Diaper-free babies and co-sleeping: Global parents use techniques we shun

In 'Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us,' author Christine Gross-Loh reminds us that our ideas of parenting are products of local culture. What's nixed in one locale trumps in another. 

By , Guest blogger

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    Christine Gross-Loh's book about how parents raise their children around the world is a helpful reminder that there's no one way to correctly care for your child.
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I knew it!

Even Dr. Ferber, the sleep guru of “just let the baby cry it out” fame (or notoriety, depending in your point of view), concedes that there are many viable ways for a baby to sleep. This is just one of the many wonderful nuggets of information that Cambridge writer Christine Gross-Loh brings to the table in her new book Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us.

It’s tempting to call Gross-Loh’s book a reference guide, but that would be giving short shrift to this wise and entertaining compendium on child-rearing. Her goal is simple: as borders blur and the world gets smaller, effective parenting can be more easily shared around the world. Gross-Loh delves into many traditions for advice on everything from co-sleeping, eating habits and guerilla marketing to our kids.

Recommended: America's 4 parenting cultures

But back to Dr. Ferber for a moment. Ken and I had our own borders when it came to parenting Anna as a baby. Aside from the fact that we had no idea what we were doing, in a word the thing we craved most was sleep. But we had very different ideas of how exactly we would get Anna to sleep and tackle our own sleep deprivation. I was brought up by a Latina mother, and by extension much of my mother’s family. Though we didn’t call it that, co-sleeping was not out of the norm. If I had a bad dream I crawled into bed with my mother. My American father was not so thrilled about my visits and usually ended up switching beds with me.

And so these cultural differences continued in my marriage. Gross-Loh happens to be a proponent of co-sleeping. She and her husband and their four children have ended up in various groupings throughout the night. She also investigated co-sleeping in countries like Japan and Sweden where the family bed is a way of life. When Anna was born we lived in Baltimore where co-sleeping was not exactly in vogue. I swear I gave “Ferberizing” a decent try, but I just couldn’t do it. My very patient husband had to finally accept that Anna would be hanging out with us occasionally.

Throughout the book Gross-Loh draws upon her experiences from living abroad in Japan as well as her Korean heritage and her husband’s Jewish upbringing. I thought her section on children and eating was of particular interest. Like many parents, Gross-Loh is concerned with the growing rates of childhood obesity in the United States. She investigates American eating habits in search of a solution to curb our children’s growing waistlines. She finds despite a diet rich in fats and meats, French children are generally healthy and slim. One of the reasons is that snacking is highly discouraged in France. The French go so far as to air public service announcements warning against eating in between meals. Additionally, French kids eat their meals with their families. These meals are generally long and leisurely, and to compensate for a high fat diet, the French eat smaller portions. “In France,” writes Gross-Loh, “teaching kids to eat is as important as teaching them to read.”

Gross-Loh believes that the idea that children are picky eaters is, in part, an artificial construct; this rings true to me. She correctly notes that rejecting vegetables for potato chips is “a marketing strategy that doesn’t have to bind us.” Teaching children to eat well can be habit forming. To prove her point she takes her readers to France, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and Sweden where the culture dictates a diet of fresh whole foods, cooking from scratch with seasonal ingredients and taking the time to enjoy eating together. As for the babies—the parents in most of these countries give their little ones the same food as the rest of the family.

I know that cooking from scratch strikes terror in many a parent’s heart. I’m no chef myself, but honestly it’s a lot easier than it seems. I’ve just discovered quinoa, a healthy grain that’s easy to make. Most supermarkets have pre-cut veggies that you can throw in a wok. And for meat eaters like my family, turkey burgers are easy to make and roasting a chicken is simple. As for snacking, I work at home so you can imagine the temptation. The easiest solution is not to buy the chips or the Chex mix in the first place. I’m holding my own for the moment. But I still I keep an emergency stash of chocolate.

As big as food is in a family’s life, Gross-Loh also devotes an entire section of her book to conspicuous consumption or in her descriptive phrase, “The Tyranny of Choice.” She writes:

"Few families in the world are as vulnerable to the desire to buy as American families. Though commercialism is a modern, global phenomenon, it affects American children disproportionately because corporations have benefited from deregulation against marketing directly to children, which began in the 1980s under Ronald Reagan."

At last, an explanation for the genesis of what Gross-Loh calls “the pester-power”—in and of itself a well-honed marketing strategy and the source of much family stress.

As I said in the beginning of this column, there are so many nuggets to mine in this wonderful book. Add it to your collection of parenting books. I promise you that reading Parenting Without Borders will be like spending time with a very understanding and resourceful friend.

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