WHEN PARENTAL ETHNOTHEORIES CLASH
How we are raised, the cultures we grow up in and where we are from impacts so many aspects of our lives. How we parent is a major one. Studies have been done on “parental ethnotheories” – those unseen cultural expectations, adaptations, and norms that shape our beliefs about the “right” ways to parent children. They become part of our own personal internal processes, so much so that we aren’t even aware. Unless that is, you remove yourself from that culture. You move away. There is no better way to question your own parenting systems and choices than to move to a foreign country.
Originally posted 2016, updated 2022
MOVING FROM THE WEST COAST OF THE USA TO COPENHAGEN, DENMARK
As American parents of teens and tweens currently living in Denmark, we have been faced with many situations that have forced us to think outside of our perceived parental toolbox. Everyday life here in Denmark is not that different from our former suburban life outside Portland, Oregon. Yes, we left our landscaped yard with the vegetable garden and the dog. And the chickens. We moved OUT of the bubble. Really, really far outside the bubble.
We chose a city experience here in Copenhagen and now live in an apartment in town on the 5th floor. And while our geography may look different and the language a challenge, our life here is quite similar. The kids go to school. They have made friends. They participate in various activities. We still have birthday parties. On the surface, life is basically the same. Same family. Different country. Denmark is a western country, so truly how dissimilar can it be? Quite. As it turns out. Especially when it comes to parenting. Not bad. Not better. Just different.
RAISING CHILDREN THE DANISH WAY
There are plenty of articles and posts and whole books on raising babies and young children the Danish way. They will explain how an emphasis on forest schools and a play-based structure affords children opportunities to learn empathy, teamwork, and social skills from a young age. All values that egalitarian Danes prioritize for their society as a whole. But when I went looking for material on the distinctions regarding parenting teens here or there, I found gaps in the code. Not as much published out there on the interwebs. So we have had to process on our own. Write our own handbook – as American parents in Denmark, for now. We’re trying. Hard. Every day. Even on Saturdays.
And I am not here to debate which way is better or easier or creates “happier” kids. We’re still in the crucible. It remains to be seen. But, I can hold up the mirror and share a few of the things that have surprised us and even shocked us. Things that have pushed us, jarred us, and made us adapt as we move outside of our box, learning to parent teens and tweens in Denmark.
Danes like to be naked. It’s true. They are much more comfortable with their bodies than the average American. There is a lot of bundling required to survive Danish winter, it can feel tedious. Obviously, the general comfort with communal undress comes from more than just the Scandinavian climate, but a deep-rooted social acceptance of one’s own and others’ bodies. At first, it provided us with quite a shock. And not just us, but our children as well. Danes’ comfort with public nakedness extends to skinny dipping any old time of the year. I’m not talking late-night, multiple bottles of wine between friends, let’s go jump in the water kind of skinny dipping that you may or may not have done in your twenties. (Oh – just me? Too much information?) Skinny dipping here is considered a healthful, circulatory invigorating experience (I’ve been told – again and again.) So you will see (more than once) in the middle of the day, people stripping down to their birthday suits to skinny dip in any swath of water they choose.
There has been ONLY ONE time that I have experienced an official discouraging of said nakedness. It was at the public Harbor Bath, an outdoor lifeguarded swimming structure mid-Copenhagen canal, that we and most of the city frequent in summer.
A nearby stag party attendee had accepted a challenge to jump off the top platform au naturel. He was quickly thwarted by the Harbor Bath lifeguard’s request to don some trunks per the sign with the rules. The willing stag complied. Danes do appreciate rules. That is until he reached the top where he immediately dropped trou and jumped in, bits a-flying. Danes also like breaking rules on occasion. Oh well. When in Denmark. What would have been shocking, is now only bemusement. We’ve been conditioned.
To be honest, it’s kind of refreshing. At the beach or the pool, my tween daughter is exposed to a wide range of bodies in all shapes and sizes. It’s normal. No big deal. To me, it is a positive for her. And for our teen boys.
Danes don’t do it. Officially or otherwise. Nipples are free here. But that doesn’t surprise you now does it? Now that you know how comfortable Danes are with being naked. “It’s just a body,” I’ve been told. Free to be used on busses to advertise local plastic surgery centers. Yep. That was a shock. Just boobs. Large and loud and annoyingly perky. Rolling down the street. Often.
“Nye Bryster, Ny Pris” (New Breasts, New Price) Photo credit: Mikael Colville-Andersen
Or how about this movie poster for a Danish comedy duo called Klovn Forever (Clown.) It was front and center at the kid’s train stop for school. Everyday. For a month or two. “Oh come on, it’s just a body.” Are you shocked? I’m pretty sure that was the point. Here or there. On every street corner, the backdrop of your life becomes posters for EroticWorld at Valbyhallen or the Whore of Babylon – a new play at the local theater.
And speaking of theaters, there’s not much that teens can’t watch. Or don’t watch. With or without your approval. Ratings for films and television shows are lower than in the USA. Any squeamishness I may have had over letting my teens watch an R-rated movie is a moot point here. Those same films are rated 15+ and easily accessible – in the theater and online. And forget radio edits of your favorite songs. Full language all the time. But if you know me, the radio isn’t the first place my kids have heard these words. I heard that people who swear are the most honest. I’m sticking with that.
Don’t get excited. Danes don’t. At least not when it comes to talking about sex with their kids. Sex is a natural, beautiful, and fun experience. And it should be – right? Danes start talking about sex with their children from a very young age in straightforward, clinical language about where babies come from. It isn’t taboo. This is good when you consider that the legal age of consent here in Denmark is 15 years old. When maturing teens are ready, it is not unusual for them to lose their virginity in their own parent’s homes. Or their partner’s parents’ home. With them knowing. It having been discussed.
