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What can we learn from other cultures' approach to parenting?

How much of how we parent is actually dictated by our culture? How do the ways we parent express the essentialness of who we are, as a nation? By exploring other cultures' values and techniques on parenting, we can apply globally-informed learnings towards solutions for early childhood development.

Photo of Alaine Newland
11 26

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Jennifer Senior, author of  All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, had an interesting discovery when she asked American mothers who they went to for parenting advice: "Mothers primarily named friends, websites and books. None named their own mothers. Only the most current child-rearing strategies were desired, in order to best position their children for achievement in the future."

How much of this is dictated by our culture versus personal beliefs? Let's take a look at some other countries' parenting techniques as explored in depth in this TED article by Amy S Choi:

- In Norway, parents believe that it is better for children to be in daycare as toddlers, and childhood is strongly institutionalized. Most children attend daycare at 1 year old and parents get almost a full year of state-sponsored leave from work.

- In Japan, kids as young as 7 years old don’t hesitate to take the Tokyo subways by themselves and walk on busy streets alone without supervision.

- In Sweden, the “rights” of a child are important. For example, a child has the “right” to access their parents’ bodies for comfort, and therefore should be allowed into their parents’ bed with them in the middle of the night. If a parent doesn’t allow them, they are both denying them their rights and being a neglectful parent.

- Korean parents spend more time holding their babies and having physical contact than most. But within a family, obedience is key — not democracy."

- In Jewish tradition, there’s a teaching in the Talmud that every parent has an obligation to help their children develop self-reliance and resourcefulness and resilience. It is taught that we must raise our children to eventually leave us and allow our children to make mistakes.

- American parents are highly focused on making sure that children are groomed for success. "Nearly 25 percent of all of the descriptors used by American parents were a derivation of “smart,” “gifted” or “advanced.” Our sense of needing to push children to maximize potential is partly driven by fear of the child failing in an increasingly competitive world where you can’t count on the things that our parents could count on.”

- In the Netherlands, parents rarely use “smart” to describe their children. "Dutch parents believe strongly in not pushing their children too hard. They feel that you shouldn’t teach your child to read before they got to school, because then your child would be bored at school and not have any friends."

- In Spain, parents are shocked at the idea of a child going to bed at 6:30pm and sleeping uninterrupted until the next day, instead of interacting and participating in family life in the evenings. They believe in the social and interpersonal aspects of child development and their kids are going to bed at 10 p.m.

What's our takeaway from this diverse exploration of parenting?

"The diversity of ideas should be liberating, not stress-inducing. 'It is incredibly freeing to realize that there was no single way to do things and it’s totally okay to make mistakes as a parent."

What resources might we gather from these unique approaches to parenting? How might we build a cohesive approach based on the best methods and learnings from around the world?


Join the conversation:

Photo of Uve Kindia

I like the way you've shown insight into other cultures. I was unaware of certain countries rules and guideines when it comes to under aged children

Photo of ivanny margita

Great post! Indeed different cultures may have different method of raising their children however they have single universe goal that is for their children to be happy!. But, sadly enough that some parents failed to teach their kids well. I am sure you all have heard 'the world is tough to live in and you have to be strong'. It is absolutely true but what we are supposed to teach children is you have to make the world a better/softer place to live in. This way, children are brought up to care of each other rather than being hard on oneself to survive in tough world.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this post being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Catherine Collins

Yes! There are many ways! Anne - Laure and I were just having this conversation. Here is a link to a post from a previous challenge that she shared with me: (maybe worth sharing again :-) ).

It seems as though part of the approach is letting parents develop their own parenting style -- much like a leader develops a leadership style. Certainly, there are some truths or necessary conditions for parenting like making sure a child sleeps, eats and feels loved, after that I imagine it's pretty flexible.

Photo of Chioma Ume

Alaine - thanks for starting up this great conversation! Bettina - identifying the need to ask clarifying questions and understand different cultural contexts is an excellent design principle for this challenge. As a pediatrician you know that there are some things that research has shown are essential for the development of young children. But that answers the what and now the how. We've spent the Research phase gathering information and Ideas the challenge will be to think of the ways what we've learned fits into people's real lives and practices. As we prepare for that, what are some other questions we can ask our community or other resources we can share to better understand the different cultural contexts of parenthood?

Lastly, we've been asking people in India and Tanzania to share their perspectives in this challenge through our [Global Conversations]. This week they've been sharing thoughts about the role of fathers and trusted advisors - the posts give a little insight into how perceptions of these roles differ culturally.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Chioma. I just saw this post. (Do we get notifications for every idea we post comments on?) Great questions you have asked in the top paragraph. I am going to put up some posts that will touch on this as well. Thanks for posting these links. Going there now to have a look!

