Parenting Practices in the U.S. and Abroad

In the U.S., there are almost as many approaches to parenting as there are families.

Bedtimes, dinner times, screen time, you name it: some parents are rigid and some are strict.

The same is true for supervision: some parents might let their eight-year-old child ride a bike to a friend’s house several blocks away all by themselves, while other parents never let their kids out of their sight for a second, even at a local playground where they know everyone.

Yet within the wide variety of parenting styles found in the U.S., there are some things Americans just don’t do.

For instance, would American parents leave an infant unattended in a stroller on a busy city sidewalk?

Probably not.

Would American parents allow their toddlers to nap outside in weather close to freezing?

Unlikely.

Would American parents allow a five-year-old child to ride the subway alone to kindergarten?

The vast majority wouldn’t consider it.

Yet parents in countries around the world regularly do all of the above – and think American parents are far too overprotective because of how little freedom we give our kids.

Different Countries, Different Norms

Around 2013, articles began appearing online describing parenting practices that occur with regularity overseas that most Americans would consider irresponsible. Have a look at this article from NPR, this article from The New York Times, and this funny one from Cracked. In fact, more than one of these international parenting habits could get an American dad or mom arrested, and kids taken by child services.

And since these articles began to appear, more than one American parent has been accused of neglect and abandonment for doing things that most parents overseas would think is no big deal.

With regards to parenting, the U.S. is an interesting place. Although there’s great diversity in the way American parents go about raising their children, and we’re a country founded on core ideas of liberty and individual freedom, most Americans parents follow a fairly cautious set of guidelines for raising young kids – meaning under the age of eight – that seem like common sense to us. That in itself is interesting: with various and conflicting points of view about everything under the sun, parenting is one place we find some common ground, though we may not realize it.

Here’s a short list of “young kid dos and don’ts” we think most American parents would agree with:

  1. Young kids should go to bed early – anything after 8 o’clock is considered late
  2. Young kids should not drink alcohol
  3. Young kids should stay inside if it’s too cold out
  4. Young kids should not be left unattended in urban areas
  5. Young kids should be accompanied by adults when they navigate big cities

No matter what part of the U.S. you grew up in or where you live now, it’s likely you agree with at least four out of five of the points above. But believe it or not, for every “should or should not” on the list above, there’s a country or culture where parents not only believe, but also regularly practice exactly the opposite.

One by one, here’s where you’ll find families from other countries breaking our unwritten rules:

  • Early Bedtimes: In Spain, children regularly go to bed around 10:00 pm, which is very late by American standards. Spanish parents say that it’s necessary for children to participate in the social life of the family, which they would completely miss if they went to bed any earlier.
  • Alcohol and Kids: A “Beer Lovers” group in Belgium started a pilot program at a school in when a study revealed that kids preferred soda over water. According to the report, 80% of students chose beer over soda.
  • Kids in the Cold: In Norway, it’s common practice for preschool kids to spend most of the day outside—even during naptime. Parents say sleeping out in the fresh air is good for their health.
  • Infants on the Sidewalk: In Denmark, Sweden, and other countries in Europe, it’s normal for parents to leave children outside restaurants or small grocery stores while they go inside and shop.
  • Kids Riding the Subway: In Japan, kids between the ages of four and seven regularly go out alone, and even ride the subway unsupervised. Parents say that it’s good for kid’s self-confidence and sense of independence.

Celebrate Diversity

Rather than judge the practices of parents around the world, it’s best to see what we can learn from them. Despite how different they seem, each practice can teach us something about ourselves, about our children, and about the way we see the world. Even if American parents never adopt some of the habits of their international counterparts, it’s always a good idea to examine things that are done by rote.

On the list above, there are certainly a couple that are worth considering. While most Americans would agree that drinking alcohol, letting kids go out unsupervised in big cities, and leaving toddlers out on the sidewalk would not be great ideas here in the USA, what harm would it do to let our kids go to bed a little later on occasion, so they can enjoy some extra family time during the evenings, or bundle them up and let them spend some more time outside during the winter? It would probably do no harm at all, and it might just do us some good.