I watch my children's friends and see them systematically making sure that their own children will not be able to cope with life when they are adults. These parents intervene in every little squabble so that little Tommy doesn't have to learn how to settle disagreements with another on his own. I see them deciding what little Susie will order at the restaurant, never paying attention to the fact that in a few short years little Susie will have to decide what to prepare for dinner for her own family. How is she ever going to learn anything about healthy eating if she never has to choose for herself?
Worse, I see the children of divorced parents being treated like little princes and given big, expensive bribes so that they won't like the other parent better. Parents are no longer parents - they are just big, rich friends.
We all talk about helicopter Moms, but it's not just Moms. It's a whole generation of parents who are raising their children to believe the world is a dangerous place, someone is always waiting to grab you if your Mom's not watching, and worse, that you (the child) can't be trusted to make decisions and take the consequences. When every child gets a trophy, there is no motivation to work hard and win. Imagine their surprise when they get a job and find out that someone actually expects them to do something!
I want to read Christine Gross-Loh's book on parenting. I may end up giving it as Christmas presents to a few people.
Author, Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around
the World Can Teach Us
Have American Parents Got It All Backwards?
The eager new mom offering her insouciant toddler an array of carefully arranged
healthy snacks from an ice cube tray?
That was me.
The always-on-top-of-her-child's-play parent intervening during play dates
at the first sign of discord?
That was me too.
We hold some basic truths as self-evident when it comes to good parenting.
Our job is to keep our children safe, enable them to fulfill their potential
and make sure they're healthy and happy and thriving.
The parent I used to be and the parent I am now both have the same goal:
to raise self-reliant, self-assured, successful children. But 12 years of
parenting, over five years of living on and off in Japan, two years of
research, investigative trips to Europe and Asia and dozens of interviews
with psychologists, child development experts, sociologists, educators,
administrators and parents in Japan, Korea, China, Finland, Germany,
Sweden, France, Spain, Brazil and elsewhere have taught me that though
parents around the world have the same goals, American parents like me
(despite our very best intentions) have gotten it all backwards.
We need to let 3-year-olds climb trees and 5-year-olds use
Imagine my surprise when I came across a kindergartener in the German
forest whittling away on a stick with a penknife. His teacher, Wolfgang,
lightheartedly dismissed my concern: "No one's ever lost a finger!"
Similarly, Brittany, an American mom, was stunned when she moved her
young family to Sweden and saw 3- and 4-year-olds with no adult
supervision bicycling down the street, climbing the roofs of playhouses and
scaling tall trees with no adult supervision. The first time she saw a 3-yearold
high up in a tree at preschool, she started searching for the teacher to
let her know. Then she saw another parent stop and chat with one of the
little tree occupants, completely unfazed. It was clear that no one but
Brittany was concerned.
"I think of myself as an open-minded parent," she confided to me, "and yet
here I was, wanting to tell a child to come down from a tree."
Why it's better: Ellen Hansen Sandseter, a Norwegian researcher at
Queen Maud University in Norway, has found in her research that the
relaxed approach to risk-taking and safety actually keeps our children safer
by honing their judgment about what they're capable of. Children are
drawn to the things we parents fear: high places, water, wandering far
away, dangerous sharp tools. Our instinct is to keep them safe by
childproofing their lives. But "the most important safety protection you can
give a child," Sandseter explained when we talked, "is to let them take...
Consider the facts to back up her assertion: Sweden, where children are
given this kind of ample freedom to explore (while at the same time
benefitting from comprehensive laws that protect their rights and safety),
has the lowest rates of child injury in the world.
Children can go hungry from time-to-time.
In Korea, eating is taught to children as a life skill and as in most cultures,
children are taught it is important to wait out their hunger until it is time
for the whole family to sit down together and eat. Koreans do not believe
it's healthy to graze or eat alone, and they don't tend to excuse bad behavior
(like I do) by blaming it on low blood sugar. Instead, children are taught
that food is best enjoyed as a shared experience. All children eat the same
things that adults do, just like they do in most countries in the world with
robust food cultures. (Ever wonder why ethnic restaurants don't have kids'
menus?). The result? Korean children are incredible eaters. They sit down
to tables filled with vegetables of all sorts, broiled fish, meats, spicy pickled
cabbage and healthy grains and soups at every meal.
Why it's better: In stark contrast to our growing child overweight/obesity
levels, South Koreans enjoy the lowest obesity rates in the developed world.
