We think of parenting as something that takes place within the 4 walls of our homes. However, the way we raise our children is influenced by many factors that we often fail to see in our busy lives when simply trying to bathe, feed, and educate our kids.
Children in Germany used to take a bath only once a month? “Oh, it must be a cultural thing,” one could say. But that begs the question of what culture is and how it influences our parenting methods.
Being a South African, I grew up in eternal summer, running around the farm barefoot. As I grew older, I thought, “Wow, my parents left me out there exposed to the elements. What if something happened to me?” We live in a crime-ridden country, and while safe within the limits of the farm gate, we were conditioned to be independent at a very young age. We are taught that life is unfair; it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and only the fittest survive.
I have lived in several countries and enjoyed the privilege of having first-hand nanny experience in private households. After witnessing vastly different parenting methods, I started to ask myself why that is so. Why is dating unheard of in the Middle East? Why can Russian children recite 100-year-old poetry by heart before their 3rd birthday?
In the Middle East, with temperatures soaring into the high 40°C (104°F) for most of the year, children’s playdates don’t start until 4 pm. In Russia, families live in small apartments with no garden or even a balcony, so going outside, even in freezing temperatures, is very important for keeping children physically active. It’s an exercise that requires 20 minutes of dressing just to leave the house. Still, when kids in colder climates don’t have the freedom to run around outside, as I did when I was young, parents plan their activities around outdoor adventures because this is no longer a given.
Why do we succumb to the parenting methods that are accepted in a community or a society? Is it because this was the only exposure we had growing up? In this article, you’ll learn that various factors, more significant than we realize, have developed over the years and influence how parents raise their children in different countries.
Research in the western world emphasizes how much parenting has changed in the last centuries, how different cultures have evolved, and why. There are a number of articles in support of holding your baby and the benefits of physical contact. Others argue that a baby should be separated from their mother more regularly to foster a sense of independence.
For me, the creation of the stroller is possibly the greatest invention yet. While I enjoy having the kids as close to me as possible and smothering them with kisses and hugs, there comes a point when they simply become too heavy to haul around on my hip.
In Soviet Russia, most families lived in one bedroom (often sharing beds) in an apartment shared with other families they either knew…or didn’t know. Needless to say, privacy didn’t exist, but it wasn’t important. One bathroom and kitchen were often the communal grounds for 2 or even 3 different families living under the same roof. The western notion of each child having their own room, never mind their own bed, was quite far-fetched. The idea was that parents were to raise their kids in the spirit of the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism.
Despite often being raised by grandparents (which, I learned, isn’t viewed as an honor or privilege but more as an obligation), children were not spoiled. They spent their summers working in the vegetable garden, sewing, cooking, or doing some other work, all in the name of a fair and equal social organization. Clearly, this not-so-distant history played a significant role in how Russian parents raised their children.
Individualism and creativity were neither supported nor encouraged. If you swam upstream for whatever reason, you were quickly pulled back and put in your place. Parents conformed and raised their children to believe this was the right way of living. They didn’t have to worry about where school fees would come from or how they would pay their medical bills as this was all state-funded. It also limited the number of choices you had. Children growing up in this environment were led to believe that they didn’t need a choice because what the government provided was unquestionably the best.
Long before formal schooling systems were introduced in African countries, nomadic tribes and hunter-gatherer families lived a life very different from the western model. It wasn’t only about transferring life skills from the older to the younger tribe members but also about survival skills. In an environment where you live off the land and often move from place to place based on the vegetation and hunting possibilities, culture shapes you through the thousands of years of skills passed down from generation to generation.
When trying to understand this from a western point of view, I get palpitations just thinking about a small child roaming the wide outdoors alone…with a machete! This is a culture where time is not a mathematical construct but one associated with the natural rhythm of the universe. The natural rhythm is incorporated in teaching children as young as 3 how to find edible plants, harvest them with a machete, and walk many miles home to deliver them to their parents. It’s simply not a foreign concept in this culture. Parents don’t interfere unnecessarily, and independence and group learning are encouraged from a very young age to survive and excel at acquiring essential life skills to eventually share and pass on to other members of the group or their offspring.
Religion and the politics surrounding it
Religion is something we all view as an option until suddenly it isn’t. Saudi Arabia experiences what Westerners refer to as religious oppression. If you have never lived in a remotely similar environment, it’s almost impossible to imagine. Practicing openly any faith other than Islam is against the law. Should you find yourself raising your children there as Christian, wouldn’t that be somewhat challenging?
Yet nearly 35 million people raise their families in this way out of fear of rejection by society. What they were taught about washing and praying 5 times a day, reciting scripture, and fasting during Ramadan was passed onto them by their parents, who were taught these things by their parents, and so it has been for generations. What happens when one decides they no longer wish to conform to this way of life? It seems they might hit a wall as there are religious laws to prevent citizens from going astray. How would you imagine this playing a role in the way a Saudi mother raises her children?
Due to the strict religious beliefs, gender segregation is enforced, and a woman who seeks her independence after high school but remains unmarried risks tarnishing the family name forever. Women stay home and help their mothers until a suitable match has been found, and the daughters of the house can be wed. Women who rebel against the system are shunned by their family and peers, so as a parent and, specifically, a mother, how would you approach parenting in this culture?
Whether we realize it or want to admit it, parenting across borders is sometimes influenced by a higher power. We would like to believe that how we raise our children is entirely up to us, but is it? At home, on a smaller scale, it is indeed up to us to raise well-rounded individuals, but we are often oblivious to the impact of the global environment we exist in.
Financial stability in households
When you are born into a poor society like Yemen, Afghanistan, or Zimbabwe, working your way out is much more complex than that of a child born in Switzerland, Norway, or the United States. Your options are fewer, and the need to survive overrides the demand for luxury.
While getting an education in a developing country is as important as in a stable economy, the Swiss child may have possibilities presented to him by loving parents to expand in any field he chooses. The parents from Yemen would like to send their child to school to at least acquire literacy, but they fear even that may be impossible. According to research, high-income parents talk with their school-aged children 3 hours more per week than low-income parents.
While these examples seem extreme, I believe parents can only do so much until war or political unrest places a hurdle in their path. The child from the wealthy country simply has a greater chance of turning into the next Maya Angelou. Less advantaged parents struggle to make a living and often lack a partner to help build better lives for the family. Less money typically means more stress, anxiety, tough neighborhoods with poor living conditions, and fewer choices.
The well educating of our children is so much the duty and concern of parents, and the welfare and prosperity of the nation so much depends on it.
— John Locke, 1693.
Dating culture and sex
Under the leadership of Angela Merkle, the Germans have enjoyed religious freedom and freedom of speech, and while same-sex marriages aren’t approved nationwide, sexual freedom exists to a degree. Boys and girls receive unbiased sex education from the age of 5 at school. In addition, they aren’t discouraged from exploring their sexuality; in fact, condoms are distributed for free in most high schools, and teens start becoming sexually active as early as age 14.
It’s safe to say that countries such as Saudi Arabia are not in favor of sex education or these type of practices. Imagine a beautiful young Arabian girl who joins a study program in Germany and falls in love with a decent, well-educated boy. It won’t surprise me if their relationship fails to take off or crumbles halfway through.
Are the parents at fault for the way this relationship dissolved? Certainly not. Cultural circumstances didn’t provide the glue for that union to work. It’s not because of day-to-day parenting in the household but because of the impact of different cultures.
I have merely scratched the surface of what culture means to families in different countries and how it came to be in the first place. The way people parent across cultures will never cease to evolve as long as the human race exists.