The Global Parent: Culture or Nature

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Mei-Ling Hopgood, author of How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and everywhere in between), joins us weekly in February to talk about the "best practices" of parenting around the world. This week: when it comes to basics like sleeping and feeding, where does "nature" end and "culture" begin?


Mei-Ling Hopgood

Comments [38]

rossella from jersey city

I'm Italian, I moved to the US 30 years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. I was astounded at being publicly criticized for taking my kids to dinner at a restaurant at 9pm! or to social adult gatherings! In italy we share our life with our children whenever and wherever is possible. We try to spend as much quality time as possible with them and include them in most family activities, which is part of teaching them to be social, to have nice respectful manners, to learn to interact with adults...Now that my kids are young adults, everyone is always commenting on how well spoken they are, what great manners they have, how responsible they are...How do you tech children to be well rounded adults if you shelter them from adults' life? If you have them in bed by 6pm? Also.. family relations in Italy play such a central role that it's much safer for children to do things that here in the US they can't do, such as being out and about or going shopping or to school by themselves at a very young age, because there is always somebody looking over them anyway, either neighbors, friends, relatives, the neighborhood store owner etc...Obviously everybody needs to use good judgement depending on the situation, but my kids had a much engaging social life when we were spending time in Italy than when they were in the US

Feb. 15 2012 10:58 AM
Machi from NYC from NYC

This is very interesting topic for me as a mother of 5 months old baby girl. I am originally from Japan and living in the US for 10 years. I have some American friends who have babies. Hot topic they talk about right now is how to put the baby in the crib in a separate room. In Japan, babies sleep with their parents on the same bed or futon together. Even if you don't sleep together, baby stays in the same room until at least 2 or 3 years old. I notice "Being Independent" is very important for Americans. I understand it is very important to have good sleep and get the private time for yourself. But I think it is too early to put your 5 or 6 months old baby in a separate room! I would never leave my baby in a separate room at night because I want to make sure she is safe and sleeps ok. I feel it is kinda strange to put monitors around your baby, and go to the baby room every time baby cry. Why don't you sleep together in the same room, so you don't have to go back and forth to the baby's room in the middle of night???

Feb. 05 2012 02:18 PM
Kate from Hudson valley

Most European countries have baby clinics where the mothers go and get their babies checked and hang out with their neighbors for a few minutes. These are free or low cost. I noticed that European mothers use scary threats to get good behaviour like coal in their christmas shoe or shots from the doctor.

Feb. 02 2012 11:46 AM

when i was a little kid in switzerland in the early 50s the swiss were shocked at my wild behavior and were were expelled from one hotel because i rode the elevator unackompanied. i am swiss. however swiss children are amazingly clean and amazingly polite except to other kids. when i was a little kid, swiss village kids were rude to me calling me the rich american monkey. in brazil in the 50s i was amazed that no boys ever entered church. all the men and all the boys pl;ayed football or watched football during the mass. the local stadium was next door and there was one mass on sunday scheduled during the sunday football match. nobody played football after noon. boys wore the barest clothing possible on the beach and in the streets. you did not see girls without their donna. and rarely in any case. in the amazon among first nations boys were stark naked. i was fascinated. in new york city, in the New York Athletic Club swim suits were forbidden in the early 50s in their indoor all male pool but other than that i'd never seen naked boys in public. i never spoke to any kids in brazil in the 50s while we were there. my uncle was beyond rich. his friends didn't bring their families with them anywhere we went. i was generally amazed in brazil at the age of 13 at how beautiful virtually 99% of the young men were. football football football the world's best sport and don't understand the tieing up of football in the USA in organizations and adulthood. football really is the universal sport and a fundamental difference seperating american children from the rest of the world.

Feb. 02 2012 11:25 AM
Norap from Brooklyn

Hi! I was just talking to your operator, but I guess the segment ended while I was on hold!
I was just talking about birthday parties.
We had become very used to a sort of programmatic American-kid birthday party. Two hours, with 10a-12p or 2-4p being the prime spots; some quick play or crafts; possibly some entertainment (especially if you're at a venue, in which case there is built-in entertainment, such as gymnastics or pottery)...; then pizza and cake, with juice boxes. Everyone leaves with a balloon and a goody bag and the birthday kid opens the presents off-line later so there's no opportunity for faux-pas or tears.
Last year my son started kindergarten at our local, VERY diverse, school in Brooklyn, and we had our expectations broadened a bit. Caribbean families in particular have big, casual parties for everyone--family, friends, neighbors, a few kids thrown in for fun--and they go late late late. We have had to leave one party at 9pm, before dinner even officially started, in order to even give a nod to our American bedtime schedule. I think when we left that party they felt sorry for us, and our children who didn't get to stay up late and fall asleep in a chair! :)

Feb. 02 2012 11:09 AM
Bob from Flushing

I'm really tired of seeing yuppie parents coming into bars and other traditionally adult environments with their infants and toddlers strapped to their bodies. It's not healthy and it's not appropriate. When you commit to being a parent you have to make some sacrifices--including going out to the local pub!

