By: Shannon Ralph
You’ve read all the parenting books. You’ve dutifully attended parenting classes. You are an active member of the PTA. You watch Dr. Phil. In short, you consider yourself a well-informed and conscientious parent. But have you ever considered that perhaps the American model of child-rearing is not the be-all and end-all?
There are certain universals when it comes to raising kids: A child needs enough sleep, food, and nurturing to thrive. But how we, as parents, meet those necessities varies wildly depending on where we live. Parenting styles differ greatly around the world. Some global parenting practices may make American parents cringe, but other, perhaps, deserve a closer look.
Children spend much less time in school in other countries.
In the Finnish model of education, children do not begin any formal academics until they are 7 years old. Schools provide frequent breaks for outdoor time (as often as every 45 minutes all day long), shorter school hours (sometimes as few as four hours a day), and more variety of classes than children in the U.S. are provided (woodworking, anyone?). Equity, not high achievement, is the guiding dogma in Finnish schools. While we in America cut recess time to teach more formal academics and slice funding to subjects like art and music, Finnish educators emphasize that learning art, music, home economics and life skills is essential. In the U.S., we sing the praises of early intervention, but American school children typically score in the middle of the heap on international measures of achievement, especially in science and mathematics. Finnish children, with their later start to school, frequently rank among the best in the world.
It takes a village.
Parents in countries from Greece to Spain to India to Italy, believe that children are best off when others help raise them—the extended family, friends or community. In Brazil, for example, it is not uncommon for several generations of a family—parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins—to live together in separate but adjoining homes or on separate floors of the same home. Brazilian culture puts a high premium on extended family ties. This makes it easier for parents to tap into “the village” to help raise their children.
Allowing children to go hungry from time to time is perfectly acceptable.
In Korea, eating is taught to children as a life skill. As in many cultures, children are taught that food is best when enjoyed as a shared experience. Children in Korea are taught the value of waiting out their hunger until it is time for the whole family to sit down and eat together. Unlike American parents whose diaper bags are stocked full of snacks for “hangry” kiddos, Koreans do not believe it is healthy to graze throughout the day. All children eat the same things that adults do, as they do in most Asian cultures. (Ever wonder why ethnic restaurants don’t have kids’ menus?). As a result, Korean children are incredibly good eaters.
Letting kids drink alcohol is way more common than Americans may think.
For Americans, the idea of giving children alcohol is tantamount to child abuse. The same does not hold true around the world. In Croatia, studies show that parents are giving over 7 percent of their first graders alcohol more than 6 times a month. 30 percent of eighth grade boys in Croatia and 12 percent of eighth grade girls report boozing it up six times a week. These shocking statistics are a result of many Croatian parents holding onto old beliefs regarding the nutritional values of alcohol.
“Spoiling” children is a concept that does not exist in many places.
In many countries in the world, people are incredulous about the fear of “spoiling” children often found in the Western world. In Japan, co-sleeping with babies and children is common. Japanese parents have trouble understanding other countries where parents routinely put their newborns to sleep in a separate room. The Japanese respond to their babies’ cries immediately and hold them almost constantly. While parents in the U.S. may worry that this would spoil their children, the Japanese believe that babies who get their needs met and are loved unconditionally as infants become more independent and confident children.
Parents and children are equals.
Studies show that parent-child relationships in Sweden are quite egalitarian. Parents and children typically have equal rights within a family. This means that children are encouraged to express their opinions and actively participate in family decisions.
Obligation takes precedence over independence in many places in the world.
In America, as our kids become adolescents, we tend to start giving them additional freedoms in preparation to let them go. We want to help them become independent, and we often don’t want to burden them with family responsibilities. In China, parents do the opposite. The older Chinese children get, the more parents remind them of their obligations to their family. Eva Pomerantz of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has discovered through multiple studies that in China, the cultural ideal of not letting adolescents go helps their motivation and their achievement. By reminding them of their responsibility to the family and the expectation that their hard work in school is one way to pay back a little for all they have received, adolescents do better in school. Even more surprising, Pomerantz found that the same holds true for students here in U.S. Adolescents who feel responsible to their families tend to get better grades in school.
It is perfectly okay to park your kid outside on the sidewalk while you have dinner.
Danish parents have no issue with parking their children’s strollers out on the sidewalk while they shop or have dinner in a café. This seems innocuous enough until you realize that they baby is sleeping soundly in the stroller. Outside. Alone. While his parents have dinner and drinks inside. Parents believe it is good for healthy development for infants to get frisk luft, or fresh air. In America, you would likely be arrested. In Denmark, no one gives parked children a second thought.
