Parenting across the globe

What other cultures can teach us about raising well-rounded human beings

The proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a widespread sentiment throughout African cultures. Though there are many variations of the phrase, they all point to one philosophy: having an abundance of parental figures and influences is essential for raising happy, healthy kids. 

Let’s be honest, no matter where in the globe you reside, parenting can be a tough gig. I would know – I’m the world’s most hands-on Aunty to two wild little boys. I’ve been called ‘mama Jess’ more times than I can count, and spent more hours than I’d like to admit hanging my head in my hands, post toddler-tantrum, pouring over where I went wrong. I’m intimately aware that parenting is simultaneously rewarding and thankless; equally terrifying, boring, exhausting and exhilarating. And that’s just the beginning. 

In my family, the kids have more mum and dad-like figures than your average Joe. Just yesterday I asked Mr 4, “Who’s in your family?” to which he answered confidently, “Grandma, Aunty Jess, Mum and Dad.” Of course there are more, but this is the core crew – the every-damn-day parents. Each day the whole tribe bands together to get through this rollercoaster ride of child rearing. This is, however, a rare picture in our society, with many parents finding themselves far less supported on the journey.  

Not only do we tend to be more isolated than other cultures, but our approach to raising children is vastly different. We helicopter (helicopter!), wrap our kids in cotton wool, deny our intuition in favour of the latest parenting podcast and constantly acquiesce to our children’s ever-changing whims. The times are changing, and while we’ve definitely made some positive changes (when I was a little girl, a smack was standard punishment), there’s much to learn from other cultures and their traditions. 

How in the world do they do it? 

Like my own family, many societies approach child rearing in a community-focussed fashion. This is one of the major differences that paediatrician and author of Feed the Baby Hummus: Paediatrician-backed secrets from cultures around the world, Dr Lisa Lewis, has observed. She says, “One major difference that stands out is our push for independence as opposed to interdependence...Many countries around the world prioritise helping out family members daily, with extended family members living together on a regular basis. Commonly in the west, when a mother delivers a baby she is expected to go home and care for the baby on her own.”

In traditional Chinese culture, for forty-days post-partum the extended family follows a strict set of rules that involves helping out and nourishing the new mum. In her book The First Forty Days, Heng Ou says, “In traditional zuo yuezi, it’s said that birth leaves a mother in an extremely open state, more susceptible than normal to physical and emotional strain…The traditional justification for conserving and building chi, or energy, through rest and excellent nutrition is equally relevant today. Forty days of care today is thought to lead to forty years of vital womanhood tomorrow.”

Community, unity and questioning the norm

In many traditional African communities, the child is seen as not just belonging to the family, but to the whole society. Here, the entire extended family takes responsibility for raising the child and everyone is an aunt, uncle or grandparent. 

For Lisa, one of the greatest lessons we can learn from other cultures is to foster a sense of community and family unity. We could, for example, take a leaf out of the Batek people’s book and loosen our grip on typical roles. Lisa explains, “In Batek culture, there is no concept of a primary caregiver in the early years. Both mother and father spend a lot of time nurturing their babies. Batek husbands and wives together decide where to live and what kind of work they will do.”

Jessica Joelle Alexander (@jessicajoellealexander) is a Danish parenting expert, cultural researcher and author of The Danish way of Parenting: what the happiest people in the world know about raising confident, capable kids. One of the inspirations for her book was her observation of the differences between how Scandinavian countries and Americans raise children. She says, “In Italy children are allowed to stay up late and even stay out until 11 or 12 at night. In Norway kids are put to sleep outside in minus 20-degree weather. In Belgium parents let their children drink beer. For all of these cultures it seems like the “right” way and other ways seem strange. Being an American married to a Dane I always saw something special about the Danish culture. The children were so calm and serene and happy and I began to study the parenting model. I discovered many things that were very different from the American ways and when I had my own children I began to implement the Danish model into my own parenting with great success.” (See breakout box for details). 

What can we learn? 

The idea of taking notes on how other cultures parent feels a little ironic at this point – parenting isn’t just about ticking boxes and smashing goals. It’s deeply intuitive, requiring a sense of self-reflection and the curiosity to grow and learn as much as your children do.  

If we want to integrate lessons from other cultures into the way we raise our own families, we need to both philosophically resonate with the ideas of that culture and be willing to question (and possibly let go of) the norms of our own society. Lisa uses the example of how Japanese parents respond to crying babies to illustrate this point. She says, “Japanese parents respond very quickly to a distressed infant, and in Japan there is no concept of a baby “crying it out.”  Co-sleeping is common in Japan, as well.” If this is something that resonates with you, she says, then behaving in this way will come naturally, but it doesn’t mean you will go uncriticised (welcome to parent-hood!). She explains, “Often changes not widely accepted by society or a parent’s extended family can be frowned upon by others.” So what’s a girl/guy to do? “To this problem I would say gently educate those in your life about the importance of understanding both cultural and parenting differences. If a parenting style is not harming a child, why not respect the difference?”

For Jessica, it’s all about being open minded enough to take a closer look at your own social programming, and seeing how the way you were raised deeply influences your own beliefs. This is the way, if we choose, to implement the positive changes that resonate with us.  She says, “I always tell parents to try to choose two things they would like to change for their children from the way they were raised. Whether that is not spanking or being less controlling or being more affectionate or more empathic-everyone is different. But only by examining these default settings and doing some introspection can change ourselves and the future for the better.”

Without judging our own way of being, there are so many gems of wisdom available to us through observing the parenting styles of other cultures. The one thing we all have in common? Love for our children! Jessica puts it perfectly, “I think the belief is that- if I am doing things right (breast feeding or not breastfeeding, working or not working -just to name a few of the big divides) then I am ok. But the truth is we are all struggling in this magnificent journey and there is no right way to parent. The more we connect in empathy and vulnerability, the more connected and happy we will be.”

Lessons from the Danes – Advice from author of The Danish way of Parenting

  • Don’t overschedule kids lives. They need time to play. This is how children learn and build life skills.
  • Be honest and don’t over praise.
  • Build a growth mindset-teach them they can do anything with hard work and that intelligence is not fixed.
  • Help them reframe. That is -how to find the positive details in an otherwise negative situation. This becomes a habit they can use for life.
  • Don’t ever use physical punishment and try to yell as little as possible. We can’t expect our kids to control themselves if we can’t control ourselves.
  • Be empathic. 
  • Practice “hygge”-the Danish art of cozying around together. It’s not mindfulness-it’s “we-fulness”.
  • Teach respect, be respectful and you will be respected.

Words by Jessica Humphries for Being magazine

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