These two books consider the presumably typical U.S. parent, frantic, overly engaged, and anxious, from a cross-cultural perspective.
The Happiest Kids in the World is a first-person account by two mothers married to Dutchmen. The authors are amazed to discover that the ways they were raised—in the U.K. and the U.S.—are not the only ways to bring up happy, independent, and healthy children. They also discover that raising children need not be as exhausting as many parents experience it to be.
The second book, Do Parents Matter?, should actually be titled Do Parenting Styles Matter? Robert A. and Sarah LeVine, a husband and wife research team, take an ethnographic view of parenting. In their brief world tour, they share facts such as these:
- While middle-class American parents agonize about whether to leave their children in day care, many Hausa mothers in Nigeria follow a code of kin avoidance that, among other things, requires evading eye contact with their babies and older offspring. Further, after being weaned at 2 years of age, Hausa toddlers are sent off to live with relatives until the age of 15, at which time they are reunited with their parents.
- In Kenya, Gusii parents react warmly to their babies’ cries of distress but do not respond to infant vocalizations, believing that there is little point in speaking to a baby who cannot talk.
- Many American parents are encouraged to place a newborn in a separate room as soon as possible in order to encourage independence. As a result, exhausted parents may be trekking in and out of the baby’s room for months, until the baby “sleeps through the night,” however that may be defined. Rural people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America and most parents in Japan co-sleep with their children for months and years, with everyone, young and old, getting a better night’s sleep.
And consider a European country, the Netherlands, where parents are less frantic and pressed than American parents.
- In 2013 UNICEF declared Dutch children to have the highest level of well-being among children of 29 nations (U.S. kids ranked 26th). Measures considered included material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors and risks, and housing and environment.
- Research shows that children in the Netherlands are happier than their American counterparts. According to Acosta and Hutchison, they get more sleep, are allowed more freedom and unsupervised play, enjoy regular family meals, are heard by their parents, are subject to little academic stress, and are content with simple playthings.
It is heartening to find out from such disparate sources that there is a range of acceptable child-rearing styles shaped by the social and economic environments in which families live. In the Netherlands, a country whose economic system is similar to that of the U.S., children achieve good mental health with less exhausting, more laid back parenting approaches.
There is an important caveat. Government policies supporting parents are different in the Netherlands and the U.S. The U.S. is the world’s only advanced country that does not mandate paid leave time for its workers, so a quarter of American workers get no paid time off to spend with family. Mothers who give birth in the Netherlands are entitled to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. By contrast U.S. employers are not required to pay employees during maternity leave. There are many Americans who, facing economic pressure, return to their jobs immediately after the birth of a child. If large numbers of American parents wanted to pursue a less pressured form of parenting, government policies might need tweaking.
A small quibble with both titles: While parental behaviors are well documented, the effects on the children are often known only in an impressionistic and general way. Dutch children are described as exuberant, African children as compliant, but are all African children like the groups the LeVines depict? Are all Dutch children similar?
Because they broaden our scope on parenting, both books are highly recommended. A tip: The Happiest Kids in the World is more readable but less scientific than Do Parents Matter?
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Robert A. LeVine, Sarah LeVine
Rina Mae Acosta, Michele Hutchison
*A portion of purchases made via the above links benefits Child’s World America.