Ask parents in other parts of the world where a baby should sleep, and you may just get a baffled look. In most cultures around the world, human babies do not sleep alone. Most of the world assumes babies weren’t meant to sleep by themselves, so babies usually sleep with their mothers and children sleep with siblings or other family members. In a study of 136 societies, infants slept in bed with their mothers in two-thirds of the communities; in the other third, most babies slept with another combination of family members. Out of one hundred countries in another survey, only American parents had a separate sleeping space for their children.
—Christine Gross-Loh, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, page 16
Could it be that in this great country, where we (often think we) have it all and know it all, we’re getting it all wrong?
Christine Gross-Loh (whose handy primer on Elimination Communication I’ve endorsed previously) takes a critical look at parenting practices around the world. Her conclusions, elucidated in Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us, put American norms into jarring relief.
As the quote above reveals, what has become commonplace in our country often has no place in others. Is there a lesson for us here?
One glance at Gross-Loh’s table of contents makes it plain: this journalist, author, mother, and parenting expert doesn’t shirk the hard conversations. Instead, she faces them head on, with research, reflection, and good old gumption. Take the first six chapters of Parenting Without Borders and you have a snapshot of some of this generation’s most polarized parenting topics:
- Sleep Time: Keep Our Babies Close or Give Them Space?
- Buy, Buy, Baby: Why Are We Drowning in Stuff?
- Global Food Rules: How Parents Around the World Teach Their Kids to Eat
- Feeling Good: Can Self-Esteem Be Harmful?
- Hoverparenting: How Can We Foster Self-Control?
- Quality Time: The Value of Unstructured Play
In probing these topics and others—like cultivating kindness and responsibility in our kids, a goal few parents would controvert—she exposes some startling empirical evidence that most American parents might be getting it backwards.
The average American is led to believe that early sleep independence (like sleep training by six weeks or even three months) encourages babies to develop into disciplined, independent children and adults. A look around the world belies this notion.
Gross-Loh, who grew up straddling Korean and American culture, raised a young family of her own in Japan, and traveled widely while researching this book, concluded that “babies and toddlers who never left an adult’s side day or night grew up to be astonishingly self-reliant children” (8). From Japan to Sweden to Guatemala, parents globally embrace co-sleeping not as an antiquated hazard but as a time-honored practice that solidifies generational connections and fosters future independence.
They [parents in many non-Western cultures] believe that close physical touch and shared sleep are healthy because they enfold a child into an interwoven network of clearly defined social relationships. The idea is this: If you hone a baby’s sense of affiliation to those around him, and respect his innate sense that he is one with others, he will feel security as he grows up and eventually become an independent contributing member of his community who can take responsibility for himself.
While we tend to think of solitary sleep as the first step to creating an independent, autonomous child, parents in non-Western cultures like Japan believe that by sleeping next to other people children feel more connected. They see that babies who have their nighttime needs met in turn grow into children who are able to intuit and respond sensitively to the needs of other people. The Japanese don’t see the early attachment between a baby and mother as unhealthy dependence, but instead as one of the first steps to fostering important skills children need to thrive and succeed later on. (24)
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to sleep, early attachment encourages later autonomy.
Most children around the world have a fraction (if any) of the playthings of an average American child. Are they any worse for it? Hardly. In fact, relationships matter so much more.
Children seemed to feel more belonging, happiness, and security from seeing themselves as part of a community of people, rather than as individuals with individual needs that urgently had to be met. Some children who had everything they could possibly want experienced feelings of isolation and other disorders, despite the material abundance surrounding them. (8)
Gross-Loh reveals the dangers of a commercialized childhood, where kids grow up paradoxically “having so much” yet “feeling empty” (41). Citing research from a sociology professor, she offers the sobering reality of profligate spending.
A consumer-oriented lifestyle is a significant cause of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem in children. Materialism has been associated with precocious sexuality, obesity, violence, eating disorders, and a propensity toward impulse buying. Even kids who are psychologically healthy are worse off when they’re constantly thinking about what they own, want to buy, or what they long for….Parents have only the best intentions when we buy so much stuff for our children. We don’t realize how harmful it is. (42)
Parents around the world, in contrast, realize the dangers in unrestrained purchasing and even when it’s within their means, often choose to steer clear. Why?
The Japanese I knew saw scarcity and sharing as one crucial key to cooperation and relationship building. They didn’t feel bad about expecting several kids to share one toy. A private bedroom for a child isn’t common. Children and adults alike loan things to each other because buying new is used as a last resort. These little everyday things help promote overall goals such as depending on one another, keeping consumption down, and sharing. (45)
It’s a matter of letting the qualities we wish to inculcate in our kids dictate our behavior toward them. Does a culture of stuff cultivate the kids we want to raise and the adults we hope they become?
