4 Surprising Things About Parenting in the U.S. –
Moving to the United States from another country brings changes and challenges of all kinds. Some changes are things people might expect, such as hearing a new language, trying new foods, and discovering new places. Others take time to recognize, and it’s these differences that are often most significant—and hard to accept. They often involve basic cultural values, beliefs, and hopes for the future that are passed from generation to generation.
Beliefs about parenting certainly fall into this category. For many relocating families, realizing that their new neighbors have very different views about the best way to raise children comes as quite a shock! Here are four surprising differences people discover about parenting in the U.S.:
One surprise for many who move to the U.S. is the wide variety of food options, preferences, and opinions about meals. These new options can be exciting and energizing, but they can also be a source of stress for families. Even basic beliefs, such as which daily meal is most important or which foods are standard, can suddenly become complex cultural differences.
In some cultures, for example, breakfast is always a hot, prepared meal, such as porridge, soup, or rice. Because of the time and energy such meals require, breakfast serves as a ritual way to show care for your family at the start of each day. In contrast, the cold, sugary cereal and pre-made snacks that some American kids eat for breakfast can create a very negative impression. It may seem that these kids’ parents are failing in their responsibilities as caregivers.
The cold, sugary cereal and pre-made snacks that some American kids eat for breakfast can create a very negative impression.
Dinners, too, can be a source of cultural differences. While many American families do take time to share dinner together, for others this can be a rushed meal squeezed between sport activities and after-school jobs. Eating dinner on the couch in front of the television, which would be unheard of in some countries, is also fairly common in the U.S. Once again, this casual approach can feel like a lack of care and intention. It can be easy to feel judgmental towards the parents of such families.
While there is some truth in the opinion that many American families don’t value their mealtimes enough, it is also helpful to recognize that parenting in the U.S. involves finding a balance between many competing values.
For example, the reason breakfast is rushed may be because parents are balancing kids’ need to get ready for school with their need to get a good night’s sleep. After-school activities and part-time jobs too are traditional ways that some American kids get ready to take on adult responsibilities, or improve their educational opportunities. When schedules conflict, families have to make sacrifices based on what they believe is most necessary at the time.
2. Safety Concerns
Parents in the U.S. may have a casual attitude towards mealtimes, but when it comes to child safety, many make a surprising move to the other extreme. Although not every parent in the U.S. is a ‘helicopter parent’—always hovering around to protect their child from every possible danger—Americans generally express a high degree of concern for their kids’ safety.
In fact, an entire industry in the U.S. is built on the idea of ‘babyproofing’ your home: Parents place padded foam corners on tables and other hard surfaces, put gates across stairways, cover electrical outlets, and place all valuable objects out of reach to remove possible sources of danger.
While some babyproofing practices are very important for safety, others can look somewhat ridiculous when you come from a culture that sees things differently. For some cultures, an important part of growing up is learning to respect the adult world around you. Babyproofing can feel like the kids are in charge of the home rather than the adults.
“Before I came here, I had never heard of babyproofing! Now I’m constantly worried about my daughter hurting herself…”
However, the opposite reaction can also take place: After arriving in the U.S., some parents dive head-first into the child safety culture. As one mom from Romania put it, “Before I came here, I had never heard of babyproofing! Now I’m constantly worried about my daughter hurting herself, but my mom and friends from home just laugh at me and my obsession that bookshelves might fall.”
Attitudes towards strangers is another area of difference regarding safety. American parents of today were taught when they were young to beware of ‘stranger danger’ and have passed that cautious attitude on to their own kids. Sometimes such caution is necessary, but it can also go too far.
In some places in the world, it is common for young school children to walk to school unsupervised, or even take public transportation alone. This practice can work in some parts of the U.S. as well, but for families that arrived recently, it’s a good idea to take some time observing the patterns of other families in order to recognize any genuine hidden risks.
