helped make him feel secure and comforted and loved. We don't have room for a crib, so the baby sleeps in our bed, which I think has helped him to learn to sleep well (once he is asleep) because Mom and Dad will be here when I wake up and because he doesn't need to wake up enough to cry when his diaper is wet at night, he goes back to sleep with ease. We're just still at the beginning of my parenting journey, so there's no way to tell how things will change just yet --- but I do know where we live has played a role in some of the choices we've made as parents.

"Success" is subjectively defined, and I think parents spend too much time looking at their child's achievement as a sign of good parenting and as validation. I believe the competition among parents regarding the achievement of their children is more about the parents than the children --- and the children pick up on this competition, which leads to making children more competitive against each other. As parents, we're supposed to support and assist and nurture, but I think too much sometimes parents take credit for their children's achievements that they shouldn't. And while this may seem to be unique to American parents because we see teenage characters in the media suffering with these types of parents, I don't think it is.

For me personally, I want a happy, healthy individual capable of making choices for himself and also capable of dealing with the consequences --- good and bad --- that come from it.
posted by zizzle at 10:08 AM on June 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

If anything I would say that American parenting practices are far more varied than in Europe or Asia. If for no other reason than there proportionally more immigrants in the US that bring in their "foreign" notions of child rearing with them.
posted by GuyZero at 10:09 AM on June 18, 2009

Gee rokusan, I wonder which country I grew up in, since I didn't experience even one of the items on that list (to be fair, cellphones didn't exist then).
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:17 AM on June 18, 2009

On the flipside, typical American parents will never take responsibility for their kid's shortcomings. Maladies have even been invented ("It's ADD" "It's a 'learning disability'") that facilitates this absolution of responsibility.

Typical American parents will never ever admit that they can be (or should have been) better parents.
posted by Zambrano at 10:26 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Zambrano: I have no doubt that bad parents have invented diagnoses to apply to their children in order to facilitate such an absolution of responsibility, and this likely happens way too often, but please don't say that these entire conditions are merely labels for bad parenting. A kid with, say, dyslexia has a neurological condition and thus cannot process the written word the same way we do. If you tell this kid's parents that their kid is really fine, they just did a bad job raising him, you will likely get socked in the face, and rightly so.
posted by zachlipton at 10:44 AM on June 18, 2009

You know what's funny? My grandfather was one of those overbearing fathers who browbeat my father to achieve which my father grew to resent. This caused him to be the opposite with me where I look back yearning for my father to be more involved in my development. The answer, as usual, is never in the extremes, it's in the middle. Too often people looking to correct a certain practice swing too far in the other direction which ends up being closer to the thing they were running away from in the first place.
posted by any major dude at 10:58 AM on June 18, 2009

N'thing it is more of a class distinction but I wonder if the upper-middle class focus on education/grooming is because parents feel there is less of a social safety net for children that choose not to pursue high-paying jobs.

A few years ago Macleans magazine compared parenting styles across the Canada and Quebec (which has a very different culture to the ROC). I remember on statistic had something like 90% of parents in the ROC believing their teenagers over the age of fifteen were not having sex versus something like 75% of Quebec parents stating their adolescents were probably having sex.
posted by saucysault at 11:05 AM on June 18, 2009

Not sure which is worse, parents spanking (never have, never will) or this. I know that may be slightly off topic, but rokusan's laundry list, and no. 1 just gets my dander up.

And as a non-typical (probably) American parent, I can still admit that I can be, should have been and can continue to try to be a "better Parent." Kinda like trying to be a "better person," in my book. I will never be perfect, neither will any of my children, I suppose. But I will also never spank, and if I see you doing it, watch out!
posted by emhutchinson at 11:09 AM on June 18, 2009

I agree that class is too exceptional of categories to generalize into "American" parenting, and region is another huge factor. To wit, I was born and raised in the South, where kids were spanked (at least in the 80s) and taught to call all adults "ma'am" and "sir." The parental obligation was more centered on teaching respect for one's elders rather than grooming for Harvard. When I moved to suburban, middle-class Ohio when I was 10, I was shocked that parents and teachers specifically told me not to call them "ma'am" and "sir" because it made them feel old. Absolutely none of my friends in Ohio were spanked, either.

So instead of trying to create a laundry list of fake cultural mores, think about parenting in your reality. What was the best memory you have of your mother? What did your dad do that you still can't excuse? Abstain from conversing with the pushy, handwring-y parents in your kid's class who make you feel bad about not knowing your first grader's IQ. If you ever meet those really good-hearted, motivated kids who are a bit older than your own brood, compliment their parents and ask them if they have any pointers (without looking psychotic or handwring-y yourself!). The best template you can create for a relaxed, non-competitive value system will have a lot more to do with dynamically acting on personal experience and less about falling in the middle of a spectrum that doesn't really exist.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:44 AM on June 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

If we're talking about stereotypes, the kind that come with ample examples, I'd say many of the sort of most visible American (middle class) parents seem really vigilantly on the defensive. I'd say that many American parents seem scared to death about their parenting skills and how they hold up in a community of other judgmental parents who would "never let my kids do that/eat that/go there" and seem ready to come to fisticuffs over "the right way." They also appear to be very quick to anger.