For those tempted by manufacturers’ claims about the latest “educational” toys, Gross-Loh presents the plain facts, examining the unspoken—and undesirable—consequences.
Research shows that simpler, open-ended playthings—things like a simple doll or wooden blocks—are best to foster a child’s imagination and creativity. But in the United States, it’s hard, if not impossible, to protect our children from the onslaught of single-purpose, branded toys on the market. In 2009 alone, $5.4 billion worth of branded toys were sold to American consumers. But these single-purpose toys circumscribe a child’s imagination. Instead of creating their own complex worlds, children become passive players when the world is already predetermined by the manufacturer. But what struck me most in Japan was that children like Mori [a girl whose mother Gross-Loh interviewed] didn’t need any purchased toys at all. There was so much for free right outside her door every day. (48)
She acknowledges, however, that it isn’t always easy. But the dividends pay off when we don’t succumb to convenience and consumerism.
So what’s a parent to do? How do we deal with formidable cultural forces, and limit what we buy for our children without making them feel deprived? What can we learn from other cultures where consumerism isn’t so rampant? The first step is to recognize and trust that providing less for our kids is a viable pathway to things that matter too, things—such as creativity, resourcefulness, moderation, self-restraint, and self-satisfaction—that kids carry with them far longer into their future lives than the material goods they ask for today. (54)
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to stuff, less really is more.
Kids’ menus, picky eating, frequent snack breaks, perpetual haranguing and negotiation at mealtime, an existence overflowing with baggies, sippy cups, and convenient, kid-friendly products catering to each child’s specific food preferences—isn’t that what you get when you sign up for parenting?
Feeding children around the world presents a stark contrast to this all-too-common American snapshot.
Strollers in Japan didn’t usually have cup or snack holders, because kids weren’t snacking while being strolled around. Random grazing and snacking, overall, was frowned upon as bad manners—as it is in many countries throughout the world—because of the general societal insistence on eating etiquette: not eating while standing or walking; not grabbing food, but waiting to be served; and eating without comment or complaint what was put in front of you. When food was eaten, it was an occasion. Kids sat down, their hands were wiped with a wet towel, and then they could eat. (65)
And lest you think this be confined to Asian cultures, Gross-Loh presents examples from Europe.
Just as in Japan and other countries with traditional food cultures, there are specific times when French children eat, and the society as a whole frowns on random snacking. This French social stigma is so strong that snacking not only is privately discouraged—it’s publicly warned against. TV snack ads appear with a banner that states, “For your health, avoid snacking between meals”—similar to warnings on cigarette cartons. (77)
Preschool-aged children often get only three square meals a day, and they aren’t beset with a plethora of choices or predetermined kids’ menus or products. They’re presented with real food—fresh, seasonal, properly prepared, and attractively presented—from the get-go and encouraged to eat what’s served. There is a reverence around mealtimes, a respect for the food procured, a gratitude for its provision, and a sense of belonging in the shared act of eating. More than mere nourishment for the body, food is meant to be enjoyed. Many cultures, Japanese and French included, esteem learning to eat a valuable life skill, and parents encourage their children to grow up eating widely and well, enjoying food, sharing every meal (not just the odd family dinner), and seeing food not so much as an extension of individual preferences but as an enduring expression of collective values.
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to food, eating is so much more than caloric consumption.
We Americans often go around effusing praise—“Great job!” “Good girl!” “You’re so smart!”—thinking that “the key to raising confident and successful children is to make sure kids feel positive about themselves” (89). Yet the cost of all this vociferous acclamation may be steep.
Telling our kids how great they are or how wonderfully they are doing can deter them from experiencing the challenges that help build resilience. An overinflated sense of self isn’t what leads to happier, more competent, more confident children. Instead, it deprives children of the chance to build up the genuine reserves of self-confidence they’d get through mastering difficult tasks on their own. Not only do kids become afraid of failure; they might even feel worse about themselves: kids who are praised for being “smart” feel less intelligent when they make mistakes. When their self-worth and very identity depends on being smart, they are at risk of being less able to persevere through challenges, like James, a bright preschooler from New York, who gets upset when he gets an answer wrong or stumbles while trying to read a challenging sentence. Kids like James, whose parents have been telling him how smart he is since before he was old enough to talk, take failure personally. For James, a wrong answer isn’t just a wrong answer. It is a blow to his self-image. (90–91)
In other cultures, praise is reserved only for veritable achievement, and even then, it’s sparsely tendered.
In Japan children learn from a very young age that modesty is a virtue. Asking Japanese children to talk about what they are good at can be like pulling teeth. The kids I know are animated and well-spoken, but I rarely heard them talking about the things they thought they were really good at—unless they truly were good at them. In Japan, children typically do not participate in a bunch of different extracurricular activities. Instead they usually concentrate on one thing, like piano or soccer. Their thinking is: It takes commitment to achieve a level of mastery that is praiseworthy. (95)
Japanese children aren’t the only ones who’ve been spared the self-esteem trap. Swedish and German parents and teachers don’t evade constructive feedback, in the interest of encouraging a child to do better next time, and offer praise only when earned.
