Some Thoughts on Parenting…
Trolling around my News Feed on Facebook I read this tidbit of wisdom:
Behind every great kid is a mom who’s pretty sure she’s screwing it up.
It’s true, isn’t it? We stress about giving our kids too much structure or not enough. We wonder…are we’re fostering our child’s latent talents, emotional intelligence and independence?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from raising kids in five different countries, (including my own), it’s that there’s no one “right” way to parent. There are variables and there are outcomes, but what we believe to be correct is a product of our cultural perspective.
Not too long ago I read two blogs from two different moms, each of which had multiple “shares” on Facebook. One urged moms to put away their cell phones at the park and pay attention to their precious child. The other asked people to “back off,” and give park moms a freaking break so for five minutes they could tune into something besides their attention seeking kid.
Both arguments had their merits.
I had to chuckle a little, remembering what it was like to live in Greece, our first overseas post so many years ago in 1999. Back then I had two kids and was a young mom. I wore denim and sneakers and made regular outings to the park with my boys where we would hang out in the sandbox. It never failed, during those excursions, that someone would ask me, “Are you their nanny?”
The other moms were not in the sandbox; they were in heels and dress slacks sitting at café tables, drinking lattes and socializing with friends. (Had iphones been around you can be sure they would have been texting.) The question is: were those kids left to play on their own, suffering in some way? Was it okay for mom’s attention to be elsewhere?
The answer to this and all your other parenting questions is: It depends on what country you are from.
Moving to Sweden, I discovered that during the week I was the only mom at the park. Childcare is free in Sweden. Yes free. When a child is born, moms and dads have eighteen months shared maternity and paternity leave. They’re paid to stay home. When their leave is up, they can either have another child and take more leave, or put their eighteen month old in child care and go back to work, knowing if their child ever needs them, they have up to 100 days per year to take sick leave. (It’s a beautiful thing.)
As an American diplomat, we pay for Maggie’s childcare. At first, I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what I was paying for. Aside from the delicious food she was eating at lunch, I didn’t see where she was being taught anything. She was just having fun, playing! She was encouraged to explore and allowed to choose each morning what activity she wanted to do. (Never mind what I wanted her to do—learn her letters and numbers.)
But over time, I came to value what the school did emphasize: outdoor play (rain or shine, snow or ice), the kids dress warm and go outside to play. (This alone ensures I will never be a teacher in Sweden, brrr…) The school yard, mind you, is not some flat piece of land. Sweden is rocky country with steep slopes and plenty of hills to climb on—nature’s play equipment. The kids do wear helmets when it’s icy if they want to sled, but otherwise, Swedes believe kids should be left to explore on their own, climb as high as they want to and fall if they have to, so as to learn their limits.
Ellen Hansen Sandseter, a psychologist in Norway, has been researching the way children play at parks for thirteen years. The following is an excerpt, regarding Sandseter’s research, from the book, Parenting Without Borders, by Christine Gross-loh.
“Children naturally seek exhilarating risky play, such as exploring heights, experiencing high speeds, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements such as fire or water, doing rough-and-tumble play and wandering far away from their caregivers. Kids evolved to be drawn to risky play because of how it exposes them to physical challenges, and then ‘habituates’ them to their fears. Kids get used to and learn how to manage their fears a little at a time by seeking out risky experiences that push their personal boundaries just a bit. Kids are driven to these behaviors because it’s almost like a natural form of cognitive therapy—helping them to get used to and overcome their anxieties.”
Put that way, I suppose letters and numbers take a back seat to getting a grip on life’s fears and anxieties. Who knew play could be so important?
Finding the right balance is one of the toughest things parents do. The other is trusting in our instincts. Knowing there are parents around the world, everyday, raising children different from you, should bring some measure of comfort.
A quick shout out to my dear friend and fellow expat Lisa Kessler, who sent me the book, Parenting Without Borders. We became friends in 2001 when we both lived in Austria. She had three kids, older than mine, and had lived in several more countries, adopting what I call, a relaxed but involved approach to parenting. (She was a “cool mom” and still is.) She’s been a valuable friend and mentor over the years, (as moms, we need those), helping me see that when we open ourselves up to the world around us, chances are we can find the answers to what we’re searching for…just not always in the places we were looking.