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Babies Abroad: 5 Global Parenting Practices

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Updated on Mar 19, 2012

Playtime in Polynesia doesn't include parents—toddlers are left alone to play and learn from their peers. Babies in Argentina sometimes stay up past midnight, Chinese parents routinely ditch the diapers at six months, and men in Central Africa are serious about daddy duty, sharing childcare chores up to 50 percent of the time.

These and other surprising parenting practices from around the globe are described by author and mom Mei-Ling Hopgood in her new book How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between).

Hopgood decided to pen the book when she found herself pregnant in Argentina—and way out of her cultural comfort zone. "Everything felt different," Hopgood says, "from going to the OB/GYN to how people always gave you a seat on the bus or train and let you cut in line." After her daughter was born, the differences in parenting practices became even more clear—she was surprised to see small children, even infants, stay up late into the night in the bars and restaurants of Buenos Aires.

Tips about sleep schedules, managing mealtimes, playtimes and potty-training from around the world can change the way you think—and care for your kid. Some of our most rigid rules are simply cultural norms instead of universal laws—but learning about cross-cultural parenting shouldn't make you anxious. Instead of looking to Tiger Moms for the perfect parenting fix, take a trip around the world with an open mind and pick and choose what works best for you. Here are some examples of the curious, and sometimes comical, child-rearing customs from around the globe:

  • Polynesian Playtime. You've heard of attachment parenting—Polynesian parents seem to practice just the opposite. After a child starts walking and talking, parents in Polynesia exhibit what can only be called "detachment" parenting. Toddlers and older tots are left to explore and learn together, without adult interference. According to researchers Jane and James Ritchie, authors of Growing up in Polynesia, this practice encourages tiny playmates to develop strong and cohesive peer groups later in life. This doesn't mean that you should ignore your child on the playground, but try to avoid hovering and let the let the little ones learn from each other.
  • Aka Pygmy Dads. These fathers from the Congo in central Africa were dubbed the "best dads in the world" by Fathers Direct, an organization that studies fatherhood around the world. According to the study, Aka Pygmy men do more than 50 percent of the active childcare—including carrying, holding and even "nursing" their babies. Show your significant other these stats for a leg up the next time there's an argument over dirty diapers!
  • Watchful Waiting in Japan. When kids in Kyoto quarrel, teachers and parents intervene less than American parents. Instead of breaking up a fight, Japanese adults practice mimamoru—loosely translated as "watchful waiting". This is thought to develop the crucial social skills that top the list of priorities in preschool and beyond. When adults settle spats between children, it's seen as harmful to autonomy and peer relationships. American parents may feel uneasy standing by during a playground dispute, but cautiousness shouldn't be mistaken for neglect—mimamoru has a purpose. Next time you see a disagreement brewing, fight the urge the jump in and play referee. Your child might surprise you by settling the tiff herself.
  • Strolling in Kenya. Who needs a stroller? Kenyan mothers dislike western-style baby transport, opting instead to keep their infants in a cloth sling secured to mama's back. As they grow, the babies are allowed to crawl, walk and keep up with the crowd as best they can. As a result these kids, like youngsters from many other African cultures, sit and walk much earlier than their western counterparts. Consider this the next time you're pushing your little prince in his posh pram—persuading him to give walking or crawling a try, at least for a bit, will help him develop the motor skills necessary for future physical activity.
  • Chinese Potty Training. Lots of tiny tots in China walk around with their bare bottoms hanging out of kaidangku—crotchless toddler trousers. In traditional Chinese households, there's often nary a diaper in sight after 6 months. Children learn to control themselves in response to cues from their parents, such as a whistling sound, a technique which works surprisingly well. Accidents happen of course, but kids are rarely punished and parents seem to have a high tolerance for messes. It's not very practical for western moms and dads to use this method most of the time, but trying a proactive approach that includes communication is an alternative to just waiting until your little one's ready.

There's no need to feel like a bad mommy when you see better behaved bambinos in Italy or tantrum-free tots in Tanzania. Learning about cross-cultural parenting can be empowering, says Hopgood. "We can and should LEARN from each other. We can borrow some very good ideas, and also be assured that there are really many ways in the world to be a good parent and raise happy and healthy children." So grab a globe and educate yourself on these parenting practices from around the world. You may just learn a thing or two to help you be the best parent you can be.

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