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All-American Brats? Judith Warner Describes Her World, Not Mine

judith warner, parents and children

Judith Warner made her name on writing about panicky, high-stakes parenting styles of the very few.

I think before we make generalizations about American kids and, by extension, their parents, we need to make sure we’ve actually observed samples from the entire nation. By the “entire nation,” I mean families whose children haven’t, by birthright, been saved a spot in the Ivy Leagues. And by “we,” I mean Judith Warner.

It’s an observable tick of Warner’s to write about her own bubble-encapsulated life and call it the state of the American family — the Age of X.

Take her book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” which, if read by aliens — or unsuspecting new parents — would leave them thinking they’d better get a handle on Google docs because that’s the only way they’ll meet stringent deadlines for getting their pre-born fetus wait-listed at the perfect preschool, the best dance academy, the most sought-after Algebra tutor and, at some point, the renowned-but-somewhat experimental mental health professional who can undo all the damage from the aforementioned anxiety-inducing requisites of modern childhood. (For a broader exposition of the mental health situation in American childhood, see Warner’s more recent: “We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.”)

Warner writes about her newest “age” in Time, a response to all the French-are-superior-parents articles kicking around the web this week. Warner takes the temperature inside her bubble and concludes that, indeed, we are a sick nation. American kids are brats; it’s all the parents’ fault. Once again, Warner really nails it — for her very tiny world that doesn’t quite include the rest of us.

(Possible future book title: “Non, Merci: Parenting in the Age of WHY CAN’T AMERICANS JUST BE FRENCH?!”)

In her piece, she writes — as if it were fact — that French children are more pleasant to be around. “They’re more polite. They’re better socialized. They generally get with the program; they help out when called upon to do so, and they don’t demand special treatment. And that comes directly from being taught, from the earliest age, that they’re not the only ones with feelings and needs,” she writes in Time.

Her point of comparison? A few incidents in her life. She writes:

In my preschool-mom world back then, this took the form of letting kids step all over the feelings of other children if their own feelings so compelled them, as when a mother in suburban Maryland explained to me that she let her little girl cancel playdates right up to the last minute because she “couldn’t force her” to engage in social commitments that now bored her. It never seemed to dawn upon the mother that her child’s passing boredom was less important than the other child’s potentially hurt feelings; and that teaching her daughter to think of the other child’s feelings would, in the long term, be better for them both.

This lack of parental empathy was brought home to me much more recently, when a mom in my then eighth grader’s class complained to me about an incident in which another girl in the class had had a panic attack — a full-blown panic attack — just as the doors closed on the bus that was to take the class on a camping trip. Without a word of sympathy, the mom vented to me, “Like [my daughter] really needed to see that.

This lack of compassion and empathy, I’ve found, is rampant in today’s hypercompetitive parenting culture in which almost every child is eternally being groomed to look out for No. 1, cheered on by parents who view other children more as potential impediments to his or her full flowering than as comrades-in-arms — or friends — united in the difficult task of gracefully growing up.

“Rampant.” “Today’s hypercompetitive parenting culture.” National epidemic. Parents gone wild.

I would like to invite Warner to the other side of the tracks for a minute, where the parenting isn’t as much hypercompetitive as it is just something you do — often in a large sucking vacuum of no institutional support, high cost and marginal outcomes. Sure, on my side of the tracks, parenting can also be thoughtful and engaged. At times it can get desperate. Often, it’s exhausting, because there’s an effort to do the right thing not just by one’s own child but an entire community of them — all while expecting to hear “please” and “thank you.” Which … I know. How French!

The world of Warner appears to be one where moms are scratching each other’s eyes out to secure a good future for their child — all while have zero expectations that the child should turn out to be a decent human being. Meanwhile, I know parents who put that decency thing far above a test score, a potential opportunity, to the point where it makes me think: let it go …

Yet Warner’s starting point is a failure she attributes to all parents in the U.S., not just the ones she lives around. I don’t live under a rock; I know of the mothers she speaks. I know of the birthday parties from her book, “Perfect Madness.” I know of the parents raising completely entitled public nuisances. I know kids who are sheltered and indulged and coddled and held up to the sky, a message to the sun that there’s a new star in town. I know manners-less kids who break into adult conversation and aren’t directed to say “excuse me” or “wait.” They bug me, too.

But they’re not  the norm and to say so would put  me in that camp of people who preface every observation with “back in my day” and punctuate outdoor chit-chats with “get off my lawn.”

I say this — I defend the people of my vastly larger bubble — because I know kids who are a joy to take out to eat; who take no thank-you bites at the family table but wolf down the food they’re served at a friends’ house no matter how high on the list of dislikes said dish may be. I know kids who apologize unbidden for misjudgments, carry their dishes to the kitchen when finished with a meal, offer to help with younger children, stand in line — boring, boring lines — without falling apart. I’ve recently engaged in grown-up-style conversations with a kid who then turned around and threw a water balloon at his friend. My kids do some — but, admittedly, not all — of these things; I’m describing their friends and classmates, too.

These kids that I know, whom I’ve observed, and their parents are why I can’t get behind Warner’s wake-up call. Out here in the hinterlands, where Warner never seems to tread, the tolerable still outnumber the less so.

Look, I’m not trying to argue that what Warner has observed isn’t true. I’m just saying it’s not the whole story or even most of it. What’s frustrating is that it’s the story that she and others keep telling over and over — the nuttiness of life among the American elite.

If I lived in Warner’s world, I might be right there, fighting for my kid’s little piece of the pie, expecting nothing from them except focus, performance and success. But that’s not where I’m at — or the majority, the actual majority! — of parents in America are. Were I to write the story from my life’s bubble, it would be short and be called something like this: “Nothing to See Here: Parenting in the Age of an Obsessive Envy of French Parents.”

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More on Babble:
Why I Want to Be a French Mom: When did time become a foreign luxury?
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