Around the World

What American Parents Need to Do Better: Lessons from the Rest of the World

With tiger moms, helicopter parents, and permissive and authoritarian models, parenting styles differ as much in the United States as they do in any country.

But can American parents learn something from their counterparts in different parts of the world?

The answer is yes, according to Christine Gross-Loh, author of the recently published book “Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.” The Harvard-educated mother of four traveled to and researched parenting styles in Finland, Sweden, Germany, France, Japan, China, Italy and other countries.

American parents may not think they need any lessons. According to a study released in March by the Pew Research Center, moms and dads in the U.S. gave themselves good marks for how they raised their children. Almost 70 percent of parents with children under 18 said they have done a very good job or better. Only 6 percent rated themselves poorly.

In other parts of the world, American parenting styles stand out. When Gross-Loh and her husband were raising their four children in Japan, she noticed something unusual when they were playing in the park.

“I was the only parent following my children around the park and preventing disputes,” she said in an interview with Christiane Amanpour.

Japanese parents allowed their children to get into scrapes, she said, and felt that disagreements were character-building.

“Even though we in America prize independence and autonomy and freedom so much, children in Japan were being raised with a lot more of these qualities,” said Gross-Loh.

Without a doubt, good parenting means being involved in children’s lives. But Gross-Loh’s research led her to conclude that being over-involved is detrimental and undermining.

“We like children who can speak their own minds and give their own opinions and be their own person,” she said. “This is a part of being independent. But there’s a whole other part that I think we’ve been neglecting and that’s the idea of self-reliance and self-responsibility. Those are the sorts of ideas that I see being fostered in other countries that are not being fostered as well by many parents in the U.S. It’s not our fault. We’ve been told that it’s good to look out for our children and help them out.”

One facet in developing independent children seemed counterintuitive: co-sleeping. Gross-Loh pointed to a survey showing that out of 100 countries, the U.S. was the only one in which parents provided a separate sleeping place for their children. In other countries, when little children sleep in the same bed, the same room or nearby the parents, their levels of dependence better matched during day and night.

“The idea is that when you allow children to be dependent in this way when they are babies, then they can more easily move into age-appropriate independence as they get older,” said Gross-Loh. “And research does show that even American children who were co-sleeping with their parents were more independent in different ways.

“Parents who have this 24-hour relationship with their kids, in Japan, for example, were not as reluctant to ask more of their children during the daytime,” Gross-Loh added. “They could carry their own bags, walk to school on their own, do chores around the house. In the U.S., we have this tendency to think there are things they can’t handle during the day, but we ask them to do something different at night.”

Another aspect of self-reliance and independence is safety. But Gross-Loh argued that allowing children to take some risks is actually the best sort of protection to give them, something she saw in Japan and certain European countries.

“That is how they will form the judgments to deal with all sorts of situations,” she said.

Gross-Loh recounted visiting a kindergarten in the German forest and coming across a 5-year-old child whittling on a stick with a knife.

“He had been taught how to do it safely,” she said. “Meanwhile, a lot of children in the U.S. are not even allowed to pick up a stick at the school playground because it might hurt someone.”

Through raising her children abroad and her research, Gross-Loh said she has learned her own lessons for her family.

“For me, I learned that I could be more relaxed about parenting because there’s so many ways to be a good parent,” she said. “And a lot of them involve a lot less involvement than we believe we should be doing.”

But what about lessons that American parents can teach the rest of the world?

“One of the things that was really striking is that we strive to raise tolerant children,” said Gross-Loh. “In a way, it’s necessitated because we live in such a diverse society. But it’s the sort of thing I didn't see in other cultures.”

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