16 Parenting Lessons from Around the World
Lessons from France, Argentina, Japan, Kenya and beyond might challenge what you believe about raising a healthy, happy and successful child.
16 Parenting Lessons from Around the World
There’s no single right way to parent, of course. But there are definitely some surprising ones — as in surprisingly smart and surprisingly creative — especially when you look outside your own culture.
What sets parents up for success in other countries — and what do they simply do differently?
Here are lessons from France, Argentina, Japan, Kenya and beyond that might challenge what you believe about raising a healthy, happy and successful child.
What don’t French parents do better? Their kids eat better, sleep better, obey more, snack less. From the slew of available book titles — like Bringing Up Bébé and French Kids Eat Everything, just in the parenting section — translating “good/thin/happy” French norms for a “bad/fat/miserable” American audience is its own cottage industry.
It’s the issue of food that seems to impress people most. In France, mealtimes are more formal affairs. There are few, if any, kids menus in restaurants. French kids gobble up stinky cheese and snails with garlic and butter. School lunches regularly involve four courses.
And notably, no one is toting goldfish crackers and squeezable yogurt at all times. The typical French eating schedule is three sit-down meals, plus one afternoon snack. Civilized.
This more restrained and structured relationship with food goes hand in hand with France’s more authoritarian parenting ethos, which is one reason why many people say that French parents are also happier. (Others argue that it’s not some je n'ais sais quois about being French, it’s the nationalized — and in some cases free — child care, which should be the big takeaway here.)
As Outside magazine put it, in Sweden, “friluftsliv, the Swedish term for living close to nature, isn’t just a parenting strategy, it’s a way of life.”
Despite a less than ideal climate for much of the year, Swedish preschoolers spend six hours outside each day, unless it’s winter, and then it’s still 90 minutes.
Compare that to the amount of recess a typical American kindergartener gets, which, in states like Florida and Rhode Island, had to be mandated at 20 minutes per day, because some kids weren’t even getting that much. (And even other states have vetoed such legislation.)
In plenty of small pockets across the U.S., "EC," or elimination communication, isn’t such a foreign concept. It fits in with baby-led weaning and baby-wearing as a parenting style that embraces connection, communication and what’s “natural.”
What a lot of people don’t realize is that EC is the norm in a lot of other countries, including, notably, Vietnam.
It all works the same way, just without the how-to books and Facebook groups. Vietnamese caregivers use auditory clues — a whistling sound — that babies then associate with the feeling of going pee. At first, it’s baby-led — the caregiver watches a baby’s expressions and body language and makes the sound as it’s happening. Later, the sound can be used as a cue to communicate that it’s time to go potty.
By as early as nine months old, the system is in place and most children are diaper-free. According to a study, all Vietnamese babies raised this way were completely potty-trained — meaning they need no adult help to use the bathroom — by age 2.
This is less about how parents treat children, and more about the way an entire culture treats parenting.
In the U.K., the National Health Service doesn’t just provide free or low-cost maternal care, every new mother is visited by a midwife, in the comfort of her own home, several times in the first 10 days after birth.
In addition to the well-baby checks, these visits are an opportunity for new parents to learn about baby care and for postpartum moms, in particular, to nip any potential issues — physical or mental — in the bud.
In Finland, every expectant mother receives a “baby box” from the government — for free. Not only is it filled with all manner of gender-neutral clothing (from sleep sacks to snow hats and mittens), plus diapers, hooded bath towels and tons of baby care products, the box itself is perfectly sized for newborn naps, and comes with a mattress.
The practice dates back to the 1930s and has a wonderfully egalitarian intent: to give all babies an equal start.
Similar to the postpartum visits in the U.K., Finland’s baby boxes aren’t a parenting style, per se, but more of a collective cultural belief in taking care of moms and babies, regardless of income or class.
When journalist Mei-Ling Hopgood, author of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, was in Argentina with her first child, she was surprised at how late the children stayed up.
Compared to the sleep training nightmares and rigid 6 p.m. bedtimes that American parents struggle with, Argentine families were barely thinking about dinner by 9 p.m., much less getting children to bed.
It’s not uncommon to see entire families out at a restaurant at 11 p.m.
In a story for Time magazine, journalist Maryanne Murray Buechner wrote, “This is one of the first things you learn about parenting in Japan: that even very young children are expected to be independent and self-reliant enough to go to school unaccompanied, even if it means taking a city bus or train and traversing busy streets.”
