I moved to Ukraine when I was twelve years old. For more than twenty years, Ukraine has been “home.” Even at times when I’ve lived in the States, I never quite felt like I fit in there anymore. My experiences, passions, interests, and worldview are heavily influenced by Ukrainian and Russian cultures, and my heart feels very much a part of Ukraine. I lived here as a kid and as a young, single adult, and while I recognized my American heritage, I felt a strong sense of identity wrapped up in Ukraine.
And so, it has surprised me now that I’m raising two children in L’viv that I am constantly smacked in the face with parenting ideals that starkly contrast with what I practice. Never, ever in my life have I felt like such a foreigner in Ukraine as I do now that I’m parenting here. Sometimes it’s amusing, sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it makes me want to cry or scream!
Facing these differences has challenged me to consider how much of our parenting practices or beliefs are cultural and therefore, simply accepted as the norm. Now, culture encompasses a lot more than just the ideals of different nations. Culture refers to our own family upbringing, to our socio-economic status, to our religion, our education, our community, and so much more. How much do those aspects affect our parenting practices, and does that make them wrong or right?
For me, as a missionary parent living in a foreign country, how much should I cling to my native parenting ideals, and how much should I incorporate the ideals of my new “home” country? Is it right or wrong for me to suggest my culture’s practices to parents here in Ukraine? For you, wherever you parent, is it acceptable to share your beliefs and ideas with others whose culture demands different practices?
Bedtime and Cultural Influence
As an example, the single biggest parenting difference I face on a regular basis here in Ukraine is bedtime. Our kids go to bed around 8:00 PM. We read together, pray, snuggle, and then Josh and I leave the room, and our kids fall asleep on their own – happily and quietly (well, most nights, anyways!). When we lived in America, Nora’s bedtime was pretty close to any other kid her age. Nobody ever challenged us on it, and it was not considered odd or early.
In Ukraine, it has overwhelmingly been my experience that kids go to bed late in the evening…10:00, 11:00…midnight…sometimes later than that. When I tell people that our kids’ bedtime is 8:00, they often look at me like I’m nuts. “Really?!” “Why?” “Isn’t that bad for your kids?” “Doesn’t that mean they have less time to play?” These are just some of the questions that have been posed to me on the topic. And while I’m facing the other parent’s incredulous look, I’m thinking, “I can’t imagine letting my kids stay up so late! When do you have time to yourself? When do you and your spouse have time without kids?”
Is there a right and wrong culture?
As a missionary, this is one of those times when I take a step back, choose not to take offense or become defensive, and also choose not to automatically push my own ideas on someone else. I’m the first person to say that every family is unique. What works for your family may not be the same as what works for mine. I do not believe I have the right to tell you how to raise your kids or pass judgement on you if you don’t do things like I do.
And I see that so many cultural influences are part of why we parent like we do. I recognize that I’m an American, raised by Americans, married to an American. It’s inevitable that we will have some different ideas about parenting than our Ukrainian friends. So…is one culture right and the other wrong?
The Riches and Challenges of Cross-Cultural Experiences
One of the richest takeaways I believe I’ve gained as a result of living in different countries is the recognition that every culture has its good and bad. I remember the early days of living in Ukraine, when I would think, or to my now shame, would say, “That’s just weird. Why would you do that?” After many years of cross-cultural experiences, I’ve come to say, instead, “Well, that’s different. I wonder which way is better?” It’s not always the way of your native culture that wins, believe it or not!
Parenting in Ukraine is a constant cultural lesson. Here are just some of the Ukrainian practices I’ve found to be different than those in America:
- The “it takes a village to raise a child” mentality is extremely strong here. People watch out for each others’ kids and help in more involved ways than is typical in the States. Sometimes it comes out in a pretty bossy way. Just the other day I was scolded by a stranger because my baby didn’t have a hat on…either she considered it too cold (it was 60 degrees Fahrenheit), or she was worried about the sun exposure.
- Ukrainian children are taught to call older people “Aunt” or “Uncle,” “Grandma” or “Grandpa,” or “Mr.” or “Mrs.”
- Parents usually take babies outside for naps, to sleep in their strollers. Sometimes, they leave the stroller on their balcony or porch – even in the dead of winter! Our Titus had his best early naps bundled up and in a covered seat on the back porch last winter.
- Mothers with young children and little kids are always given a seat on buses or at gatherings. It’s in no way anti-feminist to show this preference.
- Babies and nursing moms are MUCH more restricted on the foods they are allowed to eat. When I had Titus here, the pediatrician pretty much yelled at me every time she walked in the hospital room because of something I wasn’t supposed to be eating. Among the list: chicken, yogurt, fresh berries, anything with tomato or tomato sauce…I could go on and on!
- Children in Ukraine are taught that they should never walk on manhole covers – they’re often loose or even missing, because people steal them to sell at junk yards. Our Nora, three and a half, always walks around them.
- Parents are not supposed to let their kids cry. I have been reprimanded for letting our kids cry, rather than giving in to a temper tantrum. One woman on a bus gave our Nora candy when she was throwing a fit, because I wasn’t giving in.
- “Crying it out” for sleep training is absolutely unheard of.
- It’s safe for young children, eight, nine, ten years old, to play at the park by themselves or with friends, no parents around.
Two manholes without covers in our neighborhood.
Many of these differences are just funny – things that Josh and I laugh about, or that I laugh with Ukrainian moms about. But, some of them are “touchy” issues. Some lead to controversial talks about how we should or should not raise our kids. One of my ministries here is discipleship, and many of the women I have relationships with are also young moms. When they share with me struggles they are having, either in parenting or in their marriage, I can sometimes see a link between their struggles and what I would consider to be unhealthy practices in their lives.
What is my role then? Should I offer an empathic ear and a shoulder to cry on, but keep quiet on suggesting changes, because part of those suggestions is cultural? Or do I point out practical changes they could try in their parenting that might bring relief to those struggles, even if those changes would be more “American?”
In my own life, when I see that some parenting ideal isn’t producing great results, do I change? This is especially relevant if it’s hard to keep an ideal that clashes with our current cultural surroundings in Ukraine. Do we alter the practice to better fit the cultural needs we experience here?
I’m learning that when faced with these questions, it’s actually less about what’s cultural and more about what’s Biblical. It’s not as important to be culturally relevant as it is to practice a healthy lifestyle that leads to strong, loving relationships in a family. Sometimes that means I change, or my family changes the way we do something. Sometimes it means that I lovingly point out to a Ukrainian friend that there might be a better way of handling a certain parenting challenge.
I’ve come to hate the phrase, “That’s not part of my culture,” whether it’s me saying it, another American, a Ukrainian, or someone from a completely different culture. It’s just not as important to cling to my culture as it is to learn and grow in healthy parenting practices, no matter which culture they come from. If I dismiss an idea, purely because it’s not form my culture, then I’m potentially missing out and robbing my family of wonderful traditions and practices that can be learned from others, because their background is unique from ours.
We live in a great big, wonderful world, full of interesting history, fascinating people, and exciting cultures. I hope to learn so much from those God allows me to interact with!
Tell me about you…
What about you? How has your culture affected your parenting ideals or ideals in other areas of life? How have you made changes that were not in keeping with your native culture? What is the most helpful practice you’ve adopted from another culture, whether it’s related to parenting, marriage, work, or any other aspect of your life? I want to hear from you!