What Foreign Parents Get Right: A Q&A With the Author of “Parenting Without Borders”

Parenting_Without_Borders_cover_400pxI am so thrilled to share this Q&A with you. Author and mother of four Christine Gross-Loh is a longtime writer friend/colleague of mine, and I’ve been watching from the sidelines as she worked on this amazing book, a sensible, smart, deeply researched book about how other cultures around the world do parenting differently. Did you know that in Finland, schoolchildren enjoy multiple recess periods a day while outperforming American kids academically? Or that in Guatemala, toddlers are far less micromanaged than American tots — and experience almost no terrible-two-type tantrums. Gross-Loh herself spent several years living in Japan with her family, where she learned that Japanese kids are routinely asked in school, “what have you done for your family today?” Take a world-tour of parenting practices with her by getting your hands on a copy of her book, for sure — but in the meantime, here’s our conversation:

You spent several years in Japan with your family, and in the book you write about a major difference between Japanese and American family life, which is that Japanese kids are brought up to consider others. That really struck me, because it seems so quintessentially American to raise kids to be individuals. How much of an impact did that have on you when you were in Japan, and has it changed your outlook now that you’re back in the States?

Yes! It was a big difference. Actually, even though I grew up in the U.S., I was probably raised similarly to the Japanese kids I saw, since there is a similar sort of thinking in Korea, where my parents are from.  You take many perspectives into account – not just your own. Holding those perspectives in balance is an art, and any art requires lots of practice.

Raising our kids as unique individuals has a lot of benefits: in the U.S. we raise kids who are able to express their opinions with confidence and who are comfortable as leaders. But as you know so well, it doesn’t actually help children when we raise them in an overly child-centric way; it undermines them. It’s true that my outlook has changed in that what I used to see as normal or even universal behavior, I now recognize as having emerged from a particular place and moment in time. Actually in some ways I guess I’m parenting sort of similarly to my own parents, who ended up with a hybrid of parenting strategies from two cultures!
I like the hybrid approach a lot. We want to raise kids who are individuals, but research shows that feeling connected to others is a cornerstone for other things we want for our kids, such as the ability to be empathetic. In the end, no matter what sort of society we live in, we all have to learn how to live with or deal with others.
I’m pretty vocal on my blog and in person how I feel about the constant emphasis on snacking wherever children gather. It struck me in your book how many cultures outside the U.S. don’t rely on kid food and kid snacks, but instead make family meals a priority (such as in Italy); or emphasize the enjoyment of good quality food (France, say); or help kids understand that waiting for meals — and even (shock!) being hungry between meals is a life-skill (as you describe Korean families). How can American parents apply some of those principles?

I totally agree with you! Knowing how unusual we are compared to other cultures can give us more conviction that kids don’t need snacks all the time and that it’s okay for them to sometimes feel hungry (because most of our kids are certainly not starving, and besides, being hungry between meals isn’t the worst thing in the world – it means they’ll savor meals more). It totally helped me when I realized that it’s our cultural norms that compel us to pacify kids with snacks. That made it easier for me to say no to excessive snacks.

Everything in moderation, of course. I’ll be the first to say that we provide snacks and a certain amount of grazing inevitably happens in our house, but we now make it a point to make each meal a sit-down moment in the day.

I wrote recently about how tortured I am by all our stuff. Then I read about your epiphany, in Japan, realizing how much less stuff families and kids have — shared toys, backpacks used all through school, etc. It reminded me of my grandmother, growing up in a New York City tenement, sharing one doll and one or two “nice” dresses with her four sisters. Minimalism on stuff is one thing (and it’s something many American parents can agree that they wish they could implement in their homes, whether or not they actually do it). But what really strikes me is sharing. It is very hard I think, for most parents, to compel their kids to share their toys and hand down bikes without “feeling bad” for their kids. We feel that every kid should have his or her own stuff — even a package of cookies! What’s the value you see in sharing, beyond the thriftiness of it, or the nostalgia?
We have those stories in our family too – both my parents came from large families, shared things with many siblings, and even lived through a war.
The value is that having less allows kids to think about ways to cooperate and to value what they do have. They can also come up with creative solutions when there is less.
Of course, many of us don’t have to give our children these lessons out of necessity (times are different, and toys are very cheap and abundant in our country, something I struggle with too), but I still think it’s a good lesson to impart.  I’m struck by research showing that when kids live in societies where sharing is a way of life, it is easier for them to do so as well (without being forced or compelled to).  We may feel it is hard to get our kids to share but part of that is because as a culture we actually don’t value sharing very much.
You also make a connection between kids having less stuff (and much more low-key birthday parties and holidays) in Japan, with their patience, such as when waiting for their dinner in a restaurant. Can you explain?

I think that there isn’t this overall knee-jerk reaction to pacify kids, entertain them, give them something to distract them. It’s similar to the idea I mention above about eating, where I think that our snacking culture came about with this gradual growing discomfort with the idea of seeing a child as anything less than completely satiated and satisfied. I don’t have a tough-love approach to parenting, but I see that the more that children practice patience, the more tolerance they build. I think we should consider this sort of patience to be a life skill as important as knowing the ABCs.

Frustration, boredom, conflict with peers, perceived danger — even hunger: all these are things most modern American parents almost automatically want to erase, shut down, ameliorate. But you saw evidence in countries all over the world that these things should not only not be instantly fixed,but should be cultivated. Can you explain what you mean by that? What’s good about being frustrated, or bored, and so on?

Great question! Like you,  I think that it’s good for kids to be frustrated and bored, because these are opportunities for growth. When we rush to erase these things from our children’s lives, we are depriving them of a chance to develop character traits that will really help them both now and in the long run. They also get a positive message from us: one that says that we believe they can handle things, rather than one that tells them that we don’t believe in their capability so we are going to help them out (by entertaining them, stepping in to their conflicts, childproofing their lives beyond what is necessary).

If you could pick a few aspects of around-the-world parenting that you could pack up and take home and implement here, what would they be?

I’ve learned a lot from the idea that children have strengths we can cultivate, rather than weaknesses that require constant bolstering. It means I wait a beat or two longer before intervening; I don’t feel compelled to be at their beck and call. I make myself available for their emotional needs without intruding on them. My children climb more trees now, make more mistakes, do more chores. I give them more chances to take care of one another and really show them how much I appreciate that kind of sibling kindness and care. Don’t get me wrong – things aren’t perfect here by a long shot. But that’s okay – perfect parenting is an oppressive myth.  I’ve come to embrace good-enough parenting as better for all of us.

Christine Gross-Loh is the author of Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us (Avery).