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Parenting Habits Around the World

There are universals when it comes to raising kids: children need enough sleep, food, and nurturing to thrive. But how we deliver those necessities varies depending on your culture.

American parents are highly focused on making sure that their children’s talents are groomed for success.  Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut and a pioneering researcher on parenting and culture, found that nearly 25 percent of all of the descriptors used by American parents were a derivation of “smart,” “gifted” or “advanced.” “Our sense of needing to push children to maximize potential is partly driven by fear of the child failing in an increasingly competitive world where you can’t count on the things that our parents could count on,” Harkness suggests.  In the Netherlands, meanwhile, parents used “smart” to describe their children only 10 percent of the time. Dutch parents believe strongly in not pushing their children too hard. “People would talk about a cousin who got a PhD and was very unhappy because there were no jobs at universities, and said that you shouldn’t teach your child to read before they got to school, because then your child would be bored at school and not have any friends,” says Harkness.


Norwegians believe that it is better for children to be in daycare as toddlers. When a kid turns 1 year old, he or she starts going to Barnehage (Norwegian for “children’s garden”), then they enter school and organized activities.  Regularly scheduled rest, food and a pleasant environment are the top priorities for Dutch parents.

It’s not uncommon to see kids bundled up outside during a Scandinavian winter, taking a nap in their strollers.  In Denmark, writes Hopgood, “children are frequently left outside to get frisk luft, or fresh air — something parents think is essential for health and hearty development — while caregivers dine and shop.” As you might imagine, this idea sends shivers down the spines of many parents in the United States. In New York, a couple (one of whom was Danish) was arrested for leaving their child outside a BBQ restaurant while they went inside to eat. Read more here.

In the Polynesian islands, it’s the kids that take care of kids. Mei-Ling Hopgood writes in her book, How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm, that adults take the lead in caring for babies in Polynesia, but as soon as a child can walk, he or she is turned over to the care of other children. “Preschool-aged children learned to calm babies,” she wrote, “and toddlers became self-reliant because they were taught that that was the only way they could hang out with the big kids.” Jane and James Ritchie, a husband-and-wife anthropology team,here observed a similar phenomenon over decades in New Zealand and the Polynesian Islands. “Indeed in Western societies, the degree of child caretaking that seems to apply in most of Polynesia would probably be regarded as child neglect and viewed with some horror,” they wrote in Growing Up in Polynesia. Read more here.

For the Aka people in central Africa, the male and female roles are virtually interchangeable. The men will strap their infants into slings and take them on elephant hunts, and will even offer a nipple to soothe a fussy baby. While the women hunt, the men mind the children.  According to professor Barry Hewlett, an American anthropologist, “There’s a level of flexibility that’s virtually unknown in our society,” Hewlett told The Guardian. “Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by mothers without a second thought and without, more importantly, any loss of status — there’s no stigma involved in the different jobs.  Read more here.

Global Parenting4


In Japan, it isn’t uncommon for 7-year-olds and even 4-year-olds to independently run errands, take the Toyko subways by themselves, and walk on busy streets alone, just like their Japanese peers.  Both in Japan and Norway, parents are focused on cultivating independence. Children do things alone early, whether it’s walking to school or to the movies. The frames, however, are different. Read more here.

In Scandinavia, there is an emphasis on a democratic relationship between parents and children. In Sweden especially, the “rights” of a child are important. For example, a child has the “right” to access their parents’ bodies for comfort, and therefore should be allowed into their parents’ bed with them in the middle of the night. If a parent doesn’t allow them, they are both denying them their rights and being a neglectful parent. In parts of Asia, meanwhile, co-sleeping with a family member through late childhood is common, but within a family, obedience is key — not democracy. Read more here.

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In Argentina and Spain, family dinner time takes precedence over bed times and sleep routines. Children of all ages from babies to teens stay up late; they are out on the town with parents and extended families and go to dinners that start as late as ten and eleven at night. Spanish families are focused on the social and interpersonal aspects of child development, according to Sara Harkness, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Connecticut. The idea of a child going to bed at 6:30 p.m. is totally alien to Spanish parents, Harkness told TED. “They were horrified at the concept,” she said. “Their kids were going to bed at 10 p.m.” so they could participate in family life in the evenings. The same is true in Argentina, according to Hopgood.  Read more here.

In France, there are very set mealtimes and no snacking whatsoever.  There is an expectation that if you try something enough times, you’ll like it. These are among the “food rules” in France that are taken as given. The result is French kids who eat what adults eat, from foie gras to mussels to stinky cheese.  Read more here.

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In Vietnam and China, mom and dads teach their babies to pee at the sound of a whistle. Parents start by noticing when their baby starts peeing and making a little whistle sound.  In addition, babies wear onesies and pants with large slits in the crotch area so parents can frequently and easily run their kids over to the toilet.  And soon enough, babies start to associate the whistle with peeing and voila!  Researchers say Vietnamese babies are usually out of diapers by 9 months.  Read more here.

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