One of the many joys of travel and living in other countries is learning how other countries and cultures do things differently–including parenting. Having lived, worked or studied in countries that include Japan, Russia, Norway and the UK, and having friends from several other countries, it's been interesting to note differences in parenting philosophies.
Parenting styles and children, of course, vary enormously, and what works well for one child may not work well for another. But these are some of the most useful parenting tips I've gleaned from other countries (several have also helped us travel more easily with our son), even though we haven't managed to fully implement all of them.
1. France: Just One Afternoon Snack, Kids Eat the Same Food as Adults
In France, kids usually eat 3 meals a day and one afternoon snack, or goûter. By limiting snacking, kids tend to be hungry for meals, so they're less likely to be fussy about what's served. Traditionally, French kids also eat exactly what adults eat, including vegetables, salads, and aged cheeses. Public schools help support this by allocating enough time for elementary school kids to have a proper lunch, often serving them in courses, with water as the beverage, no soda.
It undoubtedly helps that I have a hungry kid who usually has a good appetite, but we've adopted the French attitude that kids can and should eat what they're served, including vegetables, with only a few exceptions. Our main exception is that he doesn't have to eat spicy food or a very pungent cheese, so if we have spicy Thai food, or a very strongly flavored cheese, we let him have something else. But outside of that, it's understood that he'll have whatever we have for meals, including all vegetables that are served, whether kale, brussels sprouts, salad, broccoli or beets. And apart from one after school snack, which is usually fresh fruit or yogurt, there's no other snacking.
2. 57 Countries: No Spanking
The United States is the only country that hasn't ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which in Article 19 states that state parties must “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence.” In my view, physical violence includes spanking. And independently of the Convention, well over 50 countries, including many European countries, but also a number of others, from Mongolia to the Republic of Congo to Paraguay, have completely prohibited corporal punishment of children. It's high time that the U.S. did the same, and accorded children the protection from physical violence that adults have. After all, it's not called spanking when adults hit each other–it's called assault.
This isn't to say that we don't believe in discipline–in fact, we're probably stricter than most other parents we know. But spanking, has been shown not only to be ineffective, but damaging to children's long-term health, including mental health. It's been associated with a higher risk of criminal behavior, negative parent-child relationships, and physical and sexual abuse.
3. Japan: Young Kids Go to School and Run Errands Independently
In Japan, even children as young as 6 or 7 go to school by themselves, including riding the subway and walking to school. They also help their parents by running errands on their own, perhaps with a sibling or friend of the same age. It's a great way for kids to learn self-reliance and independence from a young age.
Living in NYC, a far less homogeneous society than Japan, we've been a bit more reluctant to have our son be quite as independent as Japanese kids, although we did start leaving him at home at a young age when he didn't want to come with us, and he's spent time with a friend outside the apartment yet in a safe neighborhood area. We aspire to be more like the Japanese in having our son be more independent earlier, even if it's something we're still working on.
4. Finland: Less Homework, Better Student Achievement
Ok, so this is as much about schools as parenting, but Finnish children have much less homework than in the U.S., UK, and many other countries, yet in PISA (the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment) Finland, even with a slight fall-off in scores, was ranked 4th in reading, 5th in science and 12th in math (compare that to the U.S.: 24th in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math).
Certainly higher quality teachers have something to do with it; unlike in much of the U.S., teaching is a relatively high status career in Finland, and teachers have greater professional independence in designing their curriculum than is typical in the U.S.
But there's still something to be said for not having young kids stressed out by homework, and giving them enough time to read, play, run around, and, well, just be a kid.
5. Norway: There's No Bad Weather, There Are Only Badly Dressed People
This little Norwegian saying encapsulates much of what I love about the Norwegian attitude to the outdoors and fresh air. You don't only go out when it's warm and sunny (if you waited for this, you'd be inside much of the year)–Norwegians, including their babies and kids, are often outside, including in the coldest weather. In fact, in Norwegian day care centers (Barnehage) babies (warmly bundled up, of course) often take their naps outside in the winter, as it's believe the fresh air is good for them and promotes good sleep.
We know a family whose daughter went to a pre-school that was held outside every day, rain, shine or snow (plenty of tree climbing and sports) and she's one of the calmest, most self-reliant kids we know. This is one we'll need to work on, since NYC can be a little less enticing to be outside in during awful weather than a beautiful forest.
6. Russia: Thought Provoking Math Education
Russians have long placed an enormous emphasis on education, and math has been taught especially well–in part, a legacy of the focus placed on math and science during the space race between the Soviet Union and the U.S.. It's not about sheer memorization of formulas, but about challenging kids to learn how to structure their problem solving, to understand the why, in a way that develops critical thinking skills.
We fell into this accidentally, since our son's second language is Russian, and his Russian teacher is also a mathematics teacher. But the result has been that he's been working, in Russian, with abstract mathematical concepts years earlier than my husband and I learned them, and enjoys finding creative ways to solve a problem.
7. China: Emphasize Effort Over Innate Talent
Say the words “Chinese parenting” and many will think “Tiger Mom,” aka Amy Chua, and overly harsh parenting. But what often gets lost in all the controversy in the debates about overly strict discipline, too much homework, forced piano or violin lessons and the like, is that Chinese parents tend to emphasize effort over innate talent. That is, they believe their kids can accomplish more than they think possible, by dint of intense effort.
Now, reasonable parents can disagree on how much of that effort has to come solely from the child and to what extent, if any, a parent should apply pressure to get the kid to put in the effort. Nonetheless, that emphasis on effort seems more optimistic to me than just fatalistically concluding, perhaps too early on, that your child doesn't have the innate talent for something, especially as kids can change rapidly and have something akin to intellectual growth spurts in addition to physical ones.
What's your favorite parenting tip that you've gleaned from another country or culture?
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