Americans tend to brag on their babies’ smarts more than parents in other Western countries, who are more interested in whether their babies are happy.
A recent study out of the University of Connecticut found that “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,” according to The Atlantic,. One of the study’s authors, Sara Harkness, said that “The U.S.’s almost obsession with cognitive development in the early years overlooks so much else.”
That doesn’t put Americans in the best light, now does it? That is, unless we are smarter than the rest of the world. Considering the fact that our chosen leaders built a “fiscal cliff ” and then pushed us over it, I’m going to go ahead and rule that out.
So what do the different priorities mean? Do people in other countries (we’re talking about Spain, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy and Sweden) prize happiness over intelligence for themselves, or is that just what they want for their offspring? Or do they value intelligence as much as Americans but consider it unseemly to brag about it?
The parents do have one thing in common: the rose-colored glasses that are apparently sold in a bundle with the expectant parents’ bible, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” Here, for example, is a mother offering “proof” that her baby is uncommonly bright:
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.
It is so important for this parent to show others her baby’s intelligence that she will stoop so far as to say that looking at stuff is a sign of superiority. And alertness? My cats have got it all over this Einstein of a baby when it comes to alertness. Everybody says so. Someone stopped me on the sidewalk yesterday to tell me my cat was awake.
Meanwhile other Western parents are just as effusive about their own offspring. In Spain “easy” is the most popular adjective. In Australia and Sweden “happy” wins by a mile. Italians consider their children “easy,” “well balanced,” and “even tempered.” American parents are most likely to say their children “ask a lot of questions” (I bet a good chunk of them are along the lines of “why? But why? Why?”)
So parents maybe aren’t the most reliable indicators of their babies’ actual strengths, but the characteristics they choose to brag about give a pretty good idea of what they value and what they think it takes to live a good life.
American parents’ focus on intelligence shows their continued belief that our country is a meritocracy, where brains get one up the ladder to success. People in European and other Western countries focus on happiness because they don’t think climbing a ladder, whether financial or professional, is the key to a good life.
It may be key to a good economy, though, if Greece’s financial meltdown is any indication.
Another possibility is that parents of different countries are using different words to describe the same infant behavior. According to U. Conn.’s study,
American parents talked about their children as intelligent and even as cognitively advanced.¯ (Also: rebellious.) Italian parents, though, very rarely praised their children for being intelligent. Instead, they were even-tempered and simpatico.¯ So although both the Americans and the Italians noted that their children asked lots of questions, they meant very different things by it: For the Americans, it was a sign of intelligence; for the Italians, it was a sign of socio-emotional competence. The observation was the same; the interpretation was radically different.
This study raises some interesting questions for introspection. Why isn’t your baby more even tempered? Is it a good thing when your baby asks a lot of questions? And most cutting, would you rather be smart or happy?
Photo credit: Photodisc