Expat Parenting Abroad

Parenting abroad is a challenge on many levels, but perhaps the most unexpected is how your basic ideas about safety boundaries are questioned.

American consumers have successfully sued cities and towns into providing safe parks and playgrounds and manufacturers into producing safe products. However, the notion of what is safe and what is not safe is deeply rooted in culture, and expatriates with young families should be aware that their children will be exposed to situations and/or behaviors that most North Americans would consider risky. Although sometimes unsafe situations are solely the result of poverty, many times they are actually just cultural differences in safety perception and methods of child-rearing.

For instance, a group of expatriate moms in Russia was grousing over the lack of safety features for high-rise apartment windows, wondering at the fact that Moscow doesn’t have a high rate of incidences of children falling from windows and balconies. The consensus was that Russia, in general and from a Western point of view, is a hazardous place for kids, with sharp, rusty nails poking out of playground equipment, broken bottles and dog poop everywhere, urine in every elevator, to name just a few of the daily irritations mentioned.

Even in a wealthy country like Sweden, there is a strange mix of safety-consciousness versus extreme trust in children’s instincts. On one hand, for example, Swedes advise keeping kids in rear-facing car seats for four and a half years, creating a safe physical environment. On the other hand, Swedes don’t say “no” to toddlers who are trying to climb, assuming that if you let them go as far as they can at the age of one, they’ll have developed a natural instinct about what they are capable of (learning to understand, in a physical sense, the laws of gravity) before they’re able to climb high enough to get really hurt. Many non-natives are skeptical of this philosophy of exploring limits, but it does seem to be very effective in that the children never seem to fall.

Another example of this concept is with respect to streets and roads, with American mothers chasing their toddlers away from danger while Swedish two-year olds (their mothers placidly supervising nearby) played at the side of the road, but never on the road, somehow already cognitive of the danger (perhaps as Russian children are when around windows). At a playschool in Sweden, kids would play in a small wooded area quite freely, sometimes with adults, sometimes at a fair distance from them. There was a road on the other side of the woods, which wasn’t busy but was a matter of concern to the expatriate mother. When the teacher was asked about it, she said, “Oh, we have a, how do you say it,” and gestured at knee level. “There’s a fence?” the mother asked. “Yes,” she smiled, glad to have found the word, “We have an invisible fence.” She meant “imaginary”. An imaginary fence the kids honored.

A well-known cultural difference in child-rearing is swaddling. Russians and Poles are wary of exposing their children to drafts or cold drinks and ice creams which they believe cause all manner of illness. They speak out when they see kids “underdressed” or walking around without hats. On the other hand, Russians teach their babies to swim very early, often by just getting in the pool with them and letting them go! The little ones instinctively start to paddle and get up to the surface for air, but it’s certainly a “foreign” method of instruction to most of us.

A rather shocking incident was shown on a television documentary about two Japanese children going to buy groceries. The older one was about 4 and the younger one must have been two years old. They walked, caught the train, went to the shop, came home and then made dinner, albeit a rudimentary one, but still! What a level of self-sufficiency – and how very odd to our Western eyes. And isn’t it dangerous? And how is it even possible?

An expatriate parent in Japan confirmed that the kids are very independent there and even 4 year olds will get on the train alone to go to a class. It seems that Japanese parents are extremely busy, mothers taking classes and fathers working long hours, so being at home isn’t family time, it is alone time with the “electronic babysitter”, the TV. Although there’s a lot of scheduling for kids over 6-7, they seem less stressed than their American counterparts, perhaps because it is such a cultural norm to “do” activities.

Conformity is huge in Japan and shame is more about making sure the other guy is okay – not about feeling bad about yourself. For instance, when an expat mom was late picking up her child from school due to a misunderstanding, the teachers apologized to her and her child for not making the time clear. This is a constant thing they do -apologize to others when others err. When one baby didn’t have shoes on, wearing padded slippers instead, the Japanese mothers apologized for not saving their children’s old baby shoes to give to the first baby. These were the most common examples of culturally influenced behavior so different from Western norm: generously overcompensating by giving the items deemed necessary or apologizing for not making an expected action clear. In fact, expatriates learn to be very careful about admiring a possession because the Japanese person would undoubtedly come the next day with a gift!

Children in Japan are similarly consoled instead of corrected. When there’s a playground disagreement over a toy, for instance, the moms apologize to both kids telling one they are sorry there aren’t two toys and telling the other they are sorry he got hit. No one corrects the child who hits or the child who won’t share; generally kids are left to work things. If a child has a tantrum or doesn’t want to leave when it’s time, the mom just goes and either the kid follows in a fury or the mom comes back in a few minutes and carries the kid away while everyone apologizes to each other and the child. As a matter of fact, an American expatriate parent who lived in Japan for two years reported that she had never once seen a child spanked or even yelled at.

Questioning basic concepts is one of the reasons why some people love living abroad, although it can be the very thing that makes adjustment so difficult. Not only are expatriates constantly exposed to ideas and traditions that they might have dismissed outright before living outside their home country, they can also take advantage of their cultural freedom to pick and choose from the potpourri using just those methods that fit and work for their particular family situation.

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