Sunday, May 5, 2013

Cross-Cultural Parenting

Parenting in another country can have it's challenges, particularly in a culture where criticism is a primary form of showing concern.  While we get lots of comments about how pretty Juliana is (fair skin and blue eyes are a big hit), we also get lots of comments about our bad parenting.  "Your baby is less than 3 months old and is OUTSIDE?  Are you trying to kill her?  Quick, go home!"  "Only two layers of clothing?  Aiya!  Where is her giant quilt?  She's going to catch a cold and die!"  "Is that cold milk she is drinking?  That will kill her for sure!"  With our crazy parenting, it's really amazing Juliana has lasted this long. :)  Now that I am used to it and understand it more, the comments don't usually bother me too much, though we all have our less-than-awesome parenting days when it would be really nice if someone would say, "She's wearing the exact right amount of clothes!  Good job!"

One of the great things about parenting in another culture, though, is the perspective.  We freak out about a lot of parenting things in America and constantly search for The Right Method.  But when you realize a billion people are doing things completely differently, it does make you think.

For example, co-sleeping certainly happens in America, probably more often than people admit, but it's still a taboo issue.  Even setting aside safety concerns, the social aspect is often viewed as a little "out there."  When I told people Juliana slept in our bed about half the time for the first year, they tended to look skeptical or scandalized.  "You will never get her out of your bed!  How will she ever learn to sleep on her own?  She's way too dependent on you!" 

On the other hand, when Chinese people found out that Juliana started sleeping in her own bed in a different room at just 1 year old, they were equally skeptical or scandalized.  "What if she needed you?  Wasn't she scared and lonely?  How did you ever get her to sleep by herself?  What if she kicked off her blanket during the night and DIED of cold??"  Chinese babies almost always sleep with their parents, usually until they are a toddler or preschooler.  Kevin's teacher still slept with her 5 year old twins (and was understandably a bit jealous of our sleeping arrangements).  The concept of making babies independent or self reliant is completely foreign. 

When Juliana was still waking up constantly during the night at 6 months and a year old, I felt like it was unreasonable - why wouldn't she sleep??  Many Americans expect their babies to start sleeping through the night as early as 3 or 4 months.  When I told Chinese friends that Juliana was still waking up during the night at a year old, they looked like they didn't understand the problem. "Of course she is!  That's what babies do."  The cultural expectations are completely different.

Another obvious area of difference is in potty training.  We have recently been working on potty training with Juliana, now 2.5, a pretty average time for an American child.  The average Chinese child, however, starts potty training closer to 3 months of age.  This practice is similar to what we call Elimination Communication (EC) or infant potty training in the States (although it's likely you've never heard the term if you don't operate in natural parenting circles).  The parents or caretakers look for signs that the baby is ready to do his business - squirming or grimacing, for example - then holds the baby over the toilet, a pot, or pretty much anywhere outside.  The baby learns to recognize their whistle as a sign that it's time to go.  Once babies reach toddlerhood, they squat down on their own or with some help from parents.  Split-pants make for easy potty access. 

Some Chinese parents use diapers at night or occasionally when going out, but it is still very rare to see a diapered baby.  In fact, diapering your baby is mostly viewed as a sign of laziness. People have been expressing surprise and disapproval at Juliana's diapers since she before she was a year old.

When I first moved to China, split pants instead of diapers seemed backward.  We in the US are certainly more advanced than that!  I still have some issues with it, like seeing a bare baby bottom sitting atop the table where you are about to eat is a little disconcerting, and I do wish people would move their baby directly out of the doorway before having them pee.  But as time has gone on, and especially as we have begun the potty training process ourselves, I have started to think the Chinese (and really the majority of the world) have something here.  No doubt they look at American toddlers still in diapers at 3 years and think, "Man, we are certainly more advanced than that!"

Not to say that I judge parents whose toddlers are still in diapers at 3 or after.  I truly don't.  I really do think a lot of kids aren't ready until then.  But I think the biggest reason is our whole system isn't designed to prepare kids for potty training early.  Many American doctors say that children don't physically have any kind of control until at least 18 months, which seems ridiculous when I look at 6 month old Chinese babies who obviously do have a measure of control.  I think it has more to do with our cultural ideas of what potty training means and when it is done.  I have read that the US actually potty-trains later than anywhere else in the world, and that potty training has become a lot later since the use of disposable diapers.

I'm not saying we should all ditch diapers - that's obviously not going to happen for many reasons.   One big reason is that diapers are convenient.  It's difficult to pay attention to your baby's potty cues all the time, and it requires a lot of individual attention.  We did a little EC with Juliana starting at 5 months, but only a very part-time.  She would use the potty when she woke up, after nap, or sometimes at diaper changes, but we never did much more than that.  I'd like to do a little more with the next baby, but we'll see.  I will be even more busy with a preschooler running around too, but we will be using cloth diapers next time, so there will be a little extra motivation of saving on diaper laundry.

Diaperless babies have gotten a good deal of press lately though from the New York Times, Slate, and NPR - articles that discuss a growing (though still very small) minority that use EC.  I think if Americans are still squeamish about breastfeeding in public, we aren't likely going to be ready for bare-bottomed babies.  And I'd rather we work on getting over our Victorian-era breastfeeding issues first.  Whether negative or positive, the general attitude of the articles seems to be, "hey, listen to this crazy thing people are doing now!"  Which is kind of funny to me since everytime I step outside I see diaperless babies.

I think that's what I like about cross-cultural parenting.  You realize that a lot of ideas that seem crazy or radical in America are just the norm elsewhere.  It doesn't mean that everyone else is right and we are wrong (I do get a little tired of hearing about the French and their perfect parenting methods...), and it doesn't mean that we are advanced and everyone else is backward (I get really tired of hearing that attitude!) it just means that just maybe there are a lot of different "normal" ways to parent. 


Leslie Anne said...

Love this article! Knowing that people in other countries do things differently somehow makes me feel so much better about myself. Have you seen the documentary called Babies? It follows babies from four different countries their first year of life. It makes me feel better about Elijah licking the kitchen floor when I see those African babies hanging out in the dirt. Thanks for posting:-)

Matt, Stacey, Lily and Sofia said...

I don't understand HOW so much of what you're sharing is EXACTLY what we experience in such a different culture in Haiti, but I've got at least four "YES, THANK YOU!s" to throw in there. #1: cold factor. EVERYONE in Haiti told me constantly until the girls were over a year old that the girls needed to be wearing far more layers, blankets, socks, caps, stay under a blanket, never be in the fresh air...and we're in the Caribbean! And NOT co-sleeping has been perceived as downright cruel and uncaring...we hide the fact our girls sleep in their own bed/crib from everyone we can :) You've got the right perspective,'ve gotta see it as loving concern, or it'll drive you nuts....

Our best story/worst story was the day a group of MEN I'd never met came over to where I was trying to discreetly breastfeed our first to show me all the ways I was doing it wrong. Wow :) Love following you! Stace