Parenting Around the World
Christine Gross-Loh is a mother, journalist and author. She spent years researching, and experiencing firsthand, the differences in parenting around the world.
Q: What kind of parent were you before you decided to move your family from America to Japan?
I considered myself to be a very well-read, progressive sort of parent. A modern parent who was really aware of what the experts say you should do for your children, for their emotional and physical health. A lot of that in the US involves a degree of protection, and it’s not that way in Japan. They don’t over-protect their kids. They’re very protective, but they’re protective in different ways. And they let their children go in different ways. It felt almost the opposite.
Q: Did the Japanese way of parenting affect the way you parented?
Yes. I noticed small similarities—like, we co-slept with our children. That was very common there, and refreshing for me. Instead of questioning it, people just assumed it. Other things were different. I tended not to push my children so much, beyond what I thought were their limits. In Japan, there is a different view of what a child’s limits are for new experiences, new foods or how much studying they can do. The other area of difference is what children can independently do. That was a huge one. They believe children are capable of a lot more.
Q: You talk about the issue of over-praising in your book, Parenting Without Borders. You use the example of the American dad complimenting his son as he steps off a merry-go-round. He says, “Good riding!” Can you tell us a bit about that?
That was such a shock to me. It’s really funny because, now that I’ve been back in the States a few years, I see that kind of thing a lot. Especially with younger kids. And tonnes of cheering for older ones, or lots of praise and encouragement.
I just thought it was so strange because in Japan they wouldn’t think about praising a child for something like stepping off a merry-go-round. But they would praise them when they’ve really accomplished something.
I do see it here as an expression of a parents’ love. It’s just how we’re taught to show our love and encouragement for our children. It also felt a little like, isn’t there anything more you can do or say than “good riding”?
Q: How do you feel parents show their love in Japan?
A lot of it is about making sure you’re providing for your child’s future. I think in my country—the US—and in Anglo culture, we focus on protecting the child’s emotional and psychological health NOW.
It really is a little backward, because if children don’t face struggles and know what they’re capable of, they really don’t have a good future. They don’t develop good future emotional health either. And they don’t gain resilience and everything else we want for them. If we wrap them in bubble wrap now, it comes at a price. ‘Now’ meaning at the ages they are now.
We’ve lost sight of the fact they have to scrape their knees and go through some bumps to become more successful and happy in the future.
Q: Why do you think the Anglo world of parenting has become that way?
It didn’t used to be that way. It’s definitely a reaction against what people thought was oppressive parenting. I think the intention is all really positive and good. People who do research on this understand that we, meaning a lot of parents, have interpreted this and gone a bit far with it.
But even since I wrote my book, I see more signs that people are more aware of things such as the necessity to foster a growth mindset in your children, rather than a fixed mindset.
Q: “Growth mindset”. They learn about that at our kids’ schools.
I see it more and more out there. It depends on the set of parents you’re with, what their goals are for the future. In the US, at least—I don’t know if it’s like this in Australia—there’s a lot of economic insecurity. There's also incredible feelings of competitiveness about your children’s futures. This is among a certain set of parents who are more prestige oriented. They really worry about things like college and having a child be successful in a very specific way. That is really at play here, too.
Amongst these parents, children are not expected to have chores and responsibilities. Their job is to do really well in their extracurricular sports and school, and then get into a great college. I see that as well. That’s all kind of new.
Q: You travelled to other countries including Finland and China. What did you learn about parenting around the world from them?
I noticed in Finland that parents seemed so much more relaxed, and there was definitely not the feeling of competitiveness you can see in the US. I’m not talking about how smart a child is—that’s often part of it. Just more relaxed.
Q: Do you find in those kinds of countries that parents are more supportive of each other, too?
I don’t know that I spent enough time to really get a feel for that, but I know parents tell me there’s a feeling of more community support.
I would say that, yes, there’s less competitiveness in the countries where there’s more of a social safety net and less emphasis on being number one. And, I think that is a real hallmark of American culture, and you may feel the same way in Australia. Being a winner, excellence and all of that is just not really as important in other cultures. But it’s very important here.
Q: Lunch Lady focuses on food and family. Could you talk about cultures that teach their kids about eating—the French way of eating, for example?
French and Japanese ways of eating are very similar. There’s a real emphasis on your children learning to eat anything and a different perception of what their limits are. Whereas, in the US, we tend to say, “My child doesn’t like this,” and give up easily. That’s not because we just give up—it’s because we’re taught it’s innate to them. Maybe they don’t like this or that. I know people learn that if you expose your child to the same flavour fifteen times they’ll eventually like it, but it’s really hard for a parent to have to go through that if they’re not totally convinced and don’t have support and help from the wider culture.
In France and Japan, you have a lot of support, because school lunch is about teaching your children how to eat anything. That’s the purpose of it. It’s about nutrition, too, but it’s more about tastes, and developing a palate, and being able to finish what’s on your plate.
‘Finish what’s on your plate’ is one of those parenting things in America that a lot of people I know would rebel against. They might remember being forced to finish all their food at a meal when they were little, and they don’t want to do that to their children. I have my children take what they want on their plates. I would not plate their food for them, but in Japan and France, their food is plated for them at school. So those countries even manage their children’s food right down to the amount they eat at school lunch.
