The world-famous primatologist discusses her new book, which is back on shelves after some controversy.
In Germany, children can attend forest kindergartens and spend the entire day outside. In Japan, mothers encourage kids to fight with pretend swords or guns. And in Scandinavia, kids nap outdoors.
Those are broad strokes, but by and large, parenting is different around the world.
Mother and author Christine Gross-Loh discovered that when she lived in different countries for her book, “Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.”
by Chrisine Gross-Loh
We all want the best for our children, but what does that mean? Robert LeVine, an eminent Harvard anthropologist, determined that parents around the world universally share three goals in raising their children. The first goal is survival and health: Parents want their children to stay alive. For those who live in societies where they can be reasonably sure of being able to meet children’s most basic survival needs past infancy, though, the second universal goal is to raise children who will have the basic skills they’ll need to sustain themselves economically once they grow up. And finally, there’s the goal of self-maximization—of raising a socially competent child who possesses the cultural values that are considered important, and who will succeed in that society: a child who will thrive.
I didn’t know if I would ever have a child. Pregnancy didn’t come easily to me, and my husband, David, and I experienced the heartache of infertility before conceiving our first baby. But I always loved children and longed for the day I might become a mother. When I finally became pregnant, survival was a question: I hemorrhaged so severely in my seventh month that doctors told us the pregnancy was in danger. It wasn’t until tiny Benjamin was born and safely in my arms, when I looked at his face with his wide brown eyes, mop of black hair, and the puzzled expression that elicited such fierce protectiveness inside me, that I started to think about what kind of parent I would be and how I could best raise a child who would not only survive but also thrive.
My parents immigrated to the United States from South Korea shortly before I was born in 1968. Growing up in the 1970s in small-town Pennsylvania, I straddled two cultures every day of my childhood. In some ways my parents were very Korean in how they raised us: We used chopsticks at the dinner table; kimchi, seaweed, and rice were staples in our home; I was taught not to call adults by their first names and to behave respectfully toward older relatives. Education was highly valued in our house and we were expected to complete our homework on time and get good grades. Sometimes this felt like a lot of pressure. At the same time, my parents had a broad perspective and were enthusiastic and relaxed about the things my brothers and I wanted to do, whether it was make our own Halloween costumes, pretend to pan for gold in a creek, watch movies for hours with our friends, or eat or read whatever we wanted. When I look back on my childhood, I am actually astounded by how little my parents questioned the things we were doing with our time and where our lives were going, especially since our American small-town childhood was so different from their own.
They had their worries, as many immigrant families who strongly want their children to thrive in their new society often do. I remember hushed conversations between my mom and dad about whether we were really getting a good education, and get-togethers with other Korean immigrant families where parents exchanged questions about the schools their children were attending as they tried to navigate an alien school system. Sometimes our differences really compounded my self-consciousness about being one of the few Asian-American students in school. But like many American parents of my generation, I find myself looking back with amazement at a degree of freedom and acceptance that seems virtually lost today. Even though my parents always conveyed the value of holding high expectations, they gave us so much time and space to experiment, play, and just be. They were always trying to do their best for us. They believed in our potential to flourish. But they weren’t always trying to mold and change us.
During my twenties I lived in Japan several times, first to study Japanese and then to do research for a doctorate in East Asian history. In a remote village nestled in the mountainous countryside, I met David, who, like me, was a student who had come to Japan to learn the language. When David and I returned to the United States and decided to get married, we also knew that we might eventually be going back to Japan one day and maybe even raising children there. No matter where our children would grow up, though, I knew I loved America. And I knew there were many things from my own Korean-American upbringing and my Jewish-American husband’s that would shape our family’s life.
Excerpted from the book PARENTING WITHOUT BORDERS by Christine Gross-Loh. Copyright © 2013 by Christine Gross-Loh. Reprinted with permission of Avery, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Now we want to take a Friday break from the news with a look at the thinking around the world on parenting. Did you know that in Germany, children can attend forest kindergartens? They spend the entire day outside. In Japan, mothers encourage their kids to fight with pretend swords and guns. In Scandinavia, kids nap outdoors.