Taking candy from strangers is not frowned upon, but is welcomed.
In the U.S., one of the first things we teach young children is the importance of never taking candy (or anything, for that matter) from strangers. In Chile, giving treats to children is seen as a sign of affection, so strangers will often offer candy to kids on the street. Parents who refuse will quickly find themselves in the midst of a chorus of strangers chiming in about their child’s need for candy.
Sharing breast milk is a no-brainer in many parts of the world.
In much of Africa, including Kenya and The Democratic Republic of Congo, no one thinks twice about sharing breast milk. It is considered a shame to waste it. And it makes no difference if it is from a relative, a friend, or a complete stranger. Breast milk is breast milk.
Many women around the world enjoy lengthy paid maternity leaves.
In Germany, working women go on maternity leave six weeks before they’re due and are allowed eight weeks after their delivery (all at 100% pay). They can also take up to 12 months off at 65% of their pay (depending on income level, the percentages change slightly). Paid maternity leave even applies to self-employed women. Self-employed women may take up to 12 months off, at approximately 60% of their previous year’s income. In Norway, women get 10 months of maternity leave at 100% pay or 12 months at 80% pay. (Actually, either parent can choose to take the “maternity” leave in Norway—it doesn’t have to be mom.)
Parents are paid by the government to…well, parent.
In Germany, parent get a monthly payment from the government called Kindergeld. The amount is about 200 euros per month per child, depending on how many children a couple has. The money is intended to help pay for diapers, food, toys, etc. Parents are paid the monthly stipend until their children turn 18. If the child does not have a job at 18, the parents are paid until they’re 21, and until age 25 if they are students.
Bedtimes vary greatly around the world.
Parents in Spain balk at the idea of a toddler going to bed at 6:30 p.m. In Spain, it is important to parents that children—even small children—be allowed to participate in the family’s nightlife. As a result, children often do not go to bed until 10 p.m. or later.
Children take care of children.
In the Polynesian Islands, adults take the lead in caring for infants, but as soon as they are able to walk, babies are turned over to the care of other children. Toddlers become self-reliant much sooner than they do in the U.S. because they learn that is the only way they are able to hang out with the older kids.
Kids are allowed to go out by themselves.
In Japan, parents allow their children a far greater level of independence than we are used to in the U.S. It is not uncommon for children as young as 4 to ride the subway by themselves. Children are sent on errands alone, often taking the Subway and wandering around town as they may.
Children need a little more product in their hair.
In Mexico, schools are very involved in a child’s grooming habits. It is not uncommon for parents to receive notes home from school if their children are not sufficiently combed or if their hair does not contain enough product to tame it. Children’s report cards even have a line item for “personal hygiene”.
Not all babies wear diapers.
In China, infants wear split pants. The split pants allow them to pee and poop anywhere and everywhere). In the U.S., we consider our children potty trained when they learn to go on a toilet. In China, children are potty trained when they learn to go on command. They are trained to go anywhere—not to wait until a toilet can be found. I don’t know about you, but this would have saved me hours upon hours of my life spent searching for a bathroom for toddlers who had to go at the most inopportune times.
Bragging on that little angel of yours? How uncouth!
Whereas Americans are inclined to gush obnoxiously on social media about their perfect little angels, the English find this behavior distasteful. It’s not acceptable in England to brag—or even talk about one’s accomplishments. This tight-lipped-ness extends to children, as well. In America, you may hear a parent say, “My little Cheyenne seems to have a real gift for the ukulele.” In England, parents would say, “We’re managing to endure little Alastair’s efforts at learning the piccolo.” These deprecating remarks are made in front of children—to teach their how to get along with people in society. In other words, to teach them to never brag.
“Date Night” is not a thing.
In Japan, a kid-free “date night” with your spouse is a non-existent concept. Restaurants are very expensive and men tend to work very late. It is rare for middle class couple to eat out in Japan—maybe just once a year! Men and women in traditional Japanese families often live separate lives. Women eat dinner early—with the children. And men tend to eat dinner late—with their work associates.
Staying at home is not an option.
In Norway, everyone works. Everyone. Oslo is one of the most expensive cities in the world, so parents can’t afford to stay home. As a result, there is no “playground culture.” There are minimal kids’ activities, few children’s museums, no playgroups, no “mommy and me” classes. Childhood is very institutionalized. When children turn one year old, they enter Barnehage (Norwegian for “children’s garden”), state-subsidized day care. Parents pay a small amount each month, and children are cared for from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.