It makes me wish they'd allow smoking in bars again. Maybe that would keep them away, but I suspect not. This is a generation that has to have it all.

Feb. 02 2012 11:03 AM
M.E.Cummins from NYC

I am an Australian male who lived in Rome working as a male Nanny for single Italian women, and or families with children who spoke English, had a parents that was English speaking or wanted their children to learn English.

The traditional Australian method of child rearing is based on the English method. The Italian way was very first.

One 5 year old had a pacifier and was spoon-feed, needed her bottom wiped and wanted to be carried. She also stayed up until midnight as her parents got home at 8pm or later. She spent her days at school absolutely exhausted. Her afterschool dance-teacher was the only Italian who believed children should be in bed by 5pm!

Another child, at 5 years of age was allowed to go down to the corner shop, alone, cross the busy road to choose and buy fruit. He was very successful His sister at age 2 was using a sharp knife to cut food when helping cool dinner - the reason was she wasn't strong enough to cut herself.

You could leave your children alone without fear of them being kidnapped. Everyone was part of the family. It was just a very different world to how I was raised, and how we did things back home. And yet there was little to no evidence of the types of abuse that seems prevalent in English speaking countries. Makes you wonder maybe the Italian way was the better way.

The results of this method are indicative in how the adult society functions. Just think about how Italian culture is, how it functions, or not.

I was horrified at 1st. It took me 7 years to get used to it, and see the benefits to this system. Children are revered and respected. As are the elderly. It was a society of respecting the well being of the family.

Feb. 02 2012 11:02 AM
malia from washington heights

My family is Italian American my husband's is Jewish. I was surprised that my Italian American's family custom of taking our kids along to funerals - as just part of of the natural flow of family events such as baptisms, weddings, confirmations, anniversaries- surprised my husband . He went with it and it worked out fine. Our kids have gone to a number of funerals and mercy meals. It's a time of bonding for all of us.

Feb. 02 2012 11:02 AM
Chet from Marlboro, NJ

An Indian Family's kids were taken away in Norway by Social Services because they were feeding the kids with their hands and the one of the kids was sleeping in the same bed with the father. Both of them are common practices in India.

Feb. 02 2012 11:01 AM
MAry from INWOOD!

What interests me --- the emphasis different cultures place on how (and how much) time families spend together --- could your guest comment? Thanks

Feb. 02 2012 11:00 AM
Johan from Manhattan

Maybe this is a different topic, but coming from Holland I was mostly surprised to see how few parents opt for giving birth at home. It's all about insurance and less about the unique, intimate experience of birth.
Oh, yes, and then there is the straight-jacket for babies: swaddling!
What would Freud have said about that?

Feb. 02 2012 10:59 AM
Susan from Upper West Side

For Mei Ling, I am actually seeing babies who are failing to thrive because parents are FORCING their babies to sleep 12 hours at a stretch and then these babies cannot eat enough during the remaining 12 hours. Newborns and infants under six months of age really need to eat frequently. I've been seeing more and more of these cases over the last five years.

Feb. 02 2012 10:59 AM
Isa Kocher from ikitelli, istanbul. turkey

absolutely the worst i ever experienced was in turkey, the encouragement by parents of the children's torturing cats dogs and other animals, especially things like throwing rocks at cats for fun, and using toy guns with painful projectiles. also i am 68 years old and last week at carrefour a 10 year old grabbed and repeatedly yanked my shopping cart and i barely can walk. 100% disabled usa vet. the mother was shocked i complained to the kid and began to yank me around too. the father says quote: "she's only a kid!" and i said she's a kid and you're a full grown adult parent. control your kid. can't you see i am disabled. the degree to which turkish parents encourage and teach racism chauvinism and just plain hatred. something tourists never see. kids in turkey show no qualms at calling me dirty foreign and heathen. i never anywhere else saw urban children peeing in public on the sidewalk where they play. it's an underside of turkey no one ever speaks of. cruelty to the poor the disabled and the elderly. and ugly racism in public i've never seen anywhere else in the 40 odd countries i've been to.

