Often the experience of traveling to different places has the effect of reminding us just how similar we all are. You get to know people of other countries and cultures and think: Yes, our shared humanity connects us.
But if there’s anything that can cause swift division among groups and individuals, it’s the loaded issue of child-rearing. This is understandable: How we choose to raise the small humans we are wired to love more than any others in the world is touchy, not only because of that all-consuming love, but also because it means so much about who we are, how we have been shaped by our own parents, and who we want to be.
Bringing a human into the world entails certain responsibilities and sacrifices many people don’t seem to consider ahead of time. At the same time, there seems to be a uniquely American parenting ethos—one that says the world should be childproofed rather than the child be raised to live in the world, and that parents’ personhood (or at least mothers’) should be sacrificed at the altar of Perfect Parenting™.
America’s brand of Perfect Parenting™ is often not only an impossible standard for parents to achieve (mere human beings, after all), but also one that isn’t particularly healthy for children, who will come to find (some in more jarring ways than others) that the world is not childproof at all.
Still, we are all products of our culture—not to mention our own upbringing—so it takes some effort not to dismiss parenting that runs counter to these impulses as weird, negligent, or even kind of monstrous.
It’s a fun and useful exercise to examine your gut reactions to new pieces of information that don’t fit in your already established framework of How Things Are or Should Be. Give it a try! Read on for eight global parenting customs that may make you feel things.
Leaving Your Child on the Sidewalk While Dining and Shopping
If you saw that viral footage of a 4-year-old girl being snatched up in a Philadelphia store while standing a few feet away from her mother, it probably seems like a given to you that no mentally sound adult would leave their most precious cargo unattended on the sidewalk.
Yet that’s exactly what parents do in Sweden and Denmark: leave their children curbside while they go shopping or eat in a restaurant.
This doesn’t sit well with American folks, even (especially?) on the East Coast. One couple from Denmark was held for a weekend in police custody after leaving their 14-month-old alone in a stroller outside an East Village restaurant in New York City, and a Swedish woman in Amherst, Massachusetts, was reported after leaving her 1-year-old unattended outside for about 10 minutes while she ordered food inside a restaurant.
Scandinavian parents didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, since (we guess) Northern Europe is like a weird utopia. As the New York Times reports:
“In Copenhagen, a city of 1.3 million with a low crime rate and few child kidnappings, parents were astonished at Ms. Sorensen’s arrest. ‘Come on, we do this all the time,’ Line Vang told the Associated Press as she sat in a cafe while her 7-month-old son, Mathias, dozed out of reach. ‘We go in for a cup of coffee, sit so we can see the stroller, go out and check once in a while and that’s it.'”
Putting Your Babe Down for a Nap Outside in Subzero Temperatures
Lol, WHAT? Literally, what? Okay, Scandinavia, we’ve got our eye on you. We can maybe forgive some cultural lost-in-translations like misguidedly assuming that the city that inspired Gotham City is anything like an idyllic Northern European capital, but sub-zero naps? How? Why?
As Helena Lee reports for BBC News, “The theory behind outdoor napping is that children exposed to fresh air, whether in summer or the depths of winter, are less likely to catch coughs and colds—and that spending a whole day in one room with 30 other children does them no good at all.”
Naps outside typically last between one-and-a-half and three hours, according to Finnish researcher Marjo Tourula. Tourula says that –5 degrees C (23 degrees F) is considered the ideal temp for outdoor snoozing, though some parents reportedly put their children out at –30 degrees C (–22 degrees F).
“Martin Jarnstrom, head of one of the Ur och Skur group of pre-schools, is another big advocate of outdoor naps, though he emphasises that while the weather may be cold, the child must be warm,” Lee writes.
Jarnstrom highly recommends that children wear wool close to the body and that they be wrapped in warm clothing as well as a warm sleeping bag.
Leaving Your Newborn for a Month
When you think of a newborn baby and a mother, you probably think of lots of sweet moments involving cuddling, sink baths, and staring into each other’s eyes. Also there’s that whole thing, typically, about being desperately in love with a new human and terrified that something bad could happen to them, which can make parting ways for the first time incredibly difficult (or so we’ve heard).
That’s why the Chinese practice zuo yuezi, intended to allow new mothers to recuperate after giving birth, may seem counterintuitive to some, because it can entail mother–baby separation of a month or longer.
