Simanaitis Says

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ADAM GOPNIK’S ARTICLE “How to Raise a Prodigy,” recently featured in The New Yorker Classics online, also discussed different parenting in the U.S., France, and Germany. 

Here are several tidbits. The article, originally published in The New Yorker, January 22, 2018, has opening lines that positively encourage reading the entire piece.

Introduction. Gopnik wrote,  “We know we’ve come to a crossroads when German childhood is being held up as an idealized model for Americans. It was, after all, Teutonic styles of child rearing that were once viewed with disgust—as in “The Sound of Music,” for a long time the most popular of all American movies, with all those over-regimented Trapp kids rescued by wearing the bedroom drapes and singing scales.” “But,” Gopnik continued, “Sara Zaske’s “Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children” (Picador) is perhaps an inevitable follow-up to “Bringing Up Bébé,” that best-selling book about parenting the way the French supposedly do it—basically, as though the kids were little grownups, presumably ready for adultery and erotic appetites.”

The Challenge. “What’s wrong with such books,” Gopnik said, “is not that we can’t learn a lot from other people’s ‘parenting principles’ but that, invariably, you get the problems along with the principles.”

Image by Golden Cosmos from The New Yorker, October 3, 2021

French Kids. Gopnik offered an example: “French kids are often sensitive and unspoiled in ways that American kids aren’t; they are also often driven so crazy by the enervating 8:30 a.m.-to-4:30 p.m. school system and by a tradition of remote parenting that they rebel as bitterly as American adolescents do, only putting off the rebellion until they’re forty, when the sex and drugs really start to kick in.”

German Kids. By contrast, Gopnik observed, Germany has “the most highly organized forms of not being highly organized that have ever existed.… (Could these fine-print rules be effectively enforced anywhere except in Germany?)”

“Nowhere else, it seems,” Gopnik assessed, ‘will you find such tightly controlled varieties of freedom, such militarized ordering of open-ended play, such centralized rules for creative anarchy. Kids aren’t merely encouraged not to be dependent on toys; there is a “toy-free” month when no one at the day-care center is allowed to play with them. Adolescents are not only indulged in their freewheeling impulses; whole parks are specifically set aside for their explorations.”

The American Helicopter. Gopnik said that, in a sense, “American parents have gone radically wrong, making themselves and their kids miserable in the process, by hovering over them like helicopters instead of observing them from a watchtower, at a safe distance.”

Image by Aleutie/iStock from Psychology Today.

Gopnik concluded his analysis of transatlantic parenting: “The helicopter metaphor is an odd one, since helicopters can often only hover, helplessly, as in the Vietnam-era newsreels, as the action goes on below.” 

“Instead,” he wrote, American parenting  “is really more handcuff than helicopter, with the parent and the child both, like the man and woman agents in a sixties spy movie, shackled to the same valise—in this case, the one that carries not the secret plans for a bomb but the college-admission papers. Until we get to that final destination, we’ll never be apart.”

The rest of Gopnik’s fine article addresses the matter of child prodigies, a separate (and entertaining) matter entirely. Do read it. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021 

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