And by young, Buechner means 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds.
Compare that to the viral story of two siblings in Maryland, aged 10 and 6, whose parents expected them to walk home alone, together, from a nearby park. A neighbor called Child Protective Services and the police got involved.
Like other Scandinavian countries, a common cultural quirk of Denmark is how they embrace the outdoors, even when it’s freezing out.
Writer Mei-Ling Hopgood pointed out that children in Denmark are frequently left outside to get fresh air while parents are inside shopping.
Of course, shopping sans children is just one perk of being Danish. In the book, The Danish Way of Parenting, authors Jessica Joelle Alexander, an American mother, and Iben Dissing Sandahl, a Danish psychotherapist, explore a whole host of other less surprising parenting beliefs that keep the Danes so regularly topping the list of happiest people in the world.
These include ideas such as the importance of play, having empathy and not issuing ultimatums.
Sweden is so far ahead of the game in progressive parenting that it gets two entries in this list.
For American parents raising theybies, this may not be groundbreaking news. But in a more low-key, less political way, Swedes have been quietly dismissing gender norms for babies for years.
At many state-funded preschools, the curriculum is specifically built to defy traditional gender roles. Kids are called “friends” or “hen” and there’s nary a princess book in sight.
Writer Christine Gross-Loh used her own experiences parenting abroad to inform her book Parenting Without Borders.
In an article for the Huffington Post, she points out that in South Korea, a culture where communal eating is paramount, kids are counter-intuitively taught that it’s normal to get a little hungry.
The payoff? Eating together and communing as a family.
“In Korea,” she writes, “eating is taught to children as a life skill.”
Yes, fire. And sharp knives. When Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, lived in Germany, her 7-year-old’s homework assignment was to learn how to use matches.
Five-year-olds are instructed how to make “happy fires” and preschoolers use real knives to learn to cut fruit.
The freedom with tools deemed too dangerous by most American parents is just one of the ways the culture fosters responsible risk-taking, self-reliance and independence.
Similar to its fellow Scandinavian countries, Norway isn’t afraid of having kids out in the cold.
At state-sponsored preschools called Barnehage, meaning “children’s garden,” it’s common practice to let babies take their naps outside, even in winter.
As Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of the Scandinavian parenting book, There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather, wrote in Time magazine, “Parents report that babies take longer and deeper naps when they sleep comfortably bundled up outside in the cold, and most felt the practice was healthy because of the fresh air.”
For the Kisii people of Kenya, making eye contact is a powerful thing: It sends the message that the other person is in charge.
So Kisii mothers, when their babies are fussy, will not look at the child — though it’s not necessarily a social rejection, as they typically hold them close since baby-wearing is the norm.
NPR reports that not acknowledging the fussiness with visual connection results in less attention-seeking behavior.
As in Argentina, Spanish children stay up remarkably late. (They also sleep in later, for what it’s worth.)
But there’s another layer to that practice that writer Christine Gross-Loh pointed out in a story for the Huffington Post. “Spanish parents I spoke with told me they stimulate their babies with people, not educational toys. They take them out into public early, welcoming the in-your-face interaction with strangers that most Americans find intrusive.”
In French Polynesia, children as young as 5 are routinely in charge of other toddlers — and this is the norm. It’s not baby care, per se, but an intensive kind of child-led socializing that knits the group of children together.
Anthropologists Jane and James Ritchie, who studied parenting in Polynesia, found these core themes: “community responsibility for the care of children, multiple parenting, early indulgence, early independence, and caretaking by siblings and peers.”
It’s not always pretty or civil, mind you. As another anthropologist, Mary Martini, put it, “The everyday social hazing that [Polynesian] 4-year-olds learn to handle with poise and humor would devastate most American preschoolers.”
In a very different take on gender neutrality from the Swedes, the Aka tribe of nomadic pygmies from Central African Republic and the Republic of the Congo often trade gender roles with no issue.
Researchers found that fathers are within arm’s reach of their children 47 percent of the time. Much ink was spilled over the fact that Aka men will even “breastfeed” children.
The point, made by Professor Barry Hewlett, the American anthropologist who studies the Aka, is this: "Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status — there's no stigma involved in the different jobs."