That being said, none of my friends who are parents who are like this at all. They're actually quite laid back.

But as long as I'm here I'll throw in this theory -- that I imagine the uptight parents I'd described here are more isolated and do not have access to other, accessory parents -- allomothers and allofathers, be they extended family members or whoever. Instead, they have "providers." I think the uptight American may be content to live along with the kids grandparents for a time, but really, living in any sort of cooperative fashion freaks them out.
posted by theefixedstars at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2009

I haven't seen any of the behaviors you describe. I would define American parenting as: "Ignore until there's a problem, then spank or drug or both."

The main difference with other cultures I've seen is that they don't ignore or drug their kids as much.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:35 PM on June 18, 2009

I would define American parenting as: "Ignore until there's a problem, then spank or drug or both."

Do you have kids? I can give you one elementary school where this is not the case and I'm pretty sure there are a lot of other schools just like it. This is a cheap, broad stereotype that's only true on Dr. Phil.
posted by GuyZero at 12:57 PM on June 18, 2009

The other phenom that might not be limited to American yoofs but that I see almost daily is the "everyone gets a trophy" thing. I work with kids and it seems like even kids who finish a competition last have to get a prize or something lest parents be jumping down your throat and the kid develops a complex. As my dad said, "Second place is the first loser," but not for these kids. Some are being raised to think their stuff don't stink.
posted by ShadePlant at 1:35 PM on June 18, 2009

My kids get trophies for participation, everyone gets a science fair ribbon, etc. It's true. My son's little league games don't keep official score.

Unofficially, the kids know whose science fair project is best, they know what the score of the game was and they know who can hit and who can catch and who is picking daisies in outfield. They may not care, but they know.

All that trophy and ribbon shit is for the parents.
posted by GuyZero at 2:07 PM on June 18, 2009

Well, I'm not a parent myself, but I grew up American and many of my best friends were Asian immigrants growing up. Aside from the obvious differences (mats instead of beds, sushi instead of hot dogs, no shoes in the house, etc.) there were also some noticeable differences between their familial relationships and mine with my parents. There was quite a bit of quiet play, zero tolerance for attitude towards the adults, predetermined and strictly enforced homework time (sounds like a stereotype/generalization, I know, but this is an observation I made with my own friends), and a much stronger grandparent role in daily life.

Does this mean I was a rowdy, snarky, lazy kid with no extended family? No, not necessarily, but my family tended not to care so much about most of those, and instead focused on teaching me how to share, how to be kind, how to be financially responsible, etc. I had no allotted homework time, no bedtime, was an only child and never got spanked or even grounded. Their attitude tended to be very laissez-faire towards me, in fact I still remember my dad telling me "You climbed the tree, so you can get yourself down" from time to time.

Also I think rokusan is just bitter, and I'm willing to bet that had those luxuries been available when he/she was growing up we would be hearing a very different song. In my experience, those "bad" parenting techniques are often a reflection of the changing times. It may seem ridiculous for kids to be walking around with cellphones before they're out of elementary school, and admittedly the emphasis on beauty in young people is worrisome, but the world is evolving. Always has been, always will be. Times change, you have to be flexible if you want to weather those changes with any measure of grace.
posted by wild like kudzu at 2:11 PM on June 18, 2009

Zambrano: I have no doubt that bad parents have invented diagnoses to apply to their children in order to facilitate such an absolution of responsibility, and this likely happens way too often, but please don't say that these entire conditions are merely labels for bad parenting. A kid with, say, dyslexia has a neurological condition and thus cannot process the written word the same way we do. If you tell this kid's parents that their kid is really fine, they just did a bad job raising him, you will likely get socked in the face, and rightly so.

You mistakenly assume I mean every malady. The medical establishment and big pharma have exploited parental mismanagement and guilt. And everyone "wins": the parents are absolved of any responsibility and big pharma increases its market share.
posted by Zambrano at 2:18 PM on June 18, 2009

Zambrano: "On the flipside, typical American parents will never take responsibility for their kid's shortcomings. Maladies have even been invented ("It's ADD" "It's a 'learning disability'") that facilitates this absolution of responsibility."

Children with ADD / ADHD have different brains, physically different, than children without it -- their prefrontal cortices are slower to mature.

And everyone "wins": the parents are absolved of any responsibility

All the parents of children with ADHD I know -- and that's my world right now -- feel plenty of responsibility. I'm responsible for making sure my son gets the support he needs at home, academically, and socially. At times dealing just with his school has been a full-time job; I had to quit working outside of the home because of it.

I have confidence that my son will mature and learn to deal with his disability all by himself, and maybe even outgrow it altogether. But I hope he remembers his early years with an "invisible" disability, and never insults people just for laughs.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:27 PM on June 18, 2009

Thanks for the excellent replies. I enjoyed reading all of them.

I phrased my question this way because I recently read a non-fiction book that cites a study that claims Roman families are more harmonious than American families because American families pay attention to achievement and upward mobility more than the more relaxed Italians.

Thanks again.
posted by Fairchild at 6:22 AM on June 19, 2009

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