American Parents Get An Earful

A long line of international parenting guides are offering advice to Americans. This made the Tell Me More moms ask, "What's so bad about American parents?" Host Michel Martin checks in with The Washington Post's Brigid Shulte and regular contributors Dani Tucker, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

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ALLISON KEYES, HOST:

I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Each week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice.

We can't help but notice there's no shortage of parenting advice out there, covering everything from how to get your baby to sleep to eating vegetables or even being more polite. We've also noticed a global influence. We talked last month about a new book suggesting that French parents might have a leg up when it comes to raising their kids.

Here's what French dad, Mathieu Garcon, had to say from our conversation about the book, "Bringing Up Baby."

MATHIEU GARCON: I don't take my kids to the restaurant, usually, and specifically to the fancy restaurants. It's a time I want to share with my friends or with my wife and I know, from my experience, from my kids' experience, that they get bored, you know, after five minutes.

KEYES: Last year, the program also talked to Amy Chua, author of the monster best seller, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." She writes about techniques for pushing her kids toward perfection.

Those and other books caused journalist Brigid Schulte to ask, what's so bad about American parents, anyway? Brigid is a Washington Post staff writer and a mom of two who wrote about that recently. Earlier, she joined host Michel Martin, along with the program's regular moms panelists.

Leslie Morgan Steiner, a writer, editor and mom of two. Jolene Ivey, a state lawmaker, cofounder of a parenting support group and a mother of five. And Dani Tucker, a freelancer and mother of two.

Here's Michel.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Welcome back to you, ladies. Thank you all so much for joining us.

BRIGID SCHULTE: Hey, Michel.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thanks, Michel.

DANI TUCKER: Hi. Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Brigid, you recently wrote in the Washington Post Opinion section about, first of all, you know, what is behind all of this parenting advice directed at American parents and, secondly, you wrote that it's not only draining American parents, but fostering insecurity in American kids.

So I wanted to ask you, first of all, what do you think is behind this advice industry, if I could call it that, and is it really that bad? I mean, if the French invented airbags or cute shoes, we wouldn't refuse to use those, so I don't know what's so terrible.

SCHULTE: Well, yeah. How long do you have? It's a really complicated question, you know, but there's no question. One of the things that makes it very different in the United States - well, there are several things, but it's hard to be a parent here.

Number one, in this culture, we are an achievement culture. We want to be the best. We're a superpower. What is the best? And, once you ask that question, that's where you get - you walk into a bookstore and there's 25 different experts telling you to do 25 different things. Because when you have that kind of achievement culture, first of all, you're an information maximizer. You want to know what's going on everywhere so you can pick the best thing.

So we want to know what the French are doing. We want to know what the Chinese are doing. The problem is that we don't know what to do with that information because we don't really know what's best. So then, you get into these crazy kind of ferocious battles if you go to any website, where it's like, you must do this. No, do this. It's like, you know - it's almost like Monty Python. Follow the shoe. No, follow the gourd. You know, it's kind of crazy.

And it's almost religious in the - you know, if you don't attachment parent and wear your baby for two years - oh, my God, you're abandoning parent.

MARTIN: So what's so terrible about it? You think that it's what?

SCHULTE: Well, I think that it doesn't do anybody any good. It doesn't do the parents any good. If you are not sure what you're going to do and you're struggling and you've got somebody yelling at you because you're not doing this or that, it just fosters and element of competition among parents that is really not very helpful for anybody and probably the least helpful for the child.

MARTIN: Interestingly, each of you wrote me separately to tell me that there are things that you found that resonated with you about Brigid's piece. So, Jolene, I'll start with you. You actually said that you kind of have a little bit of a conflict in your own household about this.

JOLENE IVEY: Yeah, absolutely. Because I think that my husband - he's a great dad and he definitely leans more towards the very high expectations. Everybody's got to toe the line. Everybody needs to make a 4.5. And I'm much more, well, yeah. If you make a - you know - 3.7, that's great. And did you learn how to swim? And have you been kind to your friends? And, you know, I try to see more of a global thing.