Now, much about parenting is the same around the world, but much is different, as mother and author Christine Gross-Loh discovered when she lived in different countries to research her new book, "Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us." And she joins us in the studio with more. Welcome.
CHRISTINE GROSS-LOH: Thank you.
YOUNG: It's just so fun. Just start with Japan, where you lived for a while as a parent. Just what were some of the things that - the culture shock that you faced?
GROSS-LOH: Well, I think the very first thing that I noticed that was really surprising to me was when we first visited my son's new preschool. It's a preschool kindergarten, ages three to six. And we saw the children were all playing outside, running around, and it seemed like they had very little adult supervision.
And I thought maybe they were having recess or something. It turned out that this was actually how they spent the bulk of their day at this preschool, and it's a very common way. They like for the children to spend a lot of time with each other with minimal adult intervention so that they can learn how to get along with each other.
YOUNG: Well, I mentioned that Japanese parents don't mind their kids having play swords and guns.
GROSS-LOH: Right, right.
YOUNG: They don't mind their kids fighting. They don't interfere. It's sort of let them figure it out.
GROSS-LOH: Right, exactly. I mean, you know, if it gets extreme, a parent will certainly intervene, or a teacher will, but they give them a lot more freedom to explore their play with one another, including that sort of play fighting, than I was ever used to here in America. I would be, you know, jumping in and sort of making sure everything was all right. And I just had to sort of adjust to a different way of parenting when I was a parent in Japan.
YOUNG: In fact you caught parents really staring at you when you were at a playground. You went with your child to play, what, to what, encourage them?
GROSS-LOH: Right, exactly, just follow along, make sure they're OK. And, you know, I realized that I was the only parent really doing this, especially with a child of my children's ages, which was, you know, between three and five years old. By then these children in Japan were really left to be on their own a lot more than I saw here.
And, you know, they might have scrapes, they'd have disagreements, but that was OK. In fact that was considered good for them because it was part of how they learned how to get along with one another.
YOUNG: Let's tell people how you came to this. Your parents came to the U.S. from South Korea.
YOUNG: And then as we said, you spent some time in Japan and then decided to investigate further. What are some other cultural differences between the way U.S. parents parent and other parents do, Sweden, China, Finland, Germany? Give us just a more - just a couple more examples of how it's different.
GROSS-LOH: Right, well, one thing that I found very interesting was that Sweden was actually also very similar to Japan in the approach toward child autonomy. Children when they're very young are expected to be quite dependent. In Japan they co-sleep, in Sweden I found that a lot of child co-sleep with their parents, as well, because it's considered the child's right, you know, if they need to be with their parent during the night.
That said, when they get older, these same children who from our point of view might seem very dependent are becoming incredibly independent in ways that we don't typically see American children becoming. They're walking to school on their own. They're not having their lives structured and scheduled away.
And then you brought up the example of China and Korea. I was very interested in those countries because I'm from an Asian-American family, and I - in China for instance what I found most interesting was this idea that as children grow older, as they become preteens and teenagers, they shouldn't be pulling away from the family so much as sort of being reminded of their obligation to their family.
Now we hear this word obligation, and we think that's terrible, we think we're putting pressure on our children, but an American researcher who has studied both Chinese and American preteens has found that this idea of obligating your children, giving them a sense of responsibility to the family, actually helps their school achievement.
So I found this a really instructive sort of lesson that we could learn from, too.
YOUNG: It's the reverse, in many ways, of the other thing that you note that American parents are more likely to do, which is instead of telling kids the obligation they have to the family, and again we're broad-brushing, of course a lot of families do.
GROSS-LOH: Right, of course.
YOUNG: But we in this country feel the need to applaud them and tell them how good they are as individuals.
GROSS-LOH: Right, right, we have this idea about self-esteem, that you can instill it in a child from the outside by sort of praising him a lot, that's how you give him confidence. And what I found in many other countries was that the idea of self-esteem is different. It's something that a child gets from persevering, you know, going through a difficulty and coming out on the other side, overcoming something.
