Differences By The Pound: Things That Set American Parents Apart From Their UK Counterparts

Most British and American parents speak the same language with their kiddos, but how do parenting practices differ across the pond?

October 9, 2018
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Having spent much of her life moving between her birthplace, Britain, and the United States, Lauren Cross has had plenty of opportunities to compare British and American parenting styles.

When she thinks of her childhood and how many British children are parented, the phrase “stiff upper lip” comes to mind. The idiom has been used to describe how British people have a reputation for handling upheaval with an emotionally distant or disconnected attitude.

There is also “Keep Calm and Carry On,” a slogan of sorts that debuted on a poster produced during World War II to boost citizen morale. Although the poster was never widely circulated during the war, other posters embodying the same sentiment were, including one that read “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will Bring Us Victory.”

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“I think that definitely influenced parenting styles,” says Cross. “My parents are very loving—I didn’t want for anything—but they certainly weren’t, from my childhood perspective, merely weren’t … as indulgent as my American peers’ [parents].”

Cross provides an example from her own childhood that she feels embodies slight differences in how British children are parented.

She was spending time with a friend, who was also named Lauren, and they were each working on a drawing. As many children might, Cross asked her friend’s mother which of the two pictures she liked the best.

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“Had it been my mother, she would have just picked her favorite choice,” says Cross. “The other Lauren’s mother kind of looked at me and said in this very saccharine voice, ‘Well, I’m going to have to choose my daughters as my favorite.’”

At the time, Cross felt like it was a simple enough question and didn’t understand why the mother couldn’t just choose the better picture. As a child, she also felt her American friends were disciplined less and had more toys. She even remembers her mom complaining that some of her American friends were spoiled.

What other differences exist between British and American parenting styles, and how have these differences evolved? Carry on reading for more surprising differences between British and American parenting.

Keep calm and carry on.

In addition to parenting with “a stiff upper lip,” there are more subtle differences between British and American families.

Many believe that British children have more freedom. Lynn Adamson raised her children in the UK but visited her mother in New Jersey regularly. She noticed a big difference in how much time children spend outside.

“If you drove around the roads near [my mother’s New Jersey home], you never saw children out, not even on their own land,” she tells HealthyWay. “I rarely saw even older children wandering around the town on their own…and cannot recall ever seeing a child on a cycle.”

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Clara Wiggins, who lives in the UK, agrees that British parents do seem a little more relaxed about independent outdoor play.

“My 10-year-old plays outside on her own, walks to a friend’s house alone—about a five-minute walk from my home and out of my sight—and walks to school alone,” she says. “We tend to not follow our kids around too much at the park, preferring to spend the time chatting with other parents and watching from afar.”

Cross also had an incredible amount of freedom as a child, walking to the corner store as early as 7 years old.

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This more laid-back parenting style may have some generational ties. The three women mentioned above noted that just as American parents have become more cautious about unsupervised, outside play, British parents aren’t as relaxed as they once were.

Another subtle difference is how parents feel about spanking. In 2012, 70 percent of American parents indicated that they believe that “a good, hard spanking” is more than appropriate in some instances, according to research published by Brookings. It is also legal to use corporal punishment in the home in the United States.

Comparatively, the attitude about spanking is much different in the UK.

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“Spanking or smacking is not acceptable at all over here,” says Laura Hall, who is from the UK and authored the recently-published book One Day, So Many Ways. “It’s the occasion when a busybody might call the police on you. We see it as child abuse.”

This is another parenting principle that may have some generational ties, with both American and British parents becoming less supportive of physical punishment in the home. The biggest difference, though, may exist in the legality of spanking.

Whether spanking is legal in the UK is not clearly defined, but there are laws in place. According to The Sun, smacking is illegal unless it is “reasonable punishment,” which seems to leave a lot of room for personal interpretation of the law. In American, on the other hand, the use of corporal punishment is still legal in all 50 states if “administered” in the home. It’s also legal in school settings in 22 American states.

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The being said, British parents definitely don’t consider themselves to be lax about discipline. They may not be as likely to employ spanking, but most aim to create clear boundaries for the kids. One common household disciplinary technique is “the naughty step,” according to Hall. Popularized by The Supernanny, it’s a designated place in the home (like a step on the stairs) where children are put in timeout if they are disobedient.

Is parenting in Britain easier?

When we focus on parenting differences, either from family to family or culture to culture, it is easy to zero in on the choices parents make. What is more helpful, perhaps, is taking a larger look at the systems that exist to support parents and how differences in these systems affect the family dynamic.

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When we look at the United States and the UK, the differences parents face begin from the moment they become pregnant, starting with access to healthcare. In the UK, the National Health Service provides free healthcare to all UK that is funded through taxes. In the United States, however, only a limited group of individuals qualify for subsidized or free healthcare through Medicaid and Medicare.

Once a child is born, mothers have vastly different maternity leave experiences.

“Currently, the law is that statutory maternity leave can be taken for up to 52 weeks,” explains Adamson about policy in the UK. “After the first 26 weeks, the father of the child (or the mother’s partner) has the right to take up to 26 weeks’ leave if their partner returns to work, in effect taking the place of the mother at home.”

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In the United States, companies are only required by law to provide 12 weeks of leave under FMLA to new mothers. Mothers in Britain also receive some amount of wages during the maternity for up to 39 weeks, while paid maternity leave is not regulated in the United States and is offered by a very small number of companies.

Differences in Education

There are also notable differences between how children are educated in the UK versus how we approach education in the United States. While the laws vary from state to state, many states do not require full-time education for children until they reach the age of 7. Of course, many children living in the United States are in school long before then, but if parents in the United States wish to delay their child’s education, they can.

In Britain, however, the law requires all children to be in a full-time educational program by the age of 5.

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It is also worth noting that parents in the UK have access to free education earlier than parents in the U.S. In the United States, school districts aren’t required to provide free education to children until they reach the age of 5. In the UK, however, from the age of three, parents can take advantage of 570 hours of free nursery school each year, which averages out to about 15 hours a week.

Additionally, for UK households where both parents work full-time, there is an option to apply for another 15 hours a week of free nursery school. For full-time working parents, it’s easy to see how these could greatly subsidize the cost of putting one or more children in care.

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Once children are enrolled in school, how do their educational experiences differ? Children in the United States spend far more time in school, with their time in the classroom totaling over 1,000 hours a year on average according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development presented by HelpMeInvestigate.com. English students, by comparison, have shorter school days. Elementary school students there typically spend fewer than 700 hours in the classroom annually according to the same resource.

What does this mean for parents? Well, on the one hand, more time in school might make for kids who are burnt out and cranky at the end of the day, making extracurricular activities, dinner, baths, and bedtime that much more challenging. Less time in school, however, may mean working parents need to arrange (and pay for) more alternative care on weekdays before and after school.

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Another stark difference between UK and U.S. education systems has to do what children wearing to school. In the UK, 90 percent of school-aged children are required to wear a uniform to school, according to The Guardian. In the United States, children enrolled in public school typically do not wear uniforms. For U.S. parents, this can mean more stressful shopping and outfit-negotiating experiences that aren’t as common on school days in the UK.

Finding Common Ground

Although many differences do exist between British and American parents, we also share a lot of similarities. In both countries, modern parents are dealing with a lot of the same struggles pertaining to monitoring screen time, controlling over-indulgence, and addressing childhood diabetes, according to Hall.

And further, parents in both countries are working to make the best decisions for their children and their families, whether that means finding more time for activities as a family or learning to handle the busyness of being a two-working-parent household.

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