A closely similar-by-body index country in the world is Japan, where
parents have a similar approach to food.
Instead of keeping children satisfied, we need to fuel their
feelings of frustration.
The French, as well as many others, believe that routinely giving your child
a chance to feel frustration gives him a chance to practice the art of waiting
and developing self-control. Gilles, a French father of two young boys, told
me that frustrating kids is good for them because it teaches them the value
of delaying gratification and not always expecting (or worse, demanding)
that their needs be met right now.
Why it's better: Studies show that children who exhibit self-control and
the ability to delay gratification enjoy greater future success. Anecdotally,
we know that children who don't think they're the center of the universe are
a pleasure to be around. Alice Sedar, Ph.D., a former journalist for Le
Figaro and a professor of French Culture at Northeastern University,
agrees. "Living in a group is a skill," she declares, and it's one that the
French assiduously cultivate in their kids.
Children should spend less time in school.
Children in Finland go outside to play frequently all day long. "How can you
teach when the children are going outside every 45 minutes?" a recent
American Fulbright grant recipient in Finland, who was astonished by how
little time the Finns were spending in school, inquired curiously of a
teacher at one of the schools she visited. The teacher in turn was astonished
by the question. "I could not teach unless the children went outside every
The Finnish model of education includes a late start to academics (children
do not begin any formal academics until they are 7 years old), frequent
breaks for outdoor time, shorter school hours and more variety of classes
than in the US. Equity, not high achievement, is the guiding principle of the
Finnish education system.
While we in America preach the mantra of early intervention, shave time off
recess to teach more formal academics and cut funding to non-academic
subjects like art and music, Finnish educators emphasize that learning art,
music, home economics and life skills is essential.
Why it's better: American school children score in the middle of the heap
on international measures of achievement, especially in science and
mathematics. Finnish children, with their truncated time in school,
frequently rank among the best in the world.
Thou shalt spoil thy baby.
Tomo, a 10-year-old boy in our neighborhood in Japan, was incredibly
independent. He had walked to school on his own since he was 6 years old,
just like all Japanese 6-year-olds do. He always took meticulous care of his
belongings when he came to visit us, arranging his shoes just so when he
took them off, and he taught my son how to ride the city bus. Tomo was so
helpful and responsible that when he'd come over for dinner, he offered to
run out to fetch ingredients I needed, helped make the salad and stir-fried
noodles. Yet every night this competent, self-reliant child went home, took
his bath and fell asleep next to his aunt, who was helping raise him.
In Japan, where co-sleeping with babies and kids is common, people are
incredulous that there are countries where parents routinely put their
newborns to sleep in a separate room. The Japanese respond to their babies
immediately and hold them constantly.
While we think of this as spoiling, the Japanese think that when babies get
their needs met and are loved unconditionally as infants, they more easily
become independent and self-assured as they grow.
Why it's better: Meret Keller, a professor at UC Irvine, agrees that there
is an intriguing connection between co sleeping and independent behavior.
"Many people throw the word "independence" around without thinking
conceptually about what it actually means," she explained.
We're anxious for our babies to become independent and hurry them along,
starting with independent sleep, but Keller's research has found that cosleeping
children later became more independent and self-reliant than
solitary sleepers, dressing themselves or working out problems with their
playmates on their own.
Children need to feel obligated.
In America, as our kids become adolescents, we believe it's time to start
letting them go and giving them their freedom. We want to help them be
out in the world more and we don't want to burden them with family
responsibilities. In China, parents do the opposite: the older children get,
the more parents remind them of their obligations.
Eva Pomerantz of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign has found
through multiple studies that in China, the cultural ideal of not letting
adolescents go but of reminding them of their responsibility to the family
and the expectation that their hard work in school is one way to pay back a
little for all they have received, helps their motivation and their
Even more surprising: She's found that the same holds for Western
students here in the US: adolescents who feel responsible to their families
tend to do better in school.
The lesson for us: if you want to help your adolescent do well in school
make them feel obligated.
I parent differently than I used to. I'm still an American mom -- we struggle
with all-day snacking, and the kids could use more practice being patient.
But 3-year-old Anna stands on a stool next to me in the kitchen using a
knife to cut apples. I am not even in earshot when 6-year-old Mia scales as
high in the beech in our yard as she feels comfortable. And I trust now that
my boys (Daniel, 10, and Benjamin, 12) learn as much out of school as they
do in the classroom.