Sunday, May 26, 2013

Book Review: Parenting Without Borders

The parenting book du jour published this month and whose release was auspiciously timed with Mothers’ Day is Christine Gross-Loh’s Parenting Without Borders. But unlike many of its predecessors, this book on parenting will likely hold its weight in steering the conversation towards more global perspectives on raising children. The book is subtitled: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. The book certainly delivers on this promise. The premise of the book is that culture shapes parenting techniques in ways that are not always transparent. Gross-Loh helps decode some of the ways in which culture may shape parenting. The extension of this premise is that the American way of parenting, too, is culturally determined. It is not intrinsically perfect, nor is it necessarily the best way to bring up children.
The motivation to write this book stemmed not from an academic desire to differentiate cultures and techniques, but from Gross-Loh’s own experience being immersed in a novel culture and having to bring up her young children in it, sometimes in ways that ran contrary to what she was used to doing in America. Gross-Loh spent several years in Japan raising her four children. In addition, she has a lifetime of experience straddling two cultures, as she herself is the daughter of Korean immigrants who came to America shortly before she was born. Complementing this mix of experiential familiarity with cultural differences is Gross-Loh’s educational background. She has a PhD from Harvard in East Asian History.
The book is organized in terms of the care and feeding of children, the raising, the teaching, and the character of children. Within each category, there are explorations that cover several countries and cultures - Japan, China, Italy, France, Germany, Finland and Sweden. While this is not an exhaustive survey of cultures, (nor does it claim to be), it initiates a much needed conversation on the alternatives to American child-rearing practices. This conversation is specifically geared to address and understand the reality of why “American children today lag well behind their international peers on test scores, physical health, and emotional well-being.”
While aiming to find solutions to this predicament, Gross-Loh uproots or calls into question many norms on parenting that American mothers and fathers have taken for granted. Equipped with anecdotes, personal examples and evidential research as her tools, she dismantles notions about co-sleeping that appear to be the dominant opinion among both professionals and laypeople in America. She shows that not only is co-sleeping safe and widely practiced in cultures the world over, but that it has long-lasting effects on the child’s wellbeing. She identifies cross-cultural differences in the idea of success, and suggests that we re-examine our obsession with questionable markers of success such as self-esteem (American children have ample amounts of self-esteem despite contrary patterns when one looks at the pudding for proof.) Gross-Loh juxtaposes the essence of American parenting techniques (excessive praise, maintaining inadequate boundaries between children’s and adults’ space and time, valuing and emphasizing individuality over community awareness, consumerism etc.) against the finding that among US youth, qualities such as empathy and feelings of connection to community have declined, while qualities such as narcissism and materialism have risen in the past few decades. The book, therefore, is a remedial attempt aimed at this larger problem.

As an immigrant parent straddling two cultures, this reviewer is immune to detecting any strains of idealism that Gross-Loh may be guilty of showing towards the overseas cultures that she describes. That said, Gross-Loh has presented her critique of American parenting practices in the most positive tone. This is no angry rant about the ills of American child-rearing practices. Instead, it is a genuine and concerted effort to understand the bases and consequences of contemporary parenting attitudes in America. No matter what part of the parenting spectrum you may fall on, this book will enrich your perspective: If you conform to American practices, this book will introduce you to a more balanced view on parenting; if you are already an outlier in America, this book will give you the confidence to continue your parenting journey in ways that may be the norm in other countries. For that reason alone, this book is worth reading. 

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