Q. What did you think of that approach to eating?
The parent I was before would have been horrified at that. It was really hard for me to have my children eat school lunch like that, but I grew to see they did become able to eat anything, and they took pride in being able to eat what their friends ate. It’s a kind of peer pressure, in a good way, like, “You should try that, it’s really good”.
We’re often taught, in the US at least, that young children don’t like certain tastes. We start young children off with bland foods. But this is not the case everywhere. In France, they feed children a much wider variety of foods. It’s the same in Japan, and in Korea and India. There’s less of a limit on what people think children are capable of enjoying.
Q: It seems like a common theme you’ve been talking about: the ways we sometimes limit our children.
Yes. I think our expectations are low compared to what I’ve seen elsewhere, or they’re different. As I said, I also came around to see what’s good about American parenting. Being able to see that all these different ways of parenting come from cultural constructions is very freeing. I learned there are all sorts of ways to be a good parent. That’s a perspective you gain when you can see how the way you parent is actually just based on what you see around you. It’s not really about the human species as a whole; it comes from your culture.
Q: What are some good things about the Western way of parenting?
I do think the emphasis on the child as an individual is a nice thing. I think it’s gone too far in some cases, but overall it’s a good thing that a child can have a sense of being unique—I have my own tastes, my own abilities and my own interests. It’s good if they know “these are my strengths, but I can work on this, this and this”.
This idea is a mixture of Western and Asian styles of parenting. Know your strengths, celebrate your strengths, but also know what your weaknesses are, and know that you can improve on them. The other thing I like about American parenting is the certain degree of warmth that is shown—in a different way. All parents are warm to their children. They might show it differently: co-sleeping with your child is one way to show it or providing them with the best food that you can.
I do think that American parents, at least—I’m saying American but I’m sure there are similarities between American and Australian—are effusive and encouraging. We’re taught to really encourage our children, and be there for them, talk to them, listen to them. When parents in Asia, for instance, talk about parenting in a more Western way, a lot of it is about listening to the child and talking with them more and getting their input on things. They feel like they have some agency, too.
Q: What country do you feel had the most impact on your parenting?
Probably Japan, because we lived there until the children were very shaped by it. A lot of my friends are Japanese, and having a lot of parent friends who are from a certain culture definitely shapes your parenting. In the US, I have a lot of international parent friends, almost more than American. I think this is probably because they understand there’s more than one way to parent. We may not necessarily parent the same way, but we tolerate different ways. I find that very helpful. It’s harder to parent differently when other people around you think you’re doing something totally wrong because they can’t imagine parenting any way but their own.
Q: The self-esteem chapter in Parenting Without Borders is interesting. Could you talk about the Swedes and self-esteem, and how they believe being ordinary is good enough, and being a good person is good enough?
Yes. One of the biggest conversations in the US is the drop in caring and empathy among children. That’s across the board.
Of course, there are, individually, so many caring children, but raising a child with a good character is not as valued as raising a child who’s going to be successful and smart. That has been a shift over the last several decades—they go hand in hand because it’s not enough to have an ordinary child. Your child has to be excellent. If your child has to be excellent, being a nice child is not going to be valued as much as being an excellent child.
We really do need to raise our children to be kind and to care about others. There’s a fine balance. American culture is very individualistic. We can raise our children to be unique individuals, but we can also raise them to care about the people they’re with, to take other peoples’ views into account, and to imagine what it’s like to be someone else or hold someone else’s point of view. Teachers I speak to today see that we have lost that as a result of this push for excellent and unique children.
Q: What other cultures did you find fostered this kindness and empathy?
I saw that a lot in Japan. I saw the act of caring being expected of the children in Sweden and Finland. Siblings would walk their younger siblings home from school. In the US, at least, too much emphasis on sibling care means your child has less of an ability to develop their own individual potential. This is often viewed as something that isn’t really in the best interest of your child. Of course, we want our children and siblings to get along, but I’ve definitely seen there’s less emphasis on sibling care in the US than there is in the countries I’ve just listed.
Researchers label certain cultures as either more community-oriented or more individualistic. The US is way over on the individualistic side. Japan is pretty far over on the community-oriented side. If you’re raising a child to be part of a good community, you expect them to be kind. You don’t necessarily push them to be excellent, but you expect them to be good citizens. You don’t praise their individual potentials and talents so much as how well they fit in with a group of people. There are pros and cons to all of that, but it explains why different cultures fall differently in terms of parenting strategies.
Q: Do you think that bringing our kids up to be so individually focused or community-focused is developing a bunch of lonely, isolated kids?
I think it can. I remember talking to one researcher who said that children who were raised to be the centre of the universe had a really hard time in preschool because suddenly they were coming up against all these other children who were raised to be centres of the universe. That’s tough. I think it’s all about balance. I’ve seen the negatives of living in a too community-oriented way, so that, when parenting your child, you ignore who they are as an individual, or overlook it. But I definitely have lived and seen the perils of raising children to be their own special person, at all costs. It is all about regaining a balance.
Parenting Around The World was originally published in Lunch Lady Magazine Issue 2.
Christine's book, Parenting Without Borders, is published by Penguin Random House. Photo by Hideaki Hamada.