Book review: 'Parenting Without Borders' surveys global families


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You've heard it time and time again from a weary parent: "If only children came with a set of instructions!" In other words: Hey, kid, I tried my best, but I probably made a lot of mistakes along the way because nobody was there to tell me how to raise you.

Advice to parents has changed significantly since the days of Dr. Spock. Should parents leave babies to "cry it out" or should they share the same bed? Should parents make their child's rigid sleep schedule dictate the entire family's routine, or should the children tag along and sleep whenever and wherever the need takes them? Experts bicker over the answers to such questions, leaving parents confused. If the experts can't agree, then there's not a set way to raise a child in America.


"PARENTING WITHOUT BORDERS: SURPRISING LESSONS PARENTS AROUND THE WORLD CAN TEACH US"

By Christine Gross-Loh
Penguin ($26).


Or is there?

Christine Gross-Loh, author of "Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us," argues that each culture has established values, or a "script" that instructs us about what constitutes "good parenting." The problem is that these values aren't written down in a book that's distributed upon the birth of a newborn. Unless you're able to step outside of your own culture, this script is invisible.

The child of Korean immigrant parents, Ms. Gross-Loh studied Asian history and spent significant time living abroad. Consequently, she's able to see how the American style of parenting is distinct in relation to how things are done around the globe. In "Parenting Without Borders," the author contrasts the American way of raising children with a multitude of global perspectives.

Here are a few examples of how American parenting is distinctively different that may fascinate and provoke controversy:

Expectant American parents are led to believe that they need to purchase a lot of stuff -- from baby gear to the latest gimmick that promises to make baby smarter. Ms. Gross-Loh claims that American parents "worry that if they don't buy the correct product to support a child's interests, his potential will lag." In the name of wanting what's best for their children, American parents spend more money per child on "stuff" than any other country.

When a baby is born in America, it's often placed to sleep in its own crib, which is usually in its own room. We're told that babies should sleep alone, and we spend considerable effort training infants to sleep through the night.

Isn't that the way things should be? Not so, writes Ms. Gross-Loh.

"Many Asian and European parents believe that co-sleeping reinforces mother-child attachment, teaches a sense of community, and is a building block for healthy independence. When it comes to consumption, many Asian and European cultures argue that 'less is more;' kids are happier with less, the product of moderation and frugality."

"Parenting Without Borders" ponders some heavy questions. What message do we send to children when they become the centers of our lives? What do parents teach children when they shield them from social confrontation or academic failure? Or when they reward children for achievement, instead of effort?

Perhaps American parents try too hard, Ms. Gross-Loh suggests. We follow our children around the park, assisting them in climbing or interfering in social misunderstandings, instead of sitting back and letting them figure it out on their own. Our overly involved style of parenting contrasts with the Japanese, French and Scandinavian ways, all of which believe that children are their own best social teachers.

Japanese parents and teachers emphasize strength of character, persistence, and effort instead of achievement. At the bottom of a school worksheet, Japanese students are asked to reflect what they can do better next time. By contrast, American children are often asked to reflect on what they did well. It's a stark contrast.

Ms. Gross-Loh argues that excessive parental intervention and a focus on achievement get in the way of cultivating an important life skill: resilience. The American style of "hover parenting" actually teaches a child that he's not capable of solving his own problems and that he's worthless unless he's a winner.

She seems to criticize American parenting while overly praising the Japanese and Scandinavian ways. Rarely does she turn her observant eye toward what's wrong with the Japanese way of raising children. Also, her observations about parenting apply more to middle-class white parents than those who are working class, immigrant or not white.

Other parts of the book take on issues relating to education and culture. America's image of the strict Chinese "tiger mother" is contrasted with a more hybrid, modern version popular in China now. The author also takes up the notion that it's normal for a teenager to act disrespectful, stating that in Asia, teens are perfectly respectful to their parents. Well-meaning American parents will likely struggle with the suggestion that they're partly responsible for their teen's annoying behavior.

You may not agree with each point Christine Gross-Loh makes, but there's much food for thought here. It's a rare book that invites readers to step outside themselves and view their culture from the outside in.

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Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh and blogs about books and parenting at www.instantlyinterruptible.com.


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