Asian mothers demand straight A's. A French mere makes her children taste eggplant and truffles (and stay out of the marital bed in the morning), while pygmy fathers soothe fussy babies by offering a manly nipple.
Obviously, America's popular What to Expect books aren't the final word in baby manuals. But this year, parenting memoirs really go global.
A year after Amy Chua set off a firestorm with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, she's on a paperback tour that ranges from India to St. Louis.
With the new Bringing Up Bebe — a "wisdom of French parenting" book — and How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm — a wisdom of everywhere book — there's a sense that many little bundles of American joy are being exposed to lessons learned around the world.
FOUR PERSPECTIVESParenting values and practices are morphing, and the discourse on the 'right way to parent'
is becoming more monotone. Here are four of the lastest books prompting the discussion:
- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua. (Penguin, $16 in paperback)
- How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting, by Mei-Ling Hopgood (Algonquin, $15.95)
- The Real Purpose of Parenting, by Dr. Philip B. Dembo (Jacquie Jordan, $15.95)
- Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman (Penguin, $25.95)
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"There are lots of ways to be a good parent," Chua said last week in a telephone interview.
"There is also a lot of mutual judgment."
The judgment part came down like a 50-pound hammer after a Wall Street Journal excerpt of Chua's book ran last year under the headline: "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior." A different Western publication countered, calling her "The Worst Mom in the World."
When Chua's eldest daughter arrived at Harvard University last fall, she watched a skit actually making fun of her family. Sophia laughed it off, Chua said.
When traditional Chinese parenting works, she says, "You can build in a lot of resilience."
A St. Louis psychologist, Philip B. Dembo, was among the many people who spoke out againstBattle Hymn,
Chua's memoir of how she said no to play dates and sleepovers and demanded her young daughters spend hours on studies and music.
Dembo's new book,The Real Purpose of Parenting,
is anti-Tiger Mother, decrying the push for kids to perform: "My concern is that kids have less of a conscience because they are so worried about performance."
He encourages rules and family rituals, while also saying that his Jewish upbringing was too exclusionary. He has exposed his family to many cultures and says parents need to guide children, but "we also have to listen to them."
His gentle parental "coaching" is in stark contrast to Chua's determination not to raise a "soft, entitled child."
Yet telling parents not to hyperfocus on their children is hardly enough to combat the desperate worry so many American parents feel.
That anxiety is less in many countries, especially, perhaps, in ones that have less income disparity than the United States.
Pamela Druckerman doesn't necessarily love France but, inBringing Up Bebe,
the expat writer says her Paris home may be "the perfect foil for the current problems in American parenting."
It's not just that French parents don't have to worry so much about paying for health care, preschool or college. (The government even gives them a monthly cash allotment for having kids.)
The parents are more confident and unified when it comes to raising their wee ones.
"They assume that even good parents aren't at the constant service of their children, and that there's no need to feel guilty about this," Druckerman writes in her book, which goes on sale Feb. 14. "While some American toddlers are getting Mandarin tutors and preliteracy training, French kids are — by design — toddling around by themselves."
French mothers have high standards. They strive to become successful and sexy, but instead of being supermoms, many think it's unhealthy to be with their children all the time, the author says. They seek balance like many Americans do, but the French just don't add as much guilt to the mix. And there are some healthy tips on getting kids to sleep through the night and avoiding a mostly mac-and-cheese diet that will appeal to many parents.
Meanwhile, Mei-Ling Hopgood, another American journalist, explored parenting issues when she became a mother in Argentina. She writes inHow Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm
that "raising a child abroad has been eye-opening. There are so many surprising, instructive moments of comparison and contrast, from the way Argentines pamper pregnant women (I was offered seats on trains and buses and urged to cut to the front of almost any line) to the attitudes about food (fresh purees are fed to kids instead of prepackaged baby food)."
Hopgood says parenting books and blogs made her feel inadequate. But raising a child overseas stoked her curiosity about how other cultures affect parenting.
Like Chua and Druckerman, Hopgood's book is partly memoir. But along the way she investigates different ideas, such as Kenyans' disdain for strollers, Tibetan Buddhists' concern for a pregnant woman's spiritual state and Mayans' focus on manual labor. The Japanese allow children to fight, while Aka pygmies divide child care almost equally.
The African tribe has some of the most devoted fathers in the world, performing 47 percent of care, even soothing babies by letting them suck on their nipples. The dads put babies in slings, take them hunting or carry them while drinking with the guys.
Hopgood tends to explore the best aspects of other cultures, describing French success with
feeding veggies and Asians' focus on studying.
Like the other writers, she's careful to point out that not all people in a culture follow the same pattern or stereotype. She does say, though, that globalized commerce is having an impact in places from Delhi to Mexico:
"Baby bottles and formula are shortening breast-feeding times, and manufactured toys are replacing sticks and stones even in remote African villages. Modern medicine is transforming the birth experience in the farthest corners of Tibet. It remains to be seen which changes are for the better or worse, but it is undeniable that parenting values and practices are morphing and that the discourse on the 'right way to parent' is becoming more monotone."
A year after the uproar over Chua's rigorous parenting techniques, the Yale law professor says discussions of her book seem to have gained nuance. And more people have actually readBattle Hymn
and realize that by the end, Chua's point is that she realized she needed to let up on forcing her rebellious second daughter to practice the violin. Lulu, 16, now prefers tennis.
"I think there are real weaknesses to traditional Asian parenting," Chua now says. "There is too little choice."