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Parenting Across Cultures

What parents from different cultures can learn from one another.

Key points

  • Parents in different cultures often have very different approaches to parenting.
  • While children in India have more unstructured playtime, children in the U.S. are often encouraged to think independently from a young age.
  • Observing how parents in other cultures do things can help us take the best bits from their techniques and implement them.

It's no wonder that parents are so touchy about the best way to raise children. We all like to feel like we know exactly what we are doing, even though we are usually just making things up as we go along.

Parents from various cultures have very different approaches to parenting shouldn't come as a surprise. For instance, in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, fresh air is considered so important that infants are bundled up even in cold winters and nap outside in their strollers. Children in Italy are usually allowed to taste wine or alcohol with the rest of their family during meals. These examples would be seen as shocking in other parts of the world where entire industries are centered around indoor play areas in winter and the legal drinking age of 18 or 21 is adhered to strictly.

Of course, none of these parenting techniques are wrong. They're just different and culture-specific, and each might have advantages. But read the reviews section of any parenting-related book, and it resembles a battleground. Staunch supporters on one side horrified naysayers on the other. Discussing parenting styles touches raw nerves and brings up so many emotions.

Having grown up in a different country from the one I'm raising my daughter, I see differences in the approaches of parents in the two countries. No single parenting style is perfect, and a combination of different styles to suit various situations is probably a better way. Parents from both cultures, Indian and American, can learn from the approaches of each other.

Free play. Children in India have far more unstructured playtime than in America. Free play, when the children decide what to do with their playtime with little to no adult intervention, encourages creativity and independence. Free play is also, and perhaps more importantly, a lot of fun. My toddler watches Peppa Pig, and one of the things that Peppa and George love to do is jump in muddy puddles. We often tell our kids not to do these things, but what's the worst that can happen? An extra load of laundry?

Free thinking. On the other hand, American parents generally do a far better and more conscious job of encouraging independence in their children's opinions and ideas. I'm often amazed at how intelligent and confident American teens are about expressing themselves. At least part of it is because their opinions have not been stifled by parents who tell them that they must defer to adult opinion. Of course, there are exceptions to all this. Not every Indian parent discourages free-thinking in their children and vice versa. Things also change as the newer generations take over. I'm only picking out the trends here.

Cultural taboos. There are so many unspoken norms in our different cultures that breaking them becomes taboo even when it makes sense. One such taboo in the U.S. is adult-age kids living with parents. In the words of Melanie Hamlett, "Somehow it makes more sense in America to rack up thousands of dollars in debt, move into a teenier-tinier tiny house, or even continue living with a partner you kinda hate than to endure the shame of being a young adult crashing in your childhood bedroom."

I don't mean to suggest that adult children living with parents is an ideal solution in all situations. It's just that insinuating that people who don't move out as soon as they turn 18 are somehow less-than can force people into making sub-optimal life choices.

Independence of parents. When people in India have children, they feel that their lives ought to center around their children. When a parent wants to take some time off for themselves, there is always a sense of guilt. In the U.S., I often come across parents making a conscious effort to keep alive parts of themselves that existed before they became parents. This can lead to a healthier relationship between parent and child, given that the parent doesn't feel like they are sacrificing parts of themselves to raise the child.

Perhaps we would all do well to admit that we don't always know exactly what the right way to do things is and learn from the parenting practices of other cultures.