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What Moms are Doing Right

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February 20, 2012

Parenting Country by Country? How about Just Doing What’s Right for Children?

With Pamela Druckerman’s new book Bringing Up Bébé extolling Gallic parenting, parents can now choose between parenting the French way or the so-called Chinese way presented last year by Amy Chua’s sensational Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Druckerman wants us to just say no, while Chua writes about doing whatever it takes, including berating our children, to demand excellence.

The media storm over these various “foreign” methods of parenting makes us ask, what’s wrong with the way we do it? Why look to stories about other countries for advice when decades of research by Americans across diverse cultures has found what all children need to grow up healthy and strong? Quite simply, kids need to feel loved and valued, that they have some choices in their activities, and that what they do is effective in the world.

In other words, kids need to feel warmly connected, autonomous, and competent.

Parents can nurture these feelings in their children by being highly involved, guiding and helping their children to grow into independent and capable adults. American parents have it right when they give their children some choices, because that enables them to follow their interests and do what they love, which means they are self-motivated, work hard, and succeed. Such parenting allows kids to feel autonomous and have a good sense of self.

Of course, parents have to give choices within a firm structure of clear rules and consequences. That makes kids feel secure and competent, since they know what’s expected and how to behave. These ideas are more nuanced than Druckerman’s “Just say no” approach and Chua’s message that we should drive our children toward excellence mercilessly (though Chua tried to backtrack on her ideas.)

But now hear this: this way of parenting – akin to what many Americans now do – in the long run produces successful kids who are healthy and happy.

And neither Druckerman nor Chua show how parents can nurture these all-important feelings in their children.

Druckerman says the French have discipline down. They are not afraid to say no clearly and directly. She links this to fewer tantrums and meltdowns at home and in restaurants. That’s ok as far as it goes. Kids whose parents provide consistent structure through clear rules and expectations help children to understand “the rules of the game” and thus feel secure and competent, because they know how to behave. And of course, when safety is an issue, no has to mean no.

But we also know that parents who give children a say in non-safety rules and are willing to negotiate to a point bring up children can “negotiate the world” when their parents are not around and get along better with other kids. So while it might make parents “more relaxed” to just say no all the time, discussing rules jointly gives children important feelings of autonomy.

Tiger Mother Chua also got one thing right: when she sat at the piano with her daughter, it illustrated the parental involvement children need. That helps them feel connected to their parents. Parent involvement, whether in children’s schooling, sports, or other activities, goes hand in hand with high academic and extra-curricular performance. Chua’s high expectations were also helpful because when parents’ have high expectations, and set clear consequences, they give children the structure they need to become competent and confident.

But berating a child’s poor performance and taunting her in an effort to get her to work hard (Chua subsequently backed off on her support for some of this harshness) evokes guilt and shame in the child. Such psychological control by parents tends to create depressed children, as I’ve found in my work with Kristine Marbell in the West African nation of Ghana, and Brian Barber and others have found in South America, Asia, and Australia.

It’s often tempting to point to another culture and say. “They’ve got the answer.”

But why not look first at what we are doing right?

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