Friday, May 31, 2013

What American Parents Can Learn From The French...

In my last posting, I railed against the idiotic changes in the newest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-5), the bible of the mental health field which list the various known clinical diagnosis for those suffering from mental health issues. Specifically, in the latest edition (to be published next month officially) the DSM now considers extreme temper tantrums in young children a clinical diagnosis now known as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMSS). Considering that young kids throwing tantrums because they cannot get their way has been a staple of parenting within the Western child-rearing experience since antiquity, I thought this to be a most extreme example of bovine excrement insomuch as how we label children without discipline or self-control “dysfunctional.” I argued that ascribing another “clinical” to childhood misbehavior only serves—in the long-run—to enable negative behavior in children, giving them as well as their parents yet another “out” when it comes to avoiding personal responsibility (see: "Temper Tantrums Are Now A Disorder'").
I'm going to just come out and say this: For the most part, American parents are both arrogant and lazy! They are arrogant in that many feel that they are incapable of learning anything from others insomuch as how to improve their parenting, and lazy in that when their half-assed parenting—ably assisted by an often overstepping legal system and overly-sensitive child advocacy types such as social workers—yields uncontrollable, irresponsible, and entitlement-minded teenage monsters, they blame some (obscure) “clinical,” equally half-assed diagnosis. Or they proclaim that their little brats are simply “not understood.” Given how much many American parents are indulgent of their offspring’ sense of entitlement—imparted upon them in many cases by these same parents—I totally understand!
Having been raised as a Generation Xer, having had a part in raising my own nieces and nephews, and having spent the better part of the last decade or so working with children, I think I know a little about raising children. While it's true that I'm not a parent myself, that actually gives me an objectivity that most parents lack in making such a broad declaration about American parents; any belief system predicated on love tends to cloud judgment and obscure clear, pragmatic-based decision-making in many things...especially in the realm of parenting.
With such being the case, it’s my turn to be as equally arrogant in telling American parents what they are doing wrong.
As hinted, we in America have to shed this idea of “American exceptionalism,” especially when it comes to parenting. American parents have to be willing to consider the possibility that other cultures might be ahead of the curve when it comes to parenting, and that we might actually be behind the curve. On my facebook page, someone sent me a link regarding an article from an issue of Psychology Today from last year, written by family therapist Dr. Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D. In her piece, “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD,” Wedge cites the reasons for the vast differences in the numbers of diagnosed cases of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) between French and American children. In the briefest terms, the therapist reveals that

In the United States, at least 9% of school-aged children have been diagnosed with ADHD, and are taking pharmaceutical medications. In France, the percentage of kids diagnosed and medicated for ADHD is less than .5%. 

The article goes on to explain that while we Americans tend to look upon pathologies like ADHD as having “a biological disorder with biological causes,” the French “view ADHD as a medical condition that has psycho-social and situational causes.” And of course, this results in a difference in treatment. American child psychiatrists and other clinicians are quick to prescribe psychotropic drugs such as Ritalin as the remedy of choice, while their French counterparts treat “the underlying social context problem with psychotherapy or family counseling.” The result is

to the extent that French clinicians are successful at finding and repairing what has gone awry in the child's social context, fewer children qualify for the ADHD diagnosis. 

In France as well as other countries, adults—particularly parents—do not turn every misbehavior into a clinical diagnosis. On the other hand, we here in America are gullible to the point where it’s been inculcated into our cultural natures to ascribe every questionable behavior in our children as some newfound alphabet-abbreviated “malady.” In many cases, American parents are too do not take into consideration that much of their kids behavior is simply the result of various social influences of those their children come into contact with, who in a lot of cases tend to be similarly (socially) dysfunctional. I’m not saying that there is no occurrence of ADHD in American children per se; I am putting forth the thesis that ADHD does not occur anywhere near as much, nor does a true case of ADHD have as much impact on a child’s behavior on American children’ behavior as many parents would like to think. The differences between the French and American perspectives on ADHD diagnoses and treatments is pretty much along the same line as the differences between the high rate of males labeled as “special education” in American schools, while in European schools, females are the majority of students labeled “special education.” Such disparities toward the way we approach children and child-rearing in this country points to the reality that we Americans simply do not look at the Big Picture, which includes consideration of another approach different from our traditional (and ineffective) ones. Simply put, parents in America cannot and do not think outside of the box. We have come to accept the strange, almost pathological and counterproductive ethos that all behavior can be remedied by idiotic “clinical” diagnoses, medicine, and/or the intervention of others (i.e., social service-related professionals) when it comes to managing our kids. The sad and simple reality is that most negative children behavior can be managed by proactive and responsible parenting, as well as regulating aspects of their physical environments—not after-the-fact “treatments,” when negative childhood behavior patterns are becoming set in stone.  Again, the French model of parenting provides how effective such an ideological shift attitudes toward parenting can be.
Last year, author and parent Pamela Druckerman struck a bad chord among many American parents (naturally, since most American parents don’t think they have anything to learn from others) when her book "Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting" hit the stands. In relating the observations of Druckerman’s book to her own experiences, author Judith Warner—who penned her own book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety” on these differences—noted that Druckerman, I’ve often noted wistfully how French children know how to handle themselves in restaurants. I’ve envied how French children eat what’s put in front of them, put themselves to bed when instructed to, and, generally, tend to help keep the wheels of family life moving pretty smoothly. But the difference that struck me the most deeply, when my family moved to Washington, D.C., from Paris…how much emphasis French parents put on demanding they behave respectfully toward other people (See:  "Why American Kids Are Brats").

