Tiger Moms, Bébés, and Warm Eskimos

01 Sep 2013 2:14 PM | FIGT Blog Editor (Administrator)
Learning how to parent from people in other countries is all the rage on the best-seller list. From Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Americans are learning how to help our children get all A's and play Bach with fervor. FromBringing Up Bébé, we are learning how to sit and chat with a friend in a café while our bébé plays happily at our side, crunching some arugula for fun. And from How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, we are learning how Kenyans live without strollers, Lebanese families stay close, Japanese let their children fight, and more. As a parent (of daughters in their 20s), I read this literature with a certain bemused distance. Alas, it's too late for me to use the tips to Improve My Girls.

But as an interculturalist, I'm at once fascinated, excited… and disappointed by these accounts of parenting in other cultures. Their descriptions of what parents say to and do with their very small children are a virtual gold mine of information about how cultural differences are formed … but they leave it to us to connect the dots.

In each case, the message is roughly, "Here's a new and superior way to raise your children; the result is better than what you're doing; try it, you'll like it." But nowhere do they describe the deep values underlying the parenting choices, the ultimate goals for the kind of adult parents are trying to raise, or the cultural milieu into which the children will be expected to grow.

Take Pamela Druckerman's engaging account in Bringing Up Bébé of how she got her preschool son to stay in the sandbox area so she could sit and chat with her friend rather than continuously chase after him. Her friend teaches her to be authoritative with her "Non!" and pretty soon bébé is, indeed, sifting sand safely at her side. The reason the French approach is a surprise to these American authors – and strikes such a chord with the American reading public – is because Americans parents have been so focused on something other than obedience. They've (we've) been busy tending to Junior's independence of thought, ability to express himself, sense of mastery and self-esteem. Note: this is how, for better or worse, the US became the most individualistic culture in the world. Alas, many think we've gone overboard, and are attracted to advice on how to attend to the collective needs of a family, which Druckerman beautifully provides us: believe that your child is not the center of the universe and communicate it clearly.

Or take Mei-Ling Hopgood's description in Eskimos of "how Buenos Aires children go to bed late." Her emphasis is on how her social life changed when she began to allow her 2-year-old to stay up to midnight – something that doesn't hold much appeal to me. But hidden within this description is the blueprint for how polychronic cultures differ from monochronic ones! She writes of her fellow parents in Argentina: "…spending quality time with relatives and friends is more important than getting their kid to bed at the same time in the same place every night." Interculturalists, extrapolate! Having solid, known, deep connections with business partners is more important than sticking to the agenda and starting meetings on the dot.

Plus, she tells us how it's done. Argentine parents don't enforce a bed time; they let their toddlers fall asleep wherever they like (including in their arms, their bed, at restaurants); they let them (!) sleep in till 9 or 10am; they and their friends entertain them to keep them happy. From infancy, Argentine babies are nurtured into a different sense of time and relationships than US American ones. When they grow up and run their businesses to a different drummer, why should we be surprised?

Nobody thinks cultural differences are in born. They're learned, somehow. These books tell us how! I'm having fun mining these books for their insights about how cultural differences are formed. Send me your thoughts!

Contributed by Anne P. Copeland, PhD, founder and Executive Director of The Interchange Institute, a non-profit organization focused on the understanding and support of people and organizations in intercultural transition.  For many years, Anne was the Program Director for FIGT.  She blogs at The Interchange Institute


  • 02 Sep 2013 4:32 AM | Ute (expatsincebirth.com)
    Thank you very much for this article. I observe exactly the same among my friends, coming from all the parts of the world. There have been many discussions in several groups online about the different parenting styles and, as you say, the way Americans perceive the French style. I would love to read more about this topic. And how do multicultural parents agree on the way they raise their children? Especially if they live in a foreign country.
  • 02 Sep 2013 5:58 AM | Olga@EuropeanMama
    Yes, yes, and once again, yes! I loved this article and agreed with every word! I also read all the books you mentioned and were not at all impressed. So, French children eat everything- so what or other children do some things my children don't- so what? I would also add to this group the "natural" kind of parenting which supposedly mirrors indingenous cultures (their children never cry, are obedient, mothers nurse on demand, etc etc etc). So what. Except not everything from one culture can and should be extrapolated to another. I have many intercultural friends, and what works for them may or may not work for me. And even what works for me changes all the time, depending on how me and the children are feeling, their age and character. I read these books because I am interested in the different parenting methods, but it doesn't mean I will use them with my children- although sometimes I feel like an Argentinian mom whenever possible.
  • 02 Sep 2013 1:09 PM | Kim Siegal @ Mamamzungu.com
    I loved these books too and for the same reasons. And I actually think these authors do have some discussion about the different social norms which parents attempt to inculcate in their children, but it might get lost in all the thinly veiled parenting advice. Here where I live in Kenya it's very easy to be envious of the obedient and compliant 2 years olds in the rural areas. And I now have a good sense of how it happens. I'm even tempted to replicate some of those parenting practices to get similar results. But I realize that obedience is not the sole goal of parenting and even though my children have embarrassed me with temper tantrums in places where people look at me like there must be something seriously wrong with them, they also impress these same people with their loquaciousness and independence of thought. Just different parenting goals, suited to each culture.
  • 09 Sep 2013 7:22 AM | Jonathan (dadsthewayilikeit.wordpress.com)
    I really liked this article and absolutely agree with you tat learning about attitudes to parenting in other countries can be fascinating as well as really useful. Sometimes I feel that there's a slight tendency for some authors writing about a foreign country to which they have moved to exaggerate based on a limited range of experiences, or only see the positives of what goes on in that country. However, there are also criticisms that can be made of certain parenting books that don't seek to take this intercultural approach. One of the things that I enjoy most about being a parent blogger is reading about attitudes to parenting from fellow bloggers in different countries. It's often really insightful.

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