They sat in the late-spring sun, deep in conversation, every now and then throwing back their blond hair in laughter. In their skinny jeans and chic sunglasses, they looked like two girlfriends spending a lazy Saturday afternoon chatting about boyfriends and bitchy co-workers. And then, as they took small sips from their mini bottles of prosecco, two blond-haired two-year-olds came toddling over. “Hi Mommy!” said the little girl and boy in unison.
Um, excuse me? These stylish and carefree women were mothers? Of children in their terrible twos? Where were the baggy sweatpants and greasy ponytails and dark circles? How did they fit bags of Cheerios and Goldfish into their tiny designer purses? And what decent mother drinks alcohol while watching her precious little one? Watching this scenario from 15 feet away, I wondered if all the sun was messing with my vision. What alternate universe was I in?
Actually, just Germany.
Taking a closer look at the other twenty or so mothers who had gathered with their young children, I was shocked to realize these two blond creatures were not freaks of nature—or if they were, so was every other woman there. No mom-jeans or exhausted hunched-over postures in sight. And the children—no wonder I had barely noticed the number of little people running around in such close proximity (I have that well-honed KID-DAR of most adults without children). Something wasn’t right with this picture—where were the tearful demands and bloody-murder tantrums? Where were the high-pitched "Mommy, mommy, MAHHHHMMEEEEEE" screams? Why were there no choruses of "Get back here, now!" and "If you do that one more time…’"and "Stop crying! Here, do you want… (insert "Oreos," "apple juice," "mommy’s iPhone," etc.)?"
After almost four years living in Europe, I have practically forgotten that humans under 5 feet exist. It’s not that European parents keep their kids hidden behind closed doors; it’s the opposite actually. They take them everywhere, including fancy grown-up restaurants, beer gardens, trendy hair salons, and upscale shops filled with breakable merchandise. These kids, at a very young age, have perfected the art of being seen but not heard.
I am far from the first person to make such observations. Author Pamela Druckerman ignited the European-versus-American style parenting debate in her 2012 polarizing (and best-selling) pop-anthropological manifesto Bringing Up Bébé: One Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. While receiving a fair amount of praise from critics, the book sent much of the mommy blogger community into a tizzy with her not-so-subtle (but gentle) indictment of child-rearing in America (as opposed to France, where she was raising her daughter at the time).
My personal observations have led me to conclude that Druckerman may just be right—American parents sort of, well, suck at parenting.
To make such a statement as a non-parent will undoubtedly draw scorn and the ominous ‘Just you wait…’ from many parents. But I didn’t need a child to reach this conclusion—I just needed to be an airbnb host. I have had over 30 families from Europe, Asia, and North America come through my flat over the past year. Witnessing the daily rituals of these families’ lives—meal time, bath time, bedtime—it became very clear: in comparison to their European counterparts, American parents—although loving and well-intentioned—were the most exhausted, irritated, overbearing, impatient, loud, helpless, indulgent and entitled. Sadly, so were the children.
And at the end of this year, I realized: I never want to be an "American" mom.
Be it a soccer mom, helicopter mom, free range mom, tiger mom, lawnmower mom, blogger mom, PTA mom, or any other of the mom prototypes American culture is so fond of slapping on the foreheads of women with children, it ain’t for me. Instead, I will be going with what Druckerman and 20 or so European moms have opened my eyes to.
1. Children are only one part of your life.
My European guests would tell me about their day spent as a family at historical museums (with their toddler-aged child) while getting ready to go out to dinner at a sit-down restaurant.
My poor American guests would be in and out several times during the day, usually only for an hour or two, returning each time with a whining child. Stories about their day went something like, “We tried to go to the children’s museum, but little Johnny just was too exhausted from the walk”—which, by the way, was under 20 minutes—“and so we had to come back so he could take a nap. Then we tried to go out for some German food, but we couldn’t find anywhere with a children’s menu, so we ended up at Burger King…” The exhausted parents would end the day in their room with take-out pizza and streaming cartoons.
2. You are a woman first—then a mom.
As guests in my house, I saw moms when they were still in their bathrobes, plain-faced and wild-haired. Later in the day, the American women would look pretty much the same; the European women, however, would go from frumpy to put-together with little more than stain-free clothes that fit, a brush of mascara and an artfully draped scarf.
3. Kids are tough—they can handle it.
Spend 15 minutes at a German playground and you’ll notice that the parents and kids are grouped up like boys and girls at a middle school dance. The kids play on the playground; the adults drink coffee and chat on the sidelines.
The parents aren’t entertaining, and nor are they hovering—which is a real kicker considering German play equipment could be considered a bit dangerous in all its tight-roped, trapezed-out awesomeness. Parents are simply confident that kids can survive a fall, just like they can survive being told ‘no’, eating a new food, and waiting for something they want.
4. The tantrums of tiny tyrants are nothing to get worked up about.
The family that absolutely terrified me was a young American couple with an adorable, ringlet-haired three-year-old girl who spent most of her waking hours throwing temper tantrums. Her desperate, worn-out, and embarrassed parents played their part perfectly. They pleaded and shushed, bribed and begged, played endless rounds of "let’s make a deal" (see #5). When she didn’t pause for breath, they yelled and threatened. She would scream even louder. Every morning before sightseeing her father carried her out the door, winter coat half on, shoes untied, and face wet with snot and tears.
5. Negotiations with toddlers are rarely successful.
Then again, if they are used to taking ‘no’ as a legitimate answer, negotiations shouldn’t be necessary.
6. If your child has two feet, give her the chance to use them.
One American couple showed up with more strollers than kids and insisted on taking a taxi to any destination ‘out of walking distance’ (i.e., a quarter mile). European kids will happily trot a kilometre or two without even noticing.
7. A ‘hello’ is never overrated.
According to Druckerman, French parents insist that their children always greet adults properly (i.e., not a begrudgingly-whispered ‘hi’ from behind mom’s legs). I found this not only to be true for other Europeans as well, but that it actually prompted good behaviour. The kids who introduced themselves (and sometimes even shook my hand) where not the ones jumping on my sofa in their shoes five minutes later.
8. Suggestions are always appreciated, demands are not.
On their way out one morning, a German girl asked her father sweetly, “Daddy, can we have gummi bears for breakfast?” He laughed and gave a firm “no.” “Okay,” she said with a long sigh as she grabbed her father’s hand. And that was that.
9. Not all waste baskets are dual-purpose dirty diaper depositories.
This shouldn't need further explanation.
10. The world is bigger than your two-year-old.
If ever there was a cautionary tale about letting a child run your life, it would be that of the two couples from New Jersey. One couple had a four-year-old daughter with them. The other couple was expecting their first child. During their three-night stay, the still-childless couple toured museums and strolled the medieval streets of the walled city; meanwhile, the parents barely left the apartment. They were too busy trying to feed, bathe, dress, entertain and please their perpetually dissatisfied daughter.
It was obvious that even a simple visit to the fairytale-like castle in the city center would be a futile undertaking. So while their friends dressed up and gaily headed out for dinner parties, bottle of red wine in hand, mom and dad moped around in sweats and cooked fish sticks and flooded the bathroom floor trying to give their hissy-fit of a daughter a bath, before turning out the lights at 9pm.
All of this is not to say that the Europeans have it all figured out either. They are hardly paragons of patience, nor are they immune to sleep deprivation, and their children aren’t genetically imbued with politeness and an understanding of delayed gratification. And there are certain cultural aspects of American parenting, like encouraging creativity and originality, that aren’t so prevalent in Europe.
However, it would seem overall that we turn this whole raising-a-human activity into an overly complicated and stressful ordeal. Perhaps without all the hovering, fretting, one-upping, pleading, bargaining, sacrificing, and bending over backward, parenting could be more like, well, a sunny day at the beach.