Americans have many rituals around parenting that we might not even consider to be a little strange—like baby showers, for instance, where grown women fawn over baby booties and sniff diapers full of smashed candy bars. But the weirdness of American parenting goes far beyond baby showers. There are many parenting practices that Americans employ that the rest of the world finds just downright strange. From helicopter parenting to potty-training to the support networks we offer new mothers, here are some of the ways that American parenting differs vastly from the rest of the world.
Too Much of a Good Thing
Sarah Baldwin, early childhood educator, author, and owner of Bella Luna Toys from Rockland, Maine, has traveled the world observing parents and visiting schools, where she has noticed that American parenting styles are very different from other parts of the world. She says that each culture has its own parenting style, but Americans alone stand out for the amount of coddling that they do. “We want to do everything for them, and don’t want to see them struggle or suffer,” she explains. She gives the example of American parents who may carry a toddler instead of letting them walk by themselves (guilty), a mother dressing a 3- or 4-year-old who is capable of dressing themselves, parents doing much or all of a child’s homework, and parents bailing teenagers out of bad situation caused by reckless behavior instead of allowing them to face the consequences of their decision. In Baldwin’s opinion, American parents coddling their children is not only strange, but it’s also harmful, unfortunately, because it restricts their opportunity to learn. “Allowing children to struggle and work through challenges is what allows children to grow and develop into capable and self-confident adults,” she notes.
Where’s the work ethic?
When I ask my kids to pick up their own toys, from their reaction, you would think I have just asked them to shovel snow in the middle of a blizzard. Instead of an expectation that work is part of life, American children often are either not expected to do chores of any kind (including taking care of their own belongings) or are bribed with money, reward “tickets,” or other incentives to do basic tasks. Contrast that to other cultures, Baldwin points out, and you see a stark difference. “In Latin America, Africa, and [developing] countries, it is typical to see very young children doing real work and helping their parents in the home, or on the farm,” she says. “They are strong and capable. [And] in Europe, grade school–age children will often be working in the family business.”
Drowning in Stuff
We recently decided to put our house up for sale, and I had to clear out about 75 percent of my kids’ toys to get our house ready for showing. Imagine my surprise when they didn’t even notice that their most beloved possessions had mysteriously disappeared. They have so many toys that they truly didn’t notice when they had gone missing. Even when I am attempting to be purposeful about my children’s toys, well-meaning family and friends can lavish gifts on our children and they quickly add up. Even Baldwin (who makes a living selling toys) believes that American children have far more toys than they can even play with. “I firmly believe that less is more, and that a few thoughtful, well-made toys are more beneficial to a child than a room full of shelves, toy boxes, and closets full of toys, which create an over-stimulating environment,” she explains. “In other cultures, Christmas is not the big materialistic and commercial holiday that it is in the U.S.”
Ivette García Dávila, 38, a podcaster and author of I’m The One Pushing: A Practical and Renegade Guide to Choosing Your Own Motherhood Adventure from Los Angeles, California, grew up in Puerto Rico but now raises her three (soon-to-be four) children with her husband, who’s from the state of Georgia. So she has had plenty of hands-on experience in seeing the differences between U.S.–based American parenting and that of other cultures. Dávila also notes that the word “American” has been appropriated by the United States, when in reality, America encompasses all of North, Central, and South America. So although she was raised with “American” parenting, the Caribbean–Hispanic community she grew up in has many cultures and subcultures influenced by heritage (Spanish, Native, and African), geography, and social status that differ in parenting approaches and customs. According to Dávila, there is a notable difference in how hands-on and involved U.S. fathers are in the raising of their children. She says her father never changed a diaper, fed a baby, or lifted a finger for any family meals, for example. Because of this, many other cultures become more matriarchal, with mothers and a network of women responsible for all things in the family. And while having fathers more involved is not a bad thing for obvious reasons, Dávila does add that it also seems to lead to one unforeseen consequence…
Because child-rearing is viewed as an individual responsibility rather than a collective responsibility, Dávila has noticed that as compared to other cultures, U.S. mothers are left very unsupported, something that many mothers could definitely attest to. “In matriarchal society, women in the community ‘pitch in’ to raise the kids,” she explains. “Being raised in Puerto Rico, I was always surrounded by many helping hands amongst neighbors and cousins. My grandmother took care of all hemming and lice picking, my aunts divvied up the museum and park trips, and I spent just as much time eating my neighbor’s food as my own. In fact, we called our neighbor ‘titi’ (auntie). I find parenting in the US at times isolating. Even though I have a great mom community, there’s an unspoken rule that everyone only takes care of their own children. Perhaps everyone is just a little more overwhelmed.”
Helicoptering and Hovering
Despite her Puerto Rican roots, Dávila has still been influenced by American styles of parenting, and she notes that having her daughter go to a French preschool with many European families has helped to further open her eyes to how different American parenting is, especially when it comes to hovering and helicoptering. She gives the example of one European mother who thinks nothing of leaving her three children sleeping alone at home while she and her husband stroll the neighborhood—even though her oldest is only 6.
What’s for dinner?
In other cultures, children might happily scarf down some fresh fish for dinner or munch on some greens for an after-school snack, but many children in the U.S. clamor for packaged crackers and expect that their parents will cook an entirely different meal for them at their whim. It’s one of my personal least favorite aspects of American parenting and yes, I am entirely guilty of it. (Case in point: Last night, I made not one, not two, but three different meals for my children.) “Another thing I’ve noticed is that the U.S. has a preference for pre-packaged everything when it comes to food,” adds Dávila. “This also translates into dinner—most U.S. households make a special meal just for the kids. I’m not saying I don’t ever feed my daughter chicken nuggets and sweet potato fries, but from very early on, on most nights she eats what we’re eating. Period.”
Take your time.
There is a philosophy that many of us have as Americans that it’s harmful to force our children into potty training, but in other cultures, teaching a kid to use the toilet is not viewed as a negative thing at all. “We allow children to stay in diapers for way longer than in European cultures, who start sitting kids in potties before they can walk or talk,” Dávila explains.
There are many ways in which American parenting practices differ from those of other cultures. That’s not to say that any one way is right or wrong, but only that they are often very different. When we examine our differences as parents, we can come to the realization that even though everyone around us may seem to parent the same way, we still have the choice to do what works best for us. By educating ourselves on other cultural parenting practices, we can more clearly choose to employ different strategies (such as more hands-off parenting), creating a wider network of support for over-stressed and under-supported parents while still embracing other aspects of typical “American” parenting (such as involved dual parenting). The beauty of becoming a parent is that you, no one else, gets to choose what works best for your own family, no matter where you happen to live.