Gross-Loh observes that it often comes down to a difference in mind-set. While Americans are “attracted to traits, to talent, giftedness, and effortless achievement” (105)—the quintessential inborn or “fixed” view of human potential—other cultures value perseverance more highly, recognizing that “mastering anything takes time and diligent practice” (107)—in other words, more of a “growth” mind-set. She doesn’t advocate completely discarding one view for the other, as never-ending effort can get ruthless. But she does invite parents to nurture their children’s resilience through the refining fire of trial.
A good parent doesn’t undermine her child’s motivation through empty praise and encouragement. She scaffolds her child’s ability to face challenges and even accept failure as something that anyone can grow from. (113)
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to self-esteem, learning through challenge builds resilience more than vacuous praise.
American play is orchestrated, overseen, and assessed with a fastidiousness that many foreigners can’t fathom.
In most American middle-class families, child’s play revolves around toys—carefully calibrated for certain ages and stages to help foster child development and maximize cognitive skills. We even often segregate children’s playmates by age. Many American parents, in a somewhat unique twist not seen in most other cultures, frequently sit and actually play together with their children. This was a great surprise to AnnKatrine, a German mother who is now raising her two young daughters near Boston. Whenever they would have social visits with other families back home, adults had coffee and cake while the children played in another part of the house. In contrast, when getting together with parents in the United States, the American parents seemed more involved in guiding and facilitating their children’s play than she was used to, talking to them pointedly about the toys they were playing with. (“That’s a blue truck! Blue. Truck.”) Every moment, even in play, was a teaching moment for adults to guide kids through. (153)
That’s a far cry from what happens around the world, where children play spontaneously and unsupervised, often outdoors, crafting their own games that remain mysterious to the unconcerned adults in their midst. We Americans, however, have misappropriated that spontaneity, claiming play as something we can curate for our kids—or replacing it altogether with more “educational” opportunities. Is there a danger in overlaying play with our adult-infused understanding or sacrificing it entirely at the altar of academia? You bet.
Unstructured time to play is anything but frivolous—it prepares kids for life. A professor at a prestigious local college told me she was worried that her students were increasingly at a loss because they hadn’t learned “how to think.” The vast majority of her students spent so much time being groomed for college acceptance and doing scheduled activities to help them get into college that they had never taken time to pursue their own unique interests. When she first started teaching more than twenty years ago, she’d seen kids come in with passions of their own, who had read up on, say, Roman history, for years and came to college excited to learn more. But today’s students have had no downtime to develop those passions. They’re skilled, she told me, at trying to figure out what they have to do to get good grades, but any real initiative or love of learning just isn’t there. The self-motivation, passion, interest, and original thinking that she saw in the past are gone in today’s students.
Instead, this professor sees more kids who are highly accomplished, but less confident, less quirky, and less self-directed. They are marching to someone else’s drumbeat, looking to adults for guidance in how to feel or what to do, unable to think for themselves. (149)
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to unstructured childhood play, nothing—be it education or even well-meaning adults—should get in the way.
Kindness and responsibility?
We want to raise kind kids who play nice, but are we unwittingly breeding the kindness out of them?
Even very young children want to be kind to others and are happier when they are. One recent study at the University of British Columbia showed that toddlers were happier after giving treats to others, even more than when they received them themselves. In fact, they were even happier when this giving came at a price to themselves: when it meant that they wouldn’t get anything at all. Even toddlers apparently feel a “warm glow” after doing something kind for someone else. (But don’t reward your kids for sharing. Other research has shown that rewards undermine these generous tendencies in both toddlers and in older children.) (219)
Children, ethnicity aside, naturally want to serve others. But instead of letting this innate desire evolve and flourish, we often try to force it, resorting to the parenthetical approach Gross-Loh acknowledges: reward and punishment. That often backfires, especially if children aren’t ready. And most toddlers aren’t.
Contrary to popular American belief, toddlers shouldn’t be expected to share; they don’t understand yet. Other cultures recognize this reality in their little ones and respect it, rather than fight it. In Guatemalan Mayan families, for example, parents and older siblings don’t expect toddlers to take turns or give up a toy; instead, they cater to the caprices of the youngest because they recognize that toddlers aren’t yet able to understand cooperation. The upshot of this ostensible coddling isn’t what we’ve been programmed to think.
