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Spotting Cultural Differences in Parenting: Helicopter vs Free-Range

Since I moved here from Switzerland eight months ago, people keep asking me about the main differences between my home country and the U.S. I have indeed discovered some obvious cultural divergences — especially in parenthood. 

I find this quite surprising. The U.S. and Switzerland both belong to the ‘Western culture.’ They share a heritage of social norms, ethical values, traditional customs, and religious beliefs. So I find myself wondering why there are so many different values and behaviors when it comes to parenting. 

Often the biggest difference? Parental involvement.

Soon after we arrived in Nashville, my daughter, Hanna, started Pre-K. This was a life changing step for both of us. Since then, she spent five days a week at school. Back home, preschool filled only two days a week. The rest of the days, she stayed with me or other family members. 

But what took us even more by surprise? The academic approach of her school. Her schedule consisted of with learning the alphabet, sight words, reading, writing, and doing math. In Switzerland, Pre-K (and Kindergarden!) basically developed social skills. Kids do lots of handicrafts, free play, and outdoor activities. They barely write their name when they enter first grade. 

Here, the involvement of parents with their kids starts in Pre-K. They talk to the teacher about their children’s progress, help out with special projects, and sit next to their children as they do homework. After school, kids keep very busy too. And so do their parents. Even preschoolers participate in a variety of extracurricular activities!

On the other hand, Swiss parents and teachers seem to give more space to kids to play by themselves, explore the world on their own, and learn from their mistakes. Parents on a playground don’t prevent kids from climbing — or falling. They leave their kids playing in the front yard while preparing dinner in the kitchen. They let them try things on their own in in order to grow into the confident adults they want them to be.

Living the American Dream

Where does this different approach come from? I can only assume, but I think that the American Dream still has a very strong influence on today’s society. In almost no other country do you have the chance to go from rags to riches. The U.S. is THE land of opportunity. So working hard to reach a goal is taught very early in life. This, I think, can have very motivating impacts on the kids. 

As a result, parents (and also teachers) have a much stronger way of positive reinforcement and are way more supportive in their verbal comments — always choosing encouraging words (“good job!”) while still providing feedback and criticism. 

Back home, I feel we are too sparing with words of praise. Unfortunately, there also exists a lot of jealousy which makes us less generous with encouraging comments. Switzerland has been through many decades of prosperity and political stability. We are very lucky to grow up in a country with very high standards (especially in the public school system) and quality of life. But, sadly, we also tend to take this for granted. I feel that this makes us less hard-working, passionate, and open to change.  

Choosing the Best Part of Both Approaches

There remains the question of whether kids are better off with helicopter parents or a free-range approach; whether in the long run, the high expectations or an environment where every child is a winner is more beneficial to our kids. I strongly believe that there is no correct answer to this question. There exist advantages and disadvantages in both ways. I personally will try my best to choose a healthy balance and embrace parts of both sides.

Because I love it when my daughter suddenly and enthusiastically spots a sight word on the bill board of a highway. I love when she proudly lectures me about the American symbols and when she asks me whether I think an elephant is heavier than a rhino. Kids are eager to learn and curious by nature. And I want her to keep asking “why” as much as possible.  

But I also want her to have enough time and space to digest everything she has learned at school. It’s important that she has enough time being a carefree girl who just wants to play by herself — to invent her own world and run barefoot through the grasses and streets.

Childhood passes way too quickly. I want my kids to be able to enjoy it to the fullest.
That’s my personal little dream!

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6 Responses to Spotting Cultural Differences in Parenting: Helicopter vs Free-Range

  1. Melissa July 24, 2018 at 6:57 pm #

    Welcome to Nashville Andrea! I hope you ENJOY! I’m sure it’s very different from Switzerland! I would love to see your country one day ! So BEAUTIFUL! ❤

    • Andrea Schwab August 4, 2018 at 2:33 pm #

      Thanks, we enjoy it a lot! 🙂 You should definitely go and see Switzerland, it is a very tiny but lovely country! Let me know when you plan to go 🙂

  2. Dan July 25, 2018 at 8:24 am #

    Wonderful read Andrea!

  3. Mercedes August 5, 2018 at 10:33 am #

    Welcome to America! I loved your piece, it’s nice to see a balanced, respectful discussion of two different parenting styles. We try to be free range with our kids but it’s hard when many parents see that here as “bad parenting”. So I agree with you, it’s best to try to find the right balance for your family. I would love to visit your country one day!

    • Andrea Schwab August 16, 2018 at 9:23 pm #

      Thanks Mercedes for your words. I also experienced, that local parents sometimes have different views on how kids should behave (just one little example from today on the playground where I was in a constant worry that my son walks up the slides or screams too loud :-)) . However I try my best to find a balance between showing respect to local ways of parenting an still staying true to myself…does not always works out perfect, but at least I am trying 🙂

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