Child safety is a great example of an area where different places in the world express their values in different ways. While some cultures show love through preparing a hot, home-cooked meal for the family, others try to show love by spending time and money reducing possible danger. People from both backgrounds could learn something from others who have a different perspective on such issues.
3. School Involvement
People who move to the U.S. may be surprised by all the ways that American schools invite parents to participate. Many schools actively encourage parents to sign up as classroom helpers, supervisors for recess and lunchtime, and chaperones for activities and field trips. In addition, Parent-Teacher Associations might ask parents to give financially toward school projects.
Being a volunteer is a great way for parents to grow their own skills and expand their circle of friendships.
For people coming from other cultures, all these invitations to be involved can feel like a lot of pressure. Oftentimes in other countries, parents do not interact with their kids’ schools in day-to-day activities. Additionally, when English is not someone’s first language, trying to help in the classroom or on the playground can feel stressful and intimidating. Personal requests for money, too, can feel very unpleasant when you believe the financial needs of schools should be fully supplied by the government.
While many Americans would agree that the system for school funding is not adequate, at the same time all these needs give parents greater opportunities to spend time with their kids and to learn about the education system first-hand. Studies show that children whose parents are active in their educational life tend to get better grades and feel more positively towards learning.
Being a volunteer is also a great way for parents to grow their own skills and expand their circle of friendships. However, every parent has the right to decide for themselves what level of involvement makes sense for their situation.
4. Bedtime Routines
Another thing that people who move to the U.S. can find surprising is the huge number of philosophies and strategies that parents have towards kids’ sleeping. Many are shocked to learn that some American parents expect their newborns to sleep in a separate bedroom, or that they may choose not to respond every time that the baby cries. For families with older kids too, the rules about bedtime can appear to be overly strict for some, or too flexible for others.
For example, for people coming from a culture in which staying up late is normal, the approaches Americans take towards bedtime may feel very restrictive. When their own children are still playing outdoors while other neighborhood kids are getting ready for bed, these parents might feel pressured to choose between maintaining their own lifestyle and the need to fit in. It’s important to recognize, though, that there is no one right approach to topics such as this, and every family must find its own best rhythm.
Likewise, some cultures expect that children will sleep in their parents’ room for the first several years of life, or even their parents’ bed (with appropriate safety precautions). There are plusses and minuses to any approach: for some families, having kids sleep in their own separate rooms gives children a good sense of independence and also reduces stress for the parents, who can enjoy their own space. For others, personal and practical reasons make sharing a room the best option.
Another area to be prepared for with older elementary kids is the ‘sleepover invitation.’ Having a game plan ahead of time is helpful, because the invitations often appear without warning: “Mom, Sara says she’s having a sleepover at her house on Friday night. Can I go? Please??“
Reactions to this opportunity can reveal another area of cultural difference: for some parents, the thought of their kids sleeping under someone else’s roof is anxiety-provoking, while others embrace it wholeheartedly. Factors to keep in mind are the level of trust toward the inviting child’s parents, the nature of the kids’ relationship (compatibility of age, personality, and interests), being comfortable with the activities that will take place, and knowing who else may be present.
It may take some back-and-forth conversation with the other parents to arrive at a decision, but saying yes to sleepovers with a few well-known families can be great for everyone’s social development—parent and child alike.
Moving to a new place always brings new experiences and perspectives. While some changes can be difficult, over time people adapt and grow in ways that wouldn’t be possible if they had stayed in their first culture.
Parents can give their children a great gift by opening their eyes to the different ways of being a family in this big, diverse world. In the end, all of our lives are enriched when we see that parents everywhere want the same thing: a good future for their children.
What surprises you about parenting in the U.S.? Share your thoughts in the comment section!
Also, if you’re interested in more about multicultural parenting, here’s a great resource: Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (available on Amazon)
You might also enjoy Bilingual Success Stories Around the World (available on Amazon)
Additionally, here’s an excellent post (which I quoted) sharing the experiences of mothers from around the world raising kids in the U.S.
Finally, be sure to see my article sharing 5 ways to feel confident in your spoken English
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