Parenting and cultural differences
GETTING TO KNOW OUR NEIGHBOURS
Yesterday we had some visitors come round for some coffee and cake. They are a Norwegian-Pakistani family of six (four kids aged 6 to 14) who live in our neighbourhood. The parents in this family were raised in Norway by lower-income, working class immigrants from Pakistan, identical to my own upbringing in the UK to Italian immigrants. It was the first time we they had come to visit our house, although our kids all go to the same schools, and we are all Facebook friends, so we are not complete strangers to one another. In other words, it was a relaxed, informal occasion, albeit in a rather new and slightly unfamiliar social setting.
PARENTAL RESPECT … WITHOUT FEAR.
The first thing that struck me when they arrived was how polite and well-behaved their children were. First of all, they all greeted us with an outstretched hand, followed by a short introduction of who they were and how nice it was to meet us (a social etiquette that is very efficiently and effectively dealt with in Norwegian by one word: “Hyggelig“). Then they all proceeded to take their shoes off, which is quite normal in Norway. However, it wasn’t the shoe-removing that caught my attention, but the way in which all four of these Norwegian-Pakistani children placed their eight shoes in a perfectly straight line on top of the rug inside our entrance. You could have placed a spirit level along the toes of the shoes and not one of them would have been out of line! The last one to put his shoes in place was the youngest of the children (6 years old) who, as soon as he had done, proceeded to stretch out his hand again with a big smile on his face, just in case he had forgotten to say hello to anyone in the now very packed entrance to my house.
During the entire visit, there were a couple of things that struck me. First of all, there was a clear sense that the children looked up to their parents and respected them. Although the demeanour of the parents was soft and restrained, there was a very clear sense of authority and assertiveness when they spoke to their kids. Judging by the sparkle in the eyes of these children when they spoke both to us and to their parents, this parental authority had been acquired through many years of learned love and respect for their mother and father rather than fear and suppression.
This is something I have always aimed to have with my own children. While I encourage interaction, conversation and disagreement, there is no doubt in the Riccardi family who holds the ultimate authority and responsibility for the well-being of this family; namely, Mother & Father. With this responsibility comes the privelege of the final word on certain matters.
TEASING & FRIENDLY BANTER
I am known for having a playful and often boisterous spirit, with both adults and children, something that doesn’t always go down well with some of the Norwegian children that come to visit us. Playful teasing is a common part of Italian culture, as well as the British culture (they call it “friendly banter”). However, I know that this friendly banter and teasing of mine can come across as somewhat intimidating when I tease my own kids and their friends. In contrast, when I spoke to and joked around with these Norwegian-Pakistani kids, they responded with enthusiasm and laughter … they actually thought I was funny! The vast majority of Norwegian children I have tried to “engage” in playful conversation have invariably looked at me in stunned silence, an expression on their face that seems to communicate a mixture of fear and amusement.
PROBLEM SHARING OR COMPLAINING?
After a while, the kids went off to play and watch movies, and the parents were left alone to talk and get to know one another better. This is when I noticed another pattern of conversation that I have rarely – if ever – experienced when I talk to Norwegian parents that I have just met. The father and me soon began to talk about common problems: problems with balancing the pressures of working life and family, problems of raising 4 kids, problems with just about everything, including our inability to be good parents. At one point, the Norwegian-Pakistani father – who is a well-known doctor – even admitted that he once let her daughter go for 10 days with a broken arm before he finally took her to get an X-ray, all because “it didn’t seem that bad at the time.” We both laughed out loud. We were bonding very well.
In many cultures, this type of “problem-sharing” (a Norwegian would probably call it complaining) serves as an excellent ice-breaker, quickly breaking down layers of social facade that one often meets in such settings. It requires a certain amount of risk-taking from both parties but the rewards far outweigh the risk, in my opinion. Other great “problem-sharing” nations (complainers, if you prefer) include the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the British. The British have a particular variant of this behaviour, one of self-criticism, which they call self-deprecation.
POSITIVE IS NOT ALWAYS POSITIVE
I simply have not experienced these types of conversations with other Norwegian parents, whose almost relentless focus on the positive – especially with children – I find to be not only unrealistic and unrepresentative, but also exhausting. In my experience of talking to Norwegian parents about family issues, it takes a very long time for a Norwegian to “trust” you enough to be able to share such a level of inadequacy and lack of control over one’s life. Parenting seems to be a really serious and “zero-tolerance” activity in Norway.
TO THE SWEET END
After a couple of hours, our guests had to leave. A softly-spoken word in Urdu from the father and the children all made their way to the front door, where their perfectly-aligned shoes awaited them. It takes a while to get 4 kids into a car, reverse out of a driveway and drive off, but I was sure to wait outside and wave them off, even though the temperature outside was sub-zero. This something Norwegians rarely do when it is so cold outside. In Norway, whenever I have left a house after a visit, I have said goodbye at the door, and by the time I look up at the house as I drive away, the guests have already escaped back inside to stand inside the window by the warm fire as they say goodbye. I understand why; it’s cold. It’s just that in Italian and Pakistani culture, you stand outside at the edge of your property until your guests can no longer see you in the rear-view mirror, out of respect and gratefulness for the visit. It is like a sweet send-off, regardless of the outside temperature.
This blog post was inspired by Laetitia Fernandez in her own blog about parenting. You will see many similarities in her list of 19 cultural differences in parenting between her native Belgium and the USA.