In contemporary middle-class American culture, parenting is seen as an awesome responsibility, an unforgiving vigil to keep the helpless infant from falling behind in the great race of life.
– Steven Pinker, Linguist
I dreamt the other night that I was steering a giant, empty 15-passenger van around a snowy and crowded parking lot. I was desperate to park; Elle needed to be picked up from wherever she was so we could get somewhere, and I somehow knew that I hadn’t packed everything we needed.
It was one of those maddening, trying to get somewhere while getting nowhere dreams.
When I awoke, relieved to realize I wasn’t late for a flight or about to miss an important appointment, I nevertheless couldn’t shake the sensation of feeling overwhelmed. And it dawned on me: Parenting is like that – chronically overwhelming.
As a parent, your duty is to mold a conscious citizen of the world who is intelligent and compassionate, yet competitive and independent. Forget simply feeding and nurturing a child until they can make it on their own; parenthood in America is all about erecting a pedestal beneath your child from which they’ll have a leg up on the rest of the children clamoring up that indefinite ladder towards “success.”
It’s a daunting task, and what nobody tells you beforehand is that you have no idea how to set your child up for their perfect, American-made future.
Two-year-olds on television commercials can read. Perhaps I should order that toddler reading program? My girlfriend’s son, who’s four months younger than Elle, can count to 20. Maybe I should ask her where she got those flash cards? So-and-so’s kid is already learning Portuguese. Do I need to hire a Spanish-speaking nanny?
I suppose it’s natural to compare your child to others in her age group. That is, after all, what contemporary education is based on; assessing a child’s intelligence (and dare I say it, but ultimately, their chances for success in adulthood) by judging their achievements against those of their peers.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: Parenthood is an “awesome responsibility” from which you, as a parent, will either pass or fail. Only time, and the balance of your adult child’s 401-K, will tell.
Yet this notion, that your actions as a parent will directly influence whether or not your child grows into a thriving adult, is a perception strictly based on how your culture defines success. At least that’s what this new book that I’m reading, Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, by Meredith Small, attests.
I will interject here that I am not one of those parents who regularly reads things with titles that include words like “biology” and “culture.” I am much more of a chic-lit kind of mom. Yet during one of those rare occasions that I was perusing through the aisles at the library, this book caught my eye. I had a feeling it would be one of those books I would try, valiantly, in the name of continuing education and self-betterment, to finish (but when the three weeks were up I would just have to return it, although I had only made it to Chapter Three.)
This book, however, has surprised me. It is truly interesting and engaging, and a week into my loan I’ve already made it to page 75.
It talks about how although all parents across all cultures agree that they want their child to grow into an intelligent and successful adult, different cultures have different definitions of success and intelligence. Thus, parenting styles across different cultures are vastly different.
Starting from day one, Americans believe babies need constant interaction to foster cognitive development, so we talk nonstop to them (to help them with early language skills,) hang black-and-white mobiles over their cribs (to stimulate early vision) and play them Mozart. (I know there’s a theory behind this, but I don’t know what it is.)
The Dutch, on the other hand, believe that regularity, rest and sticking to a routine promote intelligent development, so if a Dutch child throws a tantrum, the parents think it represents their failure to maintain regularity and structure during that all-important formative phase.
Kipsigis Africans, on the other hand, load their children with chores (beginning at age 2) to ensure that their child grows up to be responsible and thus respected.
These three different parenting styles illustrate the underlying “parental goals” prevalent in each of these cultures, the author concludes. American parents’ goals are for their children to be aggressive and competitive. Dutch parents want kids who are persistent, strong-willed and who demonstrate a clarity of purpose. Kipsigis aspire to raise broods that are responsible and reliable.
“Each household tries to provide a setting that is believed to foster the culture’s particular brand of intelligence,” Small writes.
What all of this means to me is that, despite what my culture and my upbringing can tell me about what kind of parent I need to be in order to raise a flourishing, intelligent adult, in the end, those rules are merely cultural constructions not necessarily based in scientific fact or even intuitive reasoning. They are merely the means to a culturally interpreted end.
Ah ha! Relief! I am, after all, not completely at fault if my child grows up to be a ski bum without a retirement plan. After all, in our mini-culture here in Telluride, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to live.
I do still hope, I must admit, that if Elle does end up chasing powder turns instead of dollars that she at least is one of those college-educated ski-town waitresses – which means, I’m afraid, she’ll need to win some kind of scholarship, since her parents are more of the powder-turn chasing, no retirement plan variety.
Perhaps we will buy some flashcards…