I’ve been parenting for 15 years now and, at least once a day, I have that uneasy feeling that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Should I run after the 12-year-old I just grounded and acknowledge her anger because I’m an empathetic mom? Should I give in to the 6-year-old and read one more book, even though it’s way past her bedtime, because reading to your kid is awesome for their growing brains?
Um, yes? Or is it no?
When it comes to my day-to-day parenting, I’m basically winging it. My overall parenting philosophy is authoritative but empathetic with the occasional (and unfortunate) dash of yelling. But I’m often swayed by the latest studies about how to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids, which leads to a good deal of second-guessing, recalibrating and, frankly, anxiety.
While adapting the way we parent to specific childhood phases or our kids’ personalities is a good thing, it’s the lack of a consistent cultural viewpoint about parenting in the United States that leaves us all hanging one time or another. Are you a Tiger Mom, a Helicopter Parent, or a Free-Range Momma? Which way is the “right” way? Do you keep a rigid bedtime schedule or let the kids romp around until they pass out? There’s research to back up almost every possible parenting approach and most of us eagerly lap it up in pursuit of raising happy, successful kids.
What we’re missing is a core around parenting like so many other cultures around the world have. I’m not talking about rules or one-size-fits-all parenting, but about default values and traditions that are part of every family’s parenting style. For example, Sweden boasts 480 days of parental leave during which parents stay home caring for their babies for an extended time. In China, kids don’t talk back to their parents because respecting your elders is of utmost cultural importance.
In the U.S., most of us are intent on parenting differently than we were parented. Instead of following traditions, we strike out on our own to do what we think is best for our kids, hopefully building our tribe along the way. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if there were a few core elements of parenting we all followed together, for our own sakes as well as our kids’?
Here are just a few global suggestions we might want to adopt ASAP:
Japanese kids go out by themselves.
In Japan, it’s not unusual to see very young children riding the subway by themselves or walking the streets on their own doing errands. That’s because the Japanese value the idea of “group reliance” and teach kids to be independent early on. If they run into trouble, they simply ask a stranger. This might sound reckless to Americans, but because Japanese culture emphasizes community over the individual, helping and protecting children is everyone’s job.
French kids eat what mom and dad are eating.
There’s no such thing as “kid food” in France. Children are expected to eat what adults eat. They don’t have to like everything, but they are expected to try new foods. If they don’t eat what’s in front of them at mealtime, they don’t get a special plate of chicken nuggets (mon dieu!). While this sounds strict and might result in rumbly bellies, it actually teaches children to eat a wider variety of foods.
Dutch children learn about sex when they’re little.
In Holland, children begin sex ed at the age of 4. Some might thing this is super young, but if you think about it, kids that age are just beginning to notice their own anatomy and are often curious about body parts. Dutch parents are very open about sex, which leads Dutch children to grow up feeling less awkward and more empowered about their bodies.
Polynesian Island children care for other children.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, older kids in the Polynesian Islands start caring for their younger siblings before they’re even walking. They all hang out with other kids in the community, learning social and life skills from each other without adult intervention. Imagine how freeing it would be to hand off child-raising duties to your willing, older kids and their friends knowing they’ll be taken care of.
German kids learn how to rough it in kindergarten.
In Germany, the birthplace of kindergarten, preschool-aged kids spend most of their time outdoors playing in nature with limited supervision. Forget reading and writing; these kids are working on their social skills, looking out for each other and developing their independence. They even spend a few nights camping out mostly on their own, making their food and putting themselves to bed – all before the age of 6.
Nordic children don’t start school until they’re 7.
In Norway, they understand that children aren’t developmentally ready to sit for long periods of time and learn until they’re about 7. Instead, young kids continue to learn through play. When they do start school, they’re better able to sit and focus. In the U.S., we put our kids in academic school at 5, trading in free play and outdoor time for reading, writing, and desk time. But studies show no evidence that learning to read at an earlier age leads to greater academic success down the road.
Like they say, it takes a village, so why not adopt one or two parenting approaches from the global village? Who knows, you might just start a cultural parenting revolution where warming up chicken nuggets for a disgruntled toddler never, ever happens.
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