MARTIN: But Glen leans - your husband Glen kind of leans more toward the Amy Chua approach, which is nothing is fun until you're good at it.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: And, hopefully, excellent.

IVEY: And I definitely understand.

MARTIN: What do you think underlies that with him?

IVEY: Well, he's a black man. I'm a black woman. But he's a black man and he's been very successful and, when you're raising five black boys, which is what we've been doing all these years, you got to look at the long term and I see his point. When they're adults, they can be happy because they are in a position to make a good living and you're not going to be able to do that if you've kind of been a slug. And some of our kids do lean towards laziness.

If we don't kind of keep - even I have to keep an eye on them or they'll just, you know, play video games all day.

MARTIN: All right. Leslie, what about you? You said you also felt this kind of conflict in your own head.

STEINER: Well, you know, it all starts with the way that we were raised ourselves. And I was raised by very achievement-oriented parents and I'm grateful for the ways they pushed me, although it was not fun being told that an A-minus wasn't good enough, because by the time I was 18 I had gotten into Harvard College and a lot of my trajectory in life was pretty set, and it was awesome.

But also, I went off to Harvard College, you know, weighing 60 pounds less than I do now. I was severely anorexic. I was as perfectionistic as you could come. And I had, I saw the dark side of it too, and I got myself out of it. But I don't want to raise my kids quite as harshly as my own parents did. But I got to say, it's a really hard balance, and I think it's terrible being a new mom in this country. I have a lot of sympathy for people who've just had a baby, you're in love with your baby, you want to be perfect at it, and the whole world comes at you with all this advice, which is - generally adds up to you're doing something wrong. And it's really hard to focus on being your own kind of mom when you're getting so much disparate advice from every single person in the world, it feels like, when you've just started out.

MARTIN: Hmm. Dani Tucker, you told us that one of the things that you felt about this is that you feel that working-class parents - if it's okay if we use the term - are often stereotyped as not wanting to push their kids, not having those aspirations for their kids, and that you feel that kind of pain and pressure. Would you talk little bit about that?

TUCKER: Yeah. I like that part about her article, I think, in here. It pointed out where - I like the part where she said that studies have found that low income parents feel the same pressure. We do. Low, middle working-class, low income, the ones of us that aren't rich, we feel the same pressure except especially many of us who are single moms, we have the Glenn and the Jolene inside of us, whereas we have to try to cover all of those bases, but we still want that for our kids. Just because we live, you know, maybe in a low income area, we still want the same things for our kids that everybody else wants and we still are under the same pressures, like they said, with less resources as to how to get that.

MARTIN: Well, how does that work though? Because you're not getting flamed on these parenting blogs for having the wrong kind of stroller. So tell me how you experience it. I mean this is one of the things that Leslie was talking about, and Brigid, you were talking about, is how like these people, the people who show up at these book clubs and pick these books for their book clubs and then start flaming each other on these parenting blogs because they picked the wrong stroller and don't mash up the kid's food themselves, you know, so that piece. But how is it that that plays out in your set?

TUCKER: I think it plays out in our neighborhood more so, because we have a tendency to be neighbors with parents who may not be the typical parent, may just be the guardian or maybe overwhelmed, and their kids have a tendency to get in trouble. So trying to keep your kids on the straight and narrow while the next-door neighbor's kid is not on the straight and narrow, so you know, we may not blog but it's a thing you need to keep little Johnny next door 'cause I don't want little Johnny influencing little Jerry. So we still have the same type of issues; it's just to me a war within our communities of wanting, of trying to get that parent to want the same things since we had to live so close together and achieve the same goals.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the moms and we're talking about what's up with all that parenting advice out there coming from this quarter and that quarter. What's so terrible about American parents anyway?

I'm joined by Brigid Schulte. She's a staff writer for the Washington Post who asked that question in her recent opinion piece, and three of our regular contributors, Dani Tucker, that's who was talking just now, Leslie Morgan Steiner, and Jolene Ivey.

