We spend about half of our time these days traveling and speaking to parents and families in various parts of the world.
Last month, we were presenting to a group of schools, parents and teachers in Mexico City, and we are sending this column from Costa Rica, in the middle of a speaking tour that will also take us to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Panama. Next month we will present in Bali, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
This kind of speaking, along with writing, is the best way we know to play a small part in the goal of fortifying families by celebrating commitment, popularizing parenting, validating values and bolstering balance.
As we have said before in this column, it is gratifying to see how, despite all of their economic, political, religious and cultural differences, most all parents everywhere are basically the same when it comes to their hopes, concerns and love for their children.
And wherever we go, we do at least as much learning as we do teaching. Family cultures have their own distinct flavor depending on where we are.
Families work differently in different parts of the world — and in various ways, the parenting is often better and the families stronger than in the United States.
Let us give a couple of examples:
We mentioned in last week’s column that strong faith communities and strong families are the best safeguard that any country or society can have. Sometimes even one of the two critical institutions (faith and family) is enough to stave off disaster.
What we like about families in most Latin American countries is they stay together, both socially and geographically. “Family” means extended family. Three generations often live in the same house, and big Sunday dinner gatherings include a vast array of cousins and uncles and aunts. They take care of one another. Blood is thicker than water.
In many parts of these countries, families eat together every day — usually at lunch. Kids come home from school and parents come home from work and they have their family meal, which, in older, more traditional areas, takes a couple of hours and is followed by a siesta. Things get discussed. Then the dads go back to work for a few hours.
In most Asian countries, at least among middle-class families, education is king. Kids are perhaps too focused on school and grades, and parents seem willing to do most anything to help their kids succeed in their studies, seeing educational excellence as the key to a better life. Kids go to tutors and “cram school” after their regular school ends, and parents sacrifice their time and their money to help their children study and to get them into the best schools.
While we might argue with the taxing and stressful over-emphasis on school, the selfless focus of parents on their kids is wonderful. And Asian parents seem better than Americans at raising polite and respectful kids. They do this partly by giving more attention for positive behavior than for negative.
In both Latin and Asian cultures, age is respected and revered far more than it is here. Grandparents are the advice-givers and the patriarchs and matriarchs of their homes, and they are generally active and involved with their grandchildren.
Of course, we are generalizing, and each family culture and configuration is unique, wherever in the world it exists. And actually, that is the point. Wherever we live and whatever surrounds us, our challenge as parents is to create the family culture we want — the one we believe in — and to strive to make that family culture stronger than the peer culture and the Internet culture and the media culture and all the other cultures that surround our children in today's world.
Good luck to us all!