As Cracked explains:
“[T]oday’s [Chinese mom] has a few more options, like checking into a resort that pampers you for weeks on end while your baby is tucked away safely out of sight. The moms who patronize these new confinement facilities can chill out, watch TV, enjoy the spa, and eat specially prescribed food from a cart brought to their rooms, all while their brand-new babies are cared for by nurses down the hall.”
Avoiding Eye Contact With Your Infant
Oh yeah, about that whole “staring into each other’s eyes” thing? Not everyone is into it—for example, Kisii, or Gusii, moms in Kenya, who avert their gaze from their children to assert their power over them. As Emily Lodish writes for NPR:
“It’s likely to sound harsh to a Western sensibility, but within the context of Kisii culture, it makes more sense. Eye contact is an act bestowed with a lot of power. It’s like saying, ‘You’re in charge,’ which isn’t the message parents want to send their kids. Researchers say Kisii kids are less attention-seeking as a result.”
Although it’s true that it sounds harsh, it does make sense, especially when put into context. “In the Western world, avoiding eye contact looks like guilt or shyness [but] [i]n the Gusii world, eye contact has power, and there are very strict rules about who you look at,” Cracked points out. “For Gusii moms, their babies are already demanding their time, their attention, and their [breasts], which is a lot of energy in a culture that needs the mom’s labor.”
Letting Babies Babysit Your Baby
Okay, so maybe “babies” is a bit of an exaggeration—but not much. According to Mei-Ling Hopgood, author of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between), once children learn how to walk in Polynesia, they are handed over to other children to care for.
“Preschool-aged children learned to calm babies and toddlers became self-reliant because they were taught that that was the only way they could hang out with the big kids,” Hopgood writes.
Husband-and-wife anthropology team Jane and James Ritchie, who studied similar practices in New Zealand and the Polynesian islands, believe that the tradition wouldn’t sit well in other parts of the world.
“Indeed in Western societies, the degree of child caretaking that seems to apply in most of Polynesia would probably be regarded as child neglect and viewed with some horror,” they write in their book Growing up in Polynesia.
Sending Your Kidlet to the Subway Alone
In a place like New York City, the idea of sending out 7-year-olds to ride the subway by themselves sounds absolutely bonkers.
For parents living in Japan, however, it’s a normal occurrence to give children—even kids as young as 4—this kind of freedom. (Yes, 4-year-olds are riding subways alone in Japan.)
As NPR reports:
“Christine Gross-Loh, author of Parenting Without Borders, lives in Japan for part of each year, and when she’s there she lets her kids run errands without her, taking the subway and wandering around town as they may.”
Gross-Loh says, though, that she wouldn’t do the same in the U.S., since allowing her children to go solo subwaying in the States at such a young age would mean getting child protective services called on her. She’s probably correct.
Lenore Skenazy, for example, wrote a 2015 piece for The Washington Post headlined, “I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone. I got labeled the ‘world’s worst mom.'”
Forcing Bébé to Like Foie Gras
If you’ve been following the parenting trends, you’ve probably already learned that French parents do literally everything better than parents from…anywhere else. (Go ahead, give it a Google. A search of “French parents better” will yield such articles as “Why French Parents Are Superior” in The Wall Street Journal and “Why French Parents Are Better Than American Parents” in Business Insider.)
Apparently, another reason they’re better is that they can create children who are not picky eaters. As Lodish writes in NPR:
“Set mealtimes; no snacking whatsoever; the expectation that if you try something enough times, you’ll like it. These are among the ‘food rules’ in France that are taken as given. The result is French kids who eat what adults eat, from foie gras to stinky cheese. Tell that to my nephew.”
American Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, tells NPR, “We [Americans] assume…a little more that kids have inherent likes and dislikes, whereas the French view on food is the parent must educate their child and that appreciation for different food is something you cultivate over time.”
Training Your Little One Like Pavlov’s Dogs
Here’s something bizarre: You can train an infant to pee on command. Some Vietnamese moms begin training their newborn babies by making a whistling sound every time they urinate, so that the child comes to associate the sound of the whistle with urination.
As Cracked describes:
“By the age of 3 months, the moms hold their kids over toilets, give a little whistle, and their kids urinate on command, like magic. By 9 months, they’re done with diapers altogether, like some kind of…pee prodigies. By contrast, it takes American kids two and a half years or longer to shake the diaper habit.”
We could get on board with this. To me, this parenting habit makes the most sense of any of them. Then again, what do I know?
A friend and I recently got into a disagreement over parenting rules. Yeah, neither of us has kids.