Parenting across cultures – a never-ending exercise in cross-cultural misunderstanding?

Recently I read an article by Amy Chua on the subject of superiority of Chinese mothers.  Whether or not I agree with the author isn’t the point of this blog.   Although, as a side note, I must say that the author’s ego rivals that of Paris Hilton — which I thought was never possible!  And, as many other readers, I was amazed at the length she went to in order to satisfy that ego (the up-in-your-face article in WSJ included).  Disclaimer: I have not read her book but her article was enough for me to decide never to read the book and to feel bad for both her kids and her students at my (!) alma mater.

But back to the subject.  Amy Chua’s husband is apparently American and reading her me!-me!-me! article got me thinking of the role that parents of different cultures play in raising kids together.  I happen to be married to someone outside of my own culture and we are raising a beautiful girl.  How often do we agree on our own respective methods of parenting?  How often do we disagree?  And what transpires when you take an already mixed-culture couple and throw them into an expat lifestyle where a third culture becomes part of the mix?

We all know there is a lot of beauty in being exposed to and in living with different cultures.  We all know kids benefit from this immensely.  But that’s not what I want to discuss.  I want to discuss the difficulties.

If I had a penny for every time I was told I was “too strict” (I think I need to share Amy Chua article to show my husband what strict really means!) or that “my parenting culture was too critical” or that “I would do it differently” – I’d be a millionaire with my own private island already.  But instead of a penny, all I got was the feeling of being labeledjudged and misunderstood.  Of course I have not been a saint either and I think I’ve given my share of opinions about my husband’s parenting culture.

Dr. John Gottman in his brilliant book “7 Principles of Making a Marriage Work” says that 69% of problems in a marriage are perpetual.  He goes on to describe that no matter what you do, these problems are not going to go away simply because they are born out of your disappointed dream or a disappointed dream of your spouse.  Put another way – the times we fight and the fights that repeat themselves over and over again happen because our values are not being honored.  Instead – a label is issued.  Someone calls you strict instead of recognizing that by imposing a certain schedule all you are trying to do is to protect your child as much as you can from stress and anxiety.

In an interview I heard recently, Marianne Williamson said something so simple and brilliant that I am amazed I didn’t think of it myself.  She said that all over the mammal world, the maternal instinct first and foremost goes to the protection of the young.  As mammals, we – human females – are also quite intent on protecting our children.  And so thinking along those lines, I am now realizing that I am protecting my young – but I see that protection in my own, unique way.  The way that has come from my culture and my upbringing.

So what do we do if our instinct to protect and if our parental style that comes from our values collide with that of our partner/spouse?  When tensions run high and labels are attached faster than the speed of light, how do we stay calm and discuss the cross-cultural misunderstanding that’s at the root of the argument?

Your thoughts?

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5 responses to “Parenting across cultures – a never-ending exercise in cross-cultural misunderstanding?

  1. Great post! I think you covered a very important point when it comes to communicating interculturally, whether it’s about how to raise a child or something else entirely. You said that your values weren’t being honored and you felt labeled and judged. I think one of the most important things to do when communicating (with anyone but especially with someone from another culture) is try to see things from their POV and understand why they are doing or saying something instead of judging it. Like you wanting to protect your daughter, most people have positive intentions and just have a different way of expressing them.

  2. I don’t know how I didn’t come across this article earlier, perhaps because my over-zealous spam filter hid your newsletter away from me! I’m preparing a talk about this very topic for the FIGT conference in March, so this was most timely and informative. Our mix is even more explosive (potentially): Greek husband, Romanian mother brought up partly in Austria, both living in UK for quite a long time, then moving to Switzerland, and both sets of grandparents coming to help out… I wish we could pick and mix the best that each culture has to offer, but I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work like that in practice. It sometimes gets confusing, overwhelming and hurtful. And the kids will either get to be anthropologists or else very young cynics!

  3. Very important topic. I think it’s particularly difficult when the child is raised in an environment that is more similar to one parent’s cultural upbringing than to the other’s. For example, among the TCKs I work with in China – where one parent is Korean and one is Canadian, and the child attends an international school with an American curriculum, the child will most likely respond better to the Canadian parent’s parenting style. If the child is in a Chinese school, or is homeschooled, that dynamic may be different. I think it’s really difficult for a parent who sees their child adapting more to their spouse’s culture than to their own, especially when they are living in a “neutral” country.

  4. I am American and I have a Brazilian husband. The funny this is that I culturally clash in the parenting department far more with my Mother-in-law than with my husband…

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