We are dining out with friends in Buenos Aires, sipping Malbec from short glass tumblers at a hole-in-the-wall steakhouse. The crowd is lively; the waiters charmingly surly. But what has really captivated our table is the family sitting to our right. It's 11:30 p.m., and a toddler and a baby are bouncing on laps as they gnaw on bread rolls.
Our American guests are aghast. Shouldn't those kids be in bed?
Raising my young daughters in Buenos Aires helped put my American obsession with finding perfect parenting methods in perspective. Keeping kids up all hours goes against the advice I'd heard from friends and parental pundits. Yet Argentine children don't seem to suffer. I think kids there behave as well as your average American child, and often better, in social settings.
There are universals when it comes to raising kids: A child needs enough sleep, food, and nurturing to thrive. But how we meet those necessities varies wildly depending on your latitude. French children are taught to eat mussels and stinky cheeses. Fathers in the African Aka pygmy tribe are intimately involved with childcare. They strap their infants into slings and take them on elephant hunts, and will even offer a nipple to soothe a fussy baby. The Chinese potty train their little ones starting at 6 months. (Their secret: pants that split along the butt seam.) Unlike American parents who intervene when kids scuffle, many Japanese let them fight with minimal intervention so they can learn to live harmoniously in a group setting.
Argentines—and Italians and Egyptians, among others—have family gatherings that last long into the night. To them, dinner is sacred family bonding time, and it would be an absolute shame for the kiddies to miss it.
My daughter Sofia is a social butterfly, a combination, I think, of her nature and her Argentine upbringing. During a night out with friends, she'd snooze at our favorite restaurant (the owners always gave us a booth with plenty of pillows). When I fretted about her broken routines, even my Argentine pediatrician told me, “Relajate, che. Ya va a pasar.” Relax. This will pass.
That advice is über-useful for a control-freak mom like me. We can get so focused on declaring what's best, when there are many ways to be a good parent. By stepping beyond our borders, we can discover all kinds of new ideas and approaches. By doing so, each of us can create our own parenting style that's quite literally the best of all worlds.