Tuesday, July 24, 2012

It’s A Small World After All

By Alli Sinclair

As a mother of two young children, I’m always interested in how parenting styles vary from family to family, culture to culture, and country to country. I’ve been lucky enough to visit friends with kids in various parts of the world and along the way I’ve observed a myriad of parenting styles. Some methods have appealed so much I’ve adopted them into my own style of parenting and so far, the results have been pretty good!

From the moment most people announce their pregnancy, people flock to give advice—whether the pregnant woman wants it or not. The same goes when the children arrive into the big ol’ world. In-laws, old men, cousins, aunties, strangers… everyone has something to say about the way you are interacting with your child. Sometimes the advice is helpful, but most of the time, it’s just someone trying to shove their opinion down your throat (yes, yes, this is a touchy subject with me!).

For the same reason, I’m not one to run to a parenting book every time a challenging situation arises. I tend to take a more organic approach and run with intuition and assess the situation and the individual child as to what outcome I am aiming for. But I did find a very good parenting book called How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm by Mei-Ling Hopgood. I honestly had a hard time putting it down.

Mei-Ling covers many cultures and interviews anthropologists, educators, and child-care experts and even tests out some of the theories on her lively toddler, with some pretty amazing results. Her narrative is non-judgmental, something that is not always seen in parenting books.

Here are some examples of what Mei-Ling discovered:

This one I can vouch for and it amazed me even before I was a mother. In Argentina, it’s not uncommon to find young children dining with their families close to midnight, or attending a wedding and dancing until two in the morning. Seriously. I could never understand how the young ‘uns could function the next day, but they do. Toddlers tend to sleep in later than North American children, and sleep experts say that as long as children are getting the required amount of sleep for their age, late nights are not a big deal. The other bonus is children who socialize at functions from a young age adapt better to new social situations as they grow older.

Food… ah, one of the great joys of life but as a busy mum, it can be difficult to prepare interesting meals the kids will actually eat without a fuss. I’ve always been keen on exposing our kids to a variety of food from many cultures, and luckily, the kids have been (mostly) pretty keen to at least give it a go. We do have a rule in our house that it’s okay not to like a food, but you have to try it at least once (and the French chef in the book thinks the same way with his kids). According to Mei-Ling, it’s not unusual for French children to have duck or asparagus in their lunch box, and they tend to drink water rather than fruit juice.

Polynesian Islands 
This one takes community caring to a new level. Siblings, cousins, and family friends, form a group to take care of the younger children. We’re not talking adults here. For example, in a group of 10 people, there might be four children between the ages of eight and twelve, and they look after the other children who might range in age from two to seven. The older children prepare food, change nappies, supervise, play games… all things an adult normally does. Meanwhile, the parents are free to go and do the tasks that are needed to keep the community fed, such as fishing or farming fresh fruit or vegetables.

Duking it out doesn’t sound like an ideal way of handling a situation where two children are fighting, but in Japan teachers sometimes turn a blind eye (unless it gets really out of hand). The theory is the children learn to handle a situation without having to resort to a third party (a parent or teacher). Now this may go against the beliefs of many parents out there, but I can see how people believe this theory has value. It took me a while as a parent to work out that when two young children are fighting (arguing, not punching!) that the situation dissipates much faster than when an adult gets involved. As for the physical side of sorting something out… well… I’m not sure what to think about that, but it seems to work well in the Japanese culture.

In small towns in the Yucatán (as with many parts of the world), young children are involved in daily chores. A child of two may help his mother with the washing or collecting fruit and this involvement helps the child build confidence and know they can contribute in a meaningful way—something that is so important for all of us to feel, including little ones. I know sometimes I tend to do chores by myself because honestly, it’s just easier, but when my kids show an interest in helping, I slow myself down and allow them to get involved, even if I’m busting to get the job done. The look of joy on their faces when they complete a task really is wonderful and reminds me this is all part of their growing and learning and sense of self-worth.

In our house, we like to embrace ways from many cultures and Mei-Ling Hopgood’s book is an excellent resource to see how it’s done elsewhere. Not all of the methods will appeal to all readers, but that’s the beauty of this world and experiencing so many cultures. We can adopt the methods that work for us and our children, and ignore the ones that don’t appeal—all the while maintaining a healthy respect that everyone is different and that’s what makes the world a pretty amazing place.

As we have such an array of readers from many cultures, it would be lovely to learn about any parenting styles you’ve grown up with or have adapted.


  1. What a fascinating book, Alli! Even for someone without kids. The Argentines have a similar view toward child rearing as Iranians, I think. They also bring their kids to those late night dinner parties. They just borrow a bed or a corner of the floor and the little tykes sleep until it's time to go home.