Parenting perspectives from around the world: our must-read books

By Elena Meredith

My mother, an American, grew up in South America and we often heard the phrase “that’s so American” in our house, as she compared her two cultures. My well-traveled OB-GYN also offered up her cultural commentary as we were discussing breast-feeding: “Pumping is such an American thing.” As I approached parenting, I was endlessly curious about which cultures do it “best.” Who has the least picky eaters? Which country has the best education? And where on earth can I find sleep advice for a child who will only sleep in my bed? I devoured the following parenting books with gusto, appreciating a perspective beyond my own.

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting, by Pamela Druckerman 

Written by an American journalist living in Paris, Bringing Up Bébé is the parenting-abroad memoir that kicked off a trend of subsequent similar titles. In the book, Pamela Druckerman explores the tenets of how children are raised in France and distills that information into digestible parenting advice.

Druckerman’s perspective is sharp and witty as she covers nearly every aspect of child-rearing. I especially enjoyed the topics of babyproofing a 17th century home, the value the French place on le couple, and allowing your children a bêtise, a small act of naughtiness. I ignored the “don’t borrow your husband’s shirts” advice, which states that “dressing like a shapeless blob is bad for morale.” This shapeless blob was hugging the toilet during pregnancy—Parisian fashion was far from my mind. I felt wistful over the fact that pelvic floor therapy is standardly prescribed by French gynecologists (and covered by national insurance). Some of the glorified ideals of French parenting can only be enjoyed in France.

The crèche menus included in the back are inspiring—a welcome alternative to American kids’ menus. While my daughter loves salmon and brocoli braisé, she has yet to try Macedonian salad or Roquefort cheese. There were several ideas from the book that I adopted, though it mostly left me wishing I lived in Paris, within walking distance of a crèche.

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge), by Linda Åkeson McGurk 

It’s a common Scandinavian saying that “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”—a phrase I often heard from my dad. In this book, Swedish-born Linda Åkeson McGurk moves to Indiana and learns that not every culture values outdoor play to the same degree. She contrasts American preschool and its focus on academic skills, with preschool in Scandinavian countries, where children climb trees and learn knife skills. There are laughable moments from her time in Indiana, such as the number of people offering her rides in the dead of winter, when she really does just want to walk. McGurk takes her daughters to Sweden for six months to compare the difference in prioritizing time in nature.

This parenting memoir felt the most aligned to my childhood in Minnesota, where we did spend long days outside in any weather. At school, recess was only cancelled if the windchill was colder than -10 F (-23 C). When my daughter was a baby, I clung hard to McGurk’s recommendation of being outside at least 2 hours a day. Fans of Richard Louv will appreciate McGurk’s writings on risk, reinforcing that children are very capable of assessing risk, as long as they are allowed to do so on their own.

How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania and Everywhere in Between), by Mei-Ling Hopgood

With the keen eye of a journalist, Mei-Ling Hopgood observes parents from other cultures, and interviews anthropologists, educators, and child-care experts around the world about parenting techniques and traditions, often trying these ideas on her own toddler. It all begins when Hopgood moves from Michigan to Buenos Aires and finds herself shocked that Argentine parents allow their children to stay up late at night. What other customs from around the world could she learn?

Hopgood explores cultural ideas from Asia to Africa that upend an American view of parenting. Overall, I found this book to be the antidote to all the parenting “stuff”—proof that most of the must-have items on our baby registry are not necessary. There are chapters on the kinship of immigrant communities in America, how Kenyans live without strollers (hint: babywearing!), and how the Chinese use “split pants” for potty-training, eliminating diaper waste. She explores socialization and play in Polynesia, how behavioral issues are handled in Japan, and how Mayan parents fluidly blend chores with play. While each culture is unique in how they raise their children, we can all learn from this book that there are many ways to be a good parent.

The Happiest Kids in the World: How Dutch Parents Help Their Kids (and Themselves) by Doing Less, by Rina Mae Acosta and Michele Hutchison

American Rina Mae Acosta and Brit Michele Hutchison are both married to Dutchmen and raising their kids in the Netherlands, which consistently ranks as one of the top countries in the world for happiness and education. The authors explore what secret sauce the Dutch are cooking up to raise such happy, well-adjusted children.

The Dutch support free-range parenting—no helicopter parenting allowed. In Dutch society, kids have autonomy and are expected to bike to school alone at a certain age. For parents, it’s “uncool” to hover over your kids. Acosta and Hutchison reinforce over and over that “sometimes the best thing we can do as parents is less.” They emphasize that parenting doesn’t have to be stressful, writing that the Dutch “are parents who live in the real world. . . .[b]ecause they are more forgiving of their own imperfections and shortfalls, they’re able to enjoy parenthood.” 

I loved the book’s emphasis on the family unit. Dinner time is always with family. Meals are simple preparations—it’s more about dinner-table conversations and spending time together. The Dutch don’t seem to be harboring any hidden secrets to happiness, but some of us (ahem, Americans) have gotten caught up in the parenting race for perfection. The authors conclude that we should give babies and young children a predictable routine, provide a home that is a safe haven, allow for time to play, and give our children plenty of independence with enough rules and boundaries to feel safe. Many of these things are better supported in Dutch culture, but there are plenty of takeaways that American parents can implement at home.

The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley

In this book, journalist Amanda Ripley follows three American high school students as they study abroad for a year in Finland, South Korea, and Poland, three of countries with the highest PISA scores (the Programme for International Student Assessment conducted by the OECD). It’s an interesting analysis of education systems and their components. The book shows the steps these 3 countries took to transform their teaching methods and takes an in-depth look at what is and isn’t working in American education.

Elena Meredith is a freelance writer and mother in Austin, Texas. She is often found reading parenting books, in the hope of unlocking all the secrets. You can find her work at

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