This is VERY outside my stereotypical American parenting box. I literally can’t imagine. For myself OR my son. Or my daughter. My best Danish mom friend can’t imagine it any other way and cringes about any perceived alternatives. The idea that your first sexual encounter could occur in the back seat of a car or hiding somewhere outdoors is abhorrent to her. This is our concurrent cultural conditioning. It is what it is. Not right. And not wrong. Different. Without divulging too much of my children’s personal lives, I can admit that so far, we are just processing the differences with regard to this theory.
In Denmark, the legal age to buy alcohol is 16. You heard me. Any 16-year-old can walk into any old store and buy any alcohol under 16.5%. Oh – well that’s ok. I mean – that’s not the hard stuff. Right? ACK! This is complicated. Complicated for parents who will most likely have to take a teen back to the States where the minimum legal drinking age is 21 years old.
There you can vote and join the army in America at 18, but unless you are 21 you could still get charged and fined for a “minor in possession,” if found with alcohol. This is a deeply personal and potentially controversial subject for any parent in the United States. When I say that here, I get instant looks of incredulity. Really? By now, I’m used to Danish disbelief about my American ethnotheories on parenting (or anything really.) But how do we handle this sensitive subject while living abroad?
Especially when your 15-year-old son looks mature for his age, plays on a men’s lacrosse team, and has older Danish friends. Honesty. That is the best policy. And seems to be working for us. Talking about it. Keeping communication lines open. The rules are different here, so we will have to adapt. We will deal with different rules when they become different. There are as many schools of thought as there are different cultures when it comes to attitudes about the subject and engendering habits for healthy consumption. Which is right? I can’t say. Quite yet.
This is a big one here. Danes afford their children much more freedom than average Americans. For example, from a younger age than Americans might be comfortable with, children make their way to school by themselves. And not just walking around the corner to their neighborhood elementary school. Kids here take the public bus, then a public train, and still have to walk unattended to reach their destinations. That’s what mine do. Here in Copenhagen.
With the majority of both parents working full-time jobs, children learn early on how to maneuver independently within this society. For the most part, Denmark is a safe place to live. So safe that Danish parents are comfortable letting their babies sleep outside on the sidewalk inside a pram (stroller), while they head inside a cafe or shop. This is crazy, borderline insane, to an average American. Unfathomable. Grounds for arrest. In fact, a Danish mother who left her babe outside in New York City did get arrested a while back. I recall numerous instances raising my own babes in the States where I would have preferred to leave my napping babe or toddler in the car to run in and grab that needed gallon of milk. But because of social conditioning, I would have NEVER considered it. I’d skip the milk. Or make plans to go back and pick it up later.
Because of a well-established sense of safety (and responsibility), Danish children are afforded opportunities that wouldn’t even be considered in America. For my teens, this means meeting friends by train an hour away, prom after parties with extended curfews (parties that START past midnight), coed sleepovers with no parents around, and unsupervised outdoor camping. These are just a few of the requests that we have processed with our teens here in Denmark.
Children here get that freedom, but it does come with responsibility. “Frihed under ansvar,” the Danes will say. You are free to make your own choices, but you are still responsible to your family. For us, this means our kids are responsible to let us know where they are going to be. That we are aware of the plans. And if those change, we will be notified. Being open and honest goes both ways.
DOES LIABILITY IMPACT OPPORTUNITIES FOR KIDS TO TAKE RISKS?
In contrast to the States, Denmark is not a litigious country. Liability is the onus of the family. You are responsible for your own. Equally. If your child goes out on a limb and happens to fall. You deal with it. With your child. And they theirs. I appreciate that. It allows parents and families to determine for themselves. What their own children can handle. Families can make their own rules. Afford independence. Engender opportunities. In general, our parenting choices aren’t judged living here. Less – “you let your child do what?” And more – an assumption that you will raise your kids to do the right thing in your own way. If and when they ever might fall, you as their parents are the ones who will help them adjust.
I am comforted that my Danish friends have a saying [when talking to their teens], “Ha’ det sjovt, men tænk dig om.” Have fun, but think about it.” – Read more about parenting teens in related post ” Walking the Path of a Life Lived Abroad.
So it remains to be seen whether we have made the right choices. They have felt right for us and our children here in our new home. So far. Don’t get me wrong, we have been pushed. Outside of our box. That culturally garnered parenting toolbox. And while it worked well enough for our life in the States, we have had to adapt to new norms. In this new culture. It hasn’t always been smooth, but we’ve been open to looking. And discussing.
LOOKING THROUGH ANOTHER CULTURE’S PARENTING LENSES
Often we can’t even see the lens through which we see the world until we are forced to try on another’s. Have you ever put on someone else’s prescription glasses and experienced that sense of shock of how it could be so different from your own sight? It almost makes your stomach flip, that instant change in focus. Hard to ignore the difference, once you have looked. As our children evolve, so does our parenting. Naturally. No matter where you live. Parenting with the persistent influence of another culture requires a new level of evolution. So what can you do? Number one? Stay open. Be honest about what makes you uncomfortable. Communicate. With your child. With your teen. That’s all we’re trying to do over here. Fingers crossed. That it works.
Cheers from Copenhagen. What cultural parenting challenges have you encountered? Do you have cross-cultural parenting styles within your own household? How did you deal with them? Please share – I love learning about how the same and how different we all are!