Parent Ethnotheories: How Americans Parent

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Registered: 05-31-2011
Parent Ethnotheories: How Americans Parent
9
Wed, 04-17-2013 - 5:50pm

[quote]Every society has what it intuitively believes to be the right way to raise a child, what Harkness calls parental ethnotheories. (It is your mother-in-law, enlarged to the size of a country.) These are the choices we make without realizing that we’re making choices. Not surprisingly, it is almost impossible to see your own parental ethnotheory: As I write inBaby Meets World, when you’re under water, you can’t tell that you’re wet.

But ethnotheories are distinct enough, at least to an outsider, that they are apparent in the smallest details. If you look just at the words parents use to describe their children, you can almost always predict where you are in the world. In other words, your most personal observations of your child are actually cultural constructions. In a study conducted by Harkness and her international colleagues, American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as “cognitively advanced.” (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and “simpatico.” So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence. The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different.

Every society interprets its children in its own way: The Dutch, for example, liked to talk about long attention spans and “regularity,” or routine and rest. (In the Dutch mind, asking lots of questions is a negative attribute: It means the child is too dependent.) The Spanish talked about character and sociality, the Swedes about security and happiness. And the Americans talked a lot about intelligence. Intelligence is Americans’ answer. In various studies, American parents are always seen trying to make the most of every moment—to give their children a developmental boost. From deep inside the belly of American parenthood, this is so obvious it isn’t even an observation. It is only by looking at other societies that you can see just how anomalous such a focus is. [quote]

More at Slate.com

I would think that one thing we could all agree on is that babies around the world are the same, it's parenting and the transmission of culture that makes each society different. This article at Slate talks about cross-cultural parenting styles.

This piece at the Atlantic shows how parents across cultures answered the same questions. Olga Khazan surmises that the difference between the parenting is work culture, citing that parents in the US have little choice but to return to work quickly after their baby arrives, which drives the way they spend time with their children, which changes what they'll value the most.

I can't discount that idea, but what about the idea that we focus on intelligence because intelligence translates into society's rewards in our country? We tell our kids that they have to do well in school so that they can get into college, so that they can get the right kind of job. People who go through these steps typically earn the middle class lifestyle while those who don't do well in school, don't go to college (or don't go far) typically don't achieve a middle class income and therefore, deserve the struggle at the bottom of the socio-economic scale. I wonder if we overvalue intelligence because we effectively allow people who work hard, but who aren't highly intelligent, to live in poverty. And middle-class income isn't just about the difference between real and fake Uggs or authentic Vera Bradley handbags, but about access to goods and services that allow children to thrive, like access to health care, good nutrition, healthy living environments.

What do you think? Why does our culture produce such a distinct parenting style?

iVillage Member
Registered: 02-20-2013

You know, I wound up w/a nasty case of plantar fascitis from my Uggs. They may be cozy and warm, but there is absolutely no arch support in those puppies! Not a shoe choice I recommend.

Having said that, I think yut hit the nail on the head in terms of American parenting. Piggybacking off of that--what is the American dream? Isn't it epitomized by a middle class life in the 'burbs? I know it was for my grandparents and my parents...

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Avatar for rollmops2009
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Registered: 02-24-2009

Hmmm, good question. I loved the observation of the difference between Italian and American parents' interpretation of questions. Greeks also value social skills very highly in children. If you are a guest in a Greek home, it is not unusual to have a preschooler offer and serve you a glass of water, for example.

I am not sure why American parents have become so hyper-focused on intelligence. Probably it is a confluence of factors. Certainly when I still lived over on your side of the pond, I fairly quickly figured out that education was not equal for all and that if I wanted my child to learn certain things (spelling, math facts, grammar etc) her best chance was to be admitted to some sort of gifted program. So I am sure this is a factor for a lot of American parents.

Then there is the American pre-occupation with science and efficiency, as well as the Cromwellian forebears' conviction that they could create heaven here on earth. If that is part of your cultural heritage, it is not a stretch to maximize the spawn's potential with a view to producing the most perfect child, like ever!

Danes seem to value independence above all else (somewhat like the Dutch parents mentioned in the article). Over the years, out of all the people I have come across, the Dutch and the English seem the closest to the parenting style I was used to from home.

iVillage Member
Registered: 05-31-2011

[quote]Piggybacking off of that--what is the American dream? Isn't it epitomized by a middle class life in the 'burbs? I know it was for my grandparents and my parents...[quote]

I wonder if the specifics of the definition vary from generation to generation. For example, both my great-grandparents and both sets of dh's grandparents owned their homes and had land with cottages up north. They had ordinary, everyday jobs: school teacher, diesel mechanic, factory worker--and they each did it on a single salary.

Today, my American Dream is that my children can afford to go to the doctor when they're sick when they grow up. 

iVillage Member
Registered: 05-31-2011

Rollmops, is education more equitable in other places? Do children in other countries receive similar primary educations despite their parents income level?

iVillage Member
Registered: 09-01-2002

In my lifetime I've come to learn of many ethnotheories of how certain peoples raise their children.  Most from Europe are negative and therefore, not worthy of repeating here.  If people abroad define parents in the US as emphasizing intelligence and education, I'll take that compliment.  I've lived in several states, attended stellar universities with students from every state and several countries and never even heard of the gifted program until message boards.  It's the stuff of message boards, homeschoolers and improving school districts in certain regions. 

<<What do you think? Why does our culture produce such a distinct parenting style?>>

I wish it were true "our culture produces such a distinct parenting style."  Alas, it does not.  Lots of US parents do not emphasize education.  And I'm sure there are parents from Greece and other European countries who do not parent as I've come to learn.

iVillage Member
Registered: 01-08-2009
It sort of makes sense that when you have different cultures, that parents within those cultures are doing things at least slightly differently in order to transmit those cultural differences to the next generation.
iVillage Member
Registered: 10-23-2001

Having never lived abroad I won't speak on that but it is no surprise to me that some place suburbia out there as the epitome of middle class in the US, That is common around the country but it sends others running as far away from that too, Lol. I kinda agree with you that the "american dream" will shift from homeownership to something else. The home my dad still owns was bought in 1964 for a modest 15 or 16K. I don't know what dad's teacher salary was then but I think society has morphed into something else now, We take modest salaries and find ways to get them into very expensive homes and other things. That's not only the fault of lenders but also the fault of people who get sold on the theories that you must keep up.

 


 


Avatar for rollmops2009
iVillage Member
Registered: 02-24-2009
"Do children in other countries receive similar primary educations despite their parents income level?" ---------- Yes, in Scandinavia they largely do. Also, in European education certain things are taken for granted (math facts, grammar, foreign language), which are not necessarily taken for granted in US schools.
iVillage Member
Registered: 01-21-2011
Mon, 04-29-2013 - 7:42pm

I wonder how much this article takes into account homogeneous and heterogeneous populations. Many European countries have long histories of homogeneous populations. Then in the US we have a huge variety of ethnicities with different cultures and backgrounds. I would have a hard time rolling all American parenting styles into one classification. 

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