So Brigid, you had an idea that you put forward in your piece where you kind of put forward a theory of American parenting, which you said what's so terrible about the pursuit of happiness...

SCHULTE: Well...

MARTIN: ...as a kind of a founding idea. Tell me more about what you think, what that means.

SCHULTE: Well, and I have to say, you know, I can't take credit for that. That's Christine Carter, who's a very smart sociologist. There's a really interesting kind of trend of scientists and social scientists studying happiness now. You know, and when you think about it, even though the pursuit of happiness is in, you know, our founding documents, we tend to think of it as soft. We tend to think of it as, you know, in an achievement culture as sort of less than or silly or, you know, when you think of, oh, I want my kids to be happy, then you immediately think, oh, I don't want them to be lazy and play in the basement all day 'cause that makes them happy.

But when you think about really true authentic happiness, it's really much more about connecting with who you really are inside and bringing that out, rather than kind of coming from the outside in and forcing your child to, you know, play the violin for several hours and do this and do this because we think that if we get our kids into a good college, then they'll get a good degree and then they'll get a good job and then they can be happy. And yet what the studies are finding is that that's absolutely backward.

MARTIN: Dani, how does that, how do you hear that when you hear that?

TUCKER: I agree.

MARTIN: Does that make sense?

TUCKER: Makes a lot of sense. I mean, actually, that's double sense for us because our kids have a tendency to live in a world that's real stereotypical, where it's, oh, you're never going to be anything because A, B, C, D and E. And I'm like, you know, you don't have to go out and try to get it the wrong way. Happiness is a decision you make, to learn to be content no matter where you are and what you're doing. If you wait to be rich and famous or, you know, a higher achiever with the six-figure job to be happy, something is wrong with you in my opinion, you know, if that's what it took for you to get happy, because that's material. So really teaching our, especially our kids, who think material is the key to happy - the more money I make, the more things I can buy, the more happy I can be because I'm looking and hearing people tell me that until you achieve something, you can't be happy. And so, yeah, I totally agree with it because we have to teach our children, no, that's not the sense of happiness.

MARTIN: I think a lot of kids might feel that way. A lot of people might feel that things and external achievements are the key to happiness. I don't think it's just kids and some backgrounds that feel that way. I don't know. Well, go ahead Brigid, you want to tie a bow on that and then hear from Leslie, then Brigid?

SCHULTE: I was just going to say, the other thing that studies are showing, which is also interesting and revelatory, is, you know, the more money you make, you get to a certain point where it does make you happier. You know, you need to get your basic needs met, you need to feel secure. But you get to a certain set point, the more money you get, it doesn't correlate with happiness at all.

MARTIN: Leslie, what do you think about this idea of, how are you hearing this idea of parenting for happiness? Because you can see, like Brigid said, people might hear that and think soft, entitled, can't, you know, just doesn't have any push, doesn't have any get up and go.

STEINER: Well, I think that parenting is so much harder than everybody, anybody ever told me it was going to be that I feel like trying to reduce it down to one element is impossible. And what I see is that a lot of parents want their kids to be really happy and what they translate that into is, I'm going to do everything for you. I'm going to argue with your teachers if you don't get a good grade. I'm going to argue with your coach if you got cut from the team. And that seems to me to teach our kids that the world is too much for them, it's too hard for them and they need a parent all the time advocating for them. So I try to back off a lot and let my kids do their own homework and fight their own battles and look for some kind of balance.

MARTIN: I'm so conflicted on this, Dani, because again, on the one hand you can see where the pursuit of something original that really energizes and charges you would make you happy and make you stand out. On the other hand, you know, you're thinking about immigrant kids, you're thinking about parents - kids whose parents are not well-educated, who don't have, you know, people to advocate for them, who have to make their way in the world. So I'm just wondering whether you think that that's actually good advice or kind of a North Star that you could really use if you didn't already have a certain level of advantage. I don't know.

