Vive La France? Revolutions in Parenting

Our well-intended quest for ever-higher achievement has bred a nation of helicopter parents and a generation of children with plenty of love and precious few limits.
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Yesterday was one of those days every parent dreads.

My 2.5 year-old son, Leo, decided to make dinner a histrionic struggle for power. My energy reserves were at historic lows. And my larger visions of effective parenting had lost out to my smaller need to merely give in to Leo's irrational demands, make it to bedtime -- and live to see a new day.

Regularly, as parents, we're forced to make choices about how we respond to the words and actions of our kids. Ideally, those choices are always guided by a clear frame for determining what our children need to become healthy and happy human beings. But what if we don't have a clear frame -- or, worse still, what if our frame for parenting has us focusing on the wrong recipe for success?

That disturbing thought is the focus of Bringing Up Bébé, a new book by Pamela Druckerman, an American mother living in Paris who couldn't help but notice the differences between the behavior of her American children and their French counterparts. "Why was it," Druckerman writes, "that in the hundreds of hours I'd clocked at French playgrounds, I'd never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn't my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn't their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had? Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life."

According to Druckerman, the key was in the way French parents employed a "whole different framework for raising kids." Unlike in America, most French children are encouraged to learn how to play by themselves. They are instructed to be respectful and to wait their turn; and they are not unfamiliar with a word that has become dreaded in American parenting: "No."

The point is not that all Americans should raise their children as the French do -- though I'm sure Druckerman and her publisher wouldn't mind if we interpreted it that way. The point is that successful parenting, in any culture, requires a clear frame for understanding which habits of mind and being we want our children to develop and how we'll help them do so. And I fear that what we have in America is a familial case of mission creep -- one in which our well-intended quest for ever-higher achievement has bred a nation of helicopter parents and a generation of children with plenty of love and precious few limits.

How can we cultivate a deeper national clarity around what our children need most to learn and grow? In short, what do we need to know to be better parents?

Ironically, a partial answer to that question may come from an unlikely source -- the private sector. In fact, Harvard professor Chris Argyris has been studying human behavior in organizations for years, and his observations in the boardroom may be equally useful for better behavior in the nursery. "Most people define learning too narrowly as mere 'problem solving,'" Argyris writes in a Harvard Business Review article titled, "Teaching Smart People How to Learn." "But if learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward. They need to reflect critically on their own behavior, identify the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization's problems, and then change how they act."

Developing the reflective skills and the language to break out of dysfunctional frames takes time, but it's also quite possible. "Despite the strength of defensive reasoning, people genuinely strive to produce what they intend," Argyris explains. "They value acting competently. Their self-esteem is intimately tied up with behaving consistently and performing effectively."

Each of us -- whether we're a parent or a professional -- can rely on these universal human tendencies to learn how to think in a new way. "People can be taught how to recognize the reasoning they use when they design and implement their actions," says Argyris. "They can begin to identify the inconsistencies between their espoused and actual theories of action. They can face up to the fact that they unconsciously design and implement actions that they do not intend. Finally, people can learn how to identify what individuals and groups do to create organizational defenses and how these defenses contribute to an organization's problems."

A personal story comes to mind. When I was still a teacher in Brooklyn, I was also the coach of my school's basketball team. In retrospect, I can see I fell into a pattern of mimicking my own high school coach -- a man who yelled and berated his players mercilessly. I hated this leadership style, and yet I unconsciously reenacted it when I became a coach. It was as if I had no other behavioral model to call on, so I repeated the only one I knew, despite my desire to do otherwise.

We do this in parenting as well -- unconsciously summoning our own familial ghosts of the nursery and then wondering why we've fallen into the same old dysfunctional traps we were determined to escape. Argyris describes this as the difference between our espoused theory of action ("I am a loving, responsible parent") and our actual theory-in-use ("I let my kids do whatever they want"). "Put simply," he says, "people consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting and the way they really act."

Parents reading this may have already identified some of the ways their theories of action get trumped by their theories-in-use. We may, for example, want our children to be empathetic and polite, and yet if we fail to help them imagine the world through the eyes of another, or if we give in too often to their demands for convenience's sake, we should stop being surprised when they constantly interrupt us, or, worse still, start to see the world purely through me-colored glasses.

The good news is that once this sort of thinking is exposed and examined, all of us can develop the capacity to "see" our own thinking as it develops. We can stop believing there is a world 'out there' that exists apart from us, and start recognizing the ways our actions help bring forth the world we inhabit -- a world we can always change and recalibrate.

So let's start being more mindful of exactly what we think is most essential for our children to learn, know, feel and be able to do -- even if some of our answers may run counter to the contemporary currents of American society. And let's not be afraid, once again, to learn something valuable from our French counterparts:

Vive La Révolution!

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