Balancing Act

American parents need more help, fewer scolds

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Japanese parenting

Parents samba dance with their babies at the Mama Fes event in Tokyo on May 17, 2013. Parents from other cultures may be more likely than Americans to develop a network to help with their children, one author says. (YOSHIKAZU TSUNO / AFP/Getty Images / May 17, 2013)

It's hardly the type of remark that invites a nuanced dialogue:

"Why bother having children if you never want to see or speak to them? Why not just get a goat that eats money and then hire some Swedish lady to pet the goat all day?"

But it sprang from the fingers of Jezebel.com writer Lindy West, writing in response to a much-discussed New York Post story about parents who send nannies to cover school fundraisers and other volunteer duties.

And it's a remark that can launch a conversation — this time without the finger wagging. I'll start:

I wish I'd thought of sending my nanny to fundraisers. My daughter went to one preschool that required parents to work three bingo nights per year. If my nanny went, I could have spent those evenings having dinner with my goats. Er, children.

The larger topic, though, is our uniquely American obsession with self-reliance.

"Americans go through a lot of hoops to make their nuclear families self-sufficient, because that's valued and prioritized in our culture," says Claudia Kolker, author of "The Immigrant Advantage: What We Can Learn From Newcomers to America About Health, Happiness and Hope" (Free Press). "It's a signal of efficiency and devotion to not accept help."

Kolker has researched families in Mexico, Central America, Japan, India and Pakistan as a journalist and an author. Other cultures are better at seeking assistance and not hanging their heads in shame — or shaming others — about it.

"There's a Spanish phrase, calor humano, which means 'human warmth,'" Kolker told me. "It's the idea that being around other people is healthy, and not just one or two people. Being around lots of loved ones and people who love you is good; it's nurturing and it's healthier."

This often means extended family. But it doesn't have to.

"There's an expression, 'kin and like kin,'" Kolker says. "If you're not close with your family, physically or emotionally, you can still make friends and create a healthy network."

A network, of course, can mean many things: friends, neighbors, hired help, families from your house of worship. The key, she says, is creating one.

"The American ideal of going it on your own is not realistic," she says. "And it's highly overrated."

It's not hard to see why we cling to it, though, when parents who skip fundraisers are encouraged to throw in the towel and buy a goat.

"It's worthwhile to rethink some of our assumptions," Kolker says. "We can prioritize it and understand that it's an achievement to surround yourself with extended family or a large group of loved ones."

My friends Suchet and Rishi Bhandari take their kids to India every December to visit Rishi's family. Last year, during a side trip to Thailand, they met an Australian family who relocated to Singapore.

"Kate and Max were just like us when they lived in Australia," Suchet told me. "Both working parents who cooked, cleaned, did pickups and drop-offs, took kids to every outing possible. But when they moved to Singapore, the shift was incredible."

Families there — granted, families with money — routinely hire help to cook, clean and take care of the chores that eat away at our time and sanity.

"At first, Kate was horrified at the lack of hands-on child-rearing," Suchet said. "But she's grown to love not being dragged into the minutiae and really just enjoys her children. She loves that she can sit and read with her kids in the evening. And more than anything, she enjoys her family dinners where the family can chat or laugh and discuss their day, without her jumping up every few minutes to refill milk or get more grapes."

Finding and embracing caring, capable help, in whatever form you can find and afford, is the opposite of abandoning your kids. It's introducing them to a world that is full of all sorts of people with all different ways of thinking, living and loving. And it's teaching them how to live in that world — with and without you.

"For kids," Kolker says, "there is no such a thing as too much devotion."

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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