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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Do other cultures parent better?

As a woman interested in intercultural differences and a mom, I’ve been reading a lot about the way different cultures raise their children. Especially I have to mention three books I’d heard about a lot that I then decided to read.

I read “The Continuum Concept”, the bible of the natural parenting community where Jean Lidloff tells her story of staying with the Ye'kuana people in Brazil during an expedition- she was looking for diamonds. In this book, Liedloff describes the parents as very responsive (but not overbearing), and the children as calm and self-composed, and yet psychically not damaged in any way. She then notices that the parents co-sleep, breastfeed on demand and immediately tend to their babies’ crying and recommends these practices to “Westerners”.

I read Amy Chua’s “Battle Hymn ofthe Tiger Mother” where Chua describes her experience of raising musical prodigies and her idea that Asian mothers are superior to what she calls “Western” mothers (by which she mostly understand American mothers). Chua sees Western mothers as lazy and much too lenient on their children, causing them to fail reaching their full potential. She describes the work Asian parents put into raising their children, and the way they often push their sons and daughters to work hard and never give up. Their idea is that if the children can’t do something, they just don’t work hard enough.

And, then came Pamela Druckerman with her book “Bringing up Bebe”, where she shares her fascination with the way French people deal with raising children. She was impressed how well-behaved, socially adapted the children were, and also admired the fact that French mothers could go back to work and bounced back to their slim figures in three months. The children also ate whatever was served, never snacked, and slept through the night at 3 months.

This article from Mothering magazine also describes how the British are better parents than Americans because they don't set up high expectations for their children, instead expecting them to be good people who just do their jobs, and just lead a "normal" life. This list could go on. 

Do you know what connects these three books and the article I just mentioned? Yes, of course, they all show differences between the ways different cultures raise their children. And they are connected by an admiration of the new culture. Now, learning from other cultures can be a great thing. But I feel that in these three cases, it is about seeking the one perfect way to raising children. It is about thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side. It is about chasing something that can’t find in our lives.

Here is the way I see it. The children behave like well, children. They cry, they wail, they whine. They drive us crazy. So, in line with the modern tendency to critique anything Western and modern, we’re looking for advice elsewhere. And we think: if only we raised our children like the indigenous people, they wouldn’t cry so much. If only we had meal plans and fixed meal times like the French, our children would eat everything and never fuss at the table. If only we forced the children to play the piano the whole day, they’d become musical geniuses.

Another thing I notice about this books is that- just like any other parenting books- they claim their method is the one and only that works, and if you don't parent the way you're told in the book, your children will end up alcoholics and go to prison.

Somehow we think that other cultures do it better. It is great that we’re seeking ways to raise our children that go beyond our own culture. Some of us find great advice and new parenting philosophies that finally work for them. Most of us, however, do whatever works for us. Parenting books, families, the Internet, and finally, contact with other cultures give us endless possibilities on how to raise our children. So maybe instead of looking for advice on how to raise the perfect children we should just focus on what works for us- and keep an open mind at the same time?

What about you? Was there another parenting culture that you found fascinating?

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  1. Yes! This so resonates wtih me. And I can tend to fall into the same trap in terms of fetishizing how other cultures to things. But I've come now to realize that cultures parent in ways to inculcate characteristics that are vital to succeed in that culture. So, maybe American kids are seen as "brattier" but they might also be considered more free-thinking, assertive and independent.

    As you've read, I'm currently struggling with why Kenyans seem to do everthing the opposite of conventional American parenting advice and still turn out well-behaved kids. I think there are things we can learn from one another. The trick is to keep your mind open enough to find the lessons but not so open that you throw out everything from your own culture.

    Great post though. I really needed this right now!

    1. Thank you, Kim! Yes, there are two sides to every coin (bratiness vs creativity, etc)- your idea of adaptation to social expectations is really spot-on. So much can be said about this- cultural differences are a topic that never stops giving!

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