An American parenting “culture”?

An American parenting “culture”? June 16, 2014

For a somewhat lighthearted read I recently went to our local library and checked out “Bringing Up Bebe”, whichcame out a few years ago and explores how the French parent raise children. Has anyone read it? As a spoiler for those who haven’t (sorry), there is “one way” to parent (or, rather, “educate”) in France. Most chapters conclude that almost all, if not all, French parents do “x” for any number of things, such as introducing food, getting wee little frenchmen to sleep through the night (he he!), setting schedules, and learning manners and social cues. These “how to’s”, the author argues, are superior to the buffet of styles we graft on to here in America.

I don’t have anything to say about that, per say, but  I actually ended up thinking through several tangential things as I read, including the tangible sense that we in America do not have such a set framework (hence the reason books like this pop up, honestly) because there isn’t a common goal in American parenting. The family down the street has totally different goals in raising their children than I do, and a different spectrum of acceptable behavior and acceptable timeframes for some milestones. We can be a melting pot in so many ways…even parenting styles and goals.

The only reason I bring this up is that the parenting skills amalgam out there can have implications for how we, as American mothers, and particularly Catholic American mothers, exist…right now it seems like we spend much time trying to learn “how to’s” because there is no institutional or family knowledge to fall back on. I know that some of us do get some of this passed down to them by their own personal experience in strong families. Praise God, truly! Still, many do not have this help or background for a host of reasons. Since we care so much about our little ones, we desperately want to know the “right” way to do these things… the way that will lead to well mannered, spiritually virtuous, good eaters and sleepers.

Still, there are more parenting books and articles than I can count, and we can spend a lot of energy on the quest for nuggets of parenting-know-how to  integrate into our particular family life. There is sometimes the sense that if we read just one more book we’ll find “it”, the source of all of the knowledge we need. This is even more so for us as Catholic parents trying to raise Catholic children. In addition to spending much energy, at least at first, on trying to “figure it all out”, we need to do so while integrating and infusing the Faith. While this is a beautiful thing, especially with so much on the line (preparing little ones for eternity and being solid human beings)…it can be mentally exhausting.

So, this is what I’ve come to, after lamenting for a minute or two the lack of institutional “national” knowledge on how to teach, say, patience at the dinner table.  While I have made mistakes already in the “how to” camp with my daughter, while I will have to continue to sift through the sludge of information out there to learn all of this from the ground up, and while there may not be a hyper-defined American parenting culture or a given understanding on how to get new little ones from point “a” to point “b”…that’s ok. It is not ok because I believe it is all relative, and that I can choose anything from the American grab bag of parenting styles. It’s ok because we do have guidance from Him and are not alone…and all of that, if I look hard enough, can and does often have implications for how I think through the “how to’s” and to choose appropriate techniques when I need them.

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  • Katrina

    This is great, J, thanks for sharing! When I think about my #1 goal for myself as a parent, it would be to get my children to heaven, so I guess that my #1 goal for them is also to help them get to heaven! However, this goal can seem a bit amorphous, and that is where the “how to” aspect comes into play. The Beatitudes, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 10 Commandments, Jesus’ “final judgment/sheep and goats” passage from Matthew 25, all come to mind as roadmaps. I’m going to reflect a bit and come back for another comment!
    One thing that strikes me as interesting is that the French, at least in this author’s view, are more single-minded in their goals for their children. The strength of that cultural influence is appealing in many ways…The benefits of knowing that the parents down the street are also trying to raise children that are “x, y, and z” are very powerful. Also, knowing that you will be supported in your parenting journey not only by like-minded individuals, but also by the culture at large, would be pretty great.

  • J

    Thanks Katrina.:) Yes, all good helps for roadmaps. And yes, I guess that is a tiny lament…that one can’t take for granted that our neighbors or others are trying to have the same goals (e.g. heaven, good manners, etc.). Wouldn’t that be nice sometimes?:) We like to half jokingly say — perhaps as American Catholics who have gotten used to all of this — that wouldn’t it be great to have a community of like minded faithful families and not have to worry about all of the differences…but then I am reminded about all of the passages about being the salt or the yeast or the light. I guess in some senses it’s two different things…the faith aspect and having a ‘culture’ in that sense, but also the day-to-day raising. The author never touches on ‘faith’ per say and that is the gap, she only speaks about the day-to-day and milestone to milestone building blocks that all French seem to use that somehow creates a certain type of person that has been ‘well raised’. I would wager though that practicing Catholics in France have the same challenge at times than we do in the faith arena, perhaps even moreso in such a secular culture.

