Culture Starts in the Crib: Thoughts on Parenting Overseas

Our landlady with Declan in the outfit she bought him!

Having a baby overseas has been a wild ride. From moving to a different country to wait for his arrival to battling Bangkok traffic to get to the hospital, it's been an adventure with a huge learning curve.

But having a baby abroad has opened my eyes to the way culture shapes parenting. 

Do I need to say it? Cambodians parent their children differently than Americans. And I really noticed it when my landlord laughed when he saw our son sleeping in his own room.

Most American parenting books that don't promote co-sleeping advise parents to teach their babies to put themselves to sleep in their own bed at a very young age. The most extreme example is the "cry-it-out" camp: put him in his crib, and let him cry until he falls asleep. Even if you don't let her cry it out completely, you still function under the general idea that one day, the child will have her own bedroom, and she needs to learn to sleep alone.

For many Cambodian families, there is no reason for a baby to ever learn that.

Although I've seen how families live here, it didn't connect the dots for me until one day when my landlord was in our house fixing an appliance. He glanced into our bedroom, and, sounding surprised, asked, "Where's the baby???"

I pointed towards the second bedroom and told him, "He sleeps in there."

Uncle (which is what we call him) started laughing and told the other man working with him, "The baby has his own room!"

Our landlord lives below us with his adult children and grandchildren. And every night, they all gather into the main room of the house and sleep. There are a few bedrooms in the back, but most nights, they share one room. It's much cooler to sleep there, because there are more windows and fans (they don't use air conditioning).

I talked with Auntie (Uncle's wife) about this more today. She told me babies here sleep with their mothers til they are big, at least two years. She looked a bit scandalized when I told her Declan had slept in his own room since six weeks old, and even more shocked I only fed him once in the night.

Because families typically all sleep in one room in traditional houses, there's no need for children to learn to sleep by themselves. They may never sleep in their own room alone their entire lives.

American children, however, often have a room to themselves. Their parents teach them to soothe themselves to sleep from a young age.

Declan hanging out at church with friends. His cuteness kills me.

This simple story illustrates how culture starts in the crib. Cambodians value communal living and strong family ties. Americans tend to value independence and privacy. Although different families may have different values, this is one way in which Cambodian and American culture differ strongly.

And these values are instilled from infancy. Americans put their babies to sleep in their own rooms because they want their children to be independent. Cambodians sleep with their babies (and toddlers) because they feel that's how they can best nurture and care for them. And I'm pretty sure they would be horrified to hear American parents let their babies scream to teach them how to sleep - just like many Americans (myself included) shudder at the idea of letting their children sleep with them into toddlerhood!

I've learned that just because my culture parents in a certain way doesn't make it the only way. Yes, many American child psychologists and researchers promote certain methods of parenting as "the best." But both ways of teaching babies to sleep, and in turn the cultural values they teach, have worth.

For me, it's a balance of assimilating Cambodian parenting techniques I find useful, while retaining some American customs. It's taking the best of both worlds, recognizing that neither are perfect, yet can be combined to raise a healthy, happy child. 

If you're interested in learning more about different parenting techniques all over the world, I can't recommend Mei-Ling Hopgood's book enough. How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm is an entertaining read that takes you to places like China, Argentina, Japan, and France to see how parents potty train, feed, and transport their children.

There really is more than one way to raise a child!

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