TUCKER: I think, yeah, I mean you still have to give them something to reach to. I mean that's one problem with a lot of kids in my neighborhood. Unfortunately, they're in situations where the parents are not giving them something to reach towards. They don't have anything to quote/unquote live for or to strive to. And so you still have to do that, you just have to give them a balance - that this doesn't mean that if you don't make it, your whole life is over; it means that you - Donnie Simpson used to do it and we used to love it for our kids. I mean we've played this in D.C. so much, it's just crazy. Shoot for the moon but if you miss, you'll be among the stars. Cliche as it may sound, a lot of those kids live by that and that's what we use to reach them, because a lot of people just don't do that. They live in houses with parents who just don't - because I didn't achieve anything, so why should they? No. No. You should shoot for it too. Everybody shoot for it. Let's all shoot together, you know. And especially with our kids, we just have to really put them on that track that you just spoke about just to get them focused.

MARTIN: Leslie?

STEINER: You know, as Dani was talking, I was thinking, you know, even though my neighborhood is different and where I grew up, in a lot of privilege, educational and monetary, and that's the world that my kids live in too, I would say the exact same thing, that, you know, one thing about kids is that if they shoot, they're kids and they're going to shoot for short-term happiness, which in my kid's case tends to be sitting on the couch watching television.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STEINER: I'm really, I'm not kidding, that's what they would like to do. So one of my jobs as a parent is to push them. And a good example is that my daughter, who is not really into sports, discovered that she was great at volleyball and she joined a volleyball team and I have to drag her to practice three times a week. She doesn't want to go. She'd rather watch TV, but this is my job as a parent is to push her, and it has built her self-esteem, she likes it a lot more, and I can tell that this is turning into a lifelong passion. But she wouldn't have discovered it if I had just let her, you know, be a couch potato every day. So there is this balance. I think that we do want our kids to be happy but we as parents have a better idea of what is going to lead them to long-term happiness.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, and we know we started our conversation by saying we are all inundated with, you know, parenting advice, so why don't we just pile on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: (Unintelligible) parenting advice today that you can. Leslie, you want to start?

STEINER: I think that one of the best things is to let your kids fail but just not all the time. And I hearken back to my own parents. The fact that I was anorexic at 18 was a huge and public failure from somebody from a quote/unquote perfect family. And they didn't over-interfere. They were concerned and they cared. But they did something really hard, is that they let me find my own way out of it. And that was, I can't imagine how they were able to do that but it was the right thing to do.

So I would say let your kids fail, just don't let them fail all the time.

MARTIN: Who wants to go next? Dani?

TUCKER: My advice is to lighten up on yourself. A lot of parents, we're too hard on ourselves if we read these books, all these books out here that says, you know, that gives us all these opinions and tells us what kind of parent we should be. And like you said, if we're not making our child play piano for 30 hours that we're not a good parent. No. Lighten up on yourself. You are good parent simply because you're there and you're trying. OK, the kids didn't come with a handbook and these are just suggestions and opinions. Find your niche, know your child and roll with that. It's OK. You're doing a great job.

MARTIN: All right. Jolene?

IVEY: I'd say recognize your child, each child's strengths and weaknesses and loves and passions and try to love your child, let your child know that you love them and make sure that you're not trying to raise yourself. You're trying to raise an individual who is not you. So if that means that the kid wants to, you know, spend all their time doing something that you think is weird but it makes them happy, as long as they get their homework done, it should be OK.

MARTIN: OK. Brigid, do you want to close it out? What's your final thought?

SCHULTE: Well, you know, I guess I go back to Dr. Spock, you know, sort of the classic book. You know, he opened it up with the line: You know more than you think.

MARTIN: USA. USA.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Brigid Schulte is a staff writer for the Washington Post. She's working on a book called "Overwhelmed." And hopefully she'll come back and talk to us about that. She's also a mom of two. Dani Tucker, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner are three of our regular contributors to our parenting segment. Leslie is also the author most recently of "Crazy Love." And they were all kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Moms, thank you all so much.

SCHULTE: Thanks so much.

STEINER: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thanks.

IVEY: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEYES: And that's our program for today. I'm Allison Keyes and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Tune in for more talk tomorrow.

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