26 Parenting Lessons From Around the World
These lessons from France, Argentina, Japan, Kenya and beyond might challenge your beliefs about raising a healthy, happy and successful child.
26 Parenting Lessons from Around the World
There’s no single right way to parent. But there are some surprising ways — as in surprisingly smart and surprisingly creative. Especially when you look outside your own culture.
What sets parents up for success in other countries outside the United States. And what do they do differently?
These lessons from France, Argentina, Japan, Kenya and beyond might challenge your beliefs about raising a healthy, happy and successful child.
1. No Snacking in France
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/healthy/happy” French norms for a “bad/unhealthy/miserable” American audience is its own cottage industry.
It’s the issue of food that seems to impress people the 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'ai sais quoi about being French, it’s the nationalized — and in some cases free — child care, which should be the big takeaway here.)
2. Get Outside in Sweden
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.)
3. Potty Training by 9 Months in Vietnam
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 9 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.
4. Free, Universal Postpartum Visits in the U.K.
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.
5. One Box With All Your Needs in Finland
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), 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.
6. Let Them Stay Up Late in Argentina
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.
7. Let Them Take the Subway — Alone — in Japan
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.
8. Leave Them Outside While You Shop in Denmark
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.
9. Stay Gender Neutral in Sweden
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.
10. It's OK to Be Hungry in South Korea
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.”
11. Let Them Play With Fire in Germany
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 on 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.
12. Let Them Nap Outside in Norway
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.”
13. Don't Look Them in the Eye in Kenya
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, when their babies are fussy, Kisii mothers 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.
14. Stimulate Babies With People in Spain
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.”
15. Children Watch Children in French Polynesia
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.”
16. Dads Do Half in Central Africa
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."
17. Don't Touch the Ground in Bali
In Bali, parents take the bonding experience of a baby's first few months of life to heart. In Balinese culture, the ground is considered dirty, and allowing an innocent new baby to touch it is bad luck.
While the bad luck element is more superstition than fact, the practice of baby-wearing and responding immediately to an infant's cries have been proven to help a child form a secure attachment to their primary caregiver.
Baby-wearing American parents don't have any formal practice of not letting babies touch the ground, but Bali parents hold a ceremony at the three-month mark. By that age, a baby is considered tough enough to face some of the harsher parts of life, and they are allowed to touch the ground for the first time.
18. No Homework for Kids in Finland
Being a kid in Finland is awesome. Homework is nonexistent. The Finnish education model emphasizes play as part of the learning process. As Finland's minister of education Krista Kiuru puts it, "[Finnish students] do not have homework. They should have more time to be kids, to be youngsters, to enjoy their life."
Kids also have several breaks throughout the day, and never study more than four hours each day. To American parents, this might seem lazy, but the results speak for themselves. The Finnish education system ranks as one of the highest worldwide, and the students are also among the happiest.
19. Wine Is a Family Affair in Italy
Alcohol is a complicated subject, and both laws and cultural practices vary from place to place. In Italy, the legal drinking age is 18, but it's common for families to allow teens and even kids to drink small amounts of wine at home with dinner.
Although it's still illegal to sell alcohol to minors, many parents believe that teaching a healthy appreciation of wine at home sets a foundation for responsible drinking habits when they're older.
The wine is often watered down and is always offered in small amounts. Parents consider it an introduction to Italian culture, not a precursor to alcohol dependence.
20. It Takes a Village Is Taken Literally in Africa
In many African countries, parents aren't left to fend for themselves when it comes to rearing their offspring. Grandparents and aunts don't just stop by to babysit occasionally. All members of the extended family pitch in to help raise children.
Essentially, there's always one adult or another looking out for them, and parenting is a communal experience. Even people who aren't related to the child by blood will help out with their upbringing, since they're considered a young member of the community.
21. Bathe Babies in Ice Water in Central America
In certain parts of Central America, Mayan women bathe their babies in cold water instead of warm water because it alleviates heat rash and supposedly helps them fall asleep easier.
They tend to cry a lot in response, but there's no harm in trying it.
22. Let Them Eat Candy in Chile
The idea of a stranger offering kids candy is terrifying in America, but it's normal in Chile.
People around town offer candy to kids as a gesture of friendliness.
It's like having your favorite grandma in every local shop.
23. Save the Cake in Ireland
This one is part wedding tradition, part parenting tradition. At weddings in Ireland, Irish whiskey cake is usually served.
The top tier, however, isn't eaten. Instead, it's saved and frozen to be served at their first child's christening.
Whatever your religious beliefs are, celebrating the growth of your family with a special tradition is touching.
24. Spend Over a Year with Your Baby in Bulgaria
In Bulgaria, parents would look at you like you're nuts if you said you have a "whole six weeks of maternity leave." There, mothers get 410 days off from work, with 90 percent of their pay.
Six months after their child is born, the remaining days of parental leave can be transferred to the baby's father.
25. Send Them to School at Age 7 in Liechtenstein
In many countries, the normal age to start school is 5. In the small European principality of Liechtenstein, it's completely acceptable not to send kids to school until they're 7.
They supposedly have a 100 percent literacy rate, so the later start date seems to work like a charm.
26. Skip Spanking in Sweden
Corporal punishment isn't legal in American schools, but many parents still opt to spank their kids. In Sweden, that's a major no-no. Corporal punishment of children has been prohibited since 1979. It's viewed as illegal and abusive, damaging the trust between parents and their children.
Parents who are caught hitting their kids are rarely charged with minor offenses. Instead, they are given resources to teach them alternative methods of discipline. The Swedish children who grow up without corporal punishment reportedly have a stronger sense of self.