Feb. 02 2012 10:59 AM
The Truth from Becky

I can only think og one culture here in the US where children "over run" their parents.

Feb. 02 2012 10:58 AM
Pamela from NYC

It's important not to take specific behaviors out of the overall culture. One of the first things that struck me when on an extended visit to Buenos Aires was that although children were everywhere at all hours, I never once saw the kind of meltdown that we see routinely in the States. There was never a sense of parent-child power struggle.

Feb. 02 2012 10:58 AM

As a new parent, I thought my lesson was never to judge others.

However, as the kids grow up, you realize you need to sort through how you feel about other folks' parenting because these children become your children's' friends & influences.

Also, one of the easiest ways to make your own parenting decisions is to think of what others, such as your parents or peers have done -- and then do the opposite!

Feb. 02 2012 10:58 AM

Friends visiting NY for an extended period from France were surprised to see how often parents in NY declined to get together for casual in-home gatherings because they couldn't get or didn't want to get a babysitter. He told us that in his experience in France parents would just bring their kids to the house party and put all the babies together. I'm not sure if this is more a NY thing that doesn't happen in the suburbs where you hang out with neighbors more often.

Feb. 02 2012 10:56 AM
Robert from RBC

I grew up in the US in Italian-American family and as kids we ate what our parents ate. We ate all vegetables, ALL vegetables including artichokes and my non-Italian friends didn't know what the hell they were. We had lambs head at grandpa's house (with the eyes) fish served with the heads and tails. So we and most of our "paesani" were strange to our friends. We stank too because we probably had the scent of garlic in our clothes even though garlic was in no way used as much or in the quantities I see it used today by even "i bianchi" the whites (non-italians)! So as kids we were an oddity growing up in the 50s in the Bronx out of our hood!

Feb. 02 2012 10:55 AM

In Israel there is a clear rule that a baby should not be seated before they seat on there on. A baby supposed to be lying flat. No umbrella stroller until much later.
We sent a picture of our baby to relatives and everybody sent us angry massages- it looks as if she is sitting!
+ the most popular baby food "Bamba" is based on peanuts.
Babies are all given vitamins a and d and iron. In playgrounds parents try to not interfere unless there dangerous valance.

Feb. 02 2012 10:55 AM

I've heard American babies spend more years in diapers than other cultures. What did you learn about toilet training - especially back through history.

Feb. 02 2012 10:54 AM
Matthew from New York

I am American and my wife is French. We always fed our kids, even in infancy, portions of our own meals. Until they had teeth, we would grind our food with a baby food grinder. We firmly believed that there was no reason that babies cannot eat the same food that we are eating and because of our persistence, to this day our kids will eat just about anything put in front of them on the table. I do believe that my wife's culture and love of food in general has played a large part in this decision, but I am very thankful that we did this. I think that limiting a baby's taste buds to bland food only sets them up to becoming finicky eaters in the future.

Feb. 02 2012 10:54 AM
FLA from Crown Hghts

For some reason the Lubavitch in NYC teach their kids to be totally respectful and friendly to adults, strangers and familiar alike. Not prepared to judge the rest of their believe system -- but the wonderful, fuller way these kids fit into their communities was a breath of fresh air.

Seeing this turned my way of viewing how childhood can be, on its head. Probably other close knits groups are like this too.

Feb. 02 2012 10:53 AM
Anna from Forest Hills, NY

As a European, I was shocked when I saw children doing their homework on the floor at the locker room of YMCA, while parents were using the gym.

Feb. 02 2012 10:53 AM
carolita from NYC

In other countries children don't overrun their parents like they do here. They don't let their children wake them up at 5am, or keep them from arriving at dinner on time by acting up before they are left with a sitter. They control their children without self-indulgence, and don't let them wander around restaurants bothering people, or wander around parks jumping on other people's dogs, then wondering why their kids get bitten...

Feb. 02 2012 10:53 AM
Gaby from Jackson Heights

I find it strange that in America people don't bring their children to parties or weddings. It is not the case in Argentina.

Feb. 02 2012 10:53 AM
Bernard from Bronx

You didn't have to go to France to find out that kids eat the same food that their parents eat. Right here in America, my kids have always eaten what we ate.

Feb. 02 2012 10:52 AM
MARTIN from tribeca

my parents are Estonian and imigrated to Canada. when my brother and i were babies in the winter we would bundled up and put in the carage and left out side in the back yard for a while in the freezing cold weather. the thinking was that this strenghtend your lungs.

