Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: Parenting without Borders

by Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D.

I picked up this book on one of those rare days I was at the library and could peruse the new books in person. At first, as I read it, I thought it was a brief and unnecessary survey of ideas I had already seen and read elsewhere, but as I continued, I found a coherent and thoughtful response to the author's own experiences in other countries as well as a well-researched book bringing together lots of sources and information for American parents. Dr. Gross-Loh (whose degree is not in education or child psychology or anything particularly related to the material in the book) manages to provide insight into the lessons of other cultures while respecting and honoring the American ideals of individuality, creativity, and independence. While it is true she did not present much I had not already read somewhere else, she has summarized it well and non-threateningly. I highly recommend this book to new parents and parents of young children.

Unlike in the United States, parents overseas were confident and certain where we Americans were beset by too many options, which tended to make us feel confused about our role. As I learned more about the history behind many of our contemporary parenting practices, I wondered if perhaps we Americans were paying a price for what we thought were enlightened and modern parenting ways, ways that give us choices, along with the mistaken (but oppressive) belief that as long as we choose wisely, we will be able to completely and perfectly control how our children's lives turn out.
The author's initial interest in the subject of parenting across cultures arose in the years she lived in Japan with her two young sons. In Japan, her children attending a yochien, a single school for preschool and kindergarten in which children mingle across the ages.
But in parent-education workshops held throughout the year, the yochien teachers explained that fighting, crying, and making up again were normal ways of figuring out how to get along. They insisted it was important not to interfere in this natural process, but to let children hone their innate abilities to work things out on their own. The teachers didn't see aggression as a sign of aberrant behavior or the mark of a "problem child" who would grow into a violent adult, but something normal that arose in childhood and would naturally fade when it had been allowed to run its course.
When I read of this kind of situation, I always think of the mother in Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly, "Work it out, you two!"
Because peers are harder on each other than adults, peer play gives kids even more opportunity for challenge, negotiation, and growth than they have when we adults are playing with them. Peer play gives kids powerful opportunities to learn how to resolve conflicts, how to read other kids' verbal and nonverbal cues, and how to interact with different personalities and play styles.
Reading passages about how children choose to spend their time in other countries encourage me in our search for "real" experiences for our children, time to explore the real world in a tactile and messy way rather than through apps. (Not that we don't have any apps, but they hold a much less important place.)
Kids making mud balls learned much about the world in a tactile way that no book could teach them. They were learning about the properties of mud: how mud changes when it is wet, or when it is dry, how much water to use, how much force to apply as they roll it over and over in their little palms. They were learning to cultivate patience, concentration, perseverance, and self-control as they dealt with frustration over the occasional failed or cracked mud ball. They practiced conflict resolution as they dealt with children who might accidentally step on and crush their mud balls. They felt task satisfaction when they watched the little mud balls pile up. And they gained the respect of their peers, and learned about cooperation, as they crouched side by side to make these little balls.
But the most important thing was that this play, whether kids were making mud balls, playing house or tag, or looking for bugs in the garden, was self-directed.
The information on active play and recess was especially interesting for me. This is an area in which I need constant reminders to send my children outside. (How thankful I am for our new neighbors and the boys who lure my children far from the beaten path on our own land!)
In our country, school administrators and teachers are under pressure to provide visible, measurable academic results, often compelling them to cut back on recess to make more room for academics. But the neuroscience of play has shown that this is the wrong approach. It's especially counterproductive since today's students need to develop twenty-first-century skills that require the sort of initiative and creativity that they develop through play.
She talks about a "forest kindergarten" she visits in Denmark (and mentions them in other places as well). These were also mentioned in a book I read recently, Boys Adrift.
The kindergarten is for ages three to six and is located on the edge of a forest; a small, icy bay lies on the other side.
The children are outside for the entire class. They have circle time outside, maybe a snack, and then they play. Self-directed play. They walk in the woods. They build playground equipment. They dip their feet in the frozen bay.

If kindergarten were like that here, I'd send my children. That would be better than what I do with them at home. You know, because I don't like to go outside myself. Anyone around here want to start one? I'll enroll Second Daughter and Second Son!

She interviewed a lot of parents that spent time in multiple countries. One mother, a Finnish woman who lived in America and Finland with her children said:
"Here in the United States I feel like I spend all my time fighting for a situation that can work for her. They try to fit her into a box. In Finland, they fit the box around her." In  Finland her learning style was not a problem. In America it became a disability.
Some of the statements were shocking. Her last chapter focused on teaching our children to be kind, considerate, compassionate, and unselfish.
One study compared three- and five-year-olds' sense of fairness and sharing candies and other desirable items in seven different cultures: China, Peru, Fiji, the United States, and three distinct urban sites in Brazil. The study showed that while many traits were consistent across cultures (by five years old, all children tended to show more fairness in sharing), they differed in the degree of self-interest that children showed...Two groups of children displayed the highest and most similar degree of self-interest: impoverished, unschooled, unsupervised Brazilian street children and the middle-class suburban American children.

I'm glad I took a little time to read this book myself. In many ways, it comforted me in some of the choices we've made that, while not necessarily against the grain in our community and social groups (considering we're Catholic homeschoolers in Kansas), are in some ways more difficult than other options. As I said above, I highly recommend this book to new parents and parents of young children as well as those that find themselves dissatisfied with the people they see their children becoming in contemporary America.


  1. I'm so glad to see the library has this in their collection now. I wanted to read this several months ago and could only get it through ILL...after waiting about 3 months I just canceled my request :). I put in my request for this yesterday!

  2. Sometime I think I get books quicker if I just request they purchase them rather than ILL, especially if they're in print from a major publisher. I hope you enjoy it!


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