The simple answer is no. Of course we love our children and want what’s best for them. Our problem is that we’re not sure what, exactly — in our driven, achievement-oriented country — is best. Perhaps instead of snapping up the latest foreign fad or obsessing over every international test score ranking, American parents would do well to look no further than a very American ideal: the pursuit of happiness.
The American stereotype is pervasive: the hovering helicopter parents who rush to prevent a toddler from falling on the playground; worry that their child isn’t zooming through Piaget’s stages of development; are hawkishly on the lookout for any signs of giftedness; stay up late perfecting that popsicle-stick diorama of Fort Ticonderoga for their second-grader; ferry the middle-schooler to travel soccer, violin, ballet and fencing lessons; demand online grade books to check up on a high-schooler; call and harangue college professors; and now, according to a recent report on NPR, submit grown children’s resumes, sit in on job interviews and demand a “Take Your Parent to Work” day.
Researchers who analyze what people do with their time have found that, on average, American parents indeed spend more time with their children than parents in other developed countries. (French fathers? From time studies, you’d think they didn’t even have children.) American mothers who work outside the home — and that’s three-fourths of all moms, many of whom work full-time — spend more time with their children today than stay-at-home mothers did in the 1960s. They do so by forgoing sleep, personal care, housework and any shred of personal leisure. Their “free time” is largely spent with their kids.
Still, surveys show, they worry it isn’t enough. And new studies are finding that the same breathless time stress is becoming an issue for young American fathers, who, like mothers, are juggling intense demands at work and increasingly intensive standards for what it means to be a good parent.
“American parenting is child-centered, expert-guided, emotionally absorbing, labor-intensive, financially expensive and is expected to be done by mothers alone. And it is impossible to do alone,” said Sharon Hays, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. “The mothering you see today in America is culturally and historically unprecedented. We expect selfless devotion to what we interpret as the child’s needs, wants and interests at every moment of the day. And with the vast majority of mothers working, that puts them in an impossible paradox.”