French children eat anything that is put in front of them and behave impeccably in restaurants. Japanese children ride the subway alone without judgment from other adults. Danish families practice hygge, enjoying the cozy, simple pleasures in life. The media constantly bombards American parents with examples like these, holding up other cultures’ parenting and family practices as models for us to study and emulate. But is it really possible for us to parent like the French, the Japanese, or the Danish? Do the quick tips, guidelines, and advice we receive about these practices really help us to reshape our own children and our families in meaningful ways? Not usually.
French eating habits and systematic support for them are not embedded in our culture. Neither is it currently culturally acceptable to allow children the level of independence afforded to some children in Japan. We often have little control over how much more hectic and complicated our work and school schedules are than those of our European counterparts. For better or for worse, Americans have our own set of cultural norms, expectations, schedules, and policies that pervade our everyday life and guide how we think, feel, and behave. We are fighting against a powerful tide when we stray from these beliefs and practices. We can also risk negative judgment, frustration, and even formal censure when we do.
I say all of this very reluctantly, as someone who speaks several languages and whose years spent living abroad (in France and in Germany) have been life-changing. I also only came to this realization after my own failure to emulate another country’s parenting techniques, so, if you’re not yet convinced, let me to demonstrate what I mean through a personal example. As a French major in college I studied abroad in France. When I left I was somewhat overweight, but when I returned I was 20 pounds lighter. I had learned to love walking, to enjoy small portions of good food, and to stop eating when I was full. It was not hard to do this because everyone around me was doing the same. These beliefs and practices still hold true 17 years later, and I have not regained a pound. I wanted to impart these beliefs and practices to my two-year-old, a very picky and unadventurous eater. I tried valiantly to limit snacks, to avoid fast food and junk food, and to require her to remain politely at the table until everyone had finished. It simply didn’t work.
My daughter watched as friends let their children run around the table wildly as the adults continued to eat. She was offered snacks by other children’s mothers and in daycare. She ate chicken nuggets or pizza on nights when my husband and I came home from work too exhausted to cook from scratch. There just were not structures or practices in place in our culture to support what I was trying to do. I came to understand, however, that this was not an entirely negative thing. For one thing, I don’t often share how I was scolded publicly in France for eating food in the street, for putting second helpings on my plate, and for being overweight.
These are not things that I experienced in the United States. We forget and that many of us accept and celebrate a wide range of body types and that our flexible American food habits can easily adapt to our changing needs and schedules. In the end, I realized, neither country’s set of eating practices is perfect. Each has its benefits and its drawbacks. It’s just that one set of practices is mine and the other is out of my reach. I actually felt much happier once I realized this and stopped focusing my energy on things mostly out of my control. I share this example to show how championing other cultures’ parenting practices does as much damage as it does good. It makes American parents feel guilty when we are unable to implement other practices well enough for them to meaningfully affect our lives. It also encourages us to ignore the problems in other cultures and blinds us to the strengths of our own.
Most importantly, however, our tendency to worship other countries’ parenting and family practices pulls the focus away from what we need to fix in our own culture. It puts the responsibility on us as individuals to change our lifestyles and outlooks, rather than on our society as a whole to create more liveable situations for parents and families. Our energy would be better spent on advocating for systemic changes to American cultural beliefs, practices, policies, and laws that would make this a more family-friendly culture and a happier place to parent.
What if, instead of fighting our children’s picky eating habits, we used that energy to argue for paid maternity and paternity leave? For more affordable daycare? For a school day that aligned with working parents’ schedules? These types of large-scale changes would have a much more profound effect on Americans’ ability to parent effectively and on the happiness of our families. I believe that those are, after all, the things that all of us – regardless of nationality – really want for ourselves and for our children. Even more than a plate cleaned of its broccoli.