Feb. 02 2012 10:51 AM
Zen from South Salem

I have never been to Argentina, but am wondering if becuase of its geographic location they have different daylight, or sunlight exposeres than we here in the US have. If their days are light longer that may be a logical reason for the shift in schedules. If that is indeed the case then it would be foolish to give any consideration to altering our scedules because another culture does it that way unless we have the same hours of sunup and sundown

Feb. 02 2012 10:51 AM
Susan from Upper West Side

In response to Phoebe -- MOST mothers I see in the NYC area swaddle their babies -- sometimes too much. If they are swaddled too much they don't eat enough. Some babies don't like swaddling. It is one of those parenting practices that goes in and out of favor probably because babies are different.

Feb. 02 2012 10:50 AM
denise Maher from dumbo

When i traveled with a 6-week old from NYC to Montreal, I was pleasantly surprised to find how much more accommodating the Canadian people and government were to parents traveling with small children. I was whisked to the front of all lines, including customs, at the airport, driven via cart to get my luggage, and found that even men's rooms had baby changing stations. So much more civilized!


as a feminist the word natural feels odd to me in this discussion

Feb. 02 2012 10:50 AM
Nick from UWS

Another thing about the French is that they are one of the least religious cultures in the world. They don't force upon or frighten their children with scary hocus pocus and voodoo nonsense.

Feb. 02 2012 10:49 AM
Xtina from E. Village

This has nothing to do with attitudes about child rearing, it speaks to the differences in adult society between the Danish population and America. Danish ADULTS would never dream of kidnapping a child off the street. America's streets are not safe for children. People horrified by this woman's behavior should cast their judgement to why it's not safe to leave your stroller on the sidewalk, not blame her.

Feb. 02 2012 10:48 AM

I was shocked to see that it is normal for Vietnamese have their kids potty trained within the first few months! The inventor of the "Pull Up" would probably have a heart attack.

Feb. 02 2012 10:48 AM
John A. from Westchestaa

I had a neighbor leave his SUV running in the driveway for 45 minutes or more because he didn't want to wake his baby to bring him indoors. Didn't know what to say to him except nothing.

Feb. 02 2012 10:47 AM
susan from Upper West Side

Since I work with babies all the time, I always recommend Our Babies Ourselves by Meredith Small to parents so that they can feel liberated from some of the culturally based "rules". When I was reading the chapter on sleep, I was visiting friends -- on of whom was Dutch. If I remember correctly, babies from the Kung! tribe never cry and sleep an hour less than American babies and Dutch babies sleep an hour more. Independently, my Dutch friend started commenting on how all the ills of American children were from lack of sleep! I have spent many years in developing areas so I threw out all the books that people offered to me and basically adopted what felt right to me. Parents really should respond to their own infants needs and create something that works for them.

Feb. 02 2012 10:46 AM
Phoebe from Bushwick

Why don't Americans swaddle their children?

Feb. 02 2012 10:44 AM
Leah from South Harlem

I noticed the following while staying with a poor (and proud and artistically accomplished) extended family in North India: No adults were shushed, and no adults even tried to conduct quiet conversations, around a sleeping newborn.

This did not seem to upset or disrupt the sleep of the baby. The baby slept just fine.

I was a bit shocked by this at first, but quickly appreciated how nice it was to be un-dominated by a baby's sleeping schedule.

I should add that the newborn received unending attention from the family.

Feb. 02 2012 10:42 AM
Or Plain Ignant

is it universally accepted that the first goal/responsibility of a parent is to make sure the kid doesn't die? If so, wouldn't the best practices of "parenting basics" be universally defined as the practices proven to cause the least number of deaths per 100 kids?

Seems obvious but anybody living in a multicultural environment, especially among many immigrants, quickly realizes that the "American" way of talking care of kids must strike many as incredibly risk-adverse, health-consious and overly-respectful.

Keep in mind that lots parents out there think it is absolutely normal to leave your 4 year old at home by his or herself, or lock them in a car for 10 minutes or more while they run an errand. If they get in trouble or make the paper they are outraged! Others see this as common sense -- for me it strikes the classic culture clash bell.

Regarding feeding, as the guest probably knows, one of the UNDP's biggest campaigns has been to get people to feed their kids more than just rice gruel, since malnourishment of the brain in the first three years is attributed to some of the most dangerous behaviors found on roadways, from risky driving to mindless pedestrian behavior, leading to thousands of accidents and deaths each year. Is such behavior nature, or culture?

Feb. 02 2012 09:57 AM

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