YOUNG: Yeah, you quote psychology professor Jean Twenge, who's been on this program, who writes we simply take it for granted that we should all feel good about ourselves, we're all special. You know, we tell kids they can be anything. And then in Sweden, what, it's sort of hey, just be OK?
GROSS-LOH: Yes, and that's sort of a very surprising concept, I think, to a lot of us because in our culture we're really encouraged to make the most out of each child's individual potential. In fact if we don't we're sort of failing as parents. But the fact is that there's a lot of happiness that lies in things that come not from pursuing individual achievements but from connecting with others and having a sort of a more sane pace of life, a more relaxed pace of life, and being able to pursue your own interests, which is harder to come by in a culture which is very achievement-driven with a lot of scheduling for children because we think that that's what they'll need.
YOUNG: That's Christine Gross-Loh. Her book is "Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us." We'll have more of what she found in one minute, HERE AND NOW.
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YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and a little later in the program today, Senator Bob Casey and a leading Afghan activist will talk to us about protecting women in Afghanistan now and as U.S. troops leave. But right now we're continuing our look at parenting around the world.
Author Christine Gross-Loh was raised in the U.S., but when she lived in Japan, mothers there were astounded at how she hovered around her kids, helped them navigate the playground, stopped fights. She decided to look at parenting around the world, and her new book is called "Parenting Without Borders."
Christine, pick up where we were at the break. You say American parents tell their kids they're so special, that they can be anything, they're the best, the goal to build self-esteem. You say one of the results is American kids end up overestimating their own ability. You quote a stat about college freshmen: Seventy percent of them reported that their academic ability was in the top 10 percent.
YOUNG: It's not.
GROSS-LOH: It's impossible for it to be so. And yeah, one of the good things about having confidence, which I think that Americans are very good at trying to instill in their children, is that it does make you feel like you can - that it's in your power to try and go after something if you want to.
But the flip side of that is without a sort of realistic view of what you need to do to get better at something, you're never going to be able to get better. And I really do think that this attitude is at the heart of one of our problems as a nation when it comes to our global competitiveness in the world because if you look at the countries which are all doing much better than ours when it comes to academic achievement, they're not telling their children that they're in the top 10 percent, even though they're not, and they also have been told and taught that there's so much worth in giving things your all and giving things a good effort.
YOUNG: Talk about food. We know in France it's primary, but in Japan you say that food education is part of the regimen, Shoku-iku?
GROSS-LOH: Shoku-iku is food education, and it is an actual class in Japanese elementary school. Six children will take turns every day. Every week they'll be serving the other children the food that's been made. Then the children all sit down and wait to start together. And then after they've all conversed and had their meal together, all the children help to clean up the school after lunch.
You know, these are all sorts of, like, character-building parts of the curriculum that we may hesitate to think should be required of our children at school. But I personally know a lot of parents who would be really happy if their schools reinforced the sorts of values that they are trying to instill at home.
YOUNG: There's a lot of funny anecdotes. You come back after several years, and I think it was Japan, and you see a father, you know, applauding his child because he rode on a merry-go-round, which entails no skills. And it shocked you. You're starting to be the parent that's looking at someone else in shock. There's another anecdote about when you were in Japan. I think it was your daughter who fell on a playing field, and you got up to help her, and...
GROSS-LOH: Right, a friend's daughter, yes, and her friends on either side of her actually held her back because they were sure that her daughter would want the good feeling of getting up by herself and finishing the race.
YOUNG: What about the children who are allowed to roam far more than here? We know - I mean, we had Lenore Skenazy on the show, she's the one who let her nine-year-old ride the subway, I mean vilified. I can hear Americans saying well, those are rural areas. You know, it's nice to have a forest school in some rural hamlet in Germany. We have Waldorf schools in this country where kids spend a lot of time outside.
But you can't transfer something like that to the inner-city or even a city or a crowded suburban area.
GROSS-LOH: Right, and I understand that sort of point of view because when you don't see it being done around you, especially if your child is the only one who's going to be, say, walking to school alone, which has happened in our case when we came back to the States. Of course you...
YOUNG: Wait, wait, wait, how old was your child?
