The Post-American Child
There’s a new book out about how American parents should emulate the French, because the French are so much more relaxed about their children—let them cry themselves to sleep after only a few weeks, send them into day care without a second thought after a few months, and let them run around without supervision. They do insist their children eat salad, though, and that they sit quietly at table, and that they lie down when they are told to lie down. We Americans, it seems, are simply too overbearing, too neurotic, too involved in the lives of our children.
This is radically different advice from the last great parenting tome, Amy Chua’s best-selling self-portrait of a Chinese “tiger mother” who forced her children through sheer exertion of will to behave and excel and perform by being as annoyingly, monstrously overbearing as she possibly could be. Western parents are too inattentive, Chua writes; they need to ride their children hard and break them into the obedience to authority that will lead them to self-mastery and self-discipline.
It’s the global nature of these critiques that makes them notable. They are the pop-culture equivalent of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World or the claim by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that the U.S. Constitution—the greatest work of practical philosophy the world has ever seen—isn’t the best model for emerging democracies.
The hunger to come up with grand theories to explain supposed American failures—explanations for our supposedly excessive materialism, or our increasing social isolation, or our growing intolerance, or our cultural illiteracy—is one of the most distressing qualities of the nation’s intellectuals. They always look around to find some quality or condition or disease in the American body politic that is keeping America down, destroying America’s will, or damaging America’s prospects. And in the case of the treatment of children, they always strike a nerve. For what could be more dangerous to a nation’s good health than bad child-rearing? What kind of future will that nation have?
So which solution should we pursue? Should we be more French or more Chinese? Are we Americans too overbearing or not nearly overbearing enough?
The answer is: both. And neither. There is something to learn from the relaxation of the French and something to learn from the hypervigilance of the Chinese. Some parents are too indulgent and some too withholding; some parents pay too much attention and some pay too little; some pay too much mind at certain ages and too little mind at other ages. This is true at every income level, in every community, in every ethnicity, in every region, everywhere. And always has been.
And there remains much to learn from the average American, the one who muddles through and tries to do his best to give his kids some love and some guidance and some faith and some fun and some discipline and some sense of self-worth.
In the end, if he doesn’t crush his child’s spirit or give the child too great a sense of entitlement, and offers him some basic moral instruction, that child will have more of a basis for a successful life than any child on earth. And why? Because he lives in a nation built on the framework of that glorious Constitution about which Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke so skeptically, and so shamefully, and so disgracefully.