I 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.
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.
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.
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).
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).