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Alaine. I enjoyed reading your post. Because of this diversity I think it is important to recognize that we cannot assume that we know what the other is thinking or doing in relation to parenting based on our own experiences. I have experienced this in my work as a pediatrician many times. It works both ways. Parents have had concerns that are culturally based regarding illness or treatment and it is clear that they thought that I knew these things when I did not. (It is like talking right past someone. It is difficult to allay a fear or debunk a myth when it is not clear what that fear or myth is.) In the same way I might explain something that might seem obvious which was not - an example might be a sleep issue with a child from Spain. Just using this as an example because you brought it up above. I actually have friends from Spain so I am aware that they eat dinner at 10 pm. I did not know that this timeframe extended to small children however and if a parent from Spain brought up a sleep concern I would probably frame it from a different perspective. So thanks for teaching me that! As we think about ideas going forward cultural context is important. Designs and best practices that are flexible and can be applied in different contexts will be important. Asking clarifying questions in specific contexts will help to bring these designs to different communities. (Hope that makes sense.)

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Alaine for sharing this research. Nice complement to a post I made

I agree with you that diversity should be liberating. It might allow us to find some common denominators but it should also remind us, to Bettina's point, that concerns and practices vary and that solutions we develop in the next phase have to be flexible enough to allow for contextualization.

Bettina, thanks for sharing your experience as a pediatrician. I remember in fact having a similar experience but from the parent's side while living in Singapore. I remember going to the pediatrician and while she was asking me about food, saying that it was not always easy to get him to eat vegetable. She did not seem to really care and her question was, but does he eat rice. He did and she was reassured. Similarly, while reporting that he will often come to sleep with us in the middle of the night, she did not seem to notice while I know - based on my friends' experience - that in France the pediatrician would have offered solutions to what she would not have considered a "normal situation". I came to understand that in Asian families, it was fine to have children sleeping with parents... I ended up evolving my own view of parenting ...

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi al. Thank you for posting this. I find these examples fascinating. I imagine for you at that time it was frustrating to bring up a concern and not have the practitioner recognize that you were concerned. I know from experience that parents can feel silenced when one simply passes over something that they have said. I know that I have done it. One just does not realize it until you realize it. Medicine is a practice and it takes practice and perspective to build competencies. Teaching cultural competency has developed overtime as a focus in medical education. This is part of that larger issue. (What I started recognizing for myself was that I was missing something. Parents seemed uneasy and to me all was well. That does not match up so I started to ask them - You seem concerned - What about? If they are comfortable they will tell you.... " In my country when someone has this people say it is.... " or - they don't tell you but they tell the medical assistant or the nurse, or they hear them discussing it in their native language.... So discoveries are made by many members of the team.)

Diet, as you shared above, is a great example of where there can be a cultural disconnect. As a young doctor I would probably not have responded to a mother as I did years later in this scenario: I asked a mom who was from Mexico what she fed her 15 month old daughter who was not gaining weight. One concern I had was food insecurity. She told me she gave her chicken soup for breakfast. My immediate reaction was "oh" - and my next reaction was - "how smart." She fed her daughter the way she was fed as a child. I asked her. I let her know I thought this was fine. In the US it is sugary cereals, or bread, sweet cakes etc. We have a growing epidemic of childhood obesity and our breakfast choices for kids is contributing to it. What we see is that when families emigrate here although they continue some of the dietary practices from their countries of origin they also incorporate many American ones and not always the healthy ones.

As we start to build ideas I think one note is to reinforce what parents and communities are doing well and help them find ways to expand these efforts and build upon them.

Photo of Anne-Laure Fayard

Thanks Bettina for sharing your insights. It's great to have the perspective of an expert. I love your description of medicine as a practice and how you have been able to include your cultural sensitivity. I also like the example of taking differences as a source of learning.
Last, I second you on the importance to recognize the value of what parents in communities do. This is a comment I made to myself reading some questions from the global conversations. There are also many thing that Western / developed countries have stopped doing ... see for example this article I posted on the role of play:

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi. Don't consider myself an expert but I do have some experiences to share!
Love your post on play. I interviewed a colleague who specializes in developmental and behavioral pediatrics for this challenge. When I asked her "What skills are crucial for children to build in their first five years of life?" she included learning how to play on the list along with cognitive, social, physical and adaptive skills. "It is important and it includes the other 4 skills. You don't need toys just some basic materials."
One thing I have observed from families/moms in the developed world who carve out free play time for their kids is that it is an active effort, almost as though they must push back against societal norms. Interestingly the kids I have cared for in low income communities seem to play a lot. They play in their natural environments - in the laundromats under foot, in the doctor's office under foot, on the sidewalk. I think since they have less access to all of the scheduled activities and the mom needs to get things done they just acclimate to the situation and carry on!