American parents might look at Guatemalan Mayan toddlers as spoiled and overindulged. But this is a misperception caused by our cultural belief that we must correct a toddler’s behavior. The other view, the one held by the Guatemalan Mayan mothers, is that respecting toddlers’ “freedom of choice” actually shows them a consistently generous way of treating others. By seeing their toddlers’ whims and desires as age-appropriate instead of “hurrying them” to follow rules, by viewing them as incapable of intentionally mistreating others, and by patiently giving them their way and fully trusting that their behavior will change as they get older, Guatemalan Mayan culture does not experience the terrible twos. Their siblings—having had their own turn being treated with kindness and patience in an age-appropriate way (that is, “indulged” as toddlers)—are now able to graciously and voluntarily step into the role of cooperative, indulgent brother or sister. (245–46)
So if two-year-olds shouldn’t be expected to share, how can we cultivate kindness from an early age? Let them help!
It’s “absolutely universal” for children to want to help adults in their communities. Though we aren’t used to thinking of kids as developmentally capable of helping, their helpfulness kicks in early: a child’s capacity to cooperate begins by fifteen months, and his desire to start willingly pitching in starts at around eighteen months. In many cultures parents begin to hone their children’s helpfulness especially between the ages of five and seven, and children this young competently assist in many domestic tasks. Some cultures actually define intelligence as being socially aware of what needs to be done and doing it, and adults cultivate this form of intelligence just as adults in our own culture might cultivate verbal precocity or learning the ABCs. (236)
That’s a higher bar for intelligence than many of us adults demonstrate: how often do we see what needs doing and neglect it—or even fail to see it at all? Perhaps we would do well to cultivate some compassionate cooperation along with our children. The result may be more realistic expectations—and as a result, more harmonious interactions.
As a culture, we tend to underestimate what our littlest ones are capable of doing physically (as in helping out with chores), but overestimate what they may be capable of comprehending intellectually. By expecting our children to behave in a way that they may not be developmentally capable of, we may actually, though unwittingly, be socializing them to misbehave. We may be stunting our children’s capacity to be spontaneously cooperative and kind as they grow more mature, paving the way for them to be defiant and less adept at learning how to balance their needs with the needs of others. (246)
BOTTOM LINE: When it comes to kindness and responsibility, cooperation can’t be coerced; embrace ways to let kindness kick in naturally.
Gross-Loh’s exposé is a humbling read for the average American. Yet she doesn’t completely throw the baby out with the bathwater. She acknowledges that many Americans are parenting conscientiously—and as best they can given the (social, economic, politically correct) climate they live in. But perhaps we can better infuse what we do well with lessons from cultures that take a more holistic approach. For example, how often do we prize raising classroom-ready kids, pushing them to achieve while protecting them from failure, but ourselves fail to provide them a full measure of indispensable solidarity and connection?
Protecting our kids from discomfort isn’t the same as doing what’s best for them. Many parents in other countries strongly believe that cultivating children’s character should be as much a parenting goal as cultivating their academic achievement. In countries such as Japan, Sweden, and France, parents told me that teaching children to care for one another, to be compassionate and present members of the family, and to think also about the needs in their communities were the most important jobs in raising them. In America, and in my own family, I realized, while we also care about these things, we too often encourage our children’s self-expression, uniqueness, and individual achievement to the detriment of the community and to the detriment of their happiness. (9–10)
While no culture is perfect, valuable lessons like these abound from others than our own. How might we begin to implement them? It does indeed take a village, as Gross-Loh’s conclusion reiterates. And it helps if we’re all in it together:
The most successful parenting practices are consistent, reinforced by others, and have conviction behind them. Parenting is so much easier if raising children is not up to an individual parent or family, but is considered a community mandate that everyone shares. (10)
The American way, often defiantly individualistic, thus does our parents a disservice.
Our “do it yourself” attitude enables parents to follow the path they believe in once they find it, as long as their personal and material circumstances permit. But I’ve come to realize how growing up in an environment that prioritizes care over competition and cooperation over judgment benefits all children and all families. (268)
Amen to that. We at P2P also strive for a caring and cooperative approach to the challenging and polarized parenting topics of our time. And we encourage you to do the same. Engage the questions and urge your communities to do likewise, without judgment, in the interest of learning and growing together.
- How do we let go of American assumptions and humbly consider enduring strategies from around the world?
- How do we patiently support the natural progression of child development?
- How do we craft a coherent vision for childrearing and implement it consistently?
- How do we encourage character development, perhaps over content indoctrination?
- How do we invite conversation and collaboration around parenting practices within our communities and culture at large?
- How do our actions today nurture the children and adults of tomorrow?
Together we can raise kind, responsible, resilient, globally minded children in time-honored ways. But first, perhaps, we must step out of our comfort zone, learn widely, and continually challenge the way we parent—for the ultimate benefit of all our children.
We’re grateful for confident voices like Christine Gross-Loh’s that take on parenting (perhaps the most difficult yet the most venerable role of humankind), give it a global spin, and challenge us to do better. Check out Parenting Without Borders and let us know what you think.