As parents and caregivers, we hold these truths to be self-evident: Children need quality time with us and active stimulation in order to develop properly. Being a good parent means putting our children's needs before our own. Parents should monitor children's TV habits to protect them from violent or inappropriate media exposure.
Most American and British parents trust in these fundamental, universal truths. But what if some of them weren't universal at all?
That's exactly what Dr Christine Gross-Loh asks in her excellent Parenting Without Borders. In it, she takes a comprehensive look at how parents raise children across the world, investigating what parts of parenting "common sense" are truly held in common and which are rooted in particular cultural assumptions.
Dr Gross-Loh may be uniquely qualified for such a comparative analysis. After earning a Ph.D from Harvard in East Asian studies, the American-born daughter of Korean immigrants moved to Japan with her Jewish-American husband and their children.
While in Japan, she noticed that some choices she thought were normal were earning her strange looks from other Japanese moms. They were surprised, for example, by her close monitoring of her children's TV watching. Japanese parents are relatively lax about their children's TV programs and video games -- yet Japan has remarkably little violence or crime.
Is it possible, Dr Gross-Loh wondered, that what "good parents" do in America is different from what they do in Japan -- and that both could be equally valid approaches? Or even more intriguingly, could parenting practices have evolved to cultivate different qualities and skills in children, with priorities and methods as influenced by the culture around us as the food we eat or the music we listen to?
In tackling these questions, Dr Gross-Loh takes a slightly different approach than Bringing Up Bébé author Pamela Druckerman (whose books I love). Where Druckerman places French and American parenting side by side and draws specific parallels to show how the French are getting it right, Dr Gross-Loh uses examples of different parenting methods and assumptions from around the world to question American norms and point out places where American parents could choose differently.
Dr Gross-Loh comes at parenting like a playful anthropologist, joyfully tossing out fun facts about parents and babies around the world. Nordic babies nap outside. Guatemalan Mayan toddlers are not taught to share; they're expected to do it spontaneously. And one nation famously lavishes praise on children for accomplishing routine tasks -- a strange American custom!
The more we look through Dr Gross-Loh's eyes, the more objectively we can see our own parenting practices. How, we start to think, can we preserve the parts of American parenting that foster independence and creative thinking, but change those that result in physical inactivity, poor manners, or narcissism?
Gross-Loh prefers to observe and report rather than prescribe, but she does reveal concern about one American parenting problem at the root of many others: hoverparenting.
Gross-Loh uses both "hoverparenting" and the more familiar "helicopter parenting" to describe American parents' over-involvement. When compared with the rest of the world, Americans stand out by butting in. Swedish preschools feature fenceless play areas where children practice self-control by staying within an "invisible fence." Japanese parents refuse to sort out disputes among children, instead encouraging them to develop their own conflict-resolution skills. Koreans expect children to eat the same meals at the same table and time as their parents, even when breakfast features fermented cabbage and squid. (Perhaps some elements of good parenting are universal -- my English parents brooked no nonsense over sibling squabbles or fussy eating, either!)
By the end, Gross-Loh had me nodding along when she said that "kids gain more when we do less." Free play is so important for children, and it's easy to see how they benefit in places where it's the norm. In Finland, for example, kids don't start formal schooling until age 7, and they enjoy fewer academic classes and more recess time. But they consistently top the charts on international achievement tests -- outscoring even places like Taiwan and Korea, where students can attend 10 or more hours of class, six days a week.
Still, thanks to American cultural norms, even American parents who want to give kids unstructured play time find it isn't as easy as it used to be. When parents refrain from scheduling their kids, Gross-Loh points out, the kids end up without playmates, "because everyone in the neighborhood is at music lessons or swim practice!"
As a nanny who has worked and lived with children across the globe, I found Parenting Without Borders both accurate and thought-provoking. Some information, particularly on customs in America and Western Europe, was familiar, but contextualizing it alongside practices in Japan, Korea, and Latin America made me see it in a new light. Her take on co-sleeping, for example, was fascinating -- bunking our children in separate bedrooms puts America and the UK in the minority, but makes sense when you think of both countries' emphasis on leadership and independence. In cultures that emphasizes community and interdependence, on the other hand, co-sleeping might seem entirely reasonable.
Smart, well-researched, accessible, and fun, Parenting Without Borders is a great book not only for parents, but for anyone interested in comparative culture and how the way we raise our children reflects our values.