I made a very “American parent” mistake the other day. Hannah was invited to a new student pizza party at her new school. All morning, I dreamt of pizza. We’ve been trying to eat really healthily and I was excited for some grease. It didn’t even occur to me that this event might be “drop off” — that well-meaning parents like me would be cheerfully but forcefully blocked at the door, with instructions to return at 1 p.m.
I blushed and had leftover salad for lunch. I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent, but I might be a big, big kite.
I doubt any Israeli parent would ever make a miscalculation like that.
This is a phenomenon I saw many times in Jerusalem, that I doubt I’d ever see in New York or any US city. A woman gets on a crowded Egged bus via the back door because she’s laden with a baby in a stroller, plus potentially other children and bags. Before fighting the crowd up to the conductor to pay, she deposits her infant with a complete stranger for safe holding. It was one of my best moments in Jerusalem when I was the chosen one, and got to cuddle a tiny Israeli infant for several bumpy bus stops.
One of the things I loved about our year abroad was watching and learning from parents of other nationalities. That’s plural, because I saw Israeli and Palestinian family styles, and actually the folks with whom I interacted most were the parents of Hannah and Margaret’s friends. Between them they must have represented 15 or more countries from Europe, Asia, Australia, North and South America. So there was a lot of range.
I’m not sure how I feel about the recent surge of international parenting books — Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Bringing Up Bebe, and so on. On the one hand, the more Americans can learn from other countries, the better. I’ve read both of these books and other similar articles, and they make me think about how parenting decisions and styles are conditioned by national identity (and other identities: ethnic, class, educational…). But the books also irk me because they oversimplify the situation, painting both American and foreign parents with too broad a brush, and they capitalize on women’s insecurity about ourselves as parents.
Our experience of parenthood in Jerusalem was so polyglot. Perhaps that’s for the best. I didn’t emerge with a strong sense of us vs. them in the parenting stakes (a question on my mind all year: who is ‘them’?). It was more like a grab bag of techniques I’d like to emulate. I long for the kind of casual collectivity I saw on our local playground, where big groups formed and it wasn’t always easy to match the parents with their own children. Whether for economic, religious or other reasons, people in our neighborhood seemed to make more time for their families than I see at home. I was also spending way more time than ever before just hanging out with Hannah and Margaret, and finding new value in it. Yet paradoxically I also admired the way other parents gave their kids more leeway and autonomy than American parents (at least parents of my background and inclination) tend to. There wasn’t a lot of micromanaging. All but one of Hannah’s friends was ‘dropped off’ at her birthday party; the parent who stayed was, you guessed it, American.
These scattered impressions will never form a bestseller. I’m unable to generalize about who does what and why. Yet in parenting, as in everything else, living abroad constantly confronts you with how many ways there are to do it, whether “it” is big (set boundaries for a child, teach about values and ethics, develop systems of support and childcare) or small (choose snacks, style toddler hair, handle a potty emergency at the park).
Some of these ways would work for me and my kids; some of them don’t. But you can’t possibly live for a while surrounded by another culture (much less numerous other cultures) and believe you have it all figured out. International travel is a great cure for parenting self-righteousness. On the other hand, it’s also a confidence booster. If I can get my kids across the Allenby Bridge, how hard can it be to make it to school on time? (In another week, we’ll find out).
When Terence and I were neurotic new parents, we quizzed our pediatrician with a gazillion questions including many about what I could or couldn’t eat while breastfeeding: spices? strong flavors? He grinned at us and said, “well, babies do live in Indonesia.” Precisely.