  • Mary

    Really interesting J. This dovetails with some conversations I’ve had with a coworker about what we term ’boutique parenting,’ in which the entire goal of parenting (to use your framework, which I think is really good) is to be a good parent — using the best products, the best methods, the best whatever. And the way you know you’re a good parent is that if you have ‘good kids.’ And on the surface, this seems right. Who doesn’t want good kids? But, and this is what you’re saying I think, is why do we want good kids in the first place? And what is the proper measure of a good kid? I’d argue that if you’re Catholic you want to be good because you want to get to heaven, as Katrina says below. And it’s not the worst thing, if you’re talking on secular terms, to want good kids that give back to their communities or something similar. But I don’t think that a lot of people think this through the way they should and instead they get bogged down in the surface look of everything, and then the measure is on how everything looks (you’re following the right method, your kids never put a toe out of line) but not on the end result!!! I know I’m guilty of getting distracted by shiny Catholic things — if I do this I’ll be a good Catholic parent and everyone will know it! — so I know that this way easier said than done, but you’re framework for thinking about it is, haha, a good one.

  • This is an interesting discussion. One thing that has helped me a lot with the plethora of parenting advice/techniques out there is to keep our end goals in mind (heaven), but get slowly more concrete about it. For us, that looks a bit like, heaven, then good relationship with children, then children show respect to others, then children are obedient, then children are pleasant to be around, children are able to care for their basic needs, children help others, and so on down the line. We try to keep the more abstract goals in mind as we work our way down to the more detailed goals of the day to day parenting. And then there is that whole “what is realistic for my life phase thing.” In that, I think we really need the support of other like minded parents with reasonable goals and children who we like to be around. I am my kids mom, and that needs to be clear, but we all also need to enjoy our time together as a family. I have tried to look at other larger families that seem to enjoy one another’s company, and ask for more detailed advice on what works for them. I also have the benefit of my own mother, who generally shares my parenting style and did a great job with us when we were little. I am more able to see her influences with each day, and so now I’ll just brainstorm with her about the best approach to certain things. And finally, it is important to keep in mind that most parenting books out there are about mom and dad and then kid, not about raising a FAMILY. Much of what they preach works if you have one or two kids, but it is not necessarily the best advice for raising a FAMILY. I’m still looking for a family centered parenting book.

  • J’

    Thanks Kellie. The last line is particularly interesting…and so true! So much out there is centric to just one child. For some of the ‘how to’s, I do find this helpful since I AM learning how to do certain things from the ground up, but then I don’t see the more comprehensive family approach to tie it all together. I think you are right too, that it is helpful to have someone to bounce things off of that shares your same goals…but I think depending on the community that you are around and the extended family you have that’s the point…it can be very hard to find someone like that in the first place to learn from, and it certainly isn’t institutionalized in any way so that learning is ‘unnecessary’.

  • J’

    Thanks Mary, yes, that’s definitely one of the things I was trying to get at. Thank you!:)

  • Steph J

    Interesting addition. I agree that people use those external measures of “good kids”, including myself–how many times have I winced when my kids were out of line, thinking of how it represented “me”? I am humbled when I realize that if we judged the goodness/power/absolute authority of our heavenly Father by the way his kids acted, what a false picture we would get.

    I comfort myself often with the realization that if there were really one “right” way to parent to produce babies who sleep through the night or children who never disobey their parents, I think word would get out pretty quickly and we’d see a lot more well-rested parents and perfect kids:) Maybe thats my American bias coming through. Which really makes me want to read “Bringing up Bebe” (not that I think that they’ve discovered one right way, but that it seems like the majority of parents subscribe to one method). I wonder if there is actually more diversity than the author describes.