Moms and dads the world over all worry about their kids, wondering if they’ll grow up to be happy, healthy, well-adjusted humans. But unlike parents in other countries, American parents seem to take a regular bashing about what we’re doing wrong.
To further fan the flames of our insecurity, just scan the ever-burgeoning parenting section in a local bookstore for hundreds of titles on how to “do” every aspect of parenting better, from potty training to Ivy League preparation. Our bundle of joy turns us into a bundle of nerves as we constantly strive to raise the bar on our own parenting skills. As Washington Post journalist Brigid Shulte points out on NPR’s Tell Me More, we’re an achievement culture, always wanting to be our best and pushing our kids to be their best.
The persistent portrayal of how American parents raise their kids shows that we’re (apparently) a society of helicopter parents who hyper-focus on enrichment, but who, according to Tiger Mom Amy Chua, seem perfectly content letting our kids turn out badly. We feel the push-pull of simultaneously being over-involved and over-scheduled, yet not driving our kids hard enough to achieve perfection.
Besides being maligned and feeling insecure, we’re also perplexed, as new parenting styles pop up every year, sometimes contradicting our own approach and making us second-guess our parenting skills. In the end, many American parents feel dazed, confused, and filled with self-doubt, wondering if we’re doing it all wrong.
“We’re so very afraid of getting it wrong that we overdo it to try to get it right,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford University, in an essay published in the 2016 edition of "The Parents League Review."
But, are American parents really that bad? Do we truly suck at raising our own kids?
No, and we need to stop thinking that we’re doing everything wrong.
Fortunately, more than 50 percent of parents with children younger than 18 think they do a very good job raising their kids, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,807 U.S. parents. The findings also show that parents (whether married or single) care a lot about how others view their parenting skills. Roughly nine out of ten married or cohabiting parents (93 percent) say it matters a lot that their spouse or partner sees them as a good parent. And parents still want to impress their own parents, as 72 percent of those with a living parent want their own parents to think they’re doing a good job raising their kids.
“It’s time to put an end to the everything-you-do-is-wrong school of parent criticism, which puts us all in an impossible bind,” writes Perri Klass, M.D., Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University, in a New York Times blog.
Shulte echoes that sentiment in her NPR interview, saying that “it doesn't do anybody any good... it just fosters an element of competition among parents that is really not very helpful for anybody and probably the least helpful for the child.”
Our best bet? We need to ignore the guilt-inducing finger-pointing and keep in mind there’s no one “right way” to raise kids. Instead of focusing on parenting trends, societal pressures, media-driven values, and mommy wars, we need to focus more on praise, support and acknowledgement of all the good we are doing.
Research continues to demonstrate that breastfeeding provides many substantial physical and mental health benefits to both infants and mothers. Increasingly, mothers in the U.S. are heeding the message, according to Child Trends, the nation’s leading nonprofit research organization focused on improving the lives of children, youth, and their families.
Between 2000 and 2011, the U.S. saw a growing proportion of infants who were breastfed, with the biggest increase (70 percent) of infants still being breastfed at 12 months (from 16 to 27 percent). Overall, more than three-quarters of infants were breastfed for at least some duration, an increase of 12 percent (from 71 to 79 percent).
According to a 2015 study in "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," vaccination rates among children ages 19-35 months for 2014 remained high. Over 90 percent of children received vaccinations for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR); polio; hepatitis B; and varicella.
A 2013 Gallup poll of U.S. families shows that, despite our busy lifestyle, the majority of U.S. families still eat dinner together. Among adults with children younger than 18, more than 50 percent eat dinner together at home at least six nights a week.
We read to our kids, ask them questions, play math games, and teach life skills. Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds devote increasing amounts of time to stretching kids’ minds compared to our parents or grandparents, says the Institute for Family Studies. Although parents with higher levels of education are more likely to devote time to educationally enriching activities than less educated parents, in general, we’re all doing better than we did just a few decades ago.
According to 2014 statistics from the Corporation for National and Community Service, 32.7 percent of parents volunteer, donating 2.3 billion hours of service in activities such as fundraising, tutoring, mentoring, coaching, and collecting/distributing food. And 2013 data shows that 96.1 percent frequently talk with neighbors, 44.5 percent of parents participate in groups and/or organizations, and 89.8 percent of parents engage in “informal volunteering” (such as helping out neighbors).
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, teenagers (16 to 19 years old) continue to have a relatively high volunteer rate, at 26.4 percent, compared to 20- to 24-year-olds (18.4 percent), and 25 to 34 years (22.3 percent).
Recent findings from NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse shows a decrease in the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and many illicit drugs over the last five years among American 8th, 10th, and 12th graders – many to their lowest levels since this survey’s inception.
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Adolescent Health reports similar findings, citing that tobacco use by adolescents has declined substantially in the last 40 years. And a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that, from 2002 to 2013, the rate of underage drinking decreased 6.1 percent.
According to 2014 findings by the Guttmacher Institute, the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate reached its lowest point in more than 30 years, down 51 percent from its peak in 1990. And a 2015 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that teen sexual activity dropped dramatically over the past 25 years. In 2011–2013, 44 percent of female teenagers and 47 percent of male teenagers aged 15–19 had experienced sexual intercourse, declining significantly (by 14 percent for females and 22 percent for males) since 1988.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education announced that the U.S. high school graduation rate has steadily increased for the past four consecutive years, rising to an all-time high in the 2013-14 school year, with 82 percent of teens graduating.
While American parents are doing a good job at parenting, we need to take into account that there’s more at play than a general attitude toward parenting. We can’t discount the various political differences that figure into the parenting equation – those that often set parents up for success. For example, many non-U.S. governments often foot the bill for benefits that Americans need to pay for out of pocket – like childcare – so it’s no wonder other parents around the world sometimes appear to fare better.
“Don’t beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfect work-life balance,” writes Pamela Druckerman in The New York Times. An American journalist and the author of "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting," Druckerman points out in the article that “the French have national paid maternity leave, subsidized nannies, excellent state day care and free universal preschool, and yet they blame the government for not helping parents enough. We Americans have none of the above, yet we blame ourselves.”
Despite our different approaches, we can still learn a lot of lessons from the way parents in other countries raise their kids.
“We like the idea of children who can speak their own mind, give their own opinions and be their own person. This is a part of being independent,” says Christine Gross-Loh, mother of four and author of "Parenting Without Borders," in an ABC News interview. “But there’s a whole other piece I think we’ve been neglecting, and that’s the idea of self-reliance and self-responsibility and those are the sorts of traits that I see being fostered in other countries that are not fostered as well by many parents here in the United States.”
Gross-Loh, who traveled the world to research parenting through a global lens, culls the world’s “best practices” for raising kids, including insights from China, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.
“I absolutely think American parents are doing a lot of things right,” says Gross-Loh. “I’ve been struck by how much effort we put into raising tolerant and caring kids who have a sense of the world as diverse and multicultural. We read them books that show diverse characters, we talk to them about race and gender and bias and justice. This sets us apart from other countries I’m familiar with where there is more homogeneity and less urgency in putting these issues on the table.
The bottom line is this: There is no one right way to be a good mom or dad, but we can all learn from each other. So relax, American parents. You’re doing just fine.
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