Saturday, January 20, 2018
Opinion

Parenting as an exercise in fear and self-loathing

A little more than a year has passed since the publication of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother — the paroxysm-inducing guide to raising better children through belittlement, intimidation and tyrannical music practice — and already we have version 2.0. Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bébé alleges that it's the French who could teach indulgent, over-scheduling, helicoptering American parents a thing or two about rearing les enfants.

Druckerman, a Paris-based American mom of three, observes that French parents put a premium on learning how to wait. "It is why the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old," she writes. "Their parents don't pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep. It is also why French toddlers will sit happily at a restaurant. Rather than snacking all day like American children, they mostly have to wait until mealtime to eat."

In other words, French women don't have little bags of emergency Cheerios spilling all over their Louis Vuitton handbags. They also, Druckerman notes, wear skinny jeans instead of sweatpants.

Not only do the Tiger Mom and Bringing Up Bébé share a publisher, both books were excerpted to great fanfare in the Wall Street Journal days before publication. Sure, Chua's excerpt, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior, almost instantly went viral, whereas Druckerman's Why French Parents Are Superior is trending a little slower. (Druckerman's a bit more circumspect than Chua, a technique that tends not to attract as many eyeballs.) Still, the Bébé book is buzzing loudly.

And although public reaction, judging by the WSJ comments, is mostly standard-issue America-bashing ("the last two or three generations of U.S. kids are awful") or standard-issue French-bashing ("these are people who beheaded people for being wealthy"), one other thread stands out: The only thing Americans enjoy more than basking in self-regard is wallowing in self-loathing.

Despite the ardor with which we shout "We're No. 1!," we often seem even keener on hearing about what losers we are. Whether it's Dr. Phil crudely pointing out our deepest character flaws or a coach on the aptly named The Biggest Loser playing drill sergeant to some hapless contestant, it seems clear that beating ourselves up — or, more accurately, watching others get beat up for crimes we also commit — has become something of a national pastime.

This is particularly true when it comes to areas like parenting, where heaping pride is nearly always a sign of insecurity. But as much as American parents like to slosh around in their guilt while also splashing it on anyone who walks by pushing a stroller, they may not in fact feel bad enough to take advice from the French. We're talking, after all, about a people who not only eat pigeons but occasionally smoke cigarettes afterward, a people who also enjoy certain government subsidies and parental leave policies that make parenthood a less hectic proposition than over here.

So will the Urban Baby-trolling, sweatpants-wearing moms of America start skipping snack time for the sake of better restaurant behavior? Moreover, will French parenting capture the American public imagination the way Tiger mothering did?

Je ne crois pas. After all, we've seen something pretty close to French mothering on display in the White House for three years. Michelle Obama is ultra chic, eschews Happy Meals, watches her kids' TV time like a hawk, and she makes it practically impossible to imagine her daughters ever throwing food in restaurants. And for every American who loves her for it, many more seem to hate her and her skill set with a passion.

So while Bringing Up Bébé may wind up a hit, it's unlikely to be a sensation of Tiger Mom proportions. On the one hand, that's too bad: The world arguably needs more kids who don't throw food. On the other hand, maybe it's time to put this literary genre to bed. Otherwise, this time next year we may be faced with "Why Industrial Age Bosses Who Worked Children 16 Hours a Day Might Have Been On to Something." And we certainly can't have that. It doesn't leave enough time for piano practice.

© 2012 Los Angeles Times

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