Such a difference is based on the general difference in expectations that French parents impart on their children during these crucial formative years. Basically, French parents have somehow managed to maintain the instinct for organic parenting, while American parents—at least the marginally responsible ones—tend to research methods of “better parenting” by spending money on parenting books and harking on the words of “experts”…both recognized and self-professed. For example, the French do not believe in changing the general family routine for the sake of a new baby. For them, the baby fits into the family. American parents seek to restructure reality to fit the arrival of a new baby. The difference is that because of this difference, French parents have more time for themselves. American parents on the other hand spend every minute indulging our children’ every want and need, which results in many feeling “overwhelmed” and thus unable to muster the fortitude and strength of will to discipline their children to the point of necessity. For the French, the happiness of the entire family matters, not just the children. For Americans, objective critics know from observation that all logic and reason tends to fly out the window when the welfare of an American child perceived not to be met. If an American baby is crying, whining, or throwing a tantrum because their “need” for instant gratification is not being met, we rush to their sides to find the cause; the French apply tough love to a fussing and/or crying baby, allowing them express their dissatisfaction in almost every case except of immediate needs (feeding, diaper changes, etc.). American children learn early on that if that act out, they can get what they want.  Of course, if a parent in America dared considered allowing a child’s temperament to rage unchecked, it would be considered an “abuse.” We here in the states want to meet every demand of our kids’ happiness. As a result, our kids develop a sense of entitlement rather than a sense of responsibility (or duty to family, as in the case of many Asian children). Now we have a nation of picky eaters (compared to French children, who like myself when I was younger, are taught to eat whats in front of them), obese brats, and guilt-ridden parents who overcompensate for "not spending enough quality time" with our children (which only spoils them even more).

And let’s not go into the lack of respect that American children have both each other and adults; those of us who have spent time working the public schools know and have experienced this firsthand. While American parents are quick to assume their children have been slighted by some perceived “disrespect” of an adult and/or authority figure, French parents start out parenting by emphasizing respect for and in front of adults (according to many observers of these differences, including Druckerman). French children are given very strict boundaries by parents who strictly enforce those boundaries, but are able to maintain a sense of freedom among their children. All-too often, anything goes in many American households. Many children are not given boundaries. And in the rare event that they are, they are enforced half-heartedly. And thanks again to an overstepping, overstepping “child welfare” apparatus in place here in America, many parents have been rendered impotent when it comes to being the voice of authority for their children. And children know this, and are able to take advantage of this enabling regime by dictating their own behaviors in the house that their parents (at least on paper) control. As an ex-case manager, I have heard from many American parents how they are forced to maintain semblance of control over their teenage children because of threats by their children to “call the authorities” on them if they even threaten to impose a level of discipline on them. And then we wonder why kids today have both the time and the mental/emotional wherewithal to make pipe bombs with the intent to blow up their schools (See:  "Prosecutor: Oregon Teen Planned Columbine-Style Attack at His School").
The late Bernie Mac discusses his approach toward child and teen discipline and instilling respect

American parents expect others to love and indulge their children they way that they themselves do, and this is not reality. The reality is that children are like farts; you don't mind your own, but those of others don't smell so good. American parents need to open their minds more and learn to consider thinking more like the French rather than themselves. Do what’s in your child’s interests, not what their desires demand…maybe then we wouldn’t have a nation of stressed-out social workers, teachers, juvenile court personnel, and—most of all—parents. As the old saying goes, "if you keep doing what you've been doing, you'll keep getting what you've been getting."

 See also: "ADHD, ODD, & Other Assorted Bull****!," "Adults...Children's Worst Enemy! Part 1," and "Adults...Children's Worst Enemy! Conclusion"


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