When I first arrived in France I was struck by how little attention parents paid to their children hanging upside down from monkey bars and tree branches. I was alarmed to see these 4 year old kids shrieking with delight high above the ground, as their mothers smoked and gossiped on nearby benches.
I am sure they were amused to see me frantically chasing after my small child when she climbed to the top of a high rope pyramid or tried to hang upside down without me nearby. Parenting styles differ dramatically from country to country and these differences can be isolating and lonely for expats.
Americans, for example, are very open about our children and parenting struggles, much more so than parents in other cultures. American mothers find comfort in knowing we are not alone in the power struggles our children try to impose or the odd habits they have.
In France women talk in generalities about problems they have with their children while Americans go into details about tantrums and bedtime struggles. For a long time I wondered if my kids were normal and was pretty sure I was a bad parent. It wasn’t until I befriended a Canadian woman with two children the same age as mine that I found out she had the same issues I did. Not only were her children not perfect, they caused such a fuss one night she hid under the covers pretending to be asleep.
I still wonder how French mothers manage to calmly walk hand in hand with their children out of school. Mine are usually grabbing for the goodie bag with one hand while pushing each other out of the way with the other and trying to get my attention by shouting “mommy, mommy, mommy.”
This type of behavior and our different parenting style does not go unnoticed. My youngest daughter’s teacher once told me I was babying her by hugging her and kissing her when I picked her up. I would often bend down to listen to her face-to-face or pick her up to give her a hug to talk about her day (she was 5 at the time, not fluent in French and culture shocked). Later the same year the teacher could not understand why I wouldn’t allow my daughter to go on a 15-day sleepover trip with the class. Long separations are normal for French families, but for an American, sending a 5-year away with strangers for 2 weeks is unheard of.
An American friend in the United Arab Emirates says most children there have bed times much later than is considered acceptable in the US. She says they stay up “way past MY bedtime. It’s normal for my husband and I to be out for a date night and when we are coming home at 11 p.m., kids are everywhere….the malls, restaurants, parks, etc.”
Car safety rules are not the same in the UAE either, which can be disconcerting when sending their children off with friends and neighbors. Rarely are seat belts or car seats used, which is also common in some places in Asia that I’ve lived. Kids are never buckled up, my friend said. Instead they “move around the cars/SUVs and often hanging out the windows.”
I found an interesting article in an Asian publication that discusses how expat parents in Japan struggle with the norms there. The writer, Casey Baseel recounts how he was shocked to see young children navigating the subways alone.
I was on the subway one morning during one of my very first trips to Tokyo when I spotted two unaccompanied elementary school-age girls riding through downtown together. How could two kids who weren’t old enough to drink even a sip of coffee without freaking out be traversing the country’s densest urban center all by themselves?
In Japan, though, very young kids commuting to school without any kind of adult supervision isn’t anything unusual, and as such no one paid the two unaccompanied tykes any mind.
Likewise, sometimes things that seem like the most natural way of raising kids to parents overseas might seem totally bizarre to Japanese adults, as this collection of reactions to parenting around the world by Japanese experts and expats shows.