EVER SINCE WE announced we’re having a kid, my wife and I have heard the following sentence dozens of times: “Oh god, you’re going to get so much useless advice!” This sentence is, inevitably, followed by lots of advice. I imagine someday I’ll get tired of parenting advice, but now, knowing so little about raising a kid, I’ve been eating it up. A week after the announcement, my colleague Morgane Croissant (whom I suspect, based on her name, is French) suggested I check out a book called Bringing Up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman.
Druckerman is an American who had her children in France, and who noticed that French kids were far better behaved and often seemed happier than the American children she’d spent time with. She dug into it, and found out that French parents have a fundamentally different way of looking at child-rearing than the American “helicopter parenting” style that is currently en vogue.
I, like many liberal, city-dwelling Americans, have always been secretly insecure that French culture is superior to ours (a culture that puts so much emphasis on bread, wine, and cheese, I figure, has things figured out). Moreover, it was the first time the thought had even entered my head that different cultures could have a different take on what a child is. So I reached out to four people who had either been raised in different culture, are raising kids in a culture other than their native one, or had parents from a different culture, and asked them what differences they’ve noticed in parenting styles from country to country.
No one person here speaks for a culture as a whole. But generalizations aren’t totally useless, so here’s what I learned:
Morgane summed up Druckerman’s book for me:
“Instead of thinking ‘the kid’s here, they are going to come along for the ride and fit into our lives’ like they seem to do in France, Americans entirely change their lifestyles and overdo it to the point where they don’t take time for themselves. I hear of mothers who don’t leave the house, sleep with their babies (a big no-no in France), babies who don’t fall asleep unless they are being carried, etc. French mothers (from what is written in the book and what I have observed) take care of themselves as much as they take care of the baby.”
Druckerman points out that the French have a clear authority structure when it comes to kids — parents call the shots, kids follow. This is especially important when it comes to food. As Morgane put it, “Be it tripe, crepes, cantaloupe, soup, cheese, there is no kid food, just mashed-up adult food. My niece at three eats ‘andouillette,’ blue cheese, and olives.”
The French, according to Druckerman and Morgane — and contrary to the common American perception of the French as abrupt and rude — are also pretty insistent on politeness. Not just please and thank you, but also “bonjour” and “au revoir,” as it’s important for kids to learn to acknowledge others.
Finally, Druckerman points out that the French do not say they are “disciplining” children, but instead say they are “educating” them.
2. El Salvador
My older sister, Laura, had her son Alejandro in El Salvador. She and her husband lived there for the first year of Alejandro’s life before moving back to the United States. Her husband is Salvadoran, so they still raise their son with a little bit of both cultures, but there are some pretty striking differences.
“One of the best things about being pregnant and having a baby in the environment that I was in in El Salvador was how baby-friendly it was,” she told me. “Everywhere I would go people would offer me support and assistance. It was really common for eleven or twelve-year old-children to want to carry around Alejandro for an hour and play with him! I remember going out on work visits to rural communities and needing to be in a meeting, and because of the nature of the work, it was okay to bring Alejandro with me. Woman or girls would always come up and offer to hold him and care for him while I was meeting. I think it’s because it is a more communal society. People are supportive of each other in caring for babies.”
This also means that there’s much less of a stigma around breastfeeding — you could do it basically anywhere without having to worry about covering up. That is decidedly not the case here in America.
“With that said, people [in El Salvador didn’t] always think about my wishes as a parent. I can’t tell you how many times Alejandro was offered soda before he turned 1! He was also offered popcorn, chips, and brownies at a VERY young age. People were usually a little put off when I told him that he didn’t drink soda and coffee and that he didn’t need massive amounts of salt or crema on his refried beans.”
She also found that Salvadoran children were expected to do more around the house, and had more family responsibilities. Laura added the caveat that some of those differences may have been class-based — she was living and spending her time in poorer parts of El Salvador, and now lives in middle class Ohio.
Moksheda Thapa Hekel was born and raised in Nepal, and married an American man before moving to the United States, where we worked together for a year or so. She has a four-year-old, and has noticed a few differences between Nepal in the United States.
First, she says, “is attachment parenting. In Nepal, there is practice of co-sleeping. I slept with my mother until I was four years old. My son is now four years old and he shares a bed with me; I have never let him sleep in a different bed. I will wait for him to say that he wants to sleep in a different bed, but I would never want to be the one to separate him.”
As with Laura in El Salvador, she also noticed that the community did a bit more to pitch in than in the US: “I was in Nepal recently for a year and half. I was able to be a very hands-off parent, since all the burden was not on me. He had neighbors who wanted to entertain him and feed him.” This is not the case in the US — there’s more in the way of libraries or pools, Moksheda says, but the burden of taking children places often falls entirely on the parents.
Nepali culture in general is much more family oriented — children aren’t pressured to move out as soon as they are 18, and are, in fact, expected to care for their parents as they get older. Because of this closeness, families have more of a say in the partner a child chooses, and a child isn’t likely to have quite as independent a social life.
Food culture was also fundamentally different. Moksheda’s mother “cooked every meal from scratch. Even our afternoon snacks were cooked in the kitchen. We spent a lot of time as a family just sitting in the kitchen drinking tea and helping my mother… On Saturdays, we got to eat meat and that was a very precious day. We looked forward to it all week.”
This, Moksheda says, is something she’s tried to hold onto in the US by cooking at least one Nepali meal a day.
My friend Paulina Osinska was raised in the United States by Polish immigrants, and is expecting her first child in the next couple of weeks. “I don’t know what part of it is just my mom and what is ubiquitously Polish,” she says, but, “I know that my mom tried to buy fresh foods and cook at home as much as possible because the processed and fast food culture wasn’t a thing in Poland. We also didn’t have video games or cable. As my brother likes to say when we don’t get a cultural reference, ‘we played outside.'”
“One of the biggest differences that I felt was with college. The culture around going to college is much different here than in Poland. Here, it’s this coming of age experience and there’s a big focus on the social aspect of it and moving out and becoming independent and so on. In Poland, and I think a lot of other European countries, the focus is strictly on your education. Kids keep living with their parents if they can because it’s cheaper and easier. So, my parents were adamant about me staying in Cincinnati and under their wing. I missed out on some of the traditional college experience but over-all I think it served me well. I focused on getting done with school and unlike a lot of people our age I don’t have any student debt.”
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