Parenting is hard, no newsflash there. Know what can make it harder? Having too much information about various approaches, all with conflicting supporting data. Add to this that our entire sense of community has shifted, and many parents live nowhere near their families of origin, leaving most of us to wing it in a sea of TMI.
Whether it's figuring out how soon to send your kid to daycare, debating how soon to expose them to television, figuring out the best age for music lessons, or tweaking optimal bedtime, chances are you'll either do what your parents did, or aspire to some shiny new idea that promises the best possible outcome. But guess what? Every culture has a different idea of what those standards are, and that should remind us that one parent's raged-over decision to leave her 9-year-old in a park (and subsequent arrest) is another's that's-just-how-we-do-it-in-Denmark.
From a Salon piece on parenting styles around the world:
4) Danish parents leave their kids on the curb while they go shopping
In Denmark, writes Mei-Ling Hopgood in "How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm," "children are frequently left outside to get frisk luft, or fresh air — something parents think is essential for health and hearty development — while caregivers dine and shop."
As you might imagine, this idea sends shivers down the spines of many parents in the United States. In New York, a couple (one of whom was Danish) was arrested for leaving their child outside a BBQ restaurant while they went inside to eat. "I was just in Denmark and that's exactly what they do," Mariom Adler, a New Yorker out walking with her 2 1/2-year-old son, told the New York Times. "We would see babies all over unattended. We were stunned, frankly. But Denmark also struck us as exceptionally civilized."
I realize I'm mixing up my Scandinavian countries here, but I'm picturing that cart-parking station at Ikea, only filled with kids. Elsewhere on the parental style map, we learn that in Spain and Argentina, kids routinely go to bed at 10 pm in order to experience more nighttime family fun (no word on how early they wake up, or how grouchy they are). Drool: In Norway, most kids go to a state-sponsored childcare program starting at age 1 (could this knowledge possibly alleviate working mother guilt in America, or at least up our rage factor at the lack of affordable care?), and are treated to an unheard of amount of fresh air, even in sub-zero temps.
Here in the USA, we mock parents who go diaper-free, but the laugh is on us: Vietnamese parents save hella dollars on diapers because their children are potty trained before they are even 1 thanks to an elimination communication method that involves whistling when it's time to pee. Want an example to instantly shut down all debates about attachment parenting vs. cry-it-out types? Some Kenyan moms don't make eye contact with their babies WHILE WEARING THEM IN BABY WRAPS. Yeah. Let that one marinate.
And for all the working parents who struggle over who should stay home when the kid is sick (usually mom), Aka fathers in central Africa have interchangeable roles with mothers, meaning sometimes the women hunt while the dads nurture the children, and vice versa, and more importantly, no one gives anyone any shit about it. THE FATHERS EVEN SUCKLE THEIR CHILDREN. That, my friends, is true equality.
We could use this to judge others! We could use to this judge ourselves! Or we could use it to realize that there really is no objective best practices when it comes to parenting approaches: It all depends on the standards you've set, the framework you're using, and — ding ding ding — the culture you're in.
Sure, there are overall differences we can distinguish about those cultures that reflect these approaches. The Salon piece is drawn, in part, from an essay about how different cultures think about parenting, and the takeaway is that, while wildly varied, other cultures are more monolithic in approach, whereas Americans are trend-chasers obsessed with the shiniest, best ways to parent to produce the optimal child. This is, of course, a sweeping generalization, but it's also useful:
Both in Japan and Norway, parents are focused on cultivating independence. Children do things alone early, whether it's walking to school or to the movies. The frames, however, are different. In Scandinavia, there is an emphasis on a democratic relationship between parents and children. In Sweden especially, the "rights" of a child are important. For example, a child has the "right" to access their parents' bodies for comfort, and therefore should be allowed into their parents' bed with them in the middle of the night. If a parent doesn't allow them, they are both denying them their rights and being a neglectful parent. In parts of Asia, meanwhile, co-sleeping with a family member through late childhood is common. Korean parents spend more time holding their babies and having physical contact than most. But within a family, obedience is key — not democracy.
American parents are highly focused on making sure that their children's talents are groomed for success. Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut and a pioneering researcher on parenting and culture, found that nearly 25 percent of all of the descriptors used by American parents were a derivation of "smart," "gifted" or "advanced." "Our sense of needing to push children to maximize potential is partly driven by fear of the child failing in an increasingly competitive world where you can't count on the things that our parents could count on," Harkness suggests.
This is not unlike many Asian nations, where parenting, from a very early age, is focused highly on academics and college acceptance. One Korean mother who Harkness interviewed played English tapes to her 2-month-old baby "because it's never too early to start," she says. The parent's primary role is as an educator, and the child's role is to respect the parent and repay them with sacrifices.
In the Netherlands, meanwhile, parents used "smart" to describe their children only 10 percent of the time. Dutch parents believe strongly in not pushing their children too hard.
But the key here, to me, is that all this stuff only works if you're in a culture that supports it. To leave your kid on the sidewalk while you shop and dine is not something any single American can just start doing without consequence, obviously. It requires a community that understands the practice, an unspoken social contract that is not violated, lower crime rates, and an entire seismic shift in thinking.
And in our defense: Parenting is getting more expensive in America, as these charts indicate, to the tune of $245,000 to raise a child, not even counting college (and not just because of inflation). Perhaps focusing on success makes sense here, when you are sending that child out into a society that routinely, unapologetically saddles its youngest citizens with lifelong debt upon graduating for jobs that will scarcely pay them enough — a society that won't pay for her childcare, medical care, or education. If parents had the sense that a better future existed for our children, it might be easier instead to focus on providing only "regularly scheduled rest, food and a pleasant environment," as Dutch parents are said to do, rather than hedging the negatives, i.e., sweating the schools, the grades, the extracurriculars, the employability.
More information like this about other cultures, the piece suggests, should not be stressful, but rather, liberating — proof that there's more than one way to teach a baby not to piss itself. And yet, on the other hand, as an increasingly global culture, we have no idea where our children will end up — and so perhaps preparing them for only the culture we know is actually shortsighted:
A growing awareness of the scarcity of resources, and the potential for true social mobility, is increasing the pressure on parents globally to "parent" their kids, as a verb. In Taiwan, the most popular parenting books are translations of American guides.
Yet parental anxiety is a terrible idea to export. Instead, "we should be learning from each other," says Harkness, "and recognizing that there are very different successful pathways to raising children."
Sure, but I gotta say, that sounds like a great idea for a new trend with accompanying book — Global Parenting: How to Create the Perfect Child in Any Culture. BOOM.
Image by Jim Cooke.