GROSS-LOH: Our boys were six and nine. And they walked to school by themselves.
YOUNG: How far, how far?
GROSS-LOH: It was - and it was not far. This is the thing. They had been used to walking a mile to school each way, through Tokyo traffic in Japan.
YOUNG: How did you do that?
GROSS-LOH: You know, the first time it wasn't easy. The way we did it in Japan, when my first son was doing it, was I followed him to school. I walked with him to school, actually, the first few times. Then I followed him, and then I would meet him halfway. And then one time I just sort of let him go. And of course I was standing by the door waiting for him to come home.
But I had seen so many children who were able to do it that I knew it wasn't as though he was developmentally incapable of doing it. It was more of a cultural norm that was holding us back. When we came back, and our children walked to school on their own, I actually did get a call from our school nurse at one point when one of my sons slipped in the ice and got a scrape on his way to school.
And this is something that he knew how to handle. He went to the nurse to get a Band-Aid. But she called me to tell me about it because she thought that I would want to know that she didn't think it was safe. And, you know, I knew that this was a little bit of a counter-cultural thing to do, but I also had arranged with the woman who helps cross the children, she encouraged me.
She said I'll watch them, you know, whenever they're in my eyesight and all that. Because I found people around me who were sort of willing to help support me, and I think that's really what it comes down to is if we find more and more people who are on our side and believe that children deserve a childhood where they're able to walk around and have fewer adult eyes on them every moment, then really things can change. Parents can feel that trust in their children.
I understand how hard it is to feel trusting of the culture that's around or the people that are around you, especially when you see so much in the media about what could possibly happen. But I also think that when we look at risk a little bit differently, and we don't say that, you know, there must be absolutely no risk, but we also look at the risk of what happens when we don't let our children have these freedoms, such as the risk of a child who's never been able to walk around on his own suddenly being let out to walk on his own when he's 10, 11, 12 or so and doesn't have that kind of judgment, then I think that we - our attitude toward the way that we are looking at childhood and autonomy, competence, judgment and risk, might change.
YOUNG: Yeah, there's so much here. In France they have this theory of frustrating children. It's called (French spoken), I think, sorry for my French, but the idea that frustrating children is good for them.
GROSS-LOH: Right, yes.
YOUNG: In Japan, no baby strollers have any cups or anything or holders because there's...
GROSS-LOH: There's no idea that children will be snacking as they're strolling around.
YOUNG: In Sweden, a friend of yours' kids went to school, and they built two-story structures into the ice on a hillside. They scavenged by themselves in the woods. They ate wild roots. Her three-year-old's school had no fence. But as you write, with that freedom there was a lot of structure that you couldn't see. I mean, kids were taught what to do.
And then they come back to the U.S., this friend Brittany(ph), and they bring their boys back, and they come to an American school where they were not allowed to pick up a stick off the ground.
GROSS-LOH: Right, right, exactly.
YOUNG: For fear they'd maybe...
GROSS-LOH: Poke someone in the eye or make it into a weapon, exactly.
GROSS-LOH: Yes, I think that the key thing is that there's just a different idea of what children are capable of. And then from that, teachers and parents will proceed either to give children the guidance that they need to be able to thrive in those situations of greater freedom than we allow, or like us, we will protect them and sort of prevent them from having those experiences.
And that is one way. I just argue that it's not the best way.
YOUNG: The one overarching thing I take out of the book, the whole book: Kids need more time outside. It's pitiful in the U.S. compared to other countries.
GROSS-LOH: Right, four to seven minutes average on a weekday now.
YOUNG: For American kids.
GROSS-LOH: Yes, it's really a shame.
YOUNG: Christine Gross-Loh, author of "Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us," in the U.S. Christine, thanks so much.
GROSS-LOH: Thank you for having me.
YOUNG: Four to seven minutes on average American kids spend outside. Here's more. There's something researchers call surplus safety, parents trying to protect their kids from rare risks and instead creating real ones, like obesity by keeping them inside.
Have you lived in other countries and noticed a parenting difference? Let us know at hereandnow.org. Latest news is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.