Sharing the Secrets of Good Parenting
Appreciating the value of outdoor play.
Posted May 31, 2018
Being a parent is a hard job. No doubt it can also be among the most fulfilling and joyous things one can do. But still, it is often challenging and stressful. I should note that I’m not (yet) a parent myself–although I hope to be–and so these observations come from a place of empathy and support on the sidelines, rather than in the midst of the action. Nevertheless, many of my friends are parents, and I’ve seen first-hand how well they handle what seems to me, as an outsider, the mightily impressive task of raising a well-rounded person. And so, as we mark the Global Day of Parents (on June 1st), we can take the opportunity to celebrate parents–and indeed all those who take on parenting duties in some form–without whom the world would stop turning.
This isn’t a parenting guide
In an article like this, one might now be expecting a series of parenting ‘tips’ and recommendations. But I won’t be following that well-worn path. This is partly because, not being a parent myself, I don’t really feel qualified to do so, lacking the hard-won expertise one gains from actually living and breathing the reality of raising children. It’s also because it seems there may be few things more annoying and provocative to a parent than being told how you should bring up your child. Each family, each child, is different, and what works well in one context won’t necessarily do so in another. Plus, people differ in their values and priorities, which inevitably manifests as variation in child-rearing practices.
Furthermore, as a psychologist, I recognize the contingent and precarious nature of scientific knowledge, upon which many such parenting guides are based. Ok, some scientific facts are fairly unchallengeable: the notion that a water molecule contains two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom is a pretty safe bet. But many other scientific theories are provisional, particularly in social sciences like psychology. In such fields, it is common for the prevailing consensus to be subject to trends, to ‘paradigm shifts1. At a given moment in time, a certain idea may be favored, only for this to later be superseded by rival ideas, which themselves subsequently become challenged.
Shifting parenting paradigms
As one might expect, paradigm shifts have occurred in relation to parenting. A classic example is the revolution initiated by Dr. Spock, whose 1946 Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was described by TIME magazine as "one of the most revolutionary books in American history." Before this, the scientific consensus was that parents should cede to the authority of doctors, who generally advocated strict care regimens and discouraged overt affection. By contrast, Spock encouraged parents to trust their own instincts, to not be too regimented, and to not be afraid of showing their love. Almost overnight, the scientific wisdom on parenting shifted, in turn engendering great cultural changes in parenting practices.
And new trends have continued to emerge–both within the scientific literature and in the culture at large–as reflected in the recent focus on "Tiger parenting," which has attracted vocal adherents and detractors alike. This phenomenon, which came to wide attention through a publication by Amy Chua around the merits of child-rearing practices regarded as typical in areas of East, South, and South-East Asia, exemplifies how a concept can take hold of the public’s imagination, and usher in new parenting trends. But, as one might imagine, its rise to prominence has generated debate about the merits of this style of parenting, and even about the nature of the concept itself (as discussed in a recent special edition of the Asian American Journal of Psychology).
The point here is that the scientific literature on parenting is frequently shifting, with most theories being contested or at least debated, with changes in consensus over time. All this renders the construction of a parenting guide–especially one that won’t soon seem outdated–a tough task. So, as I’ve already said, I won’t ‘go there.’ Nor do I want to advocate for a new parenting trend that is–or should be–sweeping the world. But I do believe that, whatever our stance on parenting, we can still take guidance and inspiration from practices that have been forged across the world’s cultures (as indeed people have with tiger parenting). A case in point is the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv.
The term literally means "free air life," and describes a philosophy of open-air living, and of being in tune with nature. It’s a beautiful example of an ‘untranslatable’ word, i.e., a term that lacks an exact equivalent in our own tongue. I’ve recently been collecting such words, particularly ones relating to wellbeing (as a researcher in positive psychology). The result is an evolving ‘positive lexicography’, as I explore in two new books. Such words are significant, as they represent ideas and practices which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture but have been recognized by the culture in question.
In the case of friluftsliv, this constitutes a way of being that has been valorized by Norwegians, and by Nordic nations more broadly. And, accordingly, it has made its mark upon parenting practices, where, basically, kids are encouraged to spend time outdoors–whatever the weather. Hence the saying, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” Indeed, this provides the title for a recent parenting book, featuring the subtitle A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient and Confident Kids (from friluftsliv to hygge). This approach is reflected in the fact that children regularly spend up to 20% of the school day outside, even in the snow.
With this philosophy, there are myriad reasons why children are encouraged to spend time outside–from the health considerations of discouraging a sedentary lifestyle2, to the self-reliance that can come from outdoor play3 to a general appreciation of the restorative power of nature.4 These considerations do not only matter to Nordic parents, needless to say. For instance, a recent initiative by Jonathan Haidt, called the Let Grow foundation, laments the decline of outdoor play in America, and encourages people to allow children more of this kind of freedom–from whatever baseline they are starting from.
So, wherever you are, and whatever your own philosophy and style of parenting, perhaps there is something to be said for embracing a little more friluftsliv.
 Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago press.
 Stigsdotter, U. K., Ekholm, O., Schipperijn, J., Toftager, M., Kamper-Jørgensen, F., & Randrup, T. B. (2010). Health promoting outdoor environments-Associations between green space, and health, health-related quality of life and stress based on a Danish national representative survey. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 38(4), 411-417.
 Waite, S., Rogers, S., & Evans, J. (2013). Freedom, flow and fairness: exploring how children develop socially at school through outdoor play. Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 13(3), 255-276.
 W.M. Gesler, ‘Therapeutic landscapes: medical issues in light of the new cultural geography’. Social Science and Medicine 34, no. 7 (1992): 735–746.