If you ask American mothers, they'll say the country is raising a nation of baby Einsteins. Here’s what one parent had to say about the intelligence of her 3-year-old, which was apparent to her from the very first moments of her life:
“I have this vivid memory when she was born of them taking her to clean her off … And she was looking all around … She was alert from the very first second … I took her out when she was six weeks old to a shopping mall to have her picture taken — people would stop me and say, “What an alert baby.” One guy stopped me and said, “Lady, you have an intelligent baby there.” … And it was just something about her. She was very engaging and very with the program, very observant. She’s still fabulously observant.”
The biggest difference between American parents and their counterparts in Europe might be that they are far more relaxed about enrichment than we are, according to a study released this week by Sara Harkness and Charles M. Super at the School of Family Studies at the University of Connecticut.
Not only are Americans far more likely to focus on their children’s intelligence and cognitive skills, they are also far less likely to describe them as “happy” or “easy” children to parent.
“The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else,” Harkness told Slate.
For part of their research, the authors focused just on parents in the United States and the Netherlands. The differences are stark: American parents emphasized setting aside “special time” with each of their children, while Dutch parents spent a few hours each day together with their kids as an entire family.
American parents said they struggled to manage the sleep schedules of their babies and young children, explaining that they try to entertain or distract them when they wake up in the middle of the night. As one American dad says:
“We both have different strategies. She’ll put him in the walker down here and I generally put him in the playpen and try to keep him somewhat entertained, either by the TV or he loves the stereo.”
Compare this to Dutch parents, who emphasized plenty of rest and regular schedules for their kids (and, by extension, themselves), and somehow end up inducing their offspring to sleep more:
“Many parents stressed the importance of a regular schedule, including a set time for both meals and bed. As one mother of an 18-month-old explained: ‘To bed on time, because they really need rest to grow, and regularity is very important when they are so little. If she gets too little rest, she is very fussy.’ A mother of a 6-month-old commented, ‘We are very strict about going to bed – at 6:30, upstairs.'”
Apparently, it works. The authors noted that the children of Dutch parents were consistently more calm, existing more frequently in a state of “quiet alert,” while American babies were more often “actively alert.”
“The higher state of arousal of the American babies corresponded to differences in their mothers’ behavior: the American mothers touched and talked to their babies more than the Dutch mothers did,” the authors note.
But beyond sleep schedules, Americans also seem preoccupied with their children’s smarts from an extremely young age.
The researchers compiled a list of the attributes that 60 families in six different countries used to describe their children, which you can see at the top of the page.
American parents were the only ones to consistently mention their children’s advanced intellect, while other countries focused on qualities like “happiness,” being “easy” to manage, or the even more zen-like “well-balanced,” in Italy. (Italians also used the word simpatico, a group of characteristics suggesting social and emotional competence).
The authors write that these terms might hint at local, cultural constructions as to what it means to be a child in each country. It’s interesting that the findings are in line with other deep dives into the contrasts between European and American parenting, such as with the book Bringing up Bebe, in which an American mom living in Paris realizes that the secret to having your kid play quietly without bugging you is to simply schedule fewer activities and laissez-faire.
Still, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what accounts for all these differences.
Americans work more than Europeans, so perhaps characteristics like intelligence and inquisitiveness — which would arguably better-suit one for a life of industriousness — are more valued.
Places like Sweden, the Netherlands, and other northern European countries also have famously luxurious maternity leave policies and newborn-child benefits, so it could be that parents simply have more time on their hands to instill bedtimes and routines that lead to agreeableness and balance.
Meanwhile, American moms, many of whom are already back to work after just a few weeks off post-baby, look for signs that their young ones, like them, are likely to “Lean In.